Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Get over your insecurity

Wow, well after the comments on my last post, I can't just let that go.

Here's the thing: if getting your PhD didn't convince you you're worthy, nothing will. If grad school wasn't hard enough for you, you must not have been trying. It's like college: you're going going to get out as much as you're willing to put in. And doing a postdoc is the same deal. It's not a holding pattern. It's not an end in itself. It's a means to an end. And if you don't know what that end is, you're in trouble, and yes, you're what's wrong with the current system. Of course you don't have to be 100% sure, but you should have some idea that you'd be reasonably satisfied doing one of the jobs for which a postdoc is a prerequisite.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like in the days when postdocs got paid even less than we make now. Granted, there's the whole classist thing I don't like, where you have to be independently wealthy to be able to afford a non-paying job or science as a hobby. But there was one benefit, as one psycho postdoc used to say: "Keepin' 'em poor and keepin' 'em hungry." If you knew you'd be poor, and always secretly wanted to be a starving artist, why not do that instead? The only people who wanted to do research for no money were the people who really wanted to do research.

Maybe we've made it too easy to not know. You don't see too many kids going to med school because they can't figure out what else to do. And those that do are not likely to graduate. But it seems like just about anybody can get a PhD these days, just because they've been in school for 6 years and most universities want to keep their average graduation time down for appearance purposes.

And as for social darwinism, whatever that is, I've never been a fan of the intro classes for weeding people out of the major. But I do think it's fair to say, you shouldn't go to grad school just because you don't know what else to do, and the same goes for a postdoc. And I certainly hope that, if you didn't know that going in, after the grad school experience, it's more than obvious!

Insecurity seems to be overtaking all of science. I don't know if it was always like this, but I'm tired of the backstabbing, passive-aggressive bullshit I see around me all the time. I've heard stories that some fields are so open about disagreements that they still frequently stand up and argue in front of an audience at meetings. I'd greatly prefer that kind of open debate to what we have now, at least in my field.

I'm not convinced we should coddle people who, by the time they reach the postdoc level, are so insecure they won't even apply for the jobs they actually want. Moreover, if you don't know yourself well enough to figure out what you want to be when you grow up, and you're in your late 20s or somewhere in your 30s, you're not just insecure, you're immature on top of it. Maybe we should force people to take a year off after grad school to find themselves and figure out what they really want to do with all that training we've wasted on them.

I mean, think about these insecure people. How are they ever going to cope with the grant review process? There's a lot of rejection in science. Our current system is very Darwinian, or as some people might say, very capitalist. Are we really doing anyone any favors by saying, '"Oh poor you, you think you're not good enough. Here, do an endless postdoc." ?

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19 Comments:

At 3:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's a little presumptuous to call someone immature because it takes them longer to figure out their ideal career.

But I also think it's really bizarre to spend money if you don't know what you want to do! Hello, you can get a job without a PhD. Spend that time figuring out what kind of job you want by actually working. Make that future investment in your education really count. (A friend from high school got his BS from a top school. When he finished, he told me he was going to get his PhD because he didn't know what he wanted to do. That didn't make any sense to me then, and it doesn't make any sense to me now.)

Honestly, the pay ranges for people with PhDs isn't exactly comparable to what most professionals make in private industry. I, with my vaguely practical and noncommital BS Math, can't imagine pursuing a PhD in a scientific field without having a specific goal in mind. Maybe it's my economic background - my parents didn't buy me a top ranking degree, and they certainly wouldn't fork over the cash for a higher degree than a bachelors!

 
At 4:57 PM, Blogger kiara said...

I don't know if what i'm going to say is totally relevant or not, and i may just been an old-grumpy-left-wing-european here, but hey, whatever.
Doing a phD without a purpose is a mistake, so you think ? Well, i don't. Getting an education is never a mistake.
"It's not a mean in itself, it should lead to something" you're saying... well, to me this is not completely true as well: you do want people to understand what your research is about, don't you ? You do want people to understand that stem cell research has nothing to do with murder, or that transgenic plants won't kill you [that's the current debate in Europe, and i'm a plant scientist], don't you ? Well, then, open universities to people, let them having degrees, phDs, let them joining the club, make it easier for them to access real knowledge, not crapy TV and bullshit from people with big voices and big ego but small brain.
Yes, it has a cost and the society (i.e. you, who are working hard) has to pay for those "unmotivated loosers", but i believe that it's worth it, because having an educated population should be a priority and is priceless.
I'm always amazed when i see the figures about people believing in creationism in the USA. Darwinism is common knowledge on this side of the atlantic ocean, and it's not even a "theory", it just is, full stop. You're saying in a previous post that only a number in a thousand of people know what conception is. I was taught was conception is during my biology class when i was 12, as any french kid is. That's why stem cell research is not exactly a debate over here.
I come from a catholic background, and i go to church and everything, still i have a brain and understand that loads of things in the Bible are metaphoric, and i know that science "is", and that religion is like a "poem" that helps you live.
Well, my point was: not everything you do has a purpose, the most important thing for me being that you get some sort of real knowledge from every experience you live. Even if you don't know exactly why you're living them.
[saying this, i'm enjoying being a postdoc and i'm never more happy than next to my PCR machine !]
Hope my comment didn't make you angry or anything, i'm not trying to be provocative, just wanted to share some ideas.

 
At 5:45 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Okay, I agree with both of you that education is good.

First off, for Mr. Math BS, a PhD in science doesn't cost money. So that is part of the problem. In fact, the opposite is true: you can get paid to get a PhD. That actually factored into my decision to do a PhD rather than med school. Let's see, earn $20,000 a year for a PhD or owe $35,000 a year to get an MD? Not a hard choice if you're pretty sure you want to do research either way. But it also attracts people who figure, hey, it pays about the same as a minimum-wage job, plus I don't really have to do any work!

Second, although I see what Kiara is saying, I don't think a postdoc should be just a life-enriching experience for the postdoc. It should be more than that, we're all grownups here, we're not students anymore, and nobody is going to lead you by the hand and train you. So it's not really school.

Okay, maybe some people go to grad school just to learn stuff, and maybe that's not such a bad thing for society in general... except that, in my field, they're getting paid with taxpayers' money and those taxpayers are also patients and families of patients who are expecting some kind of tangible return, you know, cures for cancer and better tomatoes and all that? And I think that's just unconscionable. I don't think you should get a free ride just because you're smart enough to get into a PhD program, and you definitely shouldn't be handed a PhD on your way out like a party favor.

The only person I know who claimed he was just going to go to grad school to learn and maybe make a small contribution and stop after that, has also fallen into this trap that he feels like he doesn't know what else to do now, so he's going to do a postdoc. Basically it's really hard to escape once you've chosen this PhD path. I always tell people, don't do it unless you're sure.

 
At 7:19 PM, Blogger yami mcmoots said...

If the problem is that these people have sucked up money being trained and then aren't going to give anything back... how is exiling them from the scientific community supposed to help?

If these insecure postdocs don't have what it takes to work in a lab, fire them because they're incompetent. If they don't have what it takes to get grants and run a lab on their own, then provide them with some sort of training, or rearrange how grad school works so that success as a student/postdoc will be better correlated with success as a full-fledged scientist.

Insisting that people perform to certain standards is one thing, but making someone's feelings about their work part of the standard of success is appallingly intrusive.

 
At 8:39 AM, Blogger James said...

"Insecurity seems to be overtaking all of science. I don't know if it was always like this, but I'm tired of the backstabbing, passive-aggressive bullshit I see around me all the time."

Yes, indeed, it was always like this. Read any history of science and you'll see a long cast of characters who were paranoid, anti-social, and just plain ornery, many who won Noble Prizes. Science has always been this way.

I don't think you so much hit a nerve as have caused some wonder at why you don't seem to be seeing that this is no different from anything other profession, and that does include doctors. There are plenty of doctors who aren't especially passionate about what they're doing, but it pays well and has job security and that's enough for them. But do they love what they do? No, not especially.

To get a PhD is not a matter of simply waking up one day and deciding it's what you're going to do. You have to have decent grades and recommendations, you have to have earned a slot in some way. You're not the arbiter of those decisions and aren't privy to why someone thought them the right ones, all you know is that this the PhDs in question aren't all that hot about what they're doing and don't seem to be especially big on making themselves in their field --- oh well, there'll always be people like that, at least there will be until we reach a point when we're able to somehow divine what someone is truly good at and point them in the right direction --- whether they go there or not is all together something else.

If anyone's getting a PhD as a party favor then the institution in question, NOT the individual, is at fault. Many people will fall into what they may so long as the system lets them, and it's up to the system to make sure that the people there merit being there. I'd like to put the onus on the person, but sometimes we truly don't know what else to do and we just do what we have in front of us, for whatever reason (which often can be little more than "I need a job and I can do this") --- so the burden is on the institution. If the person doesn't meet the standard of the degree, or merits a recommendation for follow-on work, well we should hope the institution has the integrity to stand by its standards, but, alas, many don't. Who's fault is that?

People such as what you complain about are part of every profession, they make up life in general, and that's their problem, not yours. When you're in a position one day to do something about it we can all hope you'll have at it, but my guess is that you'll find that this is an issue tinged with far more grey and uncertainty about what the right thing to do is than your present perspective allows you to appreciate.

 
At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Miss Math BS, but whatever.

I had no idea that all PhDs got their education for free! I thought that you had to be exceptional for that, and many people actually paid for their education.

But if you start out with a PhD, it is probably difficult to transition into a more entry-level field. Changing fields of work is difficult in any case, but I expect that it would be especially difficult if you have a PhD. If I received a resume for a junior position that indicated they had a PhD, I'd probably round file it. Because if you have a PhD? You're probably smart. I wouldn't pick someone smart for a mindless entry-level job - they'd quit.

 
At 1:05 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

"they're getting paid with taxpayers' money and those taxpayers are also patients and families of patients who are expecting some kind of tangible return, you know, cures for cancer and better tomatoes and all that? And I think that's just unconscionable. I don't think you should get a free ride just because you're smart enough to get into a PhD program, and you definitely shouldn't be handed a PhD on your way out like a party favor."

Uh, excuse me? You don't get a science PhD without publishing, and you don't publish if you don't do research. If society benefits from science it benefits from grad students and post-docs, whatever their motives or morale.

Having done research in a hot field and knowing that my death would have slowed the advance of human knowledge by about two weeks--because a dozen other labs that I would scoop or be scooped by were doing much the same thing--I might ask why you, Ms PhD aren't paying _us_ to pursue your ego-boosting sport instead of us paying you with our tax money. You're a member of an ecosystem that indirectly yields benefits to society and happens in our era and country to enjoy public subsidy. In Canada, the same goes for ballet. But major league baseball yields benefits to society to, and it's largely funded privately (government dispensations for sports stadiums, for example, aren't private). Just because belong to a fashionable profession or a profession that gets tax money does not imply that you personally are doing anything especially noble or important or that you have been selected for your earnest belief in the cause.

 
At 1:11 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Is it wrong to compete in the Olympics if you don't care much about fostering international relations or if you're not sure how much you care about getting a gold? What if you're just exceptionally gifted, don't mind training and like parades?

 
At 1:19 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

"you definitely shouldn't be handed a PhD on your way out like a party favor."

This really sounds like fatwah talk, like you believe there are things that are religiously sacred, and the PhD is one of them.

 
At 1:21 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Sorry: "religiously sacred" is redundant. I mean "sacred." (Nothing is sacred.)

 
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At 5:26 PM, Blogger dubiousbiologist said...

as a pointless postdoc, will someone shoot me now so i can make room for others more worthy than i for existing?

 
At 2:52 AM, Anonymous Dr Yak said...

Sorry, I just can't agree with you either. I'm happily in post-doc mode and will do another at the end of this one (in yet another country). I don't see what the problem with doing a couple of post-docs and publishing well (a few first authors and a couple of reviews, etc). If one is being productive and is happy being paid peanuts how is that a drain on society? Why do I have to get into the ratrace? Once I get my own lab I know the amount of actual science I can do, as opposed to grant writing and teaching, will plummet dramatically. I didn't go through all the hard work of grad school to end up a teacher and paper pusher so I'll stick to where I can actually do science. If that makes me a directionless drain on society then so be it.

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger kstrna said...

Dr. Yak do you plan on eventually becoming a professor? Why not become a research scientist? If working at the bench is what you desire and not teaching/granting writing that might be a better job for you or working at a research institute.

Why does becoming a faculty member at a research university have to be the point of getting a PhD in the sciences? As Dr. Yak points out, being a professor usually means giving up lab work and doing things that you were not directly trained to do (or minimally trained).

 
At 6:13 AM, Blogger GrrlScientist said...

kstrna; as another postdoc and an adjunct assistant professor who is living at the poverty level, I can say that I, and many scientists, would LOVE to be research scientists and would endure poverty without complaint to do so, but alas, research-only positions are very few and far between and the competition is intense. As a result, most people who chose to remain in science MUST go into academics and MUST teach and as a result, they MUST cut down on their research dramatically.

Of course, one could pursue biotech research, and some do, but this only supports research that has the potential for useful outcomes such as drug development, for example. Most of the basic research that provides the platform for applied (biotech and other) research depends vitally on public-funded university-level basic research. Without basic research, applied research would quickly fade away because it would not have new directions or ideas to explore in its quest for "useful (saleable) products". Many professors do not want to teach but must do so to continue pursuing their beloved and very valuable research.

That's a fact of life in science.

GrrlScientist

 
At 11:09 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

"Without basic research, applied research would quickly fade away because it would not have new directions or ideas to explore in its quest for 'useful (saleable) products'."

Note how she credited "basic research" and not "only that portion of basic research that's done by non-insecure people sure about continuing in science."

 
At 8:30 PM, Blogger kstrna said...

GrrlScientist, I am well aware of the realities. Coming from a small liberal arts college for undergrad to graduate school at a top research university was a shock to say the least. The poor level of teaching and comments about the teaching burden (professors are only required to teach 17 lectures an academic year) are very disturbing to say the least.

My comments were more about the absurdity of the system. PhDs are trained as scientists not to be professors yet that is what they must become to do research. To get that to change, one of the things that must happen is to get mentors to stop pushing people to be professors. It makes no sense to take those good with their hands in lab & who enjoy it out of lab to teach and write grants which they hate doing.

 
At 12:54 PM, Blogger she falters to rise said...

There are many factors contributing to why a person may not want to leave the postdoc world (or why they may not have the confidence to). For instance, they may have had little positive reinforcement during their grad years, being forced to spend half of a decade in a caustic environment. Mentorship is spotty at best, and, unfortunately given the lack of good mentorship, it is a good predictor of confidence and success. A postdoc may have not had the support and training required to publish and/or land a postdoc in a first-choice laboratory, leading to insecurities and propogating a cycle of the "second-best" choice. They may have been stuck on several dead-end projects resulting in frustration, negativity, and a crushed ego. I know very few people who leave graduate school feeling confident and secure. The same holds true for your first postdoc, where the abovementioned problems can be even more detrimental to your confidence or motivation.

I also don't see why extending your postdoc years is a bad thing, especially if you aren't sure what you want to do with yourself. I know few 40-year olds, let alone 30-year olds, who have finalized their career choice. A lot of people outside of science linger in jobs until they make the move to something different, and many times this move isn't made until you are in your 30's/early 40's. I don't think you should go through the rigorous process of trying to enter the "publish or perish" world of the Tenure-Trackdom until you are sure it is what you want to do. You may decide to go on into law, public policy, grant administration, biotech consultation, or scientific writing--all of which need people with PhD training and all of which will benefit society. That's the consequence of being really bright and highly trained--your options are almost too endless.

Postdocs and graduate students are not sucking up taxpayers dollars without a huge return. Most scientific publications and major medical findings result from postdocs' and graduate students' blood, sweat, and tears. Do I know some duds? Yes. Are there many duds? No. Even if their heart isn't in it, they are still producing.

I think I understand where your frustration in coming from; it's just really important to keep things in perspective. I want to kill the loafers and the duds sometimes, but you should be careful when lumping people into such large categories. There is a difference between a dud and a floater.

 

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