Query on postdoctoral training

Oct 08 2014 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Is a lab that has 12 or more concurrent postdocs really "training" them?

Is this in and of itself evidence that this is the scientific workforce?

If, say, three-quarters of them ended up in faculty appointments would this change the equation?

34 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    I think this can only be answered lab-by-lab. But I suspect usually that no, a lab like that is simply using the available cheap labor to do a lot of work and avoid hiring research scientists who'd expect higher pay and job security and decent benefits. That's not to say that the postdocs aren't learning. They're just learning in an environment where they're cheap labor, not true trainees.

    Of course, I'm of the opinion that we prolong scientific adolescence abysmally, and that there are probably a lot of bench scientists ready to jump straight from PhD to Asst Prof, if they're allowed to jump in and swim, informally mentored by local assoc and full profs. Enough to fill the assistant professoriate. We could probably get by without "postdocs" even existing.

    Forgive my bench-science ignorance: Are there labs with multiple PIs who work together in the same space, collaborating on grants? If so, and there is a 4 PI lab with 12 postdocs, maybe that changes the equation.

  • MoBio says:

    It really depends on the mentor and the environment.

    I trained in an extremely large lab --50 postdocs--albeit in an earlier era. The mission of my mentor was to do what he viewed as 'cutting edge science' and his goal for us was that we all became independent scientists. He helped us obtain 'real jobs' to the best of his ability and even when he was in his 80's was still writing enthusiastic and passionate letters of recommendation for us (collectively) as we rose through the ranks. In that particular lab we all had pretty much independent projects which had little overlap. His idea was that when we successfully obtained an independent position we would take those project forward. He was largely successful.

    I have a large lab and have the same ethos. My desire is that all my mentees obtain the positions they aspire to and I do what I can to make this happen for them. I also let them take the projects they work on when they leave.

    Sol Snyder would be among those sorts of mentors that come to mind who exemplify this spirit. Perhaps Karl Diesseroth (judged by the success of his mentees) will eventually have such a record.

    There are such 'postdoc factories' mentioned by DR24hrs--and they are notorious--and I steer my students away from such environments.

    So...yes and no to the question.

  • Science Grunt says:

    "Is this in and of itself evidence that this is the scientific workforce?"

    It has been pretty much established in the biosciences that the role of faculty is lab is grants, mentoring, desigining experiments, interpreting data, "service", reading relevant literature to steer students, writing/helping trainees write papers.

    The role of postdocs and grad students is designing experiments, executing them, pre-interpreting data, reading relevant literature, doing menial labwork the lab tech can't do.

    Note that NIH/NSF/taxpayer pays for people to execute experiments because they want data in the end of the day. So if you have zero postdoc/grad students, the mission of SCIENCZ isn't going to be accomplished. Additionally most trainees are usually paid by NIH/NSF/taxpayer grants and have to do research in the topic that was funded (or at least pretend to). So you tell me if this is de-facto workforce.

    I don't think the problem of science is that there are no faculty positions available for everyone. The problem is that we call postdocs/grad students as trainees, when they are pretty much labor. And we all feel fine keeping them in that sorry payscale because of that promise.

    Current postdocs that aren't getting faculty positions are pretty much like McDonald's burger flippers complaining that there aren't enough restaurants available for them to manage. And they were promised that they would be managing one McDonald's.

  • TheIntronertPhD says:

    I think Dr. 24 hrs is right. However, if a single PI produces 8 PIs that come out of his lab... it's not like for every current PI they open 8+ new PI positions. It makes you think how such a high number of people get so lucky in this harsh competition.

    I mean we all know that graph where the number of available PI positions per year barely changed over the last decades, while the PhD number grows and grows. That's why the PD became such an endless endeavor: we are kept on hold for 6-8 years because we all want the PI job.

    The perversion is that people still think they are doing people a favor 'training' lots of people for years and years instead of giving them a staff researcher job - that doesn't prevent them from having the same experience as a postdoc... because basically what we do is the research work, but in one of these scenarios it's actually recognized.

  • namnezia says:

    Depends. I postdoc'd in a lab with 9 postdocs and 5 graduate students. Of this cohort almost all postdocs ended up in tenure track jobs or long-term research positions, one in patent law. Of the grad students 2 are in biotech, two have TT faculty positions and one is making a shitload of money somewhere. Not only was my training from my interactions with the PI, but also from my interactions with the other postdocs and students. There was so much expertise and interesting ideas floating around the lab that it really was a synergistic environment with sufficient critical mass to keep the ideas and collaborations flowing. In my view you learn as much from your peers as you do from you mentor, and it was a credit to her that she fostered such an environment with such a talented group of folks with whom I continue to interact with. And really central to this was having that critical mass of people.

  • rxnm says:

    We need to know if the conversion to TT (if we assume that that is what most PDs want) rate is higher per PD than in smaller labs.

    Certainly postdocs have the impression that being in one of those labs is a major career advantage for R1/TT type jobs. There was an analysis of neurotree that suggests that this is true, or at least that there are "super-node" labs and lineages with high fecundity, however you never know the true PD denominator. I have seen anecdotal evidence for and against: large labs that seem to have high academic job placement rates and large labs that seem to specialize in convincing people to leave science.

  • drugmonkey says:

    So, Nam and MoBio, were all of these postdocs in for only 5 yrs or less?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Rxnm- aren't these academic tree things biased severely towards the research side of professor-hood? It always seemed that way to me.

  • namnezia says:

    I'm trying to remember... Of that cohort, typically around 5 years, some less, some slightly more. One a lot more.

  • DJMH says:

    In my view you learn as much from your peers as you do from you mentor

    Agreed that this is the best aspect of a larger lab, but it can also be achieved in a smaller lab, with more interactions with the labs down the hall. And in that case, the trainees still get to see their PIs once in a while.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Should that one really have been a small time Assistant Professor, Namnezia?

  • MoBio says:

    "Were they in for 5 years or less?"

    Mainly--though there were a couple I remember who were there longer. Three I remember in particular eventually received TT slots and one is now a Full Professor. The other two left academia--one as a Program Officer at NIH the other is now a physician. All three are 'happy'.

  • namnezia says:

    You mean me?

  • In regard to academic trees; obviously they are only relevant for research (if that). I doubt teaching ability has anything to do with your scientific lineage.

  • drugmonkey says:

    JB- those trees are more about the social science of science than anything else. Possibly a networking tool. In either case, of *course* it is relevant to include as many people as possible, regardless of eventual job category.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh you meant yourself, Namnezia?

  • DJMH says:

    Nam, DM is asking about the "One a lot more." Should that person have been off to professorhood much earlier?

  • zb says:

    In the Diesseroth example, I'd argue that the large lab is exporting a potentially "hot" technique (and, unlike in some such labs, it appears that KD supports the export of knowledge from his lab). That's a unique point where large labs might make sense, when they are providing training in a new technique. With time, if the technique is truly successful, it stops being new, the trainees can train new people, and the benefit of being in the originator lab diminishes. The KD lab lends itself to pointing to the technique, but I imagine that new field/new idea might also provide an expansion node.

    So, I'd argue that one can't presume the result of "large" labs -- some of them are excellent places to be "trained." As someone else points out, some of them had true collaborative environments, where training was occurring between peers. In some large labs, especially in new fields, the post-docs come from many different backgrounds (say, in physiology & fMRI labs, physicists, computational scientists, computer scientists, physiologists, psychologists, . . . were bringing their own individual training backgrounds, to the large group).

    There are large factory labs, too, though, and the key for a post doc is to listen to the people there about what kind of lab it is.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    What about large labs with mostly foreign postdocs? I witnessed many cases like this at my PD institution, and it seemed as if the PIs really just thought of the foreign postdocs as exploitable staff scientists, with unregulated hours and no benefits. I was in one of those sorts of labs, and there was a lot of friction between personnel, especially due to the fact that there was vastly different pay for U.S. citizens/permanent residents and foreign PDs, and everyone knew about it somehow. Sad, but true.

  • Established PI says:

    It's important not to generalize. There are labs that exploit the floating foreign postdocs who go from position to position and will never, ever be competitive for a permanent position of any kind in the U.S. Then there are those labs that train foreigh PDs that are hoping for a faculty position in their home countries. I have witnessed a particularly big change among Chinese and Indian postdocs in the past decade - many more are seeking doing time in the U.S., hoping for that big paper that will be the ticket to a TT faculty position back home. In many countries (Europe and Israel, too) postdoctoral experience in the U.S. is highly valued. So those 12-postdoc labs may be training future faculty across the globe, not just in the U.S.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Should we be doing so, Established PI?

  • Established PI says:

    We should do it as long as the relationship is mutually beneficial - PD gets training and job with a future, US PI moves science forward - it's win-win. I suppose I don't know about the impact on their home country labs, but it's clear that in many places their best scientists are expected to do a postdoc abroad if they expect to come home to a good job. I don't see the foreign postdoc pool harming the chances of U.S. PhDs, at least not yet. All this is predicated on good treatment and mentoring of postdocs, not exploiting foreign PDs who seem desperate to stay in the US and will accept any salary, no matter how far below the NIH/NRSA pay scale their salaries are.

  • drugmonkey says:

    How do you think Congress would feel about us training scientists to go home to their respective countries and compete with US science?

  • TheIntronertPhD says:

    So I wouldn't call PD training a 'service to the global scientific community with no impact on American job market' so easily.

    I am a German PD in the US, at an institute with PDs from all over the planet. I can attest that, at least in Germany, research experience in the US is highly valued - research experience abroad is advertised as 'pretty much mandatory' to land a professorship, in general. US is favored because it's one of the countries that has (for bio sciences) a much bigger market than Germany and research quality is as good as in Germany, or better.

    However, the problem we are discussing is not a local American one. PIs 'overproducing' PDs are also a problem in Europe, as far as I can tell, and I am sure large labs vary in mentor quality as much as anywhere. Asian scientists also come to Europe and I even hear Americans begin to go to Europe for research experience. Something, btw, I would highly recommend Americans to consider more often - would be good for everybody ;).

    However, my experience here is, that most PDs coming from abroad, even those from countries with comparable research opportunities, tend to stay - or try to stay - because after 6 years in the US they have lives here - including spouses that are not ready to leave - that they don't want to give up. I know two cases where non-US citizens went back to their home countries for academic jobs, but most of who wants to stay in academia are applying for and in many cases actually landing TT jobs in the US. Germany, too, mourns the 'brain drain' as their scientists, who went through a very expensive, publicly funded education, end up in institutions all over the world.

    So, my experience differs drastically from what Established PI said. My guess is, we would need actual numbers on these things 😉

  • TheIntronertPhD says:

    "How do you think Congress would feel about us training scientists to go home to their respective countries and compete with US science?"

    From my perspective, US is still 'draining' other countries from their most talented scientists.

  • Hi TheIntronertPhD--

    So, I'm an American PhD in chemistry who (gasp!) did my postdoc (if that's the right word for it) in Germany. (Dresden. Yeah. I know. Now. Yikes.)

    From what I've heard (from Those Who Know- ie tenured profs, etc), a USA PD is *almost* a requirement for .... any stable science research job in Germany, and many nations in the EU.

    There is a bit of a brain drain in Germany in particular; the funding system selects for applied research. Can't fault the Dipl-Ing though- appears to still be a solid, non-inflated credential?

    Overall, your call for "actual numbers" is, I think, a good and necessary one. But not one that funding committees will like, I suspect.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Is 12 a quiver full?

  • drugmonkey says:


  • jojo says:

    1) Maybe, it's lab dependent.

    2) Yes, the scientific workforce is whoever is doing science.

    3) No, whether they get faculty jobs they are the scientific workforce now.

  • Anonymous says:

    Somewhat off topic, but what about a PI with 12 grad students (and no postdocs), who only has money for 2-3 and the rest pay tuition out of their own pockets? What do people think of that situation?

    What if someone thought that having labs like this in a dept. was bad for the dept. and wanted to change the culture? What could they do? The PI is getting free labor, the grad students (predominantly foreign) are buying their degrees and going back to their home countries with "fancy" American PhDs -- where is the incentive to change?

  • drugmonkey says:

    That sounds messed up

  • Lady Scientist says:

    IME, every foreign postdoc I knew - especially Chinese and Indian and including European - wanted to stay in the U.S., with the exception of 1 person (who was like minor aristocracy in his home country, so he wanted to return to help run a hospital). For a few, it was as TheIntronertPhD described - meeting a spouse and settling here for that reason (actually, my parents did that, back in the day, during their postdocs in the U.S.). But, for most, they really wanted to stay because they liked the place so much and thought that they would have greater academic freedom if they were able to make it to a TT position in the U.S.

    So, on the one hand I totally understand wanting to stay here and don't like the way that many foreign postdocs are treated, and on the other hand, being on the receiving end of a lot of resentment because I made higher pay than my foreign colleagues (due to training grant coverage of salary, not the PI's decision) AND had U.S. citizenship (giving me greater eligibility for various funds), I also didn't enjoy the friction in the lab. A lot of this was the institution's fault, because its policies allowed for the differential pay, but many established PIs fought the institution's administration to maintain low wages for postdocs (and found loopholes to avoid paying foreign postdocs even institutional payscale).

  • rxnm says:

    No, no one is "training" 12 people. Not at research, not at grant writing, not a paper writing.

    In labs over this size it, I doubt it is even possible that the PI is properly overseeing the research or reviewing the data that is going out of their lab. I know people just get around this obvious fact by redefining what PI means to someone who "enabled" the research in monetary and abstract terms, but whatevs.

  • jmz4 says:

    No, she's probably not training them. It's still possible to receive good training in a lab like that. For instance, I had a very hands off PI who's only real talent was picking exceptional postdocs, who, in turn, were often quite good mentors themselves.

    Yes, I believe this constitutes evidence that postdocs are the scientific workforce, and not "trainees", because you have 12 postdocs so you can do 12x the science, not because you really want to create 12 more science clones of yourself. Obviously there's a bit of a gray area, but a good test for whether a position is a "trainee" position is to ask the following. If none of them showed up to work tomorrow, would the enterprise be substantially compromised? If yes, then they are not trainees, as they are actively doing work vital to their employer (possibly in ADDITION to being trained). Now, if none of the residents/interns showed up to a hospital, activity would be hampered, but it would be able to limp along. Mainly because we don't call nurses "trainee doctors".
    So if no postdocs showed up to work tomorrow, how well could a lab maintain its output?

    The cynical suggestion is that if 75% of them got faculty jobs but weren't getting training, then there must be either self-selection or nepotism going on.

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