Academic Science: Not A Care Bears Fucking Tea Party

Jun 25 2008 Published by under Careerism

Academia, like many professional career enterprises in the United States, is structured in a winner-takes-all format. Many people enter the enterprise at the bottom level, trickle their way upwards, until a relative few make it to the top and enjoy the spoils of true scientific independence. This kind of system is common to academia, professional sports, law, medicine, performing arts, entertainment, comedy, business, entrepreneurialism, journalism, engineering, and most other professional career enterprises.


We Americans have a real love-hate relationship with highly-competitive winner-take-all type systems like this.

Americans are obsessively enamored with professional sports--where literally millions of youngsters work their tails off thinking that some day they will be a professional athlete in the "big leagues", and maybe a few thousand make it in one sport or another. Americans can't get enough of "reality teevee", where thousands and thousands of people apply to be on these shows, and then a couple dozen get on the show, and then through a merciless process of personal and public humiliation, they get winnowed down to a single "winner". Americans are obsessed with extreme wealth and celebrity, thinking that if only things were just *slightly* different, they'd be in the back of the limo sipping Cristal with Paris, Trump, and P Diddy.

But when it comes to the mundane reality of ordinary life, schools, jobs, hobbies, etc, all of a sudden, people are no longer interested in this kind of pyramidal "meritocracy" (real or otherwise), and want *everyone* to be able to *win*, so long as they "put in the effort". Schools are encouraged to "build self-esteem" rather than teach children to "compete to succeed". Post-docs complain because there are simply no guarantees that if you just work hard, you will some day become a PI. Students complain when they fail courses and are not given degrees, because they "tried really hard" and "really need the grade/degree".

This is a manifestation of a duality present at the core of our national being, one that leads to all sorts of denial of reality. On the one hand, Americans love the idea that there are elite international institutions like Yale and Harvard with exceedingly high academic and social standards, where the societal elite naturally go, but were "normal people" can also go if they just "pull themselves up by their bootstraps". But on the other hand, Americans also love the idea that *anyone* can go to some college or another and get a degree if they can pony up a little cash.

We want there to be elite statuses and institutions in this country, but we want everyone to be able to obtain and enter them, respectively. Rail against the "system" of academic science all you want, but it is just one manifestation among many of an attitude towards professionalism, careers, and social status that completely permeates American society.

Our purpose here at DrugMonkey is to try to help people identify and cultivate the tools required to succeed within the system of academic science as it currently exists. We did not create this system, and we are not in a position to to "take it down". We do the best we can to help the people we train in our own labs to succeed within this system, and we try to share some of our insights here at the blog.

In a winner-take-all system like this, there will always be people who do not succeed through no fault of their own. People who are smart, talented, dedicated, hard-working, articulate, persuasive, and who do all the right things sometimes still fail. This is the nature of a winner-take-all system: there is an intrinsic randomness that influences to some extent who succeeds and who fails. It is the same in professional sports, law, medicine, performing arts, entertainment, comedy, business, entrepreneurialism, journalism, engineering, and most other professional career enterprises.

Many of us may not like this situation, but this is how things currently work. Academic science is not a fucking Care Bears tea party, and wishing that it were is not going to make it so.

One available personal choice in the face of this reality is to try to do everything in one's power to maximize the likelihood of success, while accepting that failure might still be the outcome. Our intended audience consists of people making this particular choice.

This does not mean that other choices do not exist, or are invalid. But we are not in a position to address people making those other choices, because, frankly, we have no way to be helpful. But we can be helpful to people who make the choice to work within the system in an attempt at finding professional fulfillment.

72 responses so far

  • Johnny Chimpo says:

    Well. Along those lines, I have just recently accepted a tenure-track position at a research institution. Looking back, is there anything you know now that you wish you had known when you started your job? What would have made the transition to faculty and independent and competitive research easier?
    Thanks.

  • pinus says:

    I am in the same boat as J. Chimpo. I would say that there are quite a few very useful nuggets of wisdom already on this site (as well as several others that are linked from here, blue lab coats for example).

  • Betsy says:

    You know what? LIFE is not a fucking Care Bears tea party--it's often unfair. This kind of stuff is not unique to academic science.
    What I do think is unique to academic science is that we still train students to ONLY do academic science. Yes, I do think things have gotten a little better in this regard in recent years, and exposure to "alternative careers" has certainly improved. But unconsciously or not, students get ingrained with the idea that an academic research career is the only righteous path.
    Once upon a time I was a very unhappy postdoc. But eventually I was able to figure out that even if I did succeed, I wouldn't be happy in academia. I made the leap to biotech, and couldn't be happier. There are TONS of unhappy postdocs out there, unwilling to consider doing anything else. I wish they could see that there is life outside of academia, and that a tenure-track position isn't necessarily the key to happiness. Isn't insanity defined by doing the same thing over & over again, expecting a different result?

  • juniorprof says:

    What I do think is unique to academic science is that we still train students to ONLY do academic science. Yes, I do think things have gotten a little better in this regard in recent years, and exposure to "alternative careers" has certainly improved. But unconsciously or not, students get ingrained with the idea that an academic research career is the only righteous path.
    This must be the thousandth time I've read this on this blog since it moved over here. The people that write this blog and those that comment here don't train their trainees like this, and, frankly, I don't know a single person that still looks at the act of training people in their labs in this manner. Where does this still happen??? Sometimes I think I live in an alternative universe... are the neurosciences and its subfields completely different than areas like cancer or immunology?

  • BugDoc says:

    Well, dammit, where can I find a fucking Care Bears tea party? I didn't work my ass off all the way through grad school and my postdoc just to get grants and publish papers.

  • Bill says:

    "The people that write this blog and those that comment here don't train their trainees like this, and, frankly, I don't know a single person that still looks at the act of training people in their labs in this manner. Where does this still happen??? Sometimes I think I live in an alternative universe... are the neurosciences and its subfields completely different than areas like cancer or immunology?"
    I can only speak of the situations I've been in. I'd say the attitude against alternative careers is still very prevalent. Of course, it could just be the people I'm around, but many them look down on anyone who goes "alternative" as inferior. And training grants are sometimes not renewed because a particular institution/department does not give rise to a certain number of traditional academic researchers, because many of them have gone to alternative careers.

  • lylebot says:

    After reading the nth complaint about the low postdoc-to-faculty-position ratio earlier today, I started thinking, you know, that's probably the norm rather than the exception in any career---as you point out. It seems like scientists complain about that pyramid a lot more than anyone else, though. Is it significantly worse in academia? Is it because young scientists are interacting with the faculty from the beginning of their career, so it doesn't seem like such a steep hill to climb? Is it because they're not aware of other options? Or is it just my imagination that scientists complain more?

  • Becca says:

    1) "we did not create the system and we are not in a position to take it down" is UTTER AND TOTAL BS. The minimum answer I will accept from you is "we are waiting to get tenure to change the system by doing X, until then we will give advice and harshly critique the problems in the system we feel are egregious".
    By working in it, you are supporting the system. Given the way you blog, you are implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, endorsing the system.
    If you are too lazy or scared to change the system, have the gonads to admit it. Don't pretend the fact you do nothing means that nothing can be done- that infuriates me.
    2) I think we are all grumpy bears at this tea party. Care bear STARE!

  • Betsy says:

    Junior prof--I agree that many of you academic bloggers don't seem to do this, but that doesn't mean it's not the norm. The fact that you guys are blogging about this at all suggests that you are not mainstream academic scientists. Kudos to you for doing something different--I hope it's contagious.
    But why do you think there are all these unhappy postdocs lingering on year after year, trying again and again to get a tenure-track position? Why can't they see that maybe that's not the path for them, and move on to something else? Maybe they feel that they're not qualified for anything else because that's all they've been taught.
    Maybe you do live in an alternate universe where students/postdocs get more well-rounded training. That certainly wasn't the case where I trained. DM says that "We did not create this system, and we are not in a position to to "take it down", but it's professors like you & DM that have the opportunity to change the way students/postdocs are trained so they're better equipped to go on and get jobs, no matter where those jobs may be. If you guys become the norm, then academic science will be a better place.

  • River Tam says:

    "...democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Winston Churchill
    I think it is easy to find many scientists who think there are problems with the current system. However, the question I have not seen answered is what would we replace the current system with? Is there a system - with humans involved - that would not have serious problems? Perhaps this is a cop-out, but there is more to changing a system than yelling that things are broken; you have to know what needs fixing and how.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    If you are too lazy or scared to change the system, have the gonads to admit it. Don't pretend the fact you do nothing means that nothing can be done
    Becca, nobody is in a position to take the system down. The Great Zerhouni, IC heads, random Congressional amendment-offerers, even the Prez.
    PP was being a bit hyperbolic here but your comments, MsPhD and choral followers are striking a tone that is just not justified. Read through my stuff- on the old blog in particular but never fear the sentiments will continue to appear here. We PIs are in a position to nudge the system at best. You are wonderfully naive if you think any save the very senior and influential scientists can do more than nudge. Even members of IC Advisory Councils complain about having little effect...
    I take opportunities to nudge where possible. I offer my opinions to my senior colleagues- locally, on study section, at meetings. I offer my opinions on the career to just about any Program representative I can find. I try to rally my scientific colleague peeps for change, much as I do with this blog. And of course, I put my money where my mouth is when it comes to professional decision making although of course most of that is in the realm of the confidential. And even there, even if I was an evangelical wackaloon for handing out grant money and paper acceptances to younger scientists (I'm not)...well there are limits to how much any one person can do. You have to bring others along with you. So all you get are ...nudges.
    Those of you who stand on the outside complaining don't even get this much if you fail to respond to NIH Requests for Information on topics related to career issues. You fail to nudge if you don't attend scientific meetings and chat up Program staff (no whining!).
    Finally let me make one point which is talking slightly out of school but I did it once already and it is really important. The NIH is listening to blogs. Most specifically this one although I imagine many others as well. You have a chance to do some nudging with your commentary. How fun is that?

  • bsci says:

    lylebot,
    I commented slightly longer on Dr. Free-Rides linked post, but the issue (in my mind) isn't that there are fewer available jobs each step of the ladder. A grad student's salary is almost half that of a postdoc and a postdoc's salary is almost half that of a faculty member. There is virtually no room for salary growth during the postdoc period (except for taking on additional jobs and the very small inflation-adjusted increases)
    This salary structure does not exist for other highly-educated white collar jobs. Is there any science/technology field that after 5 years of real work experience after getting advanced degrees still sees fit to pay around $50K? Where the salary virtually freezes at that level until you leave academia or become faculty?

  • I'm trying to reconcile these two points:
    People who are smart, talented, dedicated, hard-working, articulate, persuasive, and who do all the right things sometimes still fail.
    and
    We did not create this system, and we are not in a position to to "take it down".
    Put together, if I may paraphrase, "The system's broken but don't look to us to fix it." I mean, right? If wonderful fabbo hardworking smart scientists are failing, then doesn't that mean that the system has some problems?
    I appreciate Physio's and DrugMonkey's (and the rest of you's!) efforts to share what they've learned about working the system. We all need more mentoring, and I'm grateful to find some of it here.
    But this post does come off sounding like an endorsement of the status quo. Which is weird, because I feel like both of you guys constantly talk about the things you do try to improve in our lives--women/minorities in science; more grants for younger scientists; nudges aimed at Zerhouni; etc.
    So as far as I can tell, both of you think that the system needs some reform, and you're actively working towards that by, for example, going to bat for women in hiring committees and so forth. Cool. So why are you angry about the folks who are pointing out the system flaws? You do it too.
    We all do it. We all love the science and wish we could just have giant pots of money to pursue it however we like. Failing that, though, can't we work together on identifying the biggest problems and working on them in our own spheres of influence, however small?
    It still counts as working to fix the system even if you're just working on it locally, not globally.
    Don't mind me when I get carried away with these goofy notions, I'll just be over at my blog hosting a My Little Pony tea party. Everyone invited.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Speaking from the Strawberry Shortcake teaparty over here, I can say that I see too much emphasis on alternative careers and not on how to stay in academic science if you wish to do so. Of course many will argue that this is the default training plan, but the reality is, graduate students are cheap labor, and in many cases they are treated as such. Many PIs are horrible advisors and many students are lost because of the essentially wild west nature of many labs and departments.

  • Morgan Price says:

    In terms of the pay disparity between faculty, postdocs, and grad students -- My impression is that postdocs are much more productive, on average, than grad students, even senior grad students that are done taking classes. Postdocs may require less support from other members of the lab as well. So the salary disparity may be justified. Does anyone have numbers on relative productivity (e.g., papers per year or average citations per paper) for postdocs as compared to senior grad students?
    Comparing PI and postdoc salaries is more difficult because PIs have such different responsibilities (grant-writing, teaching, etc.). Certainly being a new PI seems to be more challenging (and time-consuming?) than being a post-doc. I do think there's a lottery element to it, though -- people take relatively low-paying postdocs on the chance that they'll be able to get a high-status PI position.

  • drdrA says:

    OMG (to borrow from ERV) Juniorprof- I worked for some academic folks who didn't want to 'waste time' on their own trainees who didn't have exactly the same career aspirations as those academic folk. Industry was the evil boogeyman, and you were a sell-out for lots of things including just the money if you even remotely considered such options. I have got to say- in my experience other than in this particular realm there isn't that much consideration or understanding of alternate career paths.
    And about the 'we can't change the system' thing that's going around. Trust me, I've got a healthy dose of reality lately, but at the same time I get so sick of hearing the words I CAN'T. I'm not suggesting that any one of us can make drastic change occur in the system of academic science in a short period of time. But,I have to believe that there is power in making a lot of small nudges, and educating a lot of people (especially senior people) about how the system can be, and frankly should be, improved.
    Back to my grant writing for that broken system...I'd much rather be attending a care bears tea party...but I'm chained to my desk until after the next deadline...

  • bsci says:

    Morgan,
    For pay disparity, I'm not necessarily saying that postdocs should get paid more for doing the exact same amount of work. I'm saying that there's one level of work/salary for postdocs and a huge jump in both for faculty. There is no in-between and postdocs who are qualified to do and earn more can't be expected to patiently wait their turn for 5+ years without deciding to leave academia.
    Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde,
    I think their point here isn't that we all can't make the system better is that a winner-take-all system is and will always include situations that are unfair. Without radical changes (like news classes of academic scientists who aren't independent faculty, but have salaries worthy of a whole career), things will never be fair. This type of change is possible beyond even the control of the NIH since it would require significantly more money.

  • ecogeofemme says:

    Like others have alluded to, I think the reason scientists might complain more is because there is a huge missed opportunity cost for pursuing a career as a tenure-track professor in science. The pay is really crappy for a really long time during grad school and post doc, so when the career doesn't pan out, you feel terrible because you have invested SO much in it.
    I think lots and lots of people feel like taking an "alternative" job is at least a tiny bit failure. It's party because of the culture of academia and partly because of the missed opportunity costs. Even in labs where non-academic careers are discussed, those who take them are talked about like dead people ("what's awesome former student doing now?" "oh him? he took a (whisper for emphasis) consulting job".

  • NM says:

    "This kind of system is common to academia, professional sports, law, medicine, performing arts, entertainment, comedy, business, entrepreneurialism, journalism, engineering, and most other professional career enterprises."
    I'm sorry but that's a little innaccurate. You don't have to reapply comepetitively (lottery-like) for your job every year if you are doing an adequate-excellent job in law, medicine, (most) business, journalism or engineering. If you're doing a good job people will keep employing you to continue doing a good job.
    The employment/success uncertaintly in performing arts, entertainment, comedy or entrepreneurialism is probably similar in that you can be doing a good job and still 'fail'. But on the other hand the stars of these fields earn enormous amounts- the payoffs for taking that risk can be stratospheric. For comparison imagine the salaries of the best 200 scientists in the world matched to the 200 best of any of the aforementioned fields.

  • juniorprof says:

    I worked for some academic folks who didn't want to 'waste time' on their own trainees who didn't have exactly the same career aspirations as those academic folk. Industry was the evil boogeyman, and you were a sell-out for lots of things including just the money if you even remotely considered such options. I have got to say- in my experience other than in this particular realm there isn't that much consideration or understanding of alternate career paths.
    Our areas must be completely different. In my sub-field industry is the default path. Most trainees in my lab want to go into industry. Part of my job is to make sure they get to know the right people to help them become successful and get the appropriate exposure to that choice. Virtually all of the trainees in the labs around me also intend to go into industry and we collectively work hard to create an appropriate training for them. Personally, I find it disturbing that more trainees do not want to enter public policy. I am currently working on a seminar series to help trainees better understand this potentially fulfilling and crucial career path.

  • drdrA says:

    I completely agree Juniorprof- that my job is to help my trainees get where they want to go, be it academia, industry, law or whatever. I don't and shouldn't expect them to share my path.
    Ok, I cited an extreme example- but at other points in my career there just hasn't been much understanding by the faculty of alternative paths, thus very little ability to help trainees figure out how to get to them...

  • pinus says:

    At this point, I am just plain curious as to what YSM* and others in a similar situation want people such as PP and DM to do. I don't fall in to either camp, as a relatively happy post-doc who will be starting my own lab in the near future, so I am trying to see both sides.

  • bob says:

    I think the professional sports analogy is more apt, although the competition is even more extreme there. The lawyer, engineer, doctor part, not so much. If these people are smart and hardworking, then there is a good chance they will be able to have a normal length career doing what they were trained to do for a liveable wage (including family, etc.). Science in the US is much more up or out.

  • bob says:

    sorry, someone already said that.

  • JuniorProf--you're working in a research area that is closely linked to bringing medications to market. That's why there are plenty of folks talking about industry. Those of us a little further from the Merck market--it's like ecogeofemme said, we speak of those who leave in hushed tones, if at all.

  • drdrA says:

    Pinus-
    That's a good question. I guess since I have been on both sides of the fence (academic trainee and PI)- I can see both YSMs perspective and DM/PPs perspective at times. As a person who is miserable with a boss, and who many times in an under-educated way questioned the motivation and dedication of my various bosses to training me, and the system itself- I realize in looking back from the other side that in my imagined wisdom I was so frightfully naive. It is difficult to grasp PIdom and the system, the realities and responsibilities thereof, until you are actually in it. Some of the exchanges between YSM and DM/PP capture this very well. I'm not saying there are things I don't do differently than those wise people who trained me... but hopefully you see my point.
    All of this is just one good reason to make an effort to learn the system as best you can, from whoever is reliable and willing to pass on their wisdom.

  • Becca says:

    I'm a hippie idealist under a lab coat. I'm young. I still believe in "Never doubt that a small, committed group of people can change the world, indeed it's the only thing that ever has". I have little patience for endorsement of the status quo. I get impatient with nudging. However, I don't want to complain so shrilly that I interfere with us All Nudging Together! I think there's a lot of power in that. Nudge, nudge, nudge.
    Let's all nudge for NIH training grants only going to institutions that train people for alternative careers!
    Let's all nudge for well-paid postdocs with retirement plans (GO WHITEHEAD INSTITUTE)!
    Let's all nudge for more kangaroo grants!
    Let's all nudge for liberal-hippie-Scandanavian style family leave policies!
    Let's all nudge for each and every one of us to act on (and value the time spent in acting on) our politcal urges when channeled to contacting our representatives for more NIH funding!
    NUDGENUDGENUDGE!
    (YES WE CAN!- sorry, wrong rally. Well, maybe not so far off...).
    You are right- nobody is in a position to take the system down. But that doesn't mean we can't change the system, all nudging together.
    And if the NIH is reading the comments on this blog- I guess I'm really glad I edited to be slightly more civil than my first instinct 😛

  • the status quo sucks says:

    i'm with becca. change can happen.
    but there's a lot of inertia. once one makes it to the top, why bother changing the system?

  • Instead of focusing on the top down, maybe a bottom up approach might yield some changes in the system. Okay, hear my out on this proposition. One of the main problems is the attitude towards industry and alternative paths. Yet, it also feels as if the only end product possible for grads is tenure and nothing else. Maybe graduate program should start incorporating ''minors'' into their programs (e.g. bioentrepreneurship, biotech, biomedicine, science policy, etc...). What is the point of this besides cutting into research time? I like to think of this as a cascade: 1) classroom exposure to alternative paths will open up the conversation 2) two realizations will emerge: tenure isn't the only path to happiness and there are indeed other ways to maintain professional integrity 3) attitudes of the evil industry and alternative paths will start to change and 4) grads will start take these alternative jobs with content.
    I lied, this is more so of a top down change, regardless it's about giving grads the resources and understanding that they are not limited to academia. As I see it, there will always be problems with any system (e.g. Universal Health Care and long waiting times), but strives of discourse are to change a system so that more people can feel satisfied. I will dare to say that life isn't about fairness. Yes, every system should push for equity, but it will never reach 100% and beyond this achieving happiness is the ultimate ambition.
    Personally, I'm going to run back to Scandinavia for a masters in bioentrepreneurship. I want to avoid the life of a grad student and keep my optimism a little bit longer. Maybe with that degree I start up a non-profit pharmaceutical company where scientists and doctors can function in harmony and actually feel good about themselves. I would be rather happy with myself if I could do that. I'll give an update in 30 years, after I'm done with my tenure position at a medical university.
    And yes, there will be an annual Care Bears tea party at my company. Take this comment, PP and DM, as my invite to you.

  • bsci says:

    The university where I got my PhD did offer a business minor for PhD students. In addition, there was an annual contest where students could put together a business proposal based on their research and the winning team got a non-trivial amount of venture capital. I definitely saw this at other schools too. It's a bit more biased to schools with strong engineering programs too, but these programs definitely do already exist.

  • NeuroStudent says:

    I think that the multitude of students who are unaware of alternative career paths and/or see t-t positions at research universities as the only option must be at other universities, because where I am there are a very small minority of us (about 10%) who even want to be t-t PIs.
    Additionally, it seems (and I could be completely incorrect) that quite a few alternative careers also prefer (if not require) some sort of postdoc training--so, while only 10% of us are planning to pursue a t-t position, ~60-70% do some sort of postdoc. This is only one example and I do not think that our population is necessarily representative of all universities, with some having much higher percentages and some having lower percentages, but I do think that people forget that not all postdocs WANT to be t-t PIs--that some have been planning to pursue an "alternative" career the entire time, but that this step is expected of them as well.
    I, for one, do want to be a t-t PI at a research university, but I have a back-up plan in case it doesn't work out--mainly because I was driving myself fucking nuts worrying about choosing the "correct" postdoc for my career instead of choosing one that's right for me--where the science is so cool and innovative that I wake up in the morning excited about it and go to sleep at night still excited about it. Cool & innovative can also be risky (enter the back-up plan), but I've decided that I would prefer to do cool & innovative science and risk looking unproductive than to go with the sure thing and risk being bored and unmotivated (I realize that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but for my situation they seem to be the options). This strategy has worked relatively well for my graduate career (although I didn't realize that it was what I was doing at the time)--we'll see how well this works out for my postdoc.

  • okham says:

    I have been reading for years about science faculty not training their students for 'alternative careers', but, frankly, I do not think this is the problem, and I do not see the entire debate as going anywhere. First of all, the need for a different type of training would be established only by proving that unemployment rate for science PhDs is higher than for other PhDs (e.g., in the humanities or arts), or that in any case science PhDs have a harder time making career changes than other educated professionals. Is it really true ? I doubt it. In physics certainly most PhDs are not employed in "traditional" areas and have not for a long time (could not possibly be otherwise, given the oversupply of PhD physicists with respect to available 'traditional' jobs).
    I am beginning to think that 'training for alternative careers' is code for 'getting them out of the pipeline before it gets clogged'. In my experience, most students know exactly what they are getting themselves into. I tell them right away what the stats are, and their odds of landing a permanent faculty/research job (very low regardless of how hard they will work or good they will be). They stick around anyway, much like I did when I started, with parents and everyone else telling me that I was surely going to be unemployed/underemployed/frustrated.
    Then again, how many music schools spend much time telling their students that in all likelihood they won't end up directing the New York Philharmonic, or even teaching music at a community college ? And, do the many students who go into music, history, philosophy and all sort of other disciplines, expecting to pursue an easy career in those fields ?
    I honestly feel that what frustrates many post-docs is not the sense of possible failure, to which I think we are (were) all prepared, but rather that of not having had the chance of giving it their best shot, for reasons having to do with the PI, or the institution where they got their degree and all sort of things that are beyond their control.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I honestly feel that what frustrates many post-docs is not the sense of possible failure, to which I think we are (were) all prepared, but rather that of not having had the chance of giving it their best shot, for reasons having to do with the PI, or the institution where they got their degree and all sort of things that are beyond their control.
    There is nothing unique about this. Kids that want to go pro in sports have exactly the same frustrations and justifying rationales as to why they are not making it. There are also situations of legitimate complaint- the coach who won't play the kid in the right position, the other kid for your position that just happens to be better, etc.

  • okham says:

    There is nothing unique about this. Kids that want to go pro in sports have exactly the same frustrations and justifying rationales as to why they are not making it.
    Absolutely. I was not trying to suggest that any of this is "fixable", not in any general way anyway. My sense, however, is that ultimately most of us are honest with ourselves. We do recognize talent and brilliance, and have really no problem if someone objectively excellent, or in any case stronger than us make inroads.
    The problem arises when we see someone who not only in our opinion, but even based on criteria that society seems (or claims) to accept (publications etc.) is at the same level as ourselves and yet gets much further in life than we do. It's almost inevitable at that point to start wondering "why could not that be me ?", and then comes the recrimination... Of course, it's not a perfect system, perfection does not exist, but all of this is easy to accept and rationalize if it does not involve ourselves.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The problem arises when we see someone who not only in our opinion, but even based on criteria that society seems (or claims) to accept (publications etc.) is at the same level as ourselves and yet gets much further in life than we do. It's almost inevitable at that point to start wondering "why could not that be me ?", and then comes the recrimination...
    One of our missions around here is to turn that recrimination into introspection about what the individual might do differently to enhance his or her personal success. Nobody can provide a magic bullet but one can nudge the odds around a bit.

  • heach says:

    another reason why students may not be fully aware of all their career options is because the people who are off in industry are busily living their own lives. it's the people who choose to stay in academia who you ever hear about. if one remains in academia, then you will constantly run into that person at meetings, hear their names when reviewing papers, receiving awards, etc. if one is successful in say, biotech/pharm, who's going to know about it?

  • okham says:

    One of our missions around here is to turn that recrimination into introspection about what the individual might do differently to enhance his or her personal success.
    And I think it's a commendable effort and a worthwhile goal. I also believe that, unfortunately, those who may benefit most directly from this type of mentoring are emotionally too vested to see the value in this exercise.
    I mean, I remember the way I felt eleven years ago, reacting angrily to any kind of suggestion to the effect that I ought to broaden my research scope, or seek to collaborate with that or that groups, or choose a different research subject... I basically kept responding "look, [insert expletive a-la PP] if you had made this much effort to get me invited once to give a talk at the APS meeting or deliver a seminar in some department, like all my fellow postdocs have, or if that paper had been accepted, maybe you and I would not even be having this [repeat here] conversation...".
    Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that this is the right way to react, I am thinking that it's what most humans end up doing...

  • Nat Blair says:

    I think that the analogy of the winner takes all approach of the other professions physioprof discuss is inadequate to relate to science.
    For some of them the difference lies in the method of evaluating of who the "winners" are. That's a lot more objective for sports than for science. I'm not saying that that makes it easier psychologically for the kid who spent years training for the big race, only to loose to someone better. But it's at least obvious to the loser that the winner was better. Is that the case in science?
    Then for professions like medicine, law, and business, as some of the other commentators have noted, if you're not one of the superstars, well, then there's still a place for you, where you can use the skills you developed and trained for in your postgraduate studies. Furthermore, there is the issue of compensation relative to opportunity cost accrued during the training phase. Of course industry positions can serve as the natural outlet for those science folks who don't get academic positions, but there is the significant change in many aspects of the job, and the typical academic disdain which still exists (but seems to be diminishing).
    Lastly, the comparison with artists, musicians and whatnot is problematic in that first their opportunity cost is different, and more importantly that many of those who are the losers can maintain the practice of their art, even if to do so they must have a day job. That's not something a scientist can do, so if they are the loser, they may be forced with the prospect of losing some of the freedom which is an aspect of our careers we probably all value.
    There's also a bit more at here.

  • JSinger says:

    There is virtually no room for salary growth during the postdoc period (except for taking on additional jobs and the very small inflation-adjusted increases)
    This salary structure does not exist for other highly-educated white collar jobs. Is there any science/technology field that after 5 years of real work experience after getting advanced degrees still sees fit to pay around $50K?

    Like NM says, it's not just salary, it's everything. In other white-collar fields, once you're done with your education (by which I mean real classes, not research) you get a job and you work. You're not a "trainee" into your 30s, you don't dream about someday becoming a Stemwedelian "grown-up scientist" and "getting a job". And if your career maxes out at a certain level, that's life and you keep working. You don't get tossed out the window and replaced with an intern.
    The problem is that three different functions (genuine training, research labor, and stockpiling potential faculty hires until an appropriate job opens up) have been jumbled together and placed under the single banner of "training".

  • okham says:

    In other white-collar fields, once you're done with your education (by which I mean real classes, not research) you get a job and you work [...] And if your career maxes out at a certain level, that's life and you keep working. You don't get tossed out the window and replaced with an intern.
    That is another common pattern among postdocs whose careers do not seem to take off. At some point it seems as if anything should be better than what they are doing. They think that in the private sectors workers are showered with money, they get great benefits, are never asked to relocate, there are no layoffs, divisions are never shut down, positions are never outsourced and the boss is always Mr. Nice. Again, been there, thought that myself. I was just lucky enough that some of my friends from grad school actually did go and work in industry, and would give me a much more sobering assessment.
    I remember reading posts over posts in sci.research.careers back in the mid 90s (before blogs), written by disgruntled postdocs according to whom just about any other professional route was better than academic science.
    I was lucky enough that some of my friends actually did get jobs in finances, or teaching in high school

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    Contrary to what the title of this post claims, academic science *is* a care bears tea party to a significant extent, and this is a big part of the problem with "the system".
    A spectacle I see from time to time is that the student of a famous or well-connected prof, who is co-author on prominent papers with said prof, and also co-author on other prominent papers with other big profs during one or two postdocs, gets a junior faculty position at an illustrious university and promptly goes dead research-wise once he finds himself in the position of having to develop his own independent research program. (Ok, maybe not completely dead, but not far off.)
    How can it be that someone who turns out to be incapable of doing research without having his hand held ends up in such a job ahead of peers who have already proved themselves capable of producing high quality independent research? Care bear culture, that's how! Care bear culture for the academic children of the academically well-to-do. It's a bit like academic nepotism, except more nebulous. The well-to-do take care of each other's children and see that they don't come to harm. Orphans and kids of outsiders can sod off. So what if they are publishing papers on their own in the top journal in their field. Put the uppity riff-raff in their place!
    Well I was going to write a whole lot more about this but what's the point. Time for some beers!

  • JSinger says:

    They think that in the private sectors workers are showered with money, they get great benefits, are never asked to relocate, there are no layoffs, divisions are never shut down, positions are never outsourced and the boss is always Mr. Nice.
    I'm not a postdoc and am familiar with the reality of the things you mention. My point isn't that junior jobs outside of academic research are guaranteed permanent. It's that 1) they're at least intended to be long-term and 2) they're treated as long-term.
    In fact, academic research doesn't face layoffs precisely because the natural attrition (and low salaries) make them unnecessary.

  • Becca says:

    @ ancient physics postdoc-
    this is free advice (and worth every penny!) but I'm reading a book called "Never eat alone" which might help you. It paints a care bear tea party picture of marketing and business... the basic idea is that sucess is based on who you know- but it's more nuanced than handing out buisness cards. One route to success is via good relationships. It's written by a guy who certainly did not have connections pre-made for him because of who's kid he was, and it's about working in a fashion that will help you build that network.
    It's easy to see how the people you know is a valid factor for sucess in marketing, but (at least to me) it's always seemed somehow less legit for science to be dependent on how people think of you. Yet, in at least a few respects (being able to forge productive collaborations, sucessful mentoring and lab management) people skills that enable one to form solid relationships also help a lot in science.
    Anyway, back on topic- I think science needs a top-down restructuring of the power distribution to make science more humane to scientists. Of course, I think this about society at large.
    That said, we also need everyone to pursue a more warm-fuzzy approach. No, it doesn't have to be a care-bears tea party 24/7, but calling people names (or telling them their supposed position is "nuts") isn't optimal professional behavior.
    I truly believe that being a jerk has no casual relationship to the performance of good science.

  • PhysioProf says:

    It's easy to see how the people you know is a valid factor for sucess in marketing, but (at least to me) it's always seemed somehow less legit for science to be dependent on how people think of you.

    Legit or not, success in science depends almost wholly on how other scientists think of you.

    One route to success is via good relationships. It's written by a guy who certainly did not have connections pre-made for him because of who's kid he was, and it's about working in a fashion that will help you build that network.

    I was not trained in labs with well-known PIs, and when I went on my faculty job search, the response to the identity of my post-doctoral mentor was invariably "Who the fuck is that?" However, throughout my career--both pre- and post-independence--I have always busted my fucking ass developing relationships with the established investigators in my field.

  • okham says:

    1) they're at least intended to be long-term and 2) they're treated as long-term.
    I do not have numbers, but from casual reading it is my sense that limited-term contracts are on the rise in the private sector, often with limited or no benefits. As for permanent positions, they may be "intended" to be such, but, what is their actual average duration in practice ? And I think it's more difficult to look for another job after being laid off from industry, especially when we are talking a mature worker (late 40s, say) than to look for another postdoc.
    In any case, it's a comparison of apples and oranges, to some extent; of course, for some (many maybe) the industrial route would be more appropriate an option, but my point is that there is (sometimes) the tendency to romanticize all that is out there just out of frustration with one's own current situation. I still remember conversations with my friends working in finances (all of them physics PhDs) making four, five times as much as I did as a postdoc, advising me to "stick with science, if at all possible". And yes, they have all gone through more jobs and relocations than me over the past decade. Anecdotal evidence only, of course.

  • Bill says:

    "In any case, it's a comparison of apples and oranges, to some extent; of course, for some (many maybe) the industrial route would be more appropriate an option, but my point is that there is (sometimes) the tendency to romanticize all that is out there just out of frustration with one's own current situation. I still remember conversations with my friends working in finances (all of them physics PhDs) making four, five times as much as I did as a postdoc, advising me to "stick with science, if at all possible". And yes, they have all gone through more jobs and relocations than me over the past decade. Anecdotal evidence only, of course."
    I think the grass is always greener, no matter where you are working. There are tremendous benefits to being a postdoc, at least in my experience, that one may not find in the private sector. No one watches my hours, as long as I'm productive I can come and go as I please. I have a huge amount of freedom, intellectually. I can work on things that interest me. I am actually doing the science, as well as thinking about it, as opposed to sitting in an office writing grants constantly. I don't have to answer to unhappy/impatient clients. In some ways, a postdoc is a great, great job. Yet, it is not a valid career choice, mainly because of the lack of pay, as well as the lack of respect from (some of) those who have made the leap to PI.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    The party seems to be over here but I can't resist a parting shot at this fairly outrageous post.
    While it would be nice if there was unlimited funding so that any competent person who wanted to could become an academic scientist, we all know that isn't the case and that many good people are going to miss out in the competition for scarce jobs. Regardless of whether we would like academic science to be a care bears tea party or not, we all understand that in the present situation it can't be. No one has been disputing that -- I didn't dispute it in any comments, neither has YFS or anyone else that I know of. All we have asked for is a fair shot. This post just goes to further establish PP's credentials as strawman basher par excellence.
    In PP's listing of American viewpoints there is one that stands out by its absence: MERITOCRACY. I'm not American, but was under the impression that this was one of your most cherished ideals - people being born equal and being able to advance in life based on their own merit rather than the circumstances they were born into. Unfortunately though, academic science is a lot further from being genuinely meritocratic than it could and should be. This isn't a new claim; it's been noted many times before, including by people who have successfully made it through the system (I could dig up references if you want).
    A wannabe academic scientist's chances of finding a job depend a lot on their background, connections, and the extent to which influential senior scientists are personally invested in them. Those who don't have this regularly lose out to those who do. There are many examples where the latter are less meritous than the former by all objective measures. (I could drown you in examples, and there are scientific studies backing this up as well.)
    So PP get this: No one is calling for a care bears tea party. We (me at least, and most others I expect) want level playing field and a fair shot for all. To be evaluated solely on the basis of our science and not on a whole lot of extraneous crap. In a nutshell: meritocracy. Are you against that?

  • PhysioProf says:

    In PP's listing of American viewpoints there is one that stands out by its absence: MERITOCRACY.

    I don't think you read this post very carefully.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    My reading of what you write is that Americans like to have systems with selection processes that produce pyramid structures with stars at the top, but are not too bothered about whether the selections are completely based on merit or not. (You speak of "pyramidal "meritocracy" (real or otherwise)".)
    But I was under the impression that Americans care deeply about having true meritocracy, at least in more "serious" areas (not Hollywood stardom for example), and would find it disturbing if that wasn't prevailing in, e.g., the career advancement of scientists.
    In any case, you seriously misrepresent what postdocs are saying when you write
    "Post-docs complain because there are simply no guarantees that if you just work hard, you will some day become a PI."
    We know and understand this very well! It is the first thing that is explained to us when we set off down the academic career path. The complaints postdocs are making are about lack of transparancy (and often objectivity) in the selection process, and aspects of the system that cause us to be treated like serfs and often denied a fair shot at proving ourselves as scientists.

  • okham says:

    The complaints postdocs are making are about lack of transparancy (and often objectivity)
    I think that yours is a valid complaint, but I am not sure to what extent it applies specifically to science and is not rather a trait of any human activity. That was my initial reading of PP's post.
    I doubt if you would not find the same "lack of transparency and objectivity" in the corporate sector, for example, for all the lip service paid to meritocracy.
    Also, I can tell you having been a faculty for over a decade, that the arbitrariness and unfairness do not go away after making the switch from postdoc to faculty, they stay with you all along. They may no longer be crucial, but still affect your career through speaking invitations, funding and publication decisions, as well as the careers of your own students.

  • PhysioProf says:

    lack of transparency and objectivity

    One of the main purposes of our careerism posts on this blogs is to help people to (1) understand what appears opaque and (2) succeed in what appears to be a highly subjective assessment regime.

  • BugDoc says:

    "We (me at least, and most others I expect) want level playing field and a fair shot for all. To be evaluated solely on the basis of our science and not on a whole lot of extraneous crap."
    I think most scientists would agree that meritocracy is a wonderful thing. However, in practice, identifying the most meritorious candidate is a bit harder than it sounds. A high profile paper on a candidate's CV may be entirely the product of an enterprising postdoc's hard work and creativity...or maybe the first author just happened to walk into the right lab at the right time, and the experiments were relatively straightforward. Alternatively, an incredibly bright and hard-working person may end up with a couple of solid but not flashy publications on their CV. Is that fair? Of course not, but those are the rules of the tea party we call science. Because of that, hiring committees depend heavily on mentors' letters to put a candidate's achievements in context; in other words, was this person the driving factor in their work, or did they just do what they were told. Reference letters are subjective by their very nature, so it's not hard to imagine that reference letters from colleagues that are known to the hiring committee or very well established scientists in the field get a little bit more weight. I used to think that this sounded like more of the old boyz club, but after being on several hiring committees, I could not come up with a better approach. After all, if you were going to give someone a key to your house to take care of things while you were on vacation, wouldn't you rather have a recommendation from a trusted friend, rather than just taking a notice off the community board (no matter how great the person said their qualifications were)?
    There are many mentors that are not as good as they should be at promoting the success of their trainees - shame on them. However, I urge anyone who is about to join a lab to make sure you find out how supportive your prospective mentor has been for their trainees, or if they are new, find out their philosophy for promoting their trainees' success. That is a nudge that postdocs and students can give to the system: vote with your feet, i.e., don't go to a lab that is run by a bad mentor no matter how many high profile papers they publish. There are no guarantees in science, but hard work, creative thinking and finding a PI with a history of strong and active mentoring is probably the best guarantee you are likely to get.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    okham,
    Sure there are human tendencies working against meritocracy in all areas, but hopefully you aren't suggesting we should just shrug our shoulders and accept things as they are. Things can improve - they are better now than they were 100 years ago - and the rate of improvements can probably be helped along by people complaining and pointing out ways in which things could and should be better.
    In academic science the scarcity of jobs is one reason why meritocracy matters more than in other professions. With so many people investing so much of their lives for a shot at just a few jobs, surely there is a moral responsibility on academic communities to make the selection process as fair and transparent as possible. This is also needed for maximizing both progress in science and efficient use of taxpayers money.
    PP,
    It's commendable that you are taking time to do that, and no doubt there are people who are helped by it. But unfortunately you're doing it with an attitude that pisses many people off, and with good reason. It's a bit like giving women advice on how to understand and minimize the effects of sexism on their academic careers, e.g., by telling them how to modify their personalities and behavior to fit the narrow band of what's seen as "acceptable" for them. Women's response would probably be something like: Sure there are things like that we could do, but why the hell should we be at this disadvantage in the first place; why can't we just be evaluated on the merits of our science without all this extraneous crap, and last but not least, why the hell aren't you speaking out against it!
    BugDoc,
    The picure you paint seems way too rosy compared to the reality as I've experienced it. Your thesis seems to be that, by and large, selection decisions in academic science are made fairly, and that any shortcomings are due mainly to difficulties in determining who is the most meritous. Well, that's something that can be tested experimentally. There are theoretical areas of science where it is still possible for a person to do research on their own with nothing more than pencil and paper. So you can have some young person working on their own who repeatedly publishes papers in the top journal in their discipline (e.g., in Physical Review Letters in the case of physics) but without a "pedigree background" or connections to influential scientists. If you take such a person, and compare the outcome of his/her job applications with others who do have the pedigree background and connections and whose papers are in routine journals but with big-name coauthors, then we get to see if your hypothesis holds. There is no issue about who is more meritous in this case; at least according to the measures available.
    That experiment has been done by various people, including myself. Here's what I found: In applications for postdoc fellowships, awarded on the basis of open competition, I did fine, and my single-author papers in our top physics journal (PRL) did indeed seem to give me the merit-edge that one would expect. On the other hand, in applications for regular postdocs in research groups, I always fared terribly and basically survived on the scraps left over after the folks with the pedigree backgrounds and connections had been accommodated. That can be explained to some extent by the fact that I was following a fairly independent research program on a topic which was considered interesting and important but not one of the latest fashions. (It's understandable that research groups would prefer to hire someone whose background and interests are closely related to what the group does.) However, for faculty positions it rapidly became clear that I didn't have a chance in hell against the pedigree folks. No interest, no interviews, nothing.
    This experiment has also been done by others, and I know of at least one person who did it with greater precision than me. I.e., another outsider who had more publications and citations than me, including more single-author ones in PRL. After many, many years in various postdoc positions it seems he has recently got himself a faculty position - somewhere in China. (And no, he's not Chinese; was originally from England I think.)
    So, based on the outcomes of these experiments (which are consistent with lots of other stuff I've seen), I have to conclude that BugDoc's hypothesis is false.
    This leaves the interesting question of how BugDoc came to think that his hypothesis was true. I think it's because you don't see this kind of stuff unless you look for it. If you just extrapolate from your daily experiences, chances are you will miss it. A bit like how for a long time I didn't see the full picture of sexism in academia - it didn't pop up in my daily experiences, so I assumed those women must be exaggerating or were just unlucky or something...

  • okham says:

    However, for faculty positions it rapidly became clear that I didn't have a chance in hell against the pedigree folks. No interest, no interviews, nothing.
    I have absolutely no trouble believing this. I have experienced this myself, and I worry about its effect on the careers of my students too. So, I know you are not delusional, and I agree that things ought to change. But this is besides the point, as far as you and many others are concerned.
    the rate of improvements can probably be helped along by people complaining and pointing out ways in which things could and should be better.
    Believe me, many of us are complaining, some quite vocally, to the point of risking to damage our own careers. Is our complaining going to help future generations of scientists ? Maybe, hopefully, who knows... Is it going to help you or my current PhD students ? More than likely, no (in fact it may even harm them).
    This is why I do not think that it would be wise of me to tell my students "don't worry, things have been done unfairly until now but, hey, I and a few others are complaining about it, so you'll be fine...". I think it would be kind of stupid of me to do that. The type of advice I give them is more "strategic", i.e., aimed at getting them as far as possible within the system as it currently (unfortunately) is.

  • DM & PP,
    I stumbled across this new little blog and I thought you two would love to check it out: http://alternative-scientist.blogspot.com/
    Have fun!

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    okham,
    I'm glad there are people like you who are complaining. The cumulative effect of this will surely help to improve things over time, so keep it up! I agree about the rest of what you wrote, and have also made some "strategic moves" myself along the way...

  • Arlenna says:

    How are skills like networking, strategic thinking, extraordinary communication, personnel management and system manipulation not "meritorious?"
    I'm probably not contributing anything all that new to this conversation, but it's naive to think that the beautiful truth of science can get up and talk about and promote itself. You have to give it a voice, and you have to be able to build a human systems approach to addressing and studying it (i.e. a group of people you manage in the lab).
    It's not that I think "the system" and "the man" here do not have problems that are endemic and poisonous, but there are plenty of merits that get represented by the success of those who climb to the top even these days. It's not black and white, it's extremely grey, as far as where the failings are between the system vs. those trying to patch into it.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    Arienna,
    It is difficult to complain about the merit stuff without it coming across as belittling the things you mentioned, and belittling everyone who has managed to succeed in the current system. But that's not what I meant to do. However, someone can do all the things you mentioned (giving good talks, networking etc), and do them well, and still have reason to complain that things other than merit play much too big a role in how they are evaluated.
    A random example of the kinds of things I meant came up in this exchange on Okham's blog, where a woman science prof wrote with regards to assessment of job candidates that
    "I have watched faculty meetings which drop qualified women to the bottom of the list due to vague comments about not fitting in, or doesn't act like a physicist. Such comments might have merit, if they refer to experimental style, teaching, or thinking. However, these comments upon later elucidation, refer to her clothes, her persona, her... femaleness."
    and Okham replied that guys are also targets of that crap:
    "Unfortunately, I have witnessed exactly the same, at least once. It's the dreadful "I have the gut feeling that she is not.... and that he may be more... even though he hasn't published as much...". But it is not always like that, and the target is not always a woman."

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    Arlenna, sorry for spelling your name wrong in my previous comment! It's my bad eyesight.

  • a says:

    That's okay, it's just my made up name anyway, hah.
    Indeed these things are true, and I have both seen and felt them myself. But I have also experienced individuals and departments who work their damndest to do the opposite with sincerity and warmth, and I guess I just like to think of my Care Bears teacup as half full of potential tea and find those people, instead of the jerky ones who I wouldn't want to work with anyway.

  • bubbles says:

    No-one has mentioned the ways in which other countries do this stuff. There's no merit in saying "it's not possible" just because it doesn't happen here. I'm a foreigner working in the US and I can't wait to get back home where the system allows you to be a human being as well as a scientist. Of course it's not perfect, but it's much better. And before anyone says anything about quality or quantity of research, my country has the same per capita number as the US for both total articles published and the number published in the top 1% most cited. And people don't tend to work on weekends and as a result they're much more productive during the week. The attitude is much healthier and it pays off, but the obsessives don't prosper as much as they do here.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    bubbles perhaps you would care to comment on exactly how that system is structured so as to make things more livable for scientists. For example, is it a result of a more severe selection process as to who can be a scientist in the first place? We pay a price for our democracy but on the whole I prefer the US system to that of Germany and France and Italy, those being systems in which the barriers to advancing are worst. This is going by both published reports and the scientist that I know who have managed to actually succeed within those systems.

  • Name Here says:

    Isis, I think Bubbles is talking about work/life balance, an issue that other developed countries have largely grappled with over the last few decades. The US has largely ignored it. Here is a link to some good information regarding a recent report on work/life issues in the US pertaining to the general US workforce: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/01/three_faces_report.html
    There are whole worlds of academic critique of how 'the system' unfairly advantages some people, and unfairly disadvantages others.(I would recommend starting with Alison Wylie for a feminist perspective on this issue, although women are by far not the only marginalized group.) This has the net effect of keeping the range of voices that are allowed to participate in science to be fairly narrow. If our goal is simply the best science possible, we should all oppose this because it means that workers with different (novel?) insights are marginalized or excluded. We all have choices to make about teaching, recruiting, student research opportunities, mentoring, distribution of resources from office and lab space to departmental funds to our time that make a difference.
    And let us not forget, as others in this thread have mentioned, that not only do talented people fail, but mediocre hacks 'succeed' insofar as they get valuable tenured positions.

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