Archive for the 'Postdoctoral Training' category

The Birds and the Bees, academic version

Some guy has written a blog post asking "Is it morally acceptable to hire postdocs?"

This is not an absurd question on the face of it and one of his points appears to be that hiring postdocs is done in preference to hiring longer-term staff-scientist type people.


Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. This I think is closer to a fundamental resolution of the problem. Rather than hiring a short-term postdoc by dangling a future faculty job in front of them, it is far more fair to hire a researcher permanently with a salary and benefits adequate to their experience. Although the current funding system is not particularly suitable for this – obviously, permanent researchers should be paid by the university not by grants – it can be done. A permanent researcher also becomes a great asset for the lab as they accumulate valuable skills.

I agree that if you can manage to do this, in preference to a series of 3-5 year cheap 'trainees' doing the same job, this is a morally superior place to be. Totally.

The blog post starts, however, with the following figure

sourced from Schillebeeckx et al (2013) in Nature Biotechnology.

See how the production of new PhDs each year leads to an ever-increasing disconnect between the number of available PhDs and the number of faculty jobs? So yes, there is an increasing body of postdocs being exploited and not being able to get the faculty jobs that they started graduate training to obtain.

BUT THEY DIDN'T GET DROPPED OFF BY THE STORK OF SCIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

They were made. Intentionally. By faculty who benefit tremendously in their own careers from an inexpensive, unbelievably hard working, young and less-distracted, deluded and optimistic workforce.

Faculty who, as it happens, are unbelievably motivated to come up with excuses why their continued overproduction of PhDs year in, year out, is not any sort of problem.

You know, kind of like any sort of Western subpopulation which advocates family sizes of 8, 15 or whatnot can't find any sort of problem with overpopulation.

And kind of like the US Baby Boomers stopped talking about overpopulation the second they realized their comfy retirements were gonna depend on a lot bigger working population behind them, paying the taxes that they couldn't even be bothered to pay in their own heyday.

But I digress.

The point is, that this blog post contains a big old howler:

One might object to this: Isn’t there the same problem with PhDs as with postdocs? In my view, the problem is not the same. I believe that entering a PhD program in natural sciences is not a commitment to an academic track, whereas entering a postdoc is, in most cases. Most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc experience, so a postdoc definitely narrows down one’s options. In contrast, a PhD generally widens the options. So, in my view, most PhDs should not go onto the academic track. But in general having more educated people in the non-academic world is good, especially given how many people do not believe in evolution or what idiots oversee science in Congress. A more detailed discussion of this subject is a topic for another day.

HAHAHAHAAH!!!!!!

Riiiiiiigghhhhhttt.

Bog-standard excuse making that I hear from every damn participant in a graduate program that simply cannot bear to see that their habit has been to exploit cut rate labor. At first they simply refused to admit that there was any overproduction whatsoever. Then, when the evidence became overwhelming, they clutched the excuse of "alt-careers" and "general good" like a man going down for the third time grasping a life-saver ring.

It's laughable and pathetic.

One might even venture, immoral.

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p.s. I don't blame people directly for participating in this crappy system we are in. It demands that PIs exploit people to survive in the grant-funded rat race. Having a lab based exclusively on the work of ever more expensive career TurboTechs and Staff Scientists is a path to disaster. I grasp this. But for Glory's sake people! Stop pretending it is something it isn't. Stop pretending that your lab's arrangements are totally free of exploitation but those other aspects of the system, over there, are immoral and evil.

56 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Jun 12 2014 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

Once you understand your PI is a data addict and your role as a trainee is a codependent enabler, things go much better.

5 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: The F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship Application

We've previously discussed the NIH F32 Fellowship designed to support postdoctoral trainees. Some of the structural limitations to a system designed on its fact to provide necessary support for necessary (additional) training overlap considerably with the problems of the F31 program designed to support graduate students.

Nevertheless, winning an individual NRSA training fellowship (graduate or postdoctoral) has all kinds of career benefits to the trainee and primary mentor so they remain an attractive option.

A question arose on the Twitts today about whether it was worth it for a postdoc in a new lab to submit an application.

In my limited experience reviewing NRSA proposals in a fellowship-dedicated panel for the NIH, there is one issue that looms large in these situations.

Reviewer #1, #2 and #3: "There is no evidence in the application that sufficient research funds will be available to complete the work described during the proposed interval of funding."

NRSA fellowships, as you are aware, do not come with money to pay for the actual research. The fellowship applications require a good deal of discussion of the research the trainee plans to complete for the proposed interval of training. In most cases that research plan involves a fair amount of work that require a decent amount of research funding to complete.

The reviewers, nearly all of them in my experience, will be looking for signs of feasibility. That the PI is actually funded, funded to do something vaguely related* to the topic of the fellowship proposal and funded for the duration over which the fellowship will be active.

When the PI is not obviously funded through that interval, eyebrows are raised. Criticism is leveled.

So, what is a postdoc in a newer lab to do? What is the PI of a newish lab, without substantial funding to do?

One popular option is to find a co-mentor for the award. A co-mentor that is involved. Meaning the research plan needs to be written as a collaborative project between laboratories. Obviously, this co-mentor should have the grant support that the primary PI is lacking. It needs to be made clear that there will be some sort of research funds to draw upon to support the fellow doing some actual research.

The inclusion of "mentoring committees" and "letters of support from the Chair" are not sufficient. Those are needed, don't get me wrong, but they address other concerns** that people have about untried PIs supervising a postdoctoral fellow.

It is essential that you anticipate the above referenced Stock Critique and do your best*** to head it off.

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*I have seen several highly regarded NRSA apps for which the research plan looks to me to be of R01-quality writing and design.

**We're in stock-critique land here. Stop raging about how you are more qualified than Professor AirMiles to actually mentor a postdoc.

***Obviously the application needs to present the primary mentor's funding in as positive a light as possible. Talk about startup funds, refer to local pilot grants, drop promising R01 scores if need be. You don't want to blow smoke, or draw too much attention to deficits, but a credible plan for acquiring funding goes a lot farther than ignoring the issue.

28 responses so far

Good and Bad Mentoring

This topic keeps coming up amongst the trainees and I have an area of confusion.

What does it mean that your mentoring has been bad? Is it all about *outcome*?

Is it about lab favoritism?

Does your mentor fail to advance the careers of everyone? Or is it just that you were not the favored one?

Are there specific things your mentor should and could have done for you that you can mention? Did you only recognize this is retrospect or was it frustrating at the time?

25 responses so far

Sydney Brenner on the trainee exploitation scam of science.

In this interview, Nobel Laureate Brenner says:

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.

 

I saw some comment that he was bashing peer review but if you look carefully, you'll see he's talking about the GlamourGame with professional, not-working-scientist, editors:

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

...

In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all.

18 responses so far

SFN2013: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

Those of us in the neurosciences are preparing for our largest annual scientific gathering. I like to remind you to attend to a certain little task to assist with the odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I've had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".

This post originally went up Nov 12, 2008. I've edited a few things for links and content.


One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego is to stroll around NIH row. Right?

I have a few thoughts for the trainees after the jump. I did mention that this is a long game, did I not? Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Why we can't have nice things in NIH extramural research

From the Science Careers section, Michael Price reports on a recent National Academies of Science symposium on the NIH foofraw about Biomedical career trajectories. The NAS, you will recall, is a society of very elite and highly established scientists in the US. It will not surprise you one bit to learn that they cannot fathom making changes in our system of research labor to benefit the peons anymore than the NIH can:

First issued in June 2012, the working group's report made a controversial proposal: that funding should gradually be moved away from R01 grants and toward new NIH training grants in an effort to decouple graduate student and postdoc stipends. But responses to this proposal were tepid at the June [Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)] meeting where the proposals were first presented. Such a move would reduce the number of graduate students and postdocs available to principal investigators (PIs), and make trainees more expensive to hire, some ACD members argued. That would reduce PIs' autonomy and encumber the research enterprise. "One wants to be sure that the principal investigators, who are supposed to be doing the research, continue to have enough flexibility to be able to support the research they want to do," offered biologist Robert Horvitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Reduce the number of easily exploitable laborers and/or make them more expensive. Presumably by forcing PIs to conduct more of their work with a more-permanent workforce (at any degree level). Permanent employees* which have that nasty tendency to gain seniority and consequently cost more money compared with the constantly turning-over grad student and postdoc labor pool.

And reduce our autonomy to hire foreign workers to further suppress wages and expectations for the domestic PhD pool. (Individual and Institutional postdoctoral and graduate "training" fellowships from the NIH currently only extend to US citizens. So I imagine PIs are assuming a shift to more fellowships would "reduce PIs' autonomy" to hire foreign PhDs.)

the Price article continues:

When the ACD convened in December to discuss implementing the working group's recommendations, this one had vanished from the agenda. The discussions at the December meeting avoided controversial issues, centering on whether, in an era in which only a small minority of scientists can realistically expect academic research careers, universities were adequately training students for a range of careers beyond the tenure track.

So it isn't just the NAS Greybearded and BlueHaired contingent. This is the NIH response to their own working group.

Pass the buck.

Really strong work there, NIH.

Anything better from the NAS meeting?

In contrast to the measured discussion at December's ACD meeting, the attendees of last week's NAS meeting—mostly researchers who have studied the academic labor market—were critical of the status quo, arguing that keeping things the way they are would be disastrous for the scientific workforce.

m'kay.....and.....

There aren't enough permanent jobs in academia for the vast majority of science graduates—and yet little has been done to curtail the production of doctorates, Ginther argues. "Employment has been stagnant, but Ph.D. production has been zooming," Ginther said.

Ginther? Remember her? Wonder how NIH is coming along on the R01 funding disparity issue? HAAHA, I crack myself up.

Anyway...is anyone at NAS or the ACD discussing how we need to shut down the PhD firehose in addition to functionally restricting the import of foreign labor? hell no....

At December's ACD meeting, the discussion focused on tweaking graduate programs to better prepare students for jobs outside academia, and several ACD members pointed to the relatively low unemployment numbers among science Ph.D.s as reassurance about trainees' professional prospects.

Oh, but the scuttlebutt. That's a brightspot, right?

None of the presenters at last week's meeting put forth any radical suggestions for how to overhaul the academic training system, but the tenor of the discussions was far more critical of established practices than the discussions heard at NIH in December 2012. After Ginther's presentation, this reporter overheard a chat between two meeting attendees. One suggested that science professors cannot in good conscience encourage their students to pursue a Ph.D.,

Sigh. No "radical suggestions", eh? So basically there is no real difference from the ACD meeting. Ok, so one overheard conversation is snarky....but this does not a "tenor" make. How do you know the ACD folks didn't also say such things outside of the formal presentations and the journalist just didn't happen to be there to eavesdrop? Lots of people are saying this, they just aren't saying it very loud, from a big platform or in large numbers. When you start seeing the premier graduate training programs in a subarea of science trumpeting their 30% or 50% reductions in admissions, instead of the record increases**, then we'll be making some strides on the "tenor".

Remember though, the NIH is taking all this stuff very, very seriously.

the ACD moved forward with most of the working group's other recommendations, including proposals that would: establish a new funding program to explore how to better train grad students and postdocs for nonacademic careers; require trainees funded by NIH to have an individual development plan; encourage institutions to limit time-to-graduation for graduate students to 5 years; encourage institutions to track the career outcomes of their graduates; and encourage NIH study sections to look favorably upon grant proposals from teams that include staff scientists

Right.

1) Nonacademic careers in science are also drying up. This is the ultimate in buck-passing and feigned ignorance of what time it is on the street.
2) IDPs? Are you kidding? What good does it do to lay out specifically "I'd like to take these steps to become a tenure-track faculty" when there are STILL no jobs and no research funding for those who manage to land them? IDPs are the very definition of rearranging deck chairs.
3) I totally support faster time to PhD awards for the individual. However on a broad basis, this just accelerates the problem by letting local departments up their throughput of newly minted PhDs. Worthless goal if it is not combined with throttling back on the number of PhD students being trained overall.
4) Making training departments track outcomes is good but..to what end? So that prospective graduate students will somehow make better choices? Ha. And last I checked, when PhD programs are criticized for job outcome they start waving their hands furiously and shout about the intervening postdoctoral years and how it is in no way their fault or influence that determines tenure-track achievement of their graduates.
5) "encourage" study sections? Yeah, just like the NIH has been encouraging study sections to treat tenure-track traditional hire Assistant Professors better. Since the early 80s at the least and all to no avail. As we know, the only way the NIH could make any strides on that problem was with affirmative action style quotas for younger PIs.

Tilghman, who headed the working group and I think has been around the NIH for a few rodeos before, is not impressed:

Yet, the working group's chair, former Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, told Science Careers that she couldn't "help but go back to [her] cynicism" so long as NIH merely "encouraged" many of these measures.

Where "cynicism" is code for "understanding that NIH has no intention whatsoever in changing and is merely engaging in their usual Kabuki theater to blunt the fangs of any Congressional staff that may happen to get a wild hair over any of this career stuff".

Score me as "cynical" too.

[ h/t: DJMH ]
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*and yeah. It sucks to have a 5-year grant funding cycle and try to match that on to supporting permanent employees. I get that this is not easy. I deal with this myself, you know. My convenience doesn't excuse systematic labor exploitation, though.

**Dude I can't even. Bragging about record admits for several recent years now, followed finally this year by some attempt to figure out if the participating faculty can actually afford to take on graduate students. FFS.

36 responses so far

Citing review articles robs the authors of original research articles. So stop it.

Someone or other on the Twitts, or possible a blog comment, made a remark about academic citation practices that keeps eating at me.

It boils down to this.

One of the most fundamental bits of academic credit that accrues to authors are the citations of their research papers. Citations form the ballyhooed h-index (X papers with at least X cites each) go into the "Highly Cited" measure of awesomeness and are generally viewed as an important indication of your impact on science.

Consequently, when you choose to cite a review article to underline a point you are making in your own article, you are taking the credit that rightfully goes to the people who did the actual work, and handing it over to some review author.

Review authors are extracting surplus value from the people who did the actual creating. Kind of like a distributor of widgets extracts value from those people who actually made them by providing the widgets in an easy/efficient location for use. Good for them but.....

So here's the deal. If you are citing a review only as a sort of collected works, stop doing that. I can make an exception when you are citing the review for the unique theoretical or synthetic contribution made by the review authors. Fine. But when you are just doing it because you want to make a general "..it is well established that Bunnies make it to the hedgerow in 75% of baseline time when they are given amphetamine" type of point, don't do that. Cite some of the original authors!

If you really need to, you can cite (Jo et al, 1954, Blow et al 1985, Moe et al 2005; see Pig and Dog, 2013 for recent review).

Look at it this way. Would you rather your papers were cited directly? Or are you okay with the citations for something to which you contributed fundamentally being meta-cites of some review article?

53 responses so far

Note for PIs

If your lab requires a "weekly support group" meeting, there is no scenario wherein you are doing it right.

5 responses so far

Grumpy reviewer is....

grumpy.

Honestly people. What in the hell happened to old fashioned scholarship when constructing a paper? Pub Med has removed all damn excuse you might possibly have had. Especially when the relevant literature comprises only about a dozen or two score papers.

It is not too much to expect some member of this healthy author list to have 1) read the papers and 2) understood them sufficiently to cite them PROPERLY! i.e., with some modest understanding of what is and is not demonstrated by the paper you are citing.

Who the hell is training these kids these days?

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Yes, I am literally shaking my cane.

24 responses so far

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