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?
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!