Sunday, June 12, 2005

Behind the Times

So, we're getting ready to go on this trip, and of course, the airline we're flying on:

a) doesn't have places to plug in laptops in coach
b) won't let us upgrade to business class, because we bought discount tickets.

Nice! I'm also feeling really, ahem, naive because I bought a power convertor thingee last year, not realizing that you can't even plug that into most Economy class seats. They certainly market it as if it's going to solve all your problems! Of course what happened on that trip was, on the way there, I had the convertor but wasn't in a seat where I could use it. On the way back, I figured the same thing would happen, packed the convertor in my checked luggage, and then discovered I was in a seat that was, in fact, equipped with an outlet. Of course.

On subsequent trips I frequently witnessed a couple of guys sitting in Economy in the one or two only seats that have outlets, merrily working away.

So now I'm thinking, I probably should just invest in another battery for my laptop, for less than the price of upgrading my seat. And then I can use it every time I travel. That's what money is for, after all: alleviating suffering. Too bad I can't buy a handy $100 device to make Economy seats feel less claustrophobic.

But really, we don't fit into the business view of the world. Of course it seems only logical that the only people who would spend the money on a laptop would also spend money on a business-class ticket every time they fly.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Non-Postdoc Jobs for People with PhDs

There's one we haven't talked about at all: Staff Scientist.

This is where I think you should go if you want to work at the bench and don't want to teach or write grants. You don't need to do a postdoc at all to get this kind of position. And you can do it in industry or in academia.

Why should we redefine what a postdoc is to accomodate people who can't decide what to do next?

If you're producing good work, as one person said, go be a staff scientist. Postdocs should not be producers for other people's projects. A postdoc should be training for YOU. You should be working on your own, independent projects. If you can't come up with something to work on that's your own idea as a postdoc, why do you think you'll have anything to write a grant on as a PI?

If you're not sure you want to be a PI, you're never going to be. Do you think someone's going to pat you on the head every day as a postdoc and build up your ego? Never gonna happen . It's even less likely than it was when you were a grad student. And people who stay in a postdoc position for 5+ years because they weren't sure, are going to eventually apply for faculty positions, if they can just stay as a postdoc for a few more years??? In fact, just the opposite.

So then we're back to, why didn't you get a staff scientist position in the first place? Insecurity?

If you want to be a PI, get sure, get your act together. Floaters don't deserve faculty positions. I've probably said this before, If you can't handle the stress of working hard as a postdoc, you're definitely not going to be able to handle the stress of writing grants, teaching classes, serving on committees, going to meetings, training students and technicians, and doing research.

It doesn't get easier as you go up the ladder, it just gets harder. Have you looked at the NIH budget lately?

Having said that, in response to that last comment on my previous post, get a therapist. Read some self-help books. If your ego has been crushed by abusive advisors and crappy situations, you have to ask yourself:

1. Why did I put up with that situation for several years, when it was so clearly bad for me?
2. Why do I take that abusive person's opinions as more valuable than my own?

There are very few situations you have to just put up with, and take the abuse. In most cases, I firmly believe, it's better to just get out of there and find some people who will support you. It's like the song from A Chorus Line , "Nothing." If the teacher is bad, and mean to you, go find a better class.

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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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