Dual Function Of Post-Doctoral Training

One thing that people are very confused about is the idea that post-doctoral training is only about training. It is also about selection: identifying the most talented and accomplished scientists to give a shot at scientific independence.
It is delusional to think that post-doctoral training "trains" scientists to become PIs in the same way that plumber apprentices are trained to become plumbers: if you just slog through the training and keep your head down, you will become a decent plumber. The more accurate analogy is to minor league baseball: yeah it is necessary training to learn how to play ball in the major leagues, but it is also a selection mechanism to identify those players who have a decent shot at success in the majors.
This is exactly why the idea that two-year post-docs--like in the old days--are more than sufficient to "train" scientists to run their own labs is a fucking joke. It may be sufficient to "train" scientists, but it is insufficient under the vast majority of circumstances to implement the selection function of post-doctoral training. There are *many* more scientists seeking PI positions nowadays, and thus the selection function of post-doctoral training becomes more important and more stringent.
Longer post-docs should be welcomed by those aspiring to PI positions, as it provides a much fairer opportunity to prove one's mettle. Many post-docs start slowly for a variety of reasons, and so just because you don't have much to show after two years, doesn't say much about your potential. But if you haven't achieved much after 5+ years as a post-doc, it is reasonable to conclude that it is not just a matter of bad luck, bad mentors, or anything other than a simple--and unfortunate--lack of the skills and talents required to be a PI.

126 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Fortunately, I received my PhD in 1965, before the era of requisite postdoc experience. In later years we had a series of postdocs invited in for seminars. One colleague would always ask them what hypothesis they were testing, and none of them ever give a coherent answer. I have heard many stories of the postdoc not being a learning experience, unless one wanted to sharpen ones gofer skills. Of course, this experience is not universal.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    I think that the 5-year long postdoctoral period is a direct outcome of economics, not science. To claim that, somehow, a trainee today is being trained to become a PI is the type of BS that fat PIs will promote all the time. The whole idea of a postdoctoral research experience is to expose a fresh doctoral graduate to scientific methods, environments and concepts s/he was not exposed to during the period of the doctoral research. As the number of PI positions shrunk in proportion to the number of candidates vying for these positions, the length of the postdoctoral period increased. If we all accept that, on average, three years are long enough to complete a doctoral thesis by a person who never before conducted lab research, how come a postdoc requires 4-5 years to spend in PP's lab to become an independent researcher? How the postdoc that has spent 5 years in PP's lab because she is so good at a specific methodology, was trained to be a better PI than the postdoc who spent only 3 years there, before getting a chance as an independent scientist? This whole idea of PI training is simply a self-serving crap.

  • whimple says:

    ... the skills and talents required to be a PI
    Ok, I'll bite: what are the skills and talents required to be a PI? PIs today spend all their time in either their office or in meetings. How are postdocs demonstrating proficiency in this?

  • Rivlin, you blithering fuck-up, did you even read this motherfucking post before you loosed your motherfucking bowels and shit all over yourself?

  • physician scientist says:

    Rivlin, I'm with CPP on this. A post-doc needs to establish a body of work that will prove fundable before they can get a job. Today's papers are much more intensive than the single panel, 4 figure paper of the past. Look at any paper in a Cell press or nature journal and then look at the supplemental data presented. 2 years is not enough time to establish a body of fundable work.

  • anne says:

    wimple,
    that's not biting !. I agree with your latest posts.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    physician scientist,
    I guess you are somehow impressed by fat, long papers that also have a lot of supplemental data as a measure of good science. The only reason we have supplemental data today, as compared to the past, is the new online technology. Journals cannot afford today and were could not afford in the past the amount of printed material that supplemental data requires. Nevertheless, despite the availability of more data today, it is not in anyway easier to replicate published experiments than it was in the past, maybe even harder. I once had a teacher that always gave higher grades to students who returned fat home assignments, regardless of their content. It is so much easier to put a paper together today than it used to be prior to the used of software, especially in terms of time consumption. You'll have to do a better job if you want to argue that papers today are more elaborate, better written, containing better science and require better scientists.

  • physician scientist says:

    Rivlin-
    "You'll have to do a better job if you want to argue that papers today are more elaborate, better written, containing better science and require better scientists."
    I was a grad student in the 90's. Five first author papers - 4 JBC, 1 JNCI. Skip ahead 7 years post clinical training. It was night and day the amount of data required to publish, and my 5 grad school papers would have been 2. Just compare any Cell paper in the 80's to one today. There's no question it takes more data to publish today.
    So in answer to your question...yes today's papers are more elaborate, but not necessarily better science or better scientists or better written. Just more data that takes longer to generate.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    physician scientist,
    I refereed dozens of manuscripts for a multitude of scientific journals last year, as I have done for the past 35 years. Where neuroscience, physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology are concerned, I do not see much difference between the 1980s and today.
    BTW, I had several postdocs who took very long to publish any of their work, even when the data was already collected. I also had many who have generated data and published them faster than most. Unfortunately, today, as in the past, we still have many papers that are fitting the description of the 'minimal publishable unit.'

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    I agree 110% that a postdoc is the minor leagues. The idea that the time scale should be 5-ish years for everyone is preposterous. The idea is to train/produce PI's that can hack it on their own by giving them some additional mentoring when the stakes are lower (i.e. no tenure review), right? Therefore, I submit that if somebody hasn't "gotten it" after 3-4 years (i.e. the time of a mid-term tenure review if they WERE a PI) then they never will. Part of intelligence is the ability to learn quickly, including the ropes of being a PI. All these super-long-term postdocs do is keep people in holding patterns, which I'm pretty opposed to as a standard operating procedure.
    Now the caveat: I know NIH-land is "different" because people often take these projects with them. In that sense it is great that somebody can do a 7 year postdoc learning how to be a PI and developing their system and then in year *10* of the "project" come up for mid-term review and in year **14** (+/-) come up for tenure. Still.....ack. Something about that just seems, well, broken.

  • Therefore, I submit that if somebody hasn't "gotten it" after 3-4 years (i.e. the time of a mid-term tenure review if they WERE a PI) then they never will.

    Is there something incomprehensible about the way I wrote this post?
    Many highly interdisciplinary high-impact field-altering studies take substantially more than 3-4 years *from conception to publication*. Almost by definition, a field-altering study is going to take a long time to reach fruition: new reagents need to be generated, new techniques new to be invented, or new methods of analysis need to be developed.
    It's not like in Shitlin's day where a post-doc made an antibody, sliced some fucking brains, and published their piece of shit boring-ass immunocytochemistry experiment in Brain Research, or ground up some fucking piece of the brain, did some cookbook biochemical assay, and published their piece of shit boring-ass molecular experiment in JBC.
    If you want to get a decent fucking job today, you need to prove that you can publish in the highest echelon of general interest journals or, at a minimum, high-impact field-specific journals. THIS TAKES FUCKING TIME. FREQUENTLY MORE THAN 3-4 YEARS.
    Back in the days of Babe Ruth, you could be an out-of-shape drunk-ass fuck-up white-d00d and still make it onto the NY Yankees roster. You think Ruth could have hit against Justin Verlander or Nolan Ryan? You think he could have competed against the tens of thousands of hungry talented kids from the Caribbean and the inner cities?

  • If we all accept that, on average, three years are long enough to complete a doctoral thesis by a person who never before conducted lab research
    This might hold true in the European system. In the U.S., this does not seem to be a generally held view, given the time to completion of a Ph.D. Latest data from the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates places the median time to completion in biological sciences is almost 7 years. Even if we say not much research is done during the first couple of years when students are taking classes and prelims, we're still talking 5 years for completion of a doctoral thesis. I'm not saying this is somehow better-that's just how it is.
    I agree that a key factor in longer postdocs is economics, supply/demand. There are many more Ph.D.s now than 20 years ago... and creation of positions in academia has not kept apace. This leads postdocs to stay longer to get the high profile papers in the hopes of boosting chances to get a TT position.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    I get it, bio stuff takes longer 'cause you have to wait for things to grow.
    Perhaps a suitable compromise would be a simple disclaimer that your advice on the TIME SCALE is applicable to medicine/bio.
    It is perfectly reasonable to expect someone in my field to produce some awesome in less than 2 years. Since the short/middle/long term planning is expected from a PI, you had better get off to a good start in your postdoc AND your independent career.

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    I agree somewhat with physician scientist's assertion that it is important to establish a body of work that will prove fundable, but in my field (and I suspect others) at the moment, the reality is that I needed to establish a body of work that has already proven fundable. To accomplish this, I did a 3 year postdoc followed by 3.5 years in a "research track" assistant professor position. Having shown that I can get my work published and funded, I am starting a tenure track position this year and am on my way. Could I have done that after my 3 year postdoc? No; despite having 3 first-author (plus other) publications during my fellowship, I needed more time to develop my independent ideas and get them shredded enough times in peer review to make them fundable. Was the "research track" position a benefit to me as compared to a second postdoc? Yes, it definitely was. Postdoctoral training is, was, and always should be a means to an end, but it's not anything remotely like 'punching the clock.'

  • Physician Scientist says:

    Essentially, in the biologic sciences, my point is that to get a school to give you a good startup (likely $1 mil including salary), you need to prove to them that you can develop a fundable research program. This takes more than 2 years and is reflected by both CPP and New Asst. Prof's comments.

  • anne says:

    Thanks New Ass Prof for sharing your experience. It's sound great and to be promoted.

  • bill says:

    "But if you haven't achieved much after 5+ years as a post-doc, it is reasonable to conclude that it is not just a matter of bad luck, bad mentors, or anything other than a simple--and unfortunate--lack of the skills and talents required to be a PI."
    While I disagree with DM here in several different ways, I do think the system would be considerably improved if something like this were adopted as the general rule, e.g.:

    You get five years and then we judge you. It won't be fair, and your influence on the outcome is fairly limited (it doesn't actually matter much how smart you are or how hard you work, though we won't ever admit that). But here's the thing, the favor we're doing you: our judgement is final. If you make the cut, you're in. If you don't, you can't hang around doing postdoc after postdoc and whining at the door -- you will *have* to do something else.

    This would benefit academia, which would either flourish by skimming the cream of the crop or be forced to confront flaws in its selection process; it would benefit industry, teaching and other "alternative careers for scientists", by way of an enlarged pool of applicants; and it would benefit individual scientists by limiting the amount of time they spend obsessing over one career path.
    After all, it's not a fucking Care Bears Tea Party, right? Maybe we should just admit that and get on with it.

  • History Punk says:

    "Back in the days of Babe Ruth, you could be an out-of-shape drunk-ass fuck-up white-d00d and still make it onto the NY Yankees roster. You think Ruth could have hit against Justin Verlander or Nolan Ryan?"
    Yeah, he faced some rather stellar competition. He did better than his peers like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Lou Gehrig.

  • it doesn't actually matter much how smart you are or how hard you work, though we won't ever admit that

    Are you fucking kidding? I have never ever heard anyone claim that coming out the other end of a post-doc with a PI position is based on how smart you are or how hard you work. It is no secret that it is based on what you achieve, regardless of how hard you had to work or how smart you had to be to attain those achievements. This is the same in *every* creative human enterprise.
    The only people I have ever heard say anything about being smart and working hard are disgruntled low-achieving post-docs--like Young Female Scientist--who complain that it isn't fair that their frittered intelligence and fruitless hard work don't yield the PI positions that they deserve..

  • I agree with CPP, if you are playing on the boundaries of science it takes time to put out good data. Shit it takes time to clone the gene, knock the gene out and determine a phenotype, let alone make the antibodies or determine a clear cellular function. Plus you have to collaborate and stretch to learn shit that occurs outside your field that might be significant to your project.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    I love it when the "awesome" scientists of today describe the scientists and the science of yesterday as "...where a post-doc made an antibody, sliced some fucking brains, and published their piece of shit boring-ass immunocytochemistry experiment in Brain Research, or ground up some fucking piece of the brain, did some cookbook biochemical assay, and published their piece of shit boring-ass molecular experiment in JBC.". The same science , which without, those "awesome" scientists would not have any science to show off.
    Luckily, it is only an American "mucho" syndrome. Any kid who can hit a baseball thinks he is numero uno and no one ever hit the ball better than he does. Ya, it's the science that the CPPs of the world are doing at the moment, which is the best science ever, the hardest to master, the science that requires years and years to learn and million upon millions of dollars to execute. If science were the way CPP describes it, "everything that science has done before magnificent me have appeared was boring and shitty," then let's simply teach science students that science has started when CPP finish his postdoc and the history of science will be divided into two periods, BCPP and ACPP.
    What a pompous ass, knows all, little drek.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I agree with CPP that it is what you achieve which gets you your place in the firmament. I have observed several colleagues, smart, well educated, hardworking, who basically have nothing to show for it. No one off campus has ever heard of them. Maybe over mentoring is a factor. People who look good on paper, but when they get out on their own they are disoriented and clueless. Where ever you are is where you are. Now figure out how best to deal with that and be productive.

  • Alex says:

    This would benefit academia, which would either flourish by skimming the cream of the crop or be forced to confront flaws in its selection process; it would benefit industry, teaching and other "alternative careers for scientists", by way of an enlarged pool of applicants; and it would benefit individual scientists by limiting the amount of time they spend obsessing over one career path.

    Teaching isn't academic? I'm going to have a talk with my Dean!

  • antipodean says:

    I'm just hoping that 15+ first authorships and a couple of minor grants are enough to stop being a postdoc after 5 years.

  • darchole says:

    2 years? 5 years? Doesn't mean sh*t is no one actually teaches you HOW to be a PI - which includes but is not limited to doing research, writing grants and teaching. You actually have to learn other things like management and how to budget and play the political/social game to get up the departmental ladder. Yeah, some post-docs just will never have what it takes to be a PI. But on the other hands, being a post-doc does not guarantee you will get the training to be a PI, that what's the biggest problem here.

  • Dr X. says:

    I'd have been screwed royally if I was judged after only a two year post doc. I've worked my guts off but have had to deal with a colleague falsifying data, colleagues that don't turn up to work so the output is pretty pathetic.
    I'm extremely fortunate that I've managed to shift labs with a 3 year contract that I'm hoping will help sort out my publications.
    That lag time is getting a bit long...

  • qaz says:

    The idea that longer postdoc training makes better PIs is simply silly. Most of the skills one needs to be a good PI have nothing to do with being a postdoc. The number of postdocs who get actual training in running a lab or managing students or handling administrative cr*p are few and far between. The only thing that I see with longer postdocs is that the person is older. (And therefore maybe aging out of some of their youthful indiscretions.) Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes that maturity is important. And postdoc is often a really good way to get experience in a new field. But the idea that postdocs are somehow getting minor league training seeing PI-type fastballs that they haven't seen before simply does not fit any postdoc I have seen or heard of. (And that includes all the ranting on this blog!)
    And in terms of "productivity" - we all know that where a paper gets published is as much dependent on the PI as the first author. (Especially given how much non-science BS goes into getting a paper into one of those GlamourMagz.) So, wouldn't it make more sense to give someone a chance to try being a PI for a while before committing to them? Oh wait. That sounds like an assistant professorship before tenure.

  • BugDoc says:

    "It is no secret that it is based on what you achieve, regardless of how hard you had to work or how smart you had to be to attain those achievements."
    That's pretty much the main thing students and postdocs need to know to get them to the point where they can consider applying for faculty positions. It does seem to be a bit of a secret though, since many appear surprised that being smart is not sufficient. After that, you do need some street smarts and people management skills to continue to be successful.

  • qaz says:

    And on this extremely silly debate that somehow papers today are "better" than the past: How can anyone claim that long "Cell" papers today (with all that unreviewed supplemental material) require more work and are larger than the real papers from the 1980s? Remember that the breakthrough papers in the 1960s 70s and 80s were in journals like J Neurophysiology, which didn't have page limits. Some of those papers were 100 pages!
    The amount of scientific work required to get a paper is the same then as now. It's not dependent on the question or the size of the problem. It's dependent on how long it takes to get an answer. The techniques are easier now, so we have to do more of them in the time allotted. It's just like sample sizes. The sample size used in each field is dependent on the number of samples you can do in a reasonable time.

  • Dr Becca says:

    If you don't, you can't hang around doing postdoc after postdoc and whining at the door -- you will *have* to do something else.
    One problem with this idea is, PIs LOVE post-docs!! What PI wouldn't want a highly trained, poorly-paid minion to stick around indefinitely?
    The fact that the post-doc position exists today when it didn't 40 years ago is evidence in and of itself that standards have been raised when it comes to advancing one's science career (or that PhD-granting programs have grown exponentially in size, which is certainly part of it). Moreover, there are not enough PI jobs even for the most exceedingly qualified, accomplished, and talented post-docs. We're at a point now where whether or not you'd pass that 5-year evaluation is irrelevant to whether or not you keep moving up the ladder.
    The only solution I can see to righting the glut is for NIH to shift some money from PhD programs to New Investigator awards. Fund fewer grad students and more K99s and P30s. The "selection" process shouldn't be happening after a person has invested 10+ years of his or her life into a career path.

  • If science were the way CPP describes it, "everything that science has done before magnificent me have appeared was boring and shitty," then let's simply teach science students that science has started when CPP finish his postdoc and the history of science will be divided into two periods, BCPP and ACPP.
    What a pompous ass, knows all, little drek.

    Shitlin, you're losing your shit. Have a nice coupla prunes and some fucking melba toast and try to calm down.

  • Jojo says:

    Postdocs are longer because more experiments are required to get "enough" publications. "Enough" publications for a TT job is more than before because there are more Postdocs competing for those jobs. There are more Postdocs competing for those jobs because Postdocs are longer. Ad infinitum.
    Trying to pretend that Postdocs therefore SHOULD be long is missing the point that the system is a broken deathspiral. It might be a practical necessity now (and super handy for PI's looking for cheap skilled labor!!), but it is not in any way "correct."
    The best way out I can think of is to reduce the number of trainees, starting with graduate students. That way we will stop "training" 90% of biomedical trainees for 20 years for a job they will never have. Or, fucking kick them out after the first year of grad school if they can't hack it. There absolutely have to be time limits at every stage, and they have to be short.
    If you're a PI and you'll miss all the "trainees" because you still want a giant lab, you can hire technicians with master's degrees who are permanent employees with the specific skills YOU NEED. If you need your postdoc's help to think of ideas, those postdocs shouldn't be your "trainees" at all - they should have their own labs.
    NIH could fix it RIGHT NOW by prohibiting graduate student's and postdoc's salaries being paid for by an RO1. PI's would only be able to pay for permanent employees' salaries from RO1 grants. Postdocs and graduate students could only be paid from competitive training grants, based on their prior work, prior to moving into their lab of choice (so no grant ghostwriting by the PI could happen). Some of the money saved from RO1s could go towards increasing the number of competitive training grants offered (though not too much or the same postdoc glut problem we have today would persist).
    For labs in Teaching departments, PI's could also hire graduate students as the TA-ships in the department can support (TA-ships would become competitive as well since there is less money to go around).

  • whimple says:

    NIH could fix it RIGHT NOW by...
    Except it's not a problem for the NIH...

  • Uh jojo, how are grad students going to show prior work when for these competitive training grants when they not been in a lab to get work done. It might work for postdocs but not grad students. Our first year is pretty much a wash do to coursework, rotations (if you are on a rotation system), and learning the field.
    I do agree with booting out shitty students after the first year, it does not go on enough. As we are inundated with enough of the lazy, the weak-minded, and the how the fuck did you get here at my institution.
    And I agree with the whimple, its not NIH's mess, that belongs to the universities.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I think whimple means it is not just "not NIH's problem" but actively in their interest to have a huge workforce being paid peanuts. This is true.

  • rork says:

    I sure would like it if labs could have more permanent employees with PhDs. Call them what-you-will, but pay them what they are worth, and we might have more high quality labs. Instead, too many of them that would continue research in publicly funded labs if they could, go elsewhere, just because of the money. I want to work in groups where there are several people with good brains tackling hard projects that may take a long time. The culture of the PI gleaming on high, and everyone else being a technician or post-doc, is suboptimal.
    Ofcouse we all think we are the key person, and everyone else just follows. Only the statisticians are correct in that assertion though 😉

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Ping

  • jojo says:

    Genomic Repairman:
    I'm envisioning that a department would get a certain number of training fellowships for grad students and they can only admit the number of students they have fellowships (and TA-ships) to cover. There would also have to be a hard cap on the number of students per adviser. Departments can decide in the usual way which students to admit - there would just be fewer slots, and these slots would not be attached to RO1 grants.
    There is also something like the NSF GRFP, where senior undergrads actually write a competitive grant for a particular project (often this isn't what they actually end up doing once they arrive), but I think only using GRFP-like channels wouldn't be fair to potential grad students that didn't have the opportunity to do a ton of research or didn't have the best advising in undergrad.

  • I see what you are saying Jojo but I am at an R1 where there is no one to teach so the TA-ship doesn't come into play so we would have to solely subsist off of fellowships. And with the economy drying up, fellowships are reducing their amount awarded and decreasing the number of awards. I really don't think there is a practical way to ever pull trainees off of R01s but I like the GRFP-idea as now I know we mainly only take students with lab experience.

  • probably naive says:

    Daaaamn y'all are cynical.
    I'm looking at this whole debate from the perspective of a grad student in my final year (ecology).
    I feel that if you aren't getting trained properly, then you probably aren't taking much initiative to get trained. This isn't undergrad time folks, and you shouldn't expect to be spoon fed. If you want to learn a skill (like how to be a PI), go learn it. Want grant writing experience? then write a damn grant (or 10)! Want teaching and mentoring experience, then go find some teaching opportunities and get involved with lab administration. Ask your PI about the budgeting process. Get involved with hiring techs. Help review papers for a journal.
    I just wrote an NSF post doc grant. I found a PI I wanted to work with, came up with an idea for a project, sold the PI on the idea, and together we wrote the grant. Exactly the kind of thing actual PI's do. I insisted on including time for teaching experience in the grant, another PI responsibility. I designed the project to be a short term project which will establish a long term monitoring project, so I'll be entering the "real" job market with a project already established.
    And I'm avoiding the types of post-docs where the position was written into the grant, and the lab just needs a glorified tech to fill the lab coat. Those are the kind of "cheap labor" jobs that I feel are generally just dead ends.
    of course who knows if I'll get funded, but...

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    probably naive,
    Not naive at all. That's exactly how it should be done. If you have chosen PP's lab for your postdoc project and you would develop an expertise in a technique used in the lab, they would keep you there long beyond 5 years, even if you are not a PI material (an "achiever" according to the good professor).

  • Shitlin, you blithering fuck-up, you don't know jack fucking shit about what goes on in my lab.

  • Anonymous says:

    How exactly does a PI "keep you there" beyond 5 years? Is there some kind of indentured servitude contract involved? Signed in blood under a full moon?
    Has anyone here actually experienced or witnessed a PI sabotaging the efforts of a student or postdoc to progress in their career? If there is such an overabundance of talented underlings, then why would they care if people move on. There's always more talent to be found, right?

  • I was talking to a couple of postdoctoral colleagues about this last Friday night. They're both on projects involving massive whole-genome screens of two different kinds, and are sweating it as the end of their funding starts to loom into view. This kind of high-risk high-reward project is increasingly common, but the postdoctoral funding mechanisms aren't keeping up (not in Canada, anyway).
    We also discussed the fact that this kind of project doesn't leave a postdoc any time to develop a side-project that is theirs and theirs alone. My PhD and postdoc PIs both encouraged this, and were very happy for people leaving the group to take those projects with them when they left to start their own labs. But the time crunch I mentioned above means that no-one in my lab is doing anything other than their primary project.

  • My take:
    + Postdocs *are* about selection
    - And cheap, more-than-grad-student skilled labor
    + For some fields/experiments, 5 years would be welcomed
    - But when you have a crappy PI, you need to leave, STAT, to make the progress you want. If all postdocs are 5 years? Then SHIT.
    + It's great to be able to have time to prove your value as a fundable, publishable scientist
    - Again, depending on where/with whom you work, most postdocs can't be PIs on grants, so what does that show?
    All of these things are highly dependent on project, institution, PI, and personal motivation. Sometime, no matter how motivated, things can go downhill really quickly. And sometimes you have a great project and PI but things go downhill because you don't take initiative. Is the five year post-doc a way to differentiate? I don't think so, but it *could* help for *some* people. Problem is we academics don't take too well to change OR things being done two different ways (ie offering both 2&5 year type post docs). Do I have any idea how it can be done better? Lots, but none of it will ever happen.
    In conclusion,

  • HGGirl says:

    Competition is tight for these limited number of tenure-track jobs. This means the less productive people get weeded out, but it *also* means that some really great scientists who didn't get as lucky or had a few bad collaborations also won't be getting jobs. I don't think it's necessary to characterize all those who have setbacks as undeserving. (Yes, some of them are; but is it "worth it" to call out a few non-achievers at the expense of insulting some truly dedicated scientists?)

  • Sol,
    the way CPP posts about mentoring and running his lab I actually would feel pretty honored and lucky to get a spot in his lab. And maybe if I did well CPP might intentionally miss when throwing his empty bottles of Jameson at me.

  • whimple says:

    CPP posts about mentoring and running his lab I actually would feel pretty honored and lucky to get a spot in his lab.
    Well, as CPP says, people are judged on their results. Who has he trained, and where are they now?

  • Jim Thomrson says:

    How are tenure track jobs distributed? What proportion are at top tier universities? What proportion are at universities with a direction and locality in their name? I spent a fairly happy and productive 32 years at one of those. All my colleagues and I had PhD's from places you have heard of. How many of you, Dear Readers, are going to end up in such a place? How should you have prepared for it, and how will you fare there?

  • Alex says:

    I'm at a place similar to what Jim Thomrson describes, and on my last day of a postdoc (at a place you've all heard of) somebody said I was "leaving science."
    I'm early in my career, but I'm still doing good science here (in fact, better than the science I did as a postdoc), I work with some excellent undergraduate and M.S. students, I help educate a lot of people, and I have some nice, intelligent, and dedicated colleagues.

  • Sunflower says:

    While I agree with the "minor leagues" analogy, there's one important difference - the future MLB star has a finite half-life. The majors want to find the next Nolan Ryan while his shoulder has some mileage left on it.
    In science, there's no disadvantage (for those in power) to dragging the selection out as long as possible. This gives the universities their pick of increasingly senior people, with research programs and funding already in the can. It also supplies the need for highly-trained, ambitious, and cheap minions to keep the enterprise moving. Rational behavior all around, but let's not pretend this is about finding the absolute best scientists we can. It's about economics.
    Here's a thought experiment: what if you took the names of every newly graduated PhD from a top-20 research program, put them into a hat, and populated your department by random draw? I'd bet the science wouldn't be too much worse in the long term, especially if you threw in an interview stage to weed out the total bozos.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    Genomic Repairman,
    In one of the many posts and discussions about postdoctoral research, the good professor himself said (I'm paraphrasing because I can't be sure I remember exactly how he worded it and I'm not about to spend the time finding the quote):
    "I have a postdoc in my lab and after five years she still doesn't get it, but she is good at what she does so I kept her."

  • total bozo says:

    no fair 🙁

  • Shitlin is not paraphrasing; he is creating faulty self-serving memories out of whole cloth.

  • whimple says:

    Oh dear.
    From http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2009/02/running-out-of-grant-funding
    I had a post-doc sitting in my office today who is leaving soon, and we were discussing some of her work, and as we were talking about it--and she was demonstrating how grotesque the superficiality of her thinking was--I had the urge to stand up and shout, "You've been in my lab for five motherfucking years and you still can't carry on a satisfying discussion about your science?!?!?!?!?!? What the fucking fuck is wrong with you!?!?!?!?"
    Comrade PhysioProf | February 6, 2009 6:30 AM
    These are not your words?

  • Of course they are my words.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    whimple, thank you for doing the search and you shouldn't leave out the next paragraph from CPP's comment:
    "She is technically outstanding, but she hasn't the faintest clue what her works means, why it is important, and how to move a project forward, let alone how to devise novel ideas and projects. I consider her a complete and utter failure as a trainee in my lab, and I have no desire whatsoever to populate my lab with "technical staff" like her."
    So now, Genomic Repairman, you have the exact quote.

  • jojo says:

    The trainee described in CPP's quote should never have been allowed to postdoc in his lab. For that matter, she never should have been allowed to get a PhD. She should have been required to leave graduate school with a master's degree after completely failing to demonstrate the ability to think about science during her oral prelims. She should have then moved into the job that she would be actually excellent at - a laboratory manager or technician working either in industry or academia. Then, she would be doing experiments extremely efficiently that the PI thinks up, but has no time to do (and would probably bungle anyway).
    I don't really see what the problem is with having "technical staff" in the lab, as long as everyone knows what's what. What's unacceptable is dangling the idea of being a prof in front of "trainees" through 7 years of grad school and 5 years of postdocs when they haven't ever been qualified to do so, simply in order to be able to maintain a mega lab.

  • bill says:

    "It is no secret that it is based on what you achieve, regardless of how hard you had to work or how smart you had to be to attain those achievements."
    That's pretty much the main thing students and postdocs need to know to get them to the point where they can consider applying for faculty positions.

    Yes, this. Thanks to CPP and BugDoc for finding the actual point in my little parenthetical whine up there.
    I'm not sure it's still like this, competition having become as fierce as it has, but when I was a grad student and early postdoc, there was a tacit understanding that being smart and working hard on interesting problems would be sufficient. It might not make you a superstar but it would get you a job where you could make a modest living and get to work on interesting problems. There was certainly no talk of choosing your problems/field/lab based on what you could get done in two years. Career qua career was pretty much never discussed.
    I'm sure that seems terribly naive to the high-flying Nature-publishing types, but it's a common condition -- or, as I said, was common; I'm not sure it's such a problem any more. I certainly hope the next crop of grad students are cannier than I was!

  • yolio says:

    This system does not serve the interests of the post-docs themselves. Lengthening the "training" period and raising the standards just ends up raising the risk associated with a science career.
    You can pretend all you want that this is about getting the best people into tenure jobs, but you are making it up. You have no idea if this system selects for merit. It is just as reasonable to assert that the best and the brightest are the people smart enough to leave science for a position with better pay, independence, flexibility and appreciation.
    The science job market has not been planned out to maximize the quality and quantity of science itself. The forces that shape the job market have little to do with optimizing science/per federal $. They have everything to do with who has the power.

  • LadyDay says:

    You know, I think a lot of people would stop complaining about the length of postdoc training in biomedical research if they were compensated better. Sure - let people get selected out, but pay people better in the meantime, and there will be a lot less griping going on.

  • PhysioProf's original argument was, "Longer post-docs should be welcomed by those aspiring to PI positions." (emphasis mine) There are good reasons to debate the accuracy of this statement, but I'm not going there right now (b/c it would take far too much space).
    The impression that I get from some commenters-like Jojo calling for across the board reduction in the number of trainees-is that they expect every postdoc is/should be aspiring to a PI position. How many PIs ask their trainees about career plans? Some (I daresay, many) assume their trainees are heading down the TT path. And unfortunately, because of the culture in academia, many trainees are hesitant to indicate otherwise. In my graduate and postdoc labs, each consisting of 10+ trainees, probably less than 25% were really interested in pursuing a TT faculty position. Some people go in knowing they don't want that; some change their minds along the way. But a PI position is not the only acceptable landing place for a postdoc. There are other career options, both research and non-research, that expect/require a postdoc stint. Jojo is right: We shouldn't be training 90% of trainees for PI positions, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be training them at all.

  • Jo says:

    My postdoc's benefits: (1) transitioned to a new area of interest (more employable and enjoyable) (2) met many other post-docs/profs - potential future collaborators (3) got to publish.
    In my area of physical science, postdocs should not be longer than 3 years. Really, if you can't do anything productive in two years that can get published, it is time to pack up. (Obviously, this does not apply to all science/medical research)
    However, the truth is that many in my field are doing postdocs longer than 3-4 years because they can't find jobs. No other reason. They are as capable of being a PI or industry researcher as they were last year, or will be next year. And yes, they are capable. Some also prolong their postdocs until they get greencards...
    Regarding 'selection' for academic positions, don't search commeetees normalize? at least mentally? (publications * Impactfactor) / total years in graduate school and postdoc.

  • Jade` says:

    Jo, no, no one normalizes, at least that has been my experience in biomedical research. Everything is based on subjective measures. Yes, it matters how many publications but a huge factor is how much people like the candidate for hire.

  • jojo says:

    You do normalize up to a certain point (1-2 first author pubs in above average journals per year in grad school + post doc seems to be the norm in my subfield), but there is also a somewhat nebulous cutoff on the number of years of postdoc'ing "allowed" before people begin to wonder why you haven't gotten a job yet. This is probably unfair in most cases given the ridiculousness of the job market, but there it is.

  • Anonymous says:

    @ Probably Naive: "I feel that if you aren't getting trained properly, then you probably aren't taking much initiative to get trained. This isn't undergrad time folks, and you shouldn't expect to be spoon fed. If you want to learn a skill (like how to be a PI), go learn it. Want grant writing experience? then write a damn grant (or 10)! Want teaching and mentoring experience, then go find some teaching opportunities and get involved with lab administration. Ask your PI about the budgeting process. Get involved with hiring techs. Help review papers for a journal."
    wow, you really ARE naive...keep this on file so you can come back in a few years and re-read what you just wrote. Go check out this blog instead http://youngfemalescientist.blogspot.com/
    That is the more common scenario for postdocs these days, postdocs who started their postdoctoral stint thinking exactly the same as you. and you will find that YFS's blog is disdained on this PI-centric blog (notice already CPP proactively sh!tting on her in his comments) because the system benefits them just fine the way it is now

  • expat posdtoc says:

    @ Probably Naive:
    You're doing it the right way. Don't read YFS, it's full of people whining and complaining about how bad the situation is.
    The answer is to be PROACTIVE. Like you, like me, unlike YFS.
    I did the same thing as you. I wrote an NIH NRSA, NIH IRFP, HFSP LTF, EMBO LTF and a LSRF LTF because I finished the PhD and didn't get any 🙁
    Then, I accepted a tax-free stipend in Europe, and wrote an NIH NRSA, EMBO LTF, and a country-specific grant and received the country-specific grant and the NRSA.
    Two years later, I started apply for junior group leader positions and after only sending off 6 applications, I received a position (with a start-up package that would make R1 TT people drool ... about 1.5M€) and have several grants already out the door for the new position (before even starting).
    This was accomplished with less than 10 papers (no CNS) and three years of PD.
    Just one tip for a PD, go to Europe if you can, because things really suck in the states (for getting TT positions). And, if as an American, you get "adjusted" to working in Europe, you'll be a hot commodity, because you'll be "foreign" which is great for grants for EU unis, and you'll already be adjusted. Assuming that you're a native English speaker, they'll love to stick you in front of people and say "here's our wonderful foreign hire" and "look we can attract international talent." This is a huge deal in Germany right now.
    Or you can continue to toil away in the US and listen to people like YFS complain about "how tough things are."
    Good luck and keep the PROACTIVE philosophy going.

  • about to graduate says:

    Why do people seem to unanimously hate doing postdocs here?
    As a grad student about to start one next year, I guess I'm just hopelessly naive, cuz I was sort of looking forward to the pay raise and the opportunity to do all sorts of cool experiments (so what if you have to run them by your boss....if you pick a good boss should that really be a big problem?)
    I dunno, like i said im probably just super naive, but it seems like doing a postdoc should be super fun if you pick a good group and actually enjoy doing science.

  • expat postdoc says:

    Also, the pay is better in some countries in the EU for a PD. Between 40-45k€ starting in Germany with full benefits including health insurance, matching pension and better vacation (I currently get 6 weeks plus holidays ... not in Germany though).
    However, from the "other side", a PD costs me almost $100k/year to employ 🙁

  • ancient physics postdoc (former) says:

    "It is also about selection: identifying the most talented and accomplished scientists to give a shot at scientific independence."
    Yes, don't worry young'uns - this dear system of ours will most certainly identify and reward your talent and accomplishments, to the extent that you have any! So, if after 5 years on the postdoc treadmill you have not been selected yet, well that must be because your accomplishments are inferior to those who were selected! Accept it, suck it up and move on.
    Now don't start giving us a whole lot of whiny crap about the selection of coattail riders who can't even take a pee without having their hands held by their illustrious mentors. Don't ask why their publications in routine journals as junior co-authors of the big shots count for infinitely more than your independent works published in our supposedly top journal. See, this is what you aren't getting: they belong, you don't. They are more talented and accomplished at belonging than you are. Oh, you didn't know that was the kind of talent and accomplishment we care about? Though we were referring something as banal as research output? Hahahaha, gotta love these naive bumpkins.
    (This from someone who was finally "selected" after 10+ years postdoccing. Yes, managed to finally be sufficiently `belonging' - turns out I have a bit of talent for the bullshit. Much as I would like to think otherwise, research record had little to do with it. There are others much more accomplished research-wise but still not "selected".)

  • expat postdoc says:

    @70
    I guess I don't understand how this differs from any other profession. Business deals done because of golfing ability or because someone knows someone whom, in turn, knows someone.
    Being in science is not an excuse for lack of career-management tact. The career needs to be actively managed, from both scientific and non-scientific angles.
    Why do people always assume being "in science" is different than any other field?

  • TaxPayer says:

    Should tax payers be paying for this stupid selection process? It just seems like the garbage gets dumped on the tax payers through extended post-docs or failed scientists. Should it really take 8-12yrs of tax payer supported funding to figure this shit out?
    This whole system wouldn't even exist if we just canned this NIH/NSF bullshit already. The scientists haven't been discovering much lately anyways, just new ways to annoy us with global warming and flu pandemic scares.

  • app says:

    @71
    You are right, it is really not much different to the business world. The skills required to advance in academic science are much the same as those required to climb the corporate ladder. Of course a minimum level of technical competence is also required, but that's probably true in much of the business world as well.
    Which is why it's such a joke when CPP talks about selection for talent and accomplishment. His claim would be true with the right interpretations of "talent" and "accomplishment", but we know those aren't the ones he has in mind...

  • @about to graduate:
    Why do people seem to unanimously hate doing postdocs here?
    Doing a postdoc is not unanimously hated. I realize it comes across that way. On blogs, we tend to talk about the things that piss us off... and these are the type of posts that generate the most comments. There are things about doing a postdoc that skew our views. Thanks to taxes and cost of living, that pay raise you refer to doesn't always amount to much, especially if you're heading off to one of the top tier institutes. (Expat PD rightly points out that you can make more money as a PD outside of the US.) There's a degree of umbrage at the idea that you've spent somewhere around 10 years in school and make less than you would with a B.S. degree. Given that Ph.D.s are taking longer to complete, and now postdocs are taking longer to complete, you realize that you're going to be your mid-30s (or later) before you top $50K.
    On top of this, you come out of your Ph.D. thinking you've got it figured out... then you walk into a new lab and have to prove yourself again, except this time you don't have classes or prelims to blame for a slow start. The first year of my postdoc was ridiculously difficult for these reasons, plus I was working on a project that had not been established on a system that I thought had been validated but hadn't in a rapidly growing, competitive area that no one in our lab worked on.
    That being said, now, at the start of my second year, I am having fun. I switched field b/t grad school and postdoc, and I'm finally beginning to do some of the things I came here to learn in the first place. I'm starting to figure out how to communicate with my adviser (whose personality is near polar opposite to my grad adviser). The initial "failure" in my postdoc was painful, but I daresay important; research rarely goes according to plan, and you have to learn how to deal with that. Now I'm getting into the cool stuff, and I'm having a blast.

  • Anon says:

    doing a postdoc is crap because.
    1. you are intelligent and know your field, and know what you want to be doing.
    2. you can't do that because you have to do what someone else tells you.
    3. you have to keep doing what someone else tells you for a couple of years, even if its really dull, to be able to get to do what you want to do.

  • 1. PP, I'll concede the point that, for the purposes of universities selecting candidates to hire- a 5-year postdoc would be quite telling. However, departments are not so stupid as to be unable to distinguish between candidates after, say, a 3 year postdoc. The departments I know of are big fans of considering *potential* in addition to prior accomplishments.
    2. The utility of a 5-year postdoc for the postdoc herself is going to vary drastically with her institution, lab, and individual situation. When thinking selfishly, it's time to move on when you're no longer getting a lot out of your current position. Unless you are working in a really robust lab with a lot to offer, this process should not take 5 years.
    3. PP, the biological sciences operate quite differently than any engineering department with which I'm familiar. You tend to be rather biased towards what you know. Engineering postdocs last 2-3 years on average, departments manage to avoid hiring buffaloes, and no one dies. I think most people are big fans of this set up because 1) the postdocs can move the fuck on to whatever they're going to do with their lives and 2) most engineering projects do not take 5 motherfucking years. Most engineering postdocs are not going to be publishing in your Sciences and Natures. There is simply a different standard for success in our field.
    4. Being a postdoc in PP's lab would be a tremendous opportunity. He's an excellent mentor, and he knows his shit (although he IS stubborn as a goat). Just because he spoke the truth about a shitty postdoc doesn't mean jack shit- everyone has had the experience of hiring someone they shouldn't have, and just because a trainee has failed does not mean the mentor sucks. His willingness to express his frustrations in a forum has absolutely no bearing on how he treats and attempts to guide this postdoc IRL.
    5. I love how worked up people get about this postdoc shit.

  • expat postdoc says:

    @ 75
    Why take the position you describe? I negotiated shared corresponding authorship, and total spending freedom, if I covered my own salary. So, now I do whatever and spend money on whatever. Before I achieved that, I split my time 50% on what my PI wanted and 50% on what I wanted to work on. Both avenues have produced publishable results and are somewhat related.
    In addition, the PI was quite impressed that I tried to negotiate this beforehand and came into the position with my own ideas.
    I just don't understand why people take positions like 75 is describing.

  • Dr Jekyll says:

    Just one tip for a PD, go to Europe if you can, because things really suck in the states (for getting TT positions)
    Expat, BY DEFINITION this means the US sysyem is broken. If we have to leave our country and our families to succeed...something is dreadfully wrong with the system.

  • JohnV says:

    @ TaxPayer #72
    This is a good deal for you. Instead of paying someone as a staff scientist or whatever (ie a realistic wage) you get to keep them in indentured servitude for 3-9 years in which they get paid less than a technician with a 4 year degree.

  • expat postdoc says:

    @ 78
    No, it means that the US system is FINALLY participating in a bidirectional pipeline of scientists.
    Previously, a lot of Europeans went to the US for PD because it was better quality, now it could be argued the Western Europe and US are on equal footing.
    Over here, almost everyone switches countries for university (BS), diploma (MS), doctorate (PhD) and postdoc. In fact, the most prestigious grants REQUIRE it.
    Why should the US-based scientists be any different?
    Also, it always seems to be the Americans not willing to relocate to a new country. I see other people doing it all the time and if I could choose between equivalent people, I'd choose the one that lived in more than one country over the people who only lived the US.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    "The trainee described in CPP's quote should never have been allowed to postdoc in his lab. For that matter, she never should have been allowed to get a PhD. She should have been required to leave graduate school with a master's degree after completely failing to demonstrate the ability to think about science during her oral prelims. She should have then moved into the job that she would be actually excellent at - a laboratory manager or technician working either in industry or academia. Then, she would be doing experiments extremely efficiently that the PI thinks up, but has no time to do (and would probably bungle anyway)."
    " Being a postdoc in PP's lab would be a tremendous opportunity. He's an excellent mentor, and he knows his shit (although he IS stubborn as a goat). Just because he spoke the truth about a shitty postdoc doesn't mean jack shit- everyone has had the experience of hiring someone they shouldn't have, and just because a trainee has failed does not mean the mentor sucks. His willingness to express his frustrations in a forum has absolutely no bearing on how he treats and attempts to guide this postdoc IRL."
    It is facinating how one can come up with such striking opinions about persons they do not even know based on one-sided description. Clearly this PI is not honest, not about himself and not about his postdoc. If a postdoc doesn't get it, it shouldn't take 5 years to discover it. Clearly, the PI kept his PD for 5 years because he had greatly benefitted from her skills. He absolutely reneged on his duties as a PI for not telling her after one or two years that she won't make it as a PI herself, if she really was not the right material. He did not do it. Does one really needs 5 years to figure out that a PD doesn't get it? Of course not! This PI is just another pompous ass who has the chuzpah to play with people lives. Based on this PI's own admission of failing, I would recommend for any future PD to avoid the labs of this kind of PIs. He is a typical asshole who let his success get to his head, considers himself an expert in everything and is constantly belittling anyone who does not agree with him. I cannot imagine any PD in his lab daring to argue with this pompous ass.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    No, no Candid! Any observation tha there might be such a thing as a postdoc unsuited for excellence, or even PIdom, is exactly the same as saying all postdocs everywhere suck beans and deserve eternal exploitation.
    (but yes, PP's grand sweeping pronouncements are a feature of his own experiences and he is quite blind about the diversity in limited scientific domains, you don't even have to specify engineering

  • Based on this PI's own admission of failing, I would recommend for any future PD to avoid the labs of this kind of PIs. He is a typical asshole who let his success get to his head, considers himself an expert in everything and is constantly belittling anyone who does not agree with him. I cannot imagine any PD in his lab daring to argue with this pompous ass.

    Shitlin, you blithering fuck-up, you haven't the slightest fucking clue what goes on in my lab. Your deranged fantasies aren't even close to the reality.

  • whimple says:

    Just because a trainee has failed does not mean the mentor sucks.
    Yes, it does. Think about it.

  • It is facinating how one can come up with such striking opinions about persons they do not even know based on one-sided description.
    You assume a lot here.
    Clearly this PI is not honest... Clearly, the PI kept his PD for 5 years because he had greatly benefitted from her skills.
    Again, you have no idea what the fuck you're talking about. Has it occurred to you that
    1. Not all postdocs even want a job in academia? In my top-notch lab, only about half have such ambitions. You have no idea what this postdoc's motivations are for staying for 5 years.
    2. good mentors don't necessarily give up on their trainees? You haven't the slightest clue how PP has been interacting with this gal for the last 5 years. You have no idea how much effort he has put into training her or turning her into something better. One of the most difficult challenges in academic science is knowing when to call it quits. And you have absolutely no idea what considerations were put into this postdoc's specific case.
    Why don't you stick to things you know, Sol?

  • Just because a trainee has failed does not mean the mentor sucks.
    Yes, it does. Think about it.

    Whimple- completely, 100% disagree. When I was in college, I tutored a high school junior on algebra. Typically, high schoolers need something like a 70% to pass a class. When I started tutoring this girl, her average was a 20%. Not joking. This poor girl was dumb as a doorknob.
    So what were the goals of the tutoring sessions? To pass her in the class? Or to improve her and give her the confidence to do better?
    I helped her bring her score up into the 60's. That's a 3x improvement. But she didn't pass the class, so did I fail as a mentor because I did not help her meet some arbitrary benchmark? No, I didn't. Sometimes, there's only so much that you can do with the trainee you've been given. At the end of the day, my student was infinitely more capable than when she started with me- and for that, I was happy.
    Not every postdoc that ever enters a laboratory is cut out for a career in academic science. This fact does not reflect at all on PP's abilities as a mentor. The only thing one might say is that perhaps he should have never picked her up in the first place.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    To follow up on Candid's comments about CPP's postdoc:
    Whether or not the postdoc has/had PI aspirations there is the simple fact that it can be easier to train somebody who is technically amazing (has great "hands") to be a decent PI/manager than to go the other way. This is especially true if the person is also intelligent enough (those two traits usually track together). Success at actual science research requires an amazing meld of creativity, intelligence, and technical ability. As one moves from graduate student to postdoc to PI or group leader in industry the managerial skills and creativity are much more important but that technical ability, in the form of advice to students/group members, is INVALUABLE.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    Candid Engineer,
    Reading your comments, one could get the impression that you are PP's brother. Do you know this pompous ass (PA)? Do you know his 5-year PD who's not a PI material? Have you read the original post of this PA? He specifically sees his training program as one that supposes to produce PIs. That's the reason he hires PDs in the first place. What I know about the PA here is what he himself tells us. And what he tells self-serving, self-promoting crap painted as helpful information to future scientists.
    Do yourself a favor, read comments #52, 54, 55, 56 and 57 to have a better handle on your subject of admiration.
    One doesn't have to know what's going on in PP's lab; one only needs to read PP's posts and comments to realize that he is not what he claims he is.

  • JaneDoh says:

    I am with biochem belle. I LOVED my postdoc. I am in physical science (not life science), so my postdoc was 2.5 years (which is normal in my field). I switched research areas, bringing the techniques I learned in my PhD to a completely new (to me) area. It was really fun--and it was the last time I was ever paid to learn whatever I wanted fulltime.
    I got to play around in the lab, interact with lots of talented people, and had few other responsibilities (no teaching, limited mentoring, no classes). I was able to work on whatever I wanted to AS LONG AS I got the experiments my PI needed done. This encouraged me to plan well and work efficiently, and was great training to become a PI myself.
    I then did 5 years on staff at a National Lab, and started on the TT in 2008. I highly recommend this path--it sounds A LOT better than the stories I hear about sticking to academia. I was really productive at the lab, and got 9 interviews/4 offers (even without mentors in academia to push for me). That said, my science was hot so I had one reference letter from a major big shot in my field. We met at conferences, and I knew from talking to him that he admired my work. My other letters were from my PI at the lab, my PhD advisor (who went emeritus a year after I graduated), and a colleague at the lab.
    I was MUCH, MUCH better prepared for my TT position after my postdoc. I was even better prepared after a few years on staff at my lab. I understand the complaints of people who have spent 10+ years post-BA "in training", but seeing searches now (and interacting with some colleagues who were hired before me, but have less total post-PhD experience), there really is no doubt that I am in a better position to succeed after some post-PhD seasoning. It isn't what you want to hear, but it isn't just that I have more pubs. I also have the experience of balancing projects/grant writing/mentoring/service. A good postdoc will give you some chances to add responsibilities as you get more experience so you will be better prepared too.

  • Whimple if a trainee fails due to lack of support from the PI, then it is the PI's fault. If the trainee fails because the trainee cannot hack it. Its not the PI's fault, and probably the PI should be commended for giving failed trainee an opportunity to prove themselves.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And what he tells self-serving, self-promoting crap painted as helpful information to future scientists.
    Right. Just as do you Sol. Who knows, maybe I do to.
    C'mon now, try to retain a grip when you read anything written by PhysioProf

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    C'mon, DM, you know better than that. There were ample times where I agreed with PP's posts and/or comments. However, PP paints and promotes himself as an expert on most issues SCIENCE. Issues such as PD training, NIH granting, scientific research of past and present, scientific misconduct and its insignificance, etc. On some issues he is an expert, on others he is a novice, at best.
    The difference between PP and myself is, I have nothing to gain from self-service, self-promotion. My experience in science spans longer than PP's yet, I find it strange that you expect me to retain a grip when I read anything written by PP, when you do not expect him to do the same. You only need to read his responses to my comments on this thread alone to see where there is no grip.

  • whimple says:

    Its not the PI's fault, and probably the PI should be commended for giving failed trainee an opportunity to prove themselves.
    It's very convenient for the PI to take the credit for their trainees they consider a success, and to wash their hands of the trainees they don't consider a success since in that regrettable case the trainee obviously didn't have what it takes. YMMV, but I consider it the mentor's role to maximize the realized potential of the trainee AND to help set the trainee on course for whatever the trainee might be best suited to post-training in a reasonably expeditious manner.

  • Shitlin, you incontinent fool, you really do believe that you are a dispassionate objective dispenser of truth, and that everyone else is a self-serving evil liar, don't you? It must have been miserable for you to suffer through life hobbled by such a severe and painful delusion.

    YMMV, but I consider it the mentor's role to maximize the realized potential of the trainee AND to help set the trainee on course for whatever the trainee might be best suited to post-training in a reasonably expeditious manner.

    Where do you get the absurd idea that this obvious truism is inconsistent with being disappointed in what the fully realized potential of a particular trainee turns out to be? You seem to be living in some kind of ass-shooting unicorns and rainbows fantasy world where every PI and every trainee immediately arrive at an identical and 100% accurate picture of what that trainee's potential is, what that trainee might be best suited for post-training, and what that trainee *wants* to do post-training. Have you ever actually mentored a real-life post-doc, or are you just another Shitlinesque Walter Mitty?

  • Reading your comments, one could get the impression that you are PP's brother.
    Haha, yeah. I do have a nice set of balls, which I have to get out and swing around from time to time just to make myself feel at home.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    Candid Engineer,
    I sincerely apologize for not considering the possibility that you might be his sister.

  • Alex says:

    First, the presence of one failed student or postdoc is not sufficient evidence of a bad mentor. In any sort of training endeavor, no mentor will have a 100% success rate. The mere fact that CPP had one failed postdoc says little about his abilities as a mentor.
    Second, in the original thread that everyone is reaching back to, CPP mentioned that this postdoc wrote and received an NRSA. So, the situation sounds like CPP had a postdoc who might have been on the margins, he takes a chance on her, she gets her own funding, which is a preliminary sign that the chance might be worth taking, but in the end it doesn't quite work out. I salute him for trying. Although I teach in a different environment than his, I know where he's coming from. I've seen people take chances on marginal students and some of those students have done well while others have done poorly, but I've never seen a marginal student succeed without somebody first taking a chance on the student. CPP is to be saluted for taking a chance, and whether we deem him a success or failure can only be judged on the full track record of his entire cohort of trainees.

  • van_stonesky says:

    http://youngfemalescientist.blogspot.com/2010/02/oh-my-fucking-god.html#comments
    I am 100% up with the YoungFemaleScientist and 100% against whoever this idiot "drugmonkey" is.
    How can anybody advocate anything about this PhD/postdoc system?
    WAKE THE FUCK UP AND ALL PHDS AND POSTDOCS SHOULD UNITE AND DESTROY THIS SYSTEM; THE PEOPLE WHO DEFEND THE SYSTEM GO EAT SHIT, SERIOUSLY, OR ALTERNATIVELY, YOU CAN OPT TO PAY ALL PHDS AND POSTDOCS A REALLY FUCKING SALARY

  • Azzy says:

    Who does this comrade troll think he is? With language like this directed at other scientists who could believe his warped view of anything. Bashing Babe Ruth? I would bet this geek couldn't his a ball pitched from a 5 yr old girl. Big Poppy is at least as big as Babe Ruth. Baseball hitting requires a good eye and extra weight can be a huge edge. Finally Babe Ruth was a skinny pitcher when he broke into the league. I would say stick to science, but he doesn't seem to know that either.
    Racist and bitter is no way to go through life.
    There is no doubt most post docs are used for slave labor and no real training for a PI position goes on. The delays are simply because people are living longer and there are many many more post docs than before. As stated, what is so complicated about sitting in your office and attending meetings? I learned how to write a grant as a thesis student. My last so called mentor acted like it was a huge burden to even read my drafts for grant proposals. The one before told me my applications were too much of a competition with him. Science is so specialized that the grant review process is all about salemanship and grantsmanship. One faculty told me to promise anything in the grant because once you get the money nothing else matters.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    "Who does this comrade troll think he is?"
    This is a very good question 😉

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    Dual function of a postdoc:
    1. Bend over and take it.
    2. Don't forget to say 'thank you.'
    Fuck you DM

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    Sorry I meant to say, Fuck you CPP.

  • Azzy says:

    Did I forget to mention my thesis mentor faked my data?
    This is some great system where pieces of shit like CPP can act indignant whilee pretending to be better than everyone else. [homophobic slur deleted]

  • Azzy, homophobic and other bigoted slurs are not permitted on this blog. This is your first, and last, warning.

  • Kate says:

    yolio @60 wrote: "This system does not serve the interests of the post-docs themselves. Lengthening the "training" period and raising the standards just ends up raising the risk associated with a science career.
    You can pretend all you want that this is about getting the best people into tenure jobs, but you are making it up. You have no idea if this system selects for merit. It is just as reasonable to assert that the best and the brightest are the people smart enough to leave science for a position with better pay, independence, flexibility and appreciation.
    The science job market has not been planned out to maximize the quality and quantity of science itself. The forces that shape the job market have little to do with optimizing science/per federal $. They have everything to do with who has the power."
    I feel like we're fighting a lot about whether these post-docs are good for individuals and good for science, but I have a hard time believing this system was ever created with these questions in mind. Was the first post-doc position created because someone thought there needed to be a position to professionalize scientist scholars? Or was it created because of increased casualization in the academy -- either to create a job for a group of people who weren't getting t-t jobs (nice version) or to exploit a group of people who weren't getting t-t jobs (less nice version). Most of my experiences in academia suggest that it is not a meritocracy, that while your worth and ability may have some relationship to your success, who you know, what you look like, your SES/gender/sex/orientation/race, and your "fit" with an institution (another opaque guideline that can keep certain classes of people out of jobs).
    I really like my colleagues and I really like my job. I think all the people I work with "deserve" their jobs in that they are good scholars, smart people and care about their work. The problem is that those of us who "made it" are a small fraction of the total number of people who are good scholars and smart people and care about their work. Post-docs are a good way to finish publishing your doctoral work and get experience in a new discipline, method, or topic. But I am unconvinced that the majority of them train people to become PIs.
    When you add to that the oppression of moving across the country or world every few years -- one place for undergrad, one for grad school, one for the first post-doc, one for the second, etc -- it gets to be hard for people with families (those with elderly parents, disabled siblings, offspring, etc). When I moved with my infant from the East Coast to the middle of the country to take this t-t job, I pretty much broke my parents' and sister's hearts. We have no built in back up childcare because we had to move from family for our jobs. My kid is puking today (well, napping this moment) so I am working from home; I have no other option.
    There are so many things to keep in mind about the humanity and usefulness of these positions. I would hate to see us simply consider -- or worse, assume -- that all PIs are good to post-docs, that post-docs are always good, and that scientists' living conditions are such that frequent moving for a job is not harmful to their social and mental well-being. Finally, I want to point out yolio's most important point: that these long post-docs increase the risk of a science career. This also increases the fear that scientists have about their jobs and aspirations and decreases their unwillingness to speak out against injustice or unfair situations in their universities. If we weren't all so afraid about getting the next job or promotion, we would be rioting right now about the budget issues we are all facing.

  • anonymous says:

    Thanks Kate for sharing your views. Could you please be more explicit or elaborate a little bit more "about the budget issues we are all facing".

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    The postdoc idea has evolved as a way to force newly receipients of doctoral degrees to gain experience in another lab, preferably in another state or another country. Usually, it was the mentor of the new graduate who would have the connection and would recommend to his student a possible lab for a postdoctoral research. For PDs outside the US, it was an opportunity to learn also a new language, and since the US was the most popular destination, English, of course, was a major benefit. But many American graduates chose to travel and spend time in a European lab. Of course, the most famous (or infamous) American PD in Europe is J.D. Watson. Many great scientific ideas and techniques were brought back to the US from Europe by American PDs who spent 2-3 years there. In many European and Asian countries a postdoctoral period in the US became almost a requirement if one wanted to qualify for a faculty position back home. Nevertheless, the number of faculty postions, both here in the US, but especially overseas, has been limited and many PDs found themselves, even 30-40 years ago, staying for a second PD period. While most American PDs in Europe returned home at one point or another following their stint there, many, if not the majority of foriegn PDs who came to the US have managed to stay here, filling faculty positions after becoming permanent residents and later US citizens. The dependence of the PD today on a PI funded by the NIH is almost absolute. In earlier times, many PDs actually had a faculty position waiting for them upon completion of the PD research period. Today no position is awaiting the PD and I agree with most of what Kate had to say about the PD's tribulations.

  • M. says:

    So...
    "Longer post-docs should be welcomed by those aspiring to PI positions, as it provides a much fairer opportunity to prove one's mettle"
    Bullshit.
    Seriously, how divorced from reality do you have to be to say something like this?
    Longer postdocs mean longer delay working for crappy pay, in crappy conditions, at mercy of an all-powerful PI who can torpedo the rest of your career by holding your publications back, or rearranging your data into separate publications (so you don't get first author publications).
    Longer postdoc means that you cannot contemplate starting a family until you hit your forties. Postdoc means no control over your time, and really bad pay (usually poor benefits as well; the department secretaries usually have better benefits than postdocs).
    Longer postdocs mean that out of five married postdocs in my department, three live in different cities from their spouses.
    Longer postdocs mean that I have seen two dozen excellent scientists finally give up - after five to seven years of graduate school, and five to ten years of postdoc, they just get fed up. It is immensely sad to se a thirty seven year old postdoc, an apsolute expert in electrophysiology (and many other fields) start nursing school.
    Longer postdocs mean that you are losing all the people except for the most stubborn ones. And that set overlaps with psychological problems more often then with genius, which then makes the spiraling problem of bad conditions for future postdocs even worse.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Jojo #58:"I don't really see what the problem is with having "technical staff" in the lab, as long as everyone knows what's what. What's unacceptable is dangling the idea of being a prof in front of "trainees" through 7 years of grad school and 5 years of postdocs when they haven't ever been qualified to do so, simply in order to be able to maintain a mega lab. "
    I agree with the second part of your statement. But there's a problem with the first part of your statement that is related to the second part. PIs need 'trainees' because getting and keeping real technical staff is difficult. Where is the money going to come from, to pay the long-term salaries of technical staff? In industry, companies make revenue (those that don't tend to go out of business). Part of the revenue goes to pay employee salaries. If a academic PI wants technical staff- and they all do - where does the PI get the money to pay their salaries? Universities don't mass produce products to sell in the marketplace. So what revenue do PIs generate? Grant funding.
    But grant funding comes mostly from the government (also some from private foundations but mostly government). Unlike the free market, there is a very limited supply of cash coming from the government that is available to any given PI given spending caps by the government on how much $ can be spent on science per year, and having to compete against all other PIs for this too. Thus, the government-as-source-of-revenue-to-pay-employee-salaries model is the weak link in the chain. PIs can't guarantee long term, professional-level salaries for real technical staff. It's much cheaper to use postdocs who are already highly trained and you can pay them much less (by calling it "training"), AND when the money runs out like a gap in between grants, you just lay them off cos you never made a commitment to them to provide them with real employment anyway (again remember it is only "training").
    Why should PIs want anything to change??

  • qaz says:

    Anonymous #109: Do not assume that it is the PIs who don't want change. Many PIs would much rather have technical staff who will be in the lab for 20-30 years than to rely on transitional postdocs. One of the biggest problems with the postdoc system is that knowledge in the lab can get lost. The best system would be to have both technical staff and TT-track paths that are both funded reliably long-term. But that gets back to the systemic funding problem. What we really need is a long-term reliable funding source so that we can plan for 30-year tracks rather than 5-year timelines.
    Some history: the US postdoc was invented by Daniel Gillman at Johns Hopkins in the late 1800s as a way for the money-poor school (can you imagine JHU money-poor?) to compete research-wise with more powerful European universities. However, it did not really explode in numbers until after the war. There it became a way to cross-fertilize knowledge between labs. There's a wonderful book about the history of Feynman diagrams in physics, which tracks the spread of the diagrams by the spread of postdocs.

  • Bill says:

    I don't have time to read the 100+ comments to this post, so please forgive me if I'm repeating something that was already said. I somewhat agree with physioprof that it takes a lot of time for a postdoc to progress as a scientist. However I have to take exception to the notion that postdocs are like minor league baseball players. Minor league baseball players are not paid shit salaries and called "trainees". This conversation came up perhaps a year ago, I suggested that if postdocs were paid a reasonable living wage it wouldn't be a problem for them to spend their late 20's and early thirties in "training". At the time PP had a shit fit in response, basically telling me I was delusional for suggesting postdocs should be paid like professional adults. And by the way PP, if the system is so wonderful, why is it that almost every excellent young scientist I have known throughout 10+ years of grad school and postdoc, with ONE exception out of perhaps 100s of people, left academia in frustration because they couldn't get a grant while their bosses sat on 3 RO1's? Out of 100+ people, shouldn't the "success" rate be just slightly higher?

  • Minor league baseball players are not paid shit salaries and called "trainees".

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!! What the fuck are you smoking, holmes?

  • Bill says:

    "AHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!! What the fuck are you smoking, holmes?"
    I don't know, apparently its not of quite the same quality as the shit you've got on hand. I had a high school classmate who played Single A, I'm pretty sure his starting salary was about 100K (this was back in '91 by the way). Know any postdocs making that kind of cash? Shit, I bet YOU don't even make 100K.

  • I had a high school classmate who played Single A, I'm pretty sure his starting salary was about 100K (this was back in '91 by the way).

    Dude, you're out of your fucking mind. Either he was bullshitting you, or your faulty memory added a zero. There is zero chance that the starting salary of a class A baseball player was $100,000, even today. Guaranteed his salary was 10K, not 100K.
    As a statistical matter, what you need to do is compare the league minimum and average salaries in the various minor leagues versus the majors. What you will find out is that the salaries of post-docs and faculty are *much* closer than the salaries of minor league and major league baseball players.

    Shit, I bet YOU don't even make 100K.

    Dude, have you seen my fucking Bentley?

  • Bill says:

    CPP, the only minor leaguers making 10 grand are playing in the Cape league, and stay with host families. This person I'm talking about was drafted a major league team out of HS and his starting salary was 100K.
    Also I would not argue that the absolute difference in salaries between minor leaguers and majors is not much greater than postdocs and asst. profs. My point is that, a typical postdoc salary is not enough to live relatively comfortably and raise a family, unless said postdoc has an SO making very good cash. Whereas a TT faculty member at least makes enough to be comfortable, assuming said TT faculty member doesn't have expensive taste in hooch and cars.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dude, the overwhelmingly vast majority of minor league baseball players can barely survive on their salaries. Many of them go into *debt* over the course of their minor league careers with the hope of finally making the majors. You have no idea what you are talking about.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    Bill...as an avid baseball fan, CPP is correct. This is from MLB.com
    "Minor League Baseball player contracts are handled by the Major League Baseball office. Here are the salary ranges:
    First contract season: $1,100/month maximum. After that, open to negotiation
    Alien Salary Rates: Different for aliens on visas as mandated by INS (Immigration).
    Meal Money: $25 per day at all levels, while on the road"
    This is for the average player. Not the bonus baby, 1st round pick represented by Scott Boras. Those players are the exception.

  • Of course I'm correct. Just because I'm a fucking douchebag doesn't mean I'm not correct the overwhelmingly vast majority of the time. I don't blather about shit I don't know.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    "I don't blather about shit I don't know."
    Right, like your blather about Mozart being French. But then, of course, you're going to claim that you were joking.

  • Shittles, how can someone who claims to be from Europe not know that all that boring opera drivel is French?

  • app says:

    #108 wrote: "Longer postdocs mean that you are losing all the people except for the most stubborn ones. And that set overlaps with psychological problems more often then with genius..."
    Heh, that would be me 😛 Seriously though, for most of the people getting faculty jobs in my field, 2 postdoc stints (sometimes 3) is the norm. After that they are past their sell-by date. Those of us who keep postdoccing longer have very little chance to ever find a faculty position, and in the unlikely event that we do it will be at an obscure place. To clarify about "stubbornness", it often has more to do with lack of attractive alternatives. Postdoc position nr. 4 versus going to teach at a community college: hmmm, what do you think?
    So I don't agree that stubbornness is a major selection criterion of the current system. Really the dominant criterion is ability to establish wonderfully supportive relationships with the influential people. Of course, doing good work for them will help with this, but it also depends just as much on other factors which have nothing to do with the person's qualities as a scientist.

  • How helpful is it to have this doctoral thing?

  • nearlyfinshedPh.D. says:

    Even the most creative and talented person needs to spend enough time in a field to know what has and has NOT been studied yet. I think five years is a reasonable time to expect success from a postdoc, provided that there are clear expectations for how long you have to get that first piece of publishable data and backup projects on-deck in case of failure. Struggling for 2+ years on a single project is a terrible use of time and a huge risk.
    Science is hard, and the system has never been fair. Grad students and postdocs should always be developing skills for their "Plan B," be it teaching, non-bench government, science policy, science writing, tech transfer/patents or whatever. These jobs are competitive too, but at least you have another skill set to fall back on if you don't have the CV to go for a PI position. We cannot rely on the NIH to fix this problem for us anytime soon.
    Responsibility starts with the grad students and postdocs to plan their careers and plan for alternatives, even if that means leaving science. Ultimately, you have to enough self-respect and courage to get off of the postdoc treadmill if it's not working out for you. I am going to start my first postdoc soon and I'm quite excited about it, but if I don't do well enough to shoot for PI then I'll do something else. I can't live my life with all of the angst, anger, and regret I see from other postdoc bloggers who are in crappy situations.

  • app says:

    @124:
    Everything you say is true in principle. However, to plan a career in practice it is necessary to have accurate information about how career advancement works in the business. And this is where the problem is: phd students and postdocs are lied to about this. We enter the business and plan our careers based on what we later discover to be blatant lies about how academic science really works.
    A couple of illustrations:
    (1) Implicit in what CPP writes in the original post is the claim that postdocs will somehow be evaluated for "talent and accomplishments" during their postdoccing years. Those of us who have been around for a while know this to be bullshit. Of course, the ones who are successful in finding a tt job will be told it was because of their talent and accomplishments, and they will happily believe it. Nevertheless, it is bullshit. I surely don't need to spell out how this can lead a young person to enter the business and continue in it based on expectations which turn out to be based on a lie.
    (2) In my own field (theoretical physics) there is the following amusing phenomenon: When a young person publishes a paper in our top journal (PRL) as junior co-author with influential senior person(s), it is taken as testament to his great talent. But when a young outsider publishes in PRL on his own it is not regarded as a better accomplishment. In fact it is sometimes simply dismissed as a reflection that the publication standards are slipping. This is just one example of the ways that "talent and accomplishment" are evaluated differently depending on the background of the person being evaluated.
    I don't have any solution for how to fix "the system", but it sure would help if the powers-that-be would stop lying so that young people could make their career decisions based on correct information. It's ironic that some of the bloggers offering career mentoring are among the worst of the liars.
    (In case you are wondering, I write this not as an embittered postdoc (which I was until recently) but as a tt faculty member at a uni ranked in the top 100 in the world (in one ranking at any rate).)

  • DK says:

    the idea that post-doctoral training is only about training. It is also about selection
    Rrrright. Of course, it has nothing to do with you needing all those serfs in the lab. "Training". Bwa-ha-ha. Next what? - you'll start claiming that "research is indispensable for a good education"? Do you have any other self-serving fairy tales to tell?
    And as far as your selection idea... It's a selection, alright; a filter. But you are "fooled by randomness". It's really stupid to think that this selection has much more value than throwing dice.

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