When will the cynicism stop, Doctor?

Apr 04 2016 Published by under Day in the life of DrugMonkey

I am having an increasingly difficult time seeing the fresh faced and excited grad students presenting their posters as anything other than cannon fodder these days.

I do not like this one bit.

I've noticed something else...the one-generation older-than-me folks are looking really beat down.

I do not like this one bit.

34 responses so far

  • GM says:

    And what about the non-tenured players in the game who understand the situation as well as you do?

    How f-ed are they given that one's chances of survival are probably maximized by not knowing about those things and working as if the future is bright and nothing can stop you?

  • Dave says:

    Because most grad students know they are fucked. Having a poster confirms to most grad students that (in their mind) their work sucks and is not good enough for an oral, and is therefore unimportant. I see a lot of grad students/post-docs now that are obsessed with CNS and BSD..ness, and they think that's the only way to do science. Should we expect any different?

  • Luminiferous Aether says:

    "Having a poster confirms to most grad students that (in their mind) their work sucks and is not good enough for an oral"

    Not really. Posters are a great way to interact with people, and more people. Sometimes I select the poster option on purpose when I submit an abstract. I'd be very surprised if most post-presenters submitted their abstracts for an oral slot, but had to settle for poster as you say. Sure, there might be some, but I doubt it is "most".

  • PaleoGould says:

    GM:
    The only way to play is to have a plan to jump ship if the water's low when you reach the rapids.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Having a poster confirms to most grad students that (in their mind) their work sucks and is not good enough for an oral, and is therefore unimportant.

    That is idiotic and wrong.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    I do my best to explain to students what they are up against. I also speculate that things could change because 1) contrary to what some may think, the Boomers will eventually die if they don't retire and 2) the Cull will remove a number of X-ers from the pool. The latter of those two is depressing to me, personally.

  • jmz4 says:

    The 3-4 times I've been picked for a talk, I always ask the organizers to also let me have a poster as well, if there is space available. I much prefer giving posters and they're especially effective if you couple it with your talk. The 10 minute talks you're likely to get really only serve as an advertisement for your poster, where you can talk to interested parties in more depth.

    As to the main point. DM, I think times are changing. I'm a departing PD, so I've been around long enough now to know a good chunk of grad students finishing up in the department have been asked for advice about how to move on. From those interactions, I've gleaned that most of them are much more savvy than I was 4-5 years ago, and I feel like I was representative of my peer group (but, don't we all). A *lot* of them realize the system is BS and are planning "alternative" careers in industry, consulting, etc. Some of them are even getting departmental support towards that end, and my particular institution already has some fabulous offerings for those purposes (e.g. really cheap good extension classes with degrees and certificates awarded). Few of them really want to do postdocs, since they don't see themselves slogging it out for another 3-7 years with low pay and no options. The few I do know that are going for it are extremely enthusiastic and bright, and have had (seemingly) charmed PhD tenures.

  • Dave says:

    That is idiotic and wrong.

    Not saying it's right at all, but I have spoken to a number of trainees who have not gone/wont go to conferences after only getting selected to present a poster. They view it as a waste of time. It's oral or nothing......

  • drugmonkey says:

    Someone needs to explain to these people how conferences work.

  • potnia theron says:

    In re: posters. There are different cultures at different conferences. Failure to understand or appreciate the culture is an invitation to misunderstanding and unwarranted depression.

    My current unified field theorem is: variation is underappreciated and seldom given the credit it is due.

    This also helps me get through the current morass of unpleasant data I am analyzing, rather than being in San Diego and having drinks with the tweeps.

  • DJMH says:

    To a person, every prospective rotation student or postdoc who has talked with me about coming to my lab has asked about funding. When I was a grad student, it did not enter my head to ask if my potential advisor had money to pay for me.

    They are woke.

  • odyssey says:

    I still present posters on occasion.

    And yes DM, many of my generation are beaten down. Very beaten down.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Potnia, exactly. I don't recall *any* graduate students giving talks at conferences I went to as a graduate student and not even very many postdocs. Talks were for the BSDs, who might say something like "If you are interested in our work, check out posters 37, 54 and 93 from our group" at the conclusion of their talk.

  • Grumble says:

    "Few of them [late stage grad students] really want to do postdocs, since they don't see themselves slogging it out for another 3-7 years with low pay and no options. "

    That perhaps explains why I am having such a hard time finding qualified recent graduates to hire as post-docs. Of course part of it is probably me/my line of work/my lack of 6 Nature papers per year/etc. But I've noticed a distinct reduction in number of graduating PhD students sending me inquiries.

  • Mikka says:

    I've been saying it all along, the smart ones will decide that it's too risky to go the PD route and, being smart, will do the the smart thing which is looking for something in an industry where a PhD can be leveraged into a higher salary. Permadocs are in a worse position to make this move because they are older, overspecialized, and, let's face it, demoralized and so, so tired, and all that shows in job interviews.

    I'm one of the lucky few that has "made it", but, looking back, I can't believe how stupidly risky my decision to gun for a PI position was. I just didn't know any better. And, had I known then how much randomness factors in the eventual outcome of the academic route, I would not have chosen it.

    My current grad student is about to graduate with three first author pubs, one of them in one of those single-word-titled journals we love to hate. If I've ever seen anyone that is destined for greatness, this is him. But he's now facing the decision to invest 5-7 years of his life, living in one of the most expensive areas of the world where there will be very little of his paycheck left after rent and daycare, all of this for the slim chance to become independent and have the privilege to slug it out in the fighting pits with the rest of us for the rapidly vanishing pot of funding. I try to encourage him to consider a postdoc, I tell him that he has the best chance of anyone I've ever known. But I'm afraid that he can see right through me, and that deep down inside I think that he, and anyone, would be crazy to risk their family's livelihood on this racket.

    And I do not like this one bit either.

  • The Other Dave says:

    You're only a cynic because you're an academic and don't know what the hell you're talking about. Time to poke your head out of the ivory tower and look around.

    The unemployment rate for Ph.D.s is less than half the average U.S. rate. And although salaries for most jobs have remained stagnant over the last decade or two, average salary for science Ph.Ds. (including life sciences) has increased.

    There are plenty of great jobs out there. Just not plenty of jobs in academia, which pay less anyway.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I'm one of the lucky few that has "made it", but, looking back, I can't believe how stupidly risky my decision to gun for a PI position was.

    Yup.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "I'm one of the lucky few that has "made it", but, looking back, I can't believe how stupidly risky my decision to gun for a PI position was."

    I think the problem is too many people expect a PI position. Weird thing is, I never expected it. I never even particularly wanted it. I planned a totally different career. I never sought out a single academic job. I was screwing around in a lab as an undergraduate, and when it was time to graduate the PI asked me what I planned to do. I didn't know, so he told me to join his lab as a grad student. I did. I got tired of that project and left and was offered a tech job in another lab by someone who knew me. I took that job, and eventually they told me to finish the Ph.D. there. So I did. Then before I was done with my PhD a guy offered me a postdoc, so I took that. Then a guy I used to know said they were hiring faculty in his department and told me to come give a talk. So I did, and they offered me the job. I always figured if I didn't like it I would just leave and do something else. I always liked doing the science and writing papers and now I like the additional challenges of academia, including teaching and administrative work. So it's all good.

    I don't understand why people would want to do a job that they don't like and are not good at. If you are a postdoc or grad student and are frustrated or failing, why do you want a faculty position? It only gets harder, not easier.

  • jmz4 says:

    ^TOD out of curiosity, when did you get hired as faculty.
    As to your question at the end, my experience with my cohort is that many see it as another sort of academic achievement, without giving to much thought to what the actual work entails. It's the next step up, the next gold star (also the point at which an academic can live on their salary).

  • Philapodia says:

    "Then a guy I used to know said they were hiring faculty in his department and told me to come give a talk. So I did, and they offered me the job. "

    You can just hear the collective kevetching of the the hordes of post-docs who are trying as hard as they can to get a faculty job (slaving to get the high-IF paper(s), winning kangaroos, working the streets to pay rent in high-cost left/right coastal areas, etc) and are failing because they don't "know a guy". It's stories like this that crush the souls of would-be assistant profs.

  • The Other Dave says:

    jmz4: 2001

    Philapodia: You know how many post-doc positions are filled because someone knows someone, without any formal search process? Well, faculty positions can be filled the same way, especially at private institutions which don't have to follow state hiring rules or even formally advertise the positions. My job is at a state university, however, and they were indeed doing a formal search at the time. But that doesn't mean they were satisfied with the candidates. Honestly, it wasn't the sort of place I would have applied either. I mainly agreed to give the talk because I didn't want to be rude to the guy who invited me. But when it came down to it, I found that I liked the people and the offer. So here I am, (mostly) happy ever since! Lots of jobs are like that. It's good for both sides. Network network network. Didn't you ever hear that advice? If you haven't, your advisors suck.

    Lots of people start off thinking that biomedical science is a meritocracy. This blog is basically founded to dispel that rumor. New people here should go back and start reading this blog from the beginning, at least until maybe 2008-10, when DM got all political and preachy and less useful.

  • Amboceptor says:

    Of course, we have learned it isn't a meritocracy, and people who would be good PIs don't get a chance to do so, while people who have little interest in being a PI become PIs because they got a chance to do so, because it all depends on who wins the publication lottery. But the only thing we can do with that information is give up.

  • qaz says:

    Amboceptor - why do you think that any other job in any other career in any other field is any different?

    Becoming a PI is not some sort of national merit ranking. Nor is it a lottery. It's a job. And like any job, getting it and succeeding at it depends on a variety of processes, some based on talent and ability, some based on luck, and some based on the social structure that underlies the human species.

  • Grumble says:

    "I don't understand why people would want to do a job that they don't like and are not good at. If you are a postdoc or grad student and are frustrated or failing, why do you want a faculty position?"

    The ones who are frustrated and failing DON'T want faculty positions. They go do something else because they know very well that it only gets harder.

    It's the students/post-docs who are not failing, and who have both the ambition, intelligence and drive to succeed as faculty, who seem to be opting out of academia more and more. And that is what concerns me, not the frustrated/failing. Although I wonder if there are any hard numbers to back up the anecdotal sense that the young smart ones are fleeing the ship before it sinks.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "people who would be good PIs don't get a chance to do so"

    Networking -- for you AND your trainees -- is part of being a good PI.

    "It's the students/post-docs who are not failing, and who have both the ambition, intelligence and drive to succeed as faculty, who seem to be opting out of academia more and more. "

    Good. These bright young scientists will go into industry, where they will actually be doing something useful with their lives.

  • bacillus says:

    @TOD. Your career path seems to follow mine. I spent nary a minute planning it. I just became the typical gypsy scientist wondering from lab to lab in the UK, USA and Canada doing bench work that excited and challenged me. For my final move, I had a choice between a govt lab in Canada or an industry job in Austria. Decided I'd chose the former if they offfred me $X salary, they offered $X +$400, so here I am. However, that was then, when the competition was smaller, the jobs more plentiful, the money easier to obtain, and you could publish papers based on a few mouse expts and some histopathology. It' a completely different world for young would be sicentists today, and it credits noone to pretend otherwise. For a start more than 500, 000 industry positions have disappered during the past decade. The starting salary in industry for chemists used to be double that for biologists, now the former find themselves in the same precarious position as those seeking an academic career. Hand or heart, I very much doubt I'd make it this far starting again todaywith the same laissez- faire approach. Winging it is no longer an option for the majority of PhDs /Post Docs doing solid work in good depts that lack BSD status. I don't know whether or not it was your intention to sound smug, but I bet that's how it came across to all the poor bastards still trying to find a way out of the trenches the walls of which have gotten much larger and more slippery during the past 3 decades.

  • shrew says:

    I fail to see that leaving to join industry is more "useful" than an academic PI job.

    Testing a million compounds for efficacy against a drugable target is dubiously useful (depends if a good candidate compound is found) - and likely to occur in an academic setting as much as an industry setting.

    Testing a million mice with the compound against a battery of tests - ditto. And is not revealing *new* information about how biological systems work, and even if they did, the results of these tests never ever get published.

    Developing fancier Taq enzymes for companies to sell at magnificent prices - neato, sure, but useful to society? Only to the extent that NuTaq enables some whizbang experiment showing new biology that will probably be conducted in an academic setting.

    PI positions are great because in theory they allow a person, with their unique training, viewpoint, network, and environment to address questions and reveal truths it would not have occurred to anyone in industry to ask, because it failed to benefit the quarterly earnings report.

    In practice, PI positions are high stress because there is not enough money in the system for the number of participants, because of a delightful Malthusian catastrophe cooked up by Congress. But it doesn't make the object of being a PI somehow less useful than an industry position. Quantifiable economic utility is not the only form of utility.

  • PaleoGould says:

    Some fields of biology do not have large industry bases FYI. If/when I leave academia, it is highly unlikely that I will continue doing anything remotely related to the work I'm doing now. And I'm much much closer to biomedical research now than I was three years ago when I finished grad school...

  • boehninglab says:

    Two thoughts:
    1. A poster presentation is way more useful for a trainee than a short talk.
    2. I have spent the last ~7 years directing or co-directing graduate programs. One of my jobs is to look at where students have ended up. In my cohort, most have gone on to rewarding careers relevant to their Ph.D. in various career trajectories. None ended up as cannon fodder.

  • Grumble says:

    @TOD: "Good. These bright young scientists will go into industry, where they will actually be doing something useful with their lives."

    Academic endeavors are useless? You know that's not true, so I won't bother to rebut it.

  • Dave says:

    A poster presentation is way more useful for a trainee than a short talk

    Why do you say that?

  • qaz says:

    @Dave - It definitely depends on the conference.

    In many conferences, particularly large ones like SFN, posters provide for more interaction than talks. At SFN, a poster-equivalent talk would speak to fifty to a hundred people (sometimes 200, sometimes 10) for 10 minutes with little to no discussion. Maybe one person asks one question. If you're lucky maybe two. In contrast, a poster provides one-on-one discussion with a similar number of people (50 to a hundred, sometimes 10, sometimes 200). But those interactions are discussions on your poster. They are a chance for you to directly interact with the players in your field. The networking is better, the scientific interactions are better, and the trainee's ability to learn and present is tested better.

    In other conferences (particularly small single-track conferences), posters are a second thought and the talks themselves reach almost everyone.

    It all depends on the conference, but there are definitely conferences where a poster is way more useful for a trainee than a short talk.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    In terms of real stuff I need to know about people's science and how it should influence mine...... 5% from platform talks and 95% from chatting when it comes to scientific meetings.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Take it easy folks. I am not that negative about academia. I am just trying to make certain people here feel better about the fact that they will never get an academic job.

    What... that bothers you? Well get the hell off the internet and back to reading papers and experiments! The people who will get the job instead of you aren't wasting their time here!

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