Archive for the 'Postdoctoral Training' category

Tales from the search committee

Aug 21 2015 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Prof Booty has written about chairing a recent search committee.

Starting a little over a year ago, I served as chair of my department’s search committee, which concluded in the spring with a successful hire. With that experience still relatively fresh, I hope I can share some important insights into how our top candidates caught our eye, as well as the behind-the-scenes process of selecting those candidates.

Go read.

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Jul 24 2015 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

Often times in academics we are anticipating a job change in the near future. Postdocs, in particular, since this is supposed to be a temporary job. But faculty occasionally anticipate a job change too. On the market b/c you fear tenure won't fall, to leverage progress into a better job, to jump out of the rat race, to join Administration. 

I give advice based on Yoda's wisdom. 

Yoda: Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless. 

No, not the paternalistic grouch stuff. In this he is worse than a greybeard of science. 

No it is the part about doing a good job on what you are currently doing. To me this is the basis for making the future stuff more likely to go your way.  

No matter how removed the anticipated job category, the candidate who has been successful in her previous job is going to look better. 

I entertained the McKinsey thing at one point during my training. Looked into it, saw who they hired and spoke to a friend of a sibling who went that way. They did not want people who had a disappointing career in science up to that point. They knew what CN or S publications meant. They wanted excellence.

Now of course plenty of people get alternative career jobs after a disappointing career as grad student or postdoc. But I think the take away message is that you should maximize your success in whatever job you are doing now. Don't just slack because you plan to be out-o-here in a year. 

Success now increases the chances of getting into whatever next job lies over the horizon. 

There is also the consideration that you may find yourself staying in the job you have much longer than anticipated or desired. A year from now, you don't want to look back and wish you had finished that experiment, paper, grant application or whatever.

Work based on the idea you may still be in this job in a year or three. Sometimes things happen. Maybe the local institution finally steps up and does you a solid. Maybe that firm job offer elsewhere is denied by the Dean or P&T committee. Maybe the University System puts down a hiring freeze.

You'll be better off if you are taking care of business in your existing job.

63 responses so far

Mentoring and parenting

Like it or not, your mentoring behavior is intimately tied to the experiences you had as a scientific trainee. Let me rephrase that for emphasis. Tied to the way you experienced your training.

In the very general sense, if you thought something was good for you, you are going to tend to try to extend that to your trainees. And if something was bad for you, you are going to try to avoid that for your trainees.

Obviously, the ability that you have to emulate or avoid certain behaviors of your mentors-of-reference* is not going to be perfect. But let us assume for argument's sake that you can make a fair stab at mentoring the way that you would intend yourself to mentor.

This is not all that dissimilar to parenting, I find. There are obvious ways in which I think my parents did an absolutely bang up job of raising me. They set me on a path of life that is in many ways ideal. A career that is fulfilling, a political and social stance that I am proud of, a strength of will and freedom from many of the family-drama related pathologies that plague many adults. I would hope to provide this type of parenting to my own children. Absolutely.
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20 responses so far


Jul 10 2015 Published by under Careerism, Fixing the NIH, Postdoctoral Training


Lastly, there IS one way to experimentally test how much a PD is worth, at least to PIs, and you are promoting that test, whether you know it or not. And that is a PD strike. I would love to see you discussing how spoiled PDs are in between gel runs because your PD is really not there. I think 50K/yr wouldn't sound that much then.

Go ahead dudes, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

22 responses so far

On justification of postdoctoral salary

Jul 09 2015 Published by under Postdoctoral Training

If you have been following along, Dear Reader, you will know that I asked a very simple question on Twitter

which resulted in a lot of heat and very little light. Mostly, instead of answering the question, people loudly accused me of making a claim that postdocs did not deserve their meagre salaries. Alternately people angrily demanded that I justify my supposed opposition to some proposed raise to current postdoctoral pay. You will note that I made no claims and offered no opinion on what postdoctoral pay should be. (You will also note that my query is inclusive of professorial types that often whine about how they are underpaid relative to ....something, but this got lost in the torchlighting ceremony.)

Lenny Teytelman was one of those pointedly refusing to answer in his own words but he did eventually appeal to authority. Once again, upon query, he was unable to put an elevator pitch or bullet points together to defend his position and insisted that I read his favored authoritative recommendation for increased postdoc pay.

The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited by the Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; Policy and Global Affairs; National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; Institute of Medicine is available for download here.

The bullet point answers are to be found on page 5 and in Appendix B.
(1) indexing to contemporary college graduates,
(2) indexing to graduate stipends,
(3) indexing to newly hired assistant professors,
(4) inflation of previous recommendations, and
(5) Research Grade Evaluation Guide.

Most of these are straightforward, the last item is apparently how NIH sets federal salaries for intramural researchers. To cut to the chase, the book uses these to arrive at $50,000 as the recommended starting salary for postdocs. Let's unpack.

Federal salaries- right here we are making a bunch of assumptions. It is not clear at all that all postdocs should get the Federal rate, this is not justified. Is anybody else's salary (technicians or PIs) tied to what NIH has to pay intramural people for comparable roles? Mine sure as heck isn't. So this is, right here, the special snowflake rationale. It's the justification of "just because". I find this less than satisfying.

With respect to the graduate stipends, Appendix B includes "total cost" of which "more than for tuition and fees". So right here we start to dismantle Teytelman's claim that this is some sort of justification that should be taken seriously. Obviously the numbers depend entirely upon a set of assumptions. In this case the total cost for a graduate student is presented as being a good estimate for what postdocs should get paid. This makes no obvious sense. Under the current definition, postdocs receive education / training just like graduate students do. If this has monetary value for one, it should for the other. So we have to subtract something of this "more than half" of $51,000 that is for training to arrive at the equivalent justifiable postdoc salary. This one is worse than arbitrary because it makes no internal sense.

Indexing to newly hired assistant professors is an example of assumptions and definitions pulled out of thin air. It says in the Appendix B that average 9-mo salary for biological/biomedical new hires in public research Universities is $74,177. But, I kid you not, "Assuming a reasonable starting salary for a postdoctoral researcher to be approximately two-thirds of this nine-month amount implies ... $49,698". Why do we assume two-thirds is reasonable? Why not two-thirds of the 12 month salary assuming grant paid summer salary? Why not three-fifths? Why not half? The authoritative finding has just pulled this out of thin air to back-justify the number they had already arrived upon. Nice trick.

This leaves us with the two half-decent arguments.

Page 63 is the start of the meat of the discussion on indexing to prior stipend levels and accounting for inflation. The key part is this:

The NIH NRSA stipend for beginning postdoctoral researchers in 2004 was $35,568, which would be $43,230 in 2012 dollars (or $44,207 in 2014 dollars). Despite repeated calls to raise postdoctoral salaries, the NRSA stipend was increased to only $39,264 in 2012. In 2014, NIH raised the stipend to $42,000, which, in real terms, is actually lower than the 2004 level.

You know I love an inflation argument. This suggests there is a 5% gap in the NRSA recommendation for FY2014. This is fine. Except for one little problem. The economy and the recession.

Somewhere in the interval between 2004 and 2014, I am here to tell you, many of us academics went through a period of salary freeze. Intervals in which our annual cost of living raises (2%? 3%? pick your number) were not applied for 1-3 years. Some Universities threatened furloughs which amounted to pay *cuts* for certain years to go along with the lack of raises. I haven't followed the niceties of who actually got cuts and who got raises restored on schedule. The point is simple...many of the people postdocs rub elbows with are also down 4-5% of their salary level in 2014 compared to where they "should" have been based on inflation adjustment raises. So yeah, this benchmark makes a lot of sense in isolation but being 5% off the target just puts postdocs in the same bin with a lot of the rest of us, techs to PIs. This is another special flower argument by some ways of looking at it.

This leaves us with the argument about country-wide stats for bachelor's educated people in their late twenties. Why not the Master's or Professional bins? Who knows???? It's not stated.

The data you are supposed to be looking at is here at the US census (now updated to FY2013 instead of the 2012 data referenced in the NAS report). Particularly Table P-32, I think. Among other things, do note that women get less than men on average. Notice also, that the age bin breakdowns only offer the means whereas other tables let you match up median and means. As you might expect, the mean has a rightward skew. So this NAS report is referencing the skewed measure of central tendency.

Puzzling over these census data you have to arrive at the same query...why? Why pick any one of these numbers to say that postdocs are underpaid? Why does this reference answer my starting question about what is the justification? All it does is put a fake number on a question that requires a deeper response. Why are we different? Why should we assume we get the central tendency as our minimum? After all, the GAO found that public sector salaries are 24% lower than private sector ones. You could argue that that is an outrage. Or, you could argue that this is a reflection of the non-salary benefits and justifications people get for working in one sector versus another. I can't say I see this bullet item as being any sort of objective justification either.

For any of these five methods, one can come up with a lower or higher number just by making different assertions and assumptions about what is reasonable.

This is no answer.

183 responses so far

Will Obama's revamp of the overtime rules mean postdocs are paid more?

Jul 06 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Justin Kiggins has launched the discussion at The Spectroscope.

Those postdocs who are salaried employees, however, are currently "exempt" from overtime pay if they make more than $23,660. The new rules mean that they will need a salary of at least $50,400. So if their institution is following the NIH standard, which sets a minimim of $42,840, it looks like they'll either need to get paid overtime for any work done over 40 hours or get a raise to meet the exemption requirements

Go on over and read, especially for the links to places you can comment on this rule prior to implementation.

208 responses so far

U Maryland faculty want to decrease postdoc benefits to stay competitive

Apr 08 2015 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

from Andrew Dunn, staffwriter at The Diamondback:

A group of life sciences professors and administrative chairs appeared before the Faculty Affairs Committee yesterday to discuss adding a second title for postdoctoral students and professionals in temporary positions. The only employee title currently available for postdoctoral students at this university is “postdoctorate research assistant,” which classifies all postdoctoral students as non-tenure-track faculty.

huh, that actually sounds pretty good. What's the problem?

The life sciences programs collected research on postdoctoral students from the other Big Ten schools and found that out of the 13 other schools in the conference, eight offer health benefits and two offer retirement benefits. The only other schools to offer retirement benefits are Northwestern University and Indiana University, which both have significantly higher funding for life sciences.

Jonathan Dinman, professor and cell biology and molecular genetics department chairman, said the current academic environment requires this new title for postdoctoral students for this university to stay competitive and on track with fellow Big Ten schools.

Ahh yes. The cry of every labor exploiter since forever. "We must screw the humblest, least-paid workers to stay competitive"!!!

38 responses so far

What to do about a sociopath "mentor"

Jan 02 2015 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

By Comrade PhysioProf

22 responses so far

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

How would we know when science trainees bail on the career?

We all know about the oversupply problem in academic science wherein we are minting new PhDs faster than we create / open faculty jobs to house them.

Opinions vary on what is the proper ratio. All the way from "every PHD that wants a hard-money traditional Professorial job should get one" to "who cares if it is 1% or even 0.001%, we're getting the best through extreme competition!"

(I fall in between there. Somewhere.)

How would we detect it, however, if we've made things so dismal that too many trainees are exiting before even competing for a job?

One way might be if a job opportunity received very few qualified applicants.

Another way might be if a flurry of postdoctoral solicitations in your subfield appeared. I think that harder flogging of the advert space suggests a decline in filling slots via the usual non-public recruiting mechanisms.

I am hearing / seeing both of these things.

68 responses so far

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