Repost: Should I hire a postdoc or a technician?

Dec 08 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

This repost is via special request from some n00b Assistant Professor who has apparently lost access to Google.

It was originally posted 25 Aug, 2008.

The comments following a recent post touched on the newly independent investigator dilemma of who to hire first: A postdoctoral fellow or a technician? We'll leave aside the best answer ("both") as impractical because, as Professor in Training noted,

I only have enough money to pay ONE postdoc's salary for 18 months ... or ONE tech ... that's it. While that would be great for me, that's certainly not enough time for a postdoc to get more than one study done (in my field probably only 75% of a study). Is it even advisable to employ a postdoc for such a short time with no great certainty of being able to pay their salary beyond that point?

YHN tends to recommend "tech" and PhysioProf tends to opt for "postdoc"...sounds like a new discussion to me!

To define terms just a little bit for those less steeped in the biz, I covered the job category of "technician" here:

A "technician" in the biomedical sciences is an employee of the laboratory (well, actually of the University) who is not "in training" (such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) and does not (usually) have a terminal doctoral degree. (For example long-term PhD scientist employees who are too far along to really be "postdocs" and are not PIs are not really "techs".) Most typically the tech has a bachelor's degree in a scientific major and a few will have advanced credentials such as Veterinarian Tech specialties or subject-based Master's degrees. It is not unusual for the tech to have continued her education while working in the laboratory by taking advantage of University educational repayment policies.

One of the most important parts for today's discussion is that the technician can be viewed, non-pejoratively, as 100% an employee working "for" the lab head or Principal Investigator (PI). Someone who is expected to do what is asked at all times with the goals of furthering the lab agenda. In this employment relationship the PI is unequivocally understood to be "the boss".

A postdoctoral fellow/trainee is a person who has acquired a terminal doctoral degree (Ph.D., D.V.M, D.D.S., M.D.) and is working under the supervision of an independent investigator. Here one key difference is that the postdoc is in a dual role, the balance of which is debated. The postdoc is considered a "trainee" in the sense that s/he is working in part for her (his) own benefit, to acquire skills and tools that will be required to obtain and launch an independent research career. This notion implies a degree of independence from the PI, an ability to work on stuff other than what the PI has "told" her (him) to do, possibly to work on stuff that is only of benefit to the postdoc (and not the lab or PI directly), etc. I happen to believe that the postdoc also has a responsibility to help the lab and, in essence, to do the job for which s/he was hired and to make all data generated accessible to the PI...but not every postdoc agrees with that. In truth it is also likely that some PIs either explicitly or implicitly think that postdocs are basically indistinguishable from technicians when it comes to the employment relationship. So there's a spectrum.

Okay, so why do I think a tech is more important to secure for a brand new PI?
That isn't your job anymore. Scutwork. Tedium. The stuff that is absolutely necessary to the running of your lab which is not particularly demanding in intellect and may be incredibly time-consuming. Yes, you specialized in this as a lowly graduate student and took pride in the fact that you were able to do this work as a postdoc while still doing more high-falutin' intellectual labor. Postdocs around you who couldn't find their behind with both hands when it came to the basic work were to be derided. Fine. But this is not your job anymore!!! My position is that the more time-consuming scutwork you can get off your plate the better. Since nobody likes scutwork, it is far better to rely on an employee who is paid to do a job, can be readily fired and replaced, for this sort of thing.

Your first deceptively hard question as a new PI is that of determining which tasks in the lab really do not require your input, after basic training and given that you will continue to supervise and troubleshoot. I say deceptively hard because my experience in talking with some fairly advanced postdocs and even junior faculty is that they have not really thought about this question. They get stuck in the usual traps. "It is more work than it is worth to train somebody to do this." "I only trust my own work/data/analyses." "My hands are the best." "This is too important to screwup." Etc.

All true. Being a PI takes a big leap of faith in the work of others. This is, in my view, part of the deal. For the huge increase in scientific terrain you are able to cover as a PI directing the efforts of other scientists, you are accepting the risk that someone else is not as good as you*. So get over this. Your job is to learn how to set up your management style such that you can tolerate human frailty and still make excellent progress on what interests you.

Progress and Work Ethic. Management of personnel is one of the hardest things for new PIs to learn. After all, we were motivated self-starters so we can't really understand why everyone else would bother to be doing this stuff if they weren't self-wackaloon-motivated. Sadly, not every one is just like you (ibid), new PI! Which means that you may have to evaluate an employees work effort and apply some judicious boots to the posterior. Perhaps even with threats of dismissal and actual dismissal for poor performance. It is very much easier to do this with a technician who is supposed to be working 100% at your behest.

Stability. In most cases postdocs will be transient visitors to your lab, lasting 3-5 years at best. So sure, a good one may get you through tenure. But postdocs can and do leave for all kinds of reasons. Their interests and relative focus on your stuff necessarily changes as time elapses. The tech on the other hand, can be a more or less career employee in whom your investment over time continues to pay you back over intervals of a decade or more.

Availability. Unless you are very lucky or very HawtStuff, recruiting a good postdoc to your laboratory is far from given. I've seen this from all ends, as a postdoc, peer of postdocs, mentor to postdocs , as a PI seeking fellows and as a peer to other junior faculty looking to hire. I've seen situations in which the fellow (or grad student) was very focused on joining the lab of the local BigCheez and quickly evolved to be working most closely with local junior investigators because the fit was so obviously better. The bottom line is that for a postdoc the prospect of joining a starting Assistant Professor's lab is very much of career concern.

An additional concern with availability is that it is not unusual for postdocs and PIs to come to arrangements far in advance of the actual start date. Very anecdotally, I'd say the better the candidate, the more likely this is the case. So a junior PI who manages to recruit and lock-in a highly promising candidate may have to accept that she will not be arriving in the lab for a year. That's a big hit, especially if that is the first year in which teaching loads have been reduced. Technicians are typically hired with a fairly short lead time on the order of weeks at worst.

Data Stream Strategy for the Long Haul. This one verges dangerously close to the argument over being an investigator who operates on the cutting edge at all times versus the small-town grocer. So YMMV. If, however, you have an aspect of your research program which can putter along with relatively little input from you, is of lasting importance to your scientific goals and interests and, most importantly, can support a steady stream of bread-and-butter publications I recommend getting this going. It is not necessary that the tech does all of the work up to publication-quality figures, of course, mainly that s/he is able to generate good quality and interesting data at your direction. Or the tech is capable of doing most of the work with you sailing in for the essential parts.

It is all very well and good to shoot for GlamourPubs. If you manage to get them, you are set. I get this. Not getting them is, however, excusable. In most environments, meaning that even if not in your specific department you can get a job elsewhere. Perhaps one theoretical tier down, but still a research-focused job. What is not optional is publishing somewhere, anywhere**. When it comes to most decisions that matter, tenure and review of prior progress when it comes to grant review, 0-fer is not excusable. Published articles can be debated on their merits with respect to actual impact, importance, brilliance, what have you. A lack of publication can not be debated or defended***. Admittedly the postdoc who is half-decent has a greater possibility of getting all the way to a submittable manuscript. But the bread-n-butter tech is near guaranteed to make sure the data are available to writeup when you are feeling the publication pinch.

Final Thought. It basically comes down to risk management from my perspective. If you can get a very good, hardworking postdoc right away the choice is pretty clear in opting for the postdoc. I am quite pessimistic, however, that new PIs can pull that off. When it comes down to a postdoc who will not show up for 12 months, a postdoc who is lazy, distracted or really focused on interests that are not sufficiently in line with yours...well, the technician wins every time.

Update: One thing I forgot to mention originally but was reminded of by the first comment. The chances of getting a technician working for you for free are next to zero. It is possible to get a postdoc for free, however. A postdoc may come with their own fellowship (there are many international-study type fellowships where a country funds individual fellows to go abroad, for example) or you may be able to secure a slot on a local institutional training grant for your postdoc. This is not a guarantee but these situations are considerably more likely than getting a technician working for you but paid for by some other source of support.

*almost by definition, the fact that you are a PI now means the smart money bets you were a better-than-average postdoc. Very likely you had more motivation, intellectual curiosity and, yes, better experimental hands than the average bear. Which means that on average, postdocs that come into your lab are going to fall short of the standard of you! (Yes, even accounting for an inflated view of self.) Deal.
**"anywhere" means "peer reviewed" and is environment specific. Whatever your field considers the supposedly lowest denominator or a minimally respectable "dump journal" or whatever.
***usually. I could tell you some stories. But really, make it easy on yourself and publish something already!

19 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    Back in 2008 I would have said it was a wash.

    Nowadays, given the postdocalypse and attendant recent publicity thereof, I'd say hire a tech, hands down.

    At least if they get thrown out 'cos the PI runs out of funding then they're younger and the PI doesn't have to feel so guilty because that person still has career options. If you take on a post-doc in this funding environment, knowing you've only got a year or so on money, you're fucking with the career of someone who's on a 5 year clock. If they get thrown out and crash/burn later, it'll be on you. If you can live with that shittio (and the reputation it brings), hire a post-doc.

    TL/DR - hiring a post-doc is a whole lot more complex than it was a decade or even 5 years ago.

  • Brain says:

    I think this depends on location. Where I am, by the time you finish paying benefits for a new college grad, you're in for just over $50K. I think the way universities are shifting the cost of fringe benefits to grants changes the equation a bit. Plus, at many schools you can't just fire a tech at the snap of your fingers (improvement plans etc). I agree that you need someone for drudge work, but at that price I think you really need someone who can do more than simply work 40 hr a week and follow instructions.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Ola- since when are techs "younger"? You don't just rotate them are committing to career employment.

  • lazybratsche says:

    I think that's another thing that's very field-dependent. I've seen labs that I presume are similar to DM's, where the technician who has been working there for a decade or two is the only one who can keep the animal behavior experiments running reliably. On the other hand, in some of the cell bio and fly/worm genetics labs I'm familiar with, technicians are typically fresh out of undergrad. They'll work for a year or three, after which they move on to grad school, med school, or a better paying job outside academia.

  • bacillus says:

    Whatever you decide to do, please don't hire a PhD as a technician, a practice that has become all too common, and which I despise.

  • DJMH says:

    bacillus: Why? Many people have gone the gamut of the PhD and concluded (reasonably) they don't want the whole postdoc game, with the pressure to publish--but they do enjoy working in a lab environment, solving technical problems, etc.

    Unless you mean, "don't hire a PhD at a straight-out-of-college-technician's salary," in which case I agree completely.

  • Grumble says:

    One of the best decisions I made as a freshly minted assistant prof was to hire a technician who turned out to be a fast learner, very intelligent, and willing to stay in the job for several years. Having a pair of hands that was an extension of my own was absolutely invaluable: while I analyzed data dating from my post-doc years and wrote papers and grants, the tech finished setting up the lab and was generating data far sooner than if I hadn't hired him. Students didn't want to join the lab in its brand-new, still-have-to-unpack-a-few-things state, and I didn't want to hire just any post-doc, but the *right* post-doc. After a year or so, my lab became very attractive to students partly, I think, because the tech kept things organized and helped everyone out with whatever technical issues they had. Rotation students tried it out and spread the message, and now my lab is one of the more popular ones. And I hired a couple of great post-docs in my second year as a faculty.

    The only caveat to DM's advice that technical scutwork is "not your job anymore" is that specific methods can meander from what they should be as people forget to implement (or change) important aspects of the protocols you brought to the lab. I've seen this happen several times, often because I'm too busy to go over each individual's experiments in detail. I've learned to force myself to make a lot of time to sit down with everyone, individually, as often as possible and ask detailed questions about the nitty-gritty of what they are doing, particularly if things haven't seemed to be working lately. I was a great trouble-shooter as a post-doc, and I haven't lost that touch!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Absolutely, Grumble. Endorse.

  • bacillus says:

    @DJMH. In my experience, people with PhDs take on tech jobs because they are desperate rather than through choice. It is a practice ripe for abuse by the PI, especially for those PhDs on work visas. In my opinion, if you pay a PhD to be your technician, then either pay them at the appropriate level (6-8 years relevant experience versus a tech starting with a college or bachelors degree), or don't expect to exploit them beyond their employment level (i.e. pay them an entry level tech salary, expect entry level tech service) . Also, beware that said technician is not building up a seething resentment as other PhDs pass through your lab with greater success. Just not worth the risk for me.

  • DJMH says:

    Right, as I said I don't support hiring PhDs at 26K/yr. But I've known plenty of PhDs who didn't really want to do a postdoc, but felt they had to because they needed a place to hang out while they explored other career options. Those people would be better served in an advanced tech position (appropriately paid), without the unrealistic expectation of running their own projects/publications.

  • dsks says:

    I don't get the "don't hire a PhD as a tech" thing at all. If a person with a PhD wants that job, it's either because they're desperate, it's convenient (trailing significant other?) or, hell, maybe they simply like the job description. Cutting them from consideration based on a slightly misplaced guilt complex about the PhD bottle-neck isn't doing them personally any favours, is it?

  • Grumble says:

    The dirty truth is that some people barely squeak by with a PhD. They're terrible at writing and can can barely think their way out of a cardboard box. But they might be great at doing experiments. What ELSE should they be hired as, if not technicians?

    Realistically, though, if they're such good experimentalists, then they've been doing lab work for several years and should be paid at the upper end of the technician pay scale. Exactly like an experienced technician who doesn't have a PhD.

  • bacillus says:

    @dsks. It has nothing to do with a guilt complex. How many people do a PhD with the objective of becoming a senior lab tech? Is this academia's template for preparing the castoffs for alternative careers? Ask anyone in the pharmaceutical industry if they would hire a PhD as a technician, and you'll get a no way every time. This is mainly because of the resentment thing (start as a tech stay as a tech is the industry mantra, and their salaries top out way below the "real" PhDs in the company). To be sure they might well start out grateful for the job, but if you want someone for the long haul, you're better off hiring a traditional tech. On the other hand if you want to exploit someone for less than they're worth then that's your problem, not mine. Of course, I work in a unionized, non-US govt lab where such exploitation is strictly forbidden, so I may be a bit biased.

  • Abel says:

    Now that I'm about to celebrate the two-year anniversary of my laboratory's closure, you finally have a post where I feel qualified to comment.

    I concur completely with the tech decision specifically because a postdoc *shouldn't* be doing the tedium. When I started up, I got a guy who knew he wanted to go to grad school in two years and that's all the money I could promise at the time. He was motivated to generate data but also understood that helping me set up a lab was something he could sell on his grad student apps (How many grad students do you know who are flummoxed the first time they have to order EDTA? Which of the dozen varieties should you have for your lab?)

    A long-term technician would probably have been more valuable to maintain continuity but I made the right choice. My guy got his PhD and MBA, worked for pharma in Switzerland, and started a remarkably successful home health care business after leaving the lab.

  • DJMH says:

    How many people do a PhD with the objective of becoming a senior lab tech?

    Probably zero, but then you're arguing we shouldn't hire any PhD who once harbored academic research ambitions for *any other job*. Which doesn't seem particularly realistic.

    Also you keep emphasizing the salary, and I think everyone here agrees that a tech-with-PhD should be paid more than tech-with-none-upon-thars.

  • jmz4 says:

    "How many people do a PhD with the objective of becoming a senior lab tech"
    -A non-zero amount. I'm in it to win it, but being a lab manager for a nice big academic lab and making 60-70k a year is something I could definitely settle for. And I know people who would absolutely love that, who are also very good scientists, but don't want to be lab heads. They don't want the pressure, they don't like speaking or whatever. Anecdotally, I'd say this encapsulates about 1/4 of the postdocs I know.

    You have to remember a big part of the allure of academic labs is the culture. You spend enough time around it, and you acclimate and take it for granted, but it really is much more fun to spend your days geeking out with students and other bright, motivated and unconventional people. Some people just want to do science in academia, and we should let them. Maximum flexibility in hiring practices is a good thing.

    So, for the PI's in the audience, if it came down to hiring a "super-tech" (many years relevant research experience, willing to commit to at least 5 years) for 65k (in, lets say Boston, so adjust wages accordingly) or a postdoc at NIH base, which would be preferable? What if the super-tech had their benefits paid out by the university (none of this fringe coming out of grants nonsense), so that they were more cost equivalent?

  • Lady Scientist says:

    I don't understand why a PhD with issues of resentment would want a tech-type job (this is not about pay, which, as others have stated, I agree should be according to experience)? He/she is applying for the job, not forced into it. If he/she doesn't want to be a tech in an academic lab, then he/she should apply for other sorts of jobs that are more in-line with his/her long-term career goals.

    If you are just starting to establish yourself (like I am), my experience is that one should hire someone who is in it for the long term, not a temp-type person (post-doc, who requires extra time mentoring, etc.). I'd steer away from techs who are are only planning to be in the lab for a year, because by the time they are finished being trained, they are out the door. There are other, large labs that would likely be interested in hiring them, which will help them get where they want to go (grad school, etc.). Of course, this isn't a perfect world, so if you can't find someone in it for the long-term, then go with what is available.

    My first techs were recent college grads who had never worked in labs before or who had very little experience in the field. My department didn't let me hire at MS or higher degree until this year, although the salary level allowed for a non-entry level tech. However, I wanted to give the job to people who were underrepresented in STEM and needed the experience. Both of my BS techs left after one year. The first was far easier to train than the second and went straight to grad school (I mentored her on her application forms, gave her advice for interviews, etc.). The second decided to leave for another career. I could tell, after a few months, that the second really didn't want a long-term career in science. My current tech has a graduate degree and has long-term potential (although she requires a good bit of retraining).

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Why? Two PhD problem

  • AlexK says:

    I can just recomend to hire a tech, but if you are a bloody beginner, you should find someone with a bit of experience how to handle a lab, especially if you dont have any experience with it. From my experience I can tell you that the most of the PIs do not know how to deal with tech.s because they just dont have a f.. clue about what a tech is actually doing and suppose to do etc. So first of all - you should be yourself aware off : what do YOU actually want!!! because you cannot have everything.. its just one position available... so you cant expect to hire Super-man/women! . And than you should consider how important is laborganizantion for yourself and how much time you want to spent on your own with this. I guess you have no clue what that actually means.. because you have never really done it before. And that is now excactly the problem you are facing. (I guess you know that already šŸ˜‰ ) So what do you want ?? A) Quickly research progress with less lab organisation ? - Than I would vote for a postdoc B) research progress with less lab organisation - Than you hire an experienced tech ( maybe with a phd) with the focus on research C) little resseach progress with a good lab organisation (meaning keeping good records about everything, orders, protocols, budgets, labsafety, chemical lists, inventory, services, maintenaince of machines, etc.) - Than I would vote for an experienced tech with the focus on labmanagement, who knows how to set up a lab and to maintain it. D) little research progress and little lab organisation - Than I would vote for a unexperienced tech ( which would be cheaper but you might can form he/she in the way you want to get things done. There are prob. more options out there, but what I wanted to make clear : Its up to your own experience and willingness to guide and teach and lead your lab and how much effort you want to bring in all these, if you want to keep doing research on your own.. go for a tech and train her. I f you dont and want to make progress and thinks lab management is not such a big deal -than go for a postdoc (but please, dont wine around later on, that nothing is organized enough) . In the end its of couse all depends on the person you are hiring - you can be lucky but you can be also unlucky..and end up doing everything in the end on your own. Leading a lab is nothing for sissies and dont think that labmanagement is something you can just do next beside of all the other crazyness. Well, you will be able to do so, but it will come back to you - at some point- I can tell you for sure !! what ever you gonna decide- most important of everything: find someone you can rely on and trust and you can speak honestly about everything! Than you are already on the winner side !! yeah.. and of course dont forget to keep that person happy šŸ˜‰ How? just ask them about their own opinion and then discuss things through, its just that simple (eventhough its not a garantee for a longterm relationship workwise of course, but it will help, I promise)!! Good luck!!

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