Sunday, January 08, 2006


Someone was asking me the other day about Bridges To Independence , the report by the National Academies on what we should be doing to revamp postdoctoral training and job creation at the faculty level.

Random aside: I couldn't find the link to BTI, so I looked it up on Google and the top hit was, not surprisngly, . Have you heard of this? It's a group that provides support services for disabled persons in the Portland area. Somehow the coincidental naming seems demeaning to postdocs, and yet appropriate, at the same time...

Anyway I stopped reading this wonderful, preaching-to-the-choir report by the NAS, because it doesn't say anything useful for me. (Perhaps in my copious free time after my fellowship runs out and I don't have a job anymore, I will finish reading it.)

I stopped reading it because it's full of great suggestions for how we should fix the system, and by 'we' I mean taxpayers, Congress, NIH, and PIs.

It's also full of suggestions for what postdocs should do- finish within 3 or 4 years, seek out mentors, publish papers, mentor students, write grants, and so on. All of which I'm doing and exactly on the timescale that they suggest is ideal (since Polly Anna asked how long I've been a postdoc).

What they don't say is why, when we do everything right, we still can't get jobs, and what we (the unemployed, frustrated postdocs) can do about it RIGHT NOW. They don't comment on the 9-year rule, but I wish they would comment on how search committees, despite claiming that they don't expect more than 2 or 3 years of postdoc, inevitably just look at the grand tally of publications and hire the oldest, crustiest postdocs they can find.

The whole document laments, at great length, the loss of all these great young scientific minds to industry and other employment than research. I guess we're supposed to hope the system gets fixed so the next generation doesn't also get lost.

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At 3:39 AM, Blogger Dr J. said...

Sorry, probably missed it in earlier posts, but what is the 9-year rule?

At 12:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you get to be a PI, why would you change the system? Answer honestly. There will always be a finite pool of money available for research in your little corner of the world. Anyone who you train competently will compete with you for that finite amount of money. Some years will be better than others and there will be a bit more money than there is now, but other years will be worse and there will be less money. Life isn't fair. Doubly so when money is involved. The cream does not rise to the top of a barrel unless the barrel is left still and academic science is turbulent.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Dr J. said...

Whoops...realise now that it wasn´t an actual "rule". I was asking because in Germany they brought in a 6 year rule (or 5? they changed it a bit) which was that 6 years after your PhD you must be offered a permanent position. The idea was that it will stop the endless postdocs and give them real jobs, as it´s somehow against the law here to offer highly trained professionals permanent non-permanent jobs (if you get what I mean). What this did though was ensure that EVERY postdoc got fired after 6 years and couldn´t get another job in academia - the double whammy of the only permanent positions being professorships, so either a full professor within 6 years or unemployable. This has meant that there are a large number of late 30-yr olds who can no longer be in academia, are generally considered too old for industry and are in the right age to be trying to support families. I read in NatureJobs a while back that a similar system had been proposed in the US by the postdoc organisation and all I can say is DON´T DO IT unless you can prevent Uni´s from just pushing postdocs onto the street when the short-term contract is up.

At 4:55 PM, Blogger Milo said...

First, I am new to the blogging world and just found this one, I like what you have said throughout your posts.

I myself am currently in a "holding pattern" type postdoc, industry just had nothing to offer me when I got my degree. I have to say that I too find being a postdoc very frustrating, especially since the idea of the postdoc differs so much from the reality. The Sigma Xi postdoc survey summed it up well by saying that the majority of the complaints postdocs have somes from their experience not meeting their expectations.

So, the question is, how do we (postdocs, society, NIH etc...) make the experience approach the expectations? I would personally like "the system" to start treating me like a Ph.D. and not like a well paid graduate student.

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't think the system will ever be fixed since most PIs perpetuate the "abused child syndrome" that is so prevalent in the system. why should they want to make our lives as post-docs easier??

if we complain about others having too easy a time acquiring a phd, why should we expect anyone to let another have an easy time getting a tenure-track position??

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

How would I change the system.

1. Completely change the way we evaluate 'productivity.' Stop basing it on publication number or journal, but on citations, if it must be based on that at all.

2. Completely change the way we share data. Get rid of publishing papers with data, separate the data from the interpretation. Have individual experiments deposited as data sets in a gigantic, world-wide, publicly-accessible database, and save publications for hypothesis/discussion pieces that will synthesize the data.

That said, no I don't believe that promoting younger people means they will be competing with me for funding. I don't believe that capitalism is the best system for our country, and I don't believe it's the best system for science funding, but it's both right now and I've never thought that was the best or only solution.

I'm not saying it should be easy to get a tenure-track position. I agree with Milo- we were all misled by promises no one could keep. I actually like the 5-year limit on postdocs, because it forces people to realize, before it's really too late, that they're not going to be professors. It's a hard truth and I wish I weren't one of those people, but lately I think I am just one of many overtrained, unlucky, shortsighted people who thought we might be more special than everyone else. We're not. There are no jobs for us.

I'm saying that we have to limit the number of PhDs and postdocs severely or this problem is going to continue. Honestly, when I started school it seemed obvious that I would be able to get a job of some sort when I finished my PhD. Maybe I still can, but I don't think it will be a tenure-track position at a research university.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger TW Andrews said...

I'm assuming that you're looking for academic jobs, correct? Roughly, what is your area of study? Would you consider working in industry (i.e. Pharma)?

At 12:43 PM, Blogger ScienceWoman said...

I think one of the problems in Ph.D. training is that we are not exposed to other career models besides academia. And even within academia we are, by definition, only being exposed to Ph.D. granting research-heavy instititions. I personally have only a very vague idea of what someone with a PhD in my field does in industry, in a natural lab, with local and state governments, non-profits etc. I like research, so is it any surprise that I am applying for jobs at PhD granting institutions? It's the old case of the devil you know...

At 6:14 PM, Blogger TW Andrews said...

No, following the familiar path is pretty normal. But given that you are (or seem anyway, I don't want to be presumptious here) a bit frustrated with the search for a tenure track position at a research university, it might be worth looking into other places where you can do research.

I work for a biotech firm (bioinformatics, we actually do software rather than lab work, but work with a lot of lab scientists) and have a lot of contact with PhD level scientists. They're constantly lamenting the fact that it's hard to find good people, and people with some research under their belts are always in demand.

Working in industry does come with its own set of headaches, which may or may not be tolerable for you. You have quite a bit less control over the direction of your research, but you don't have write grants. There's more pay, but your hours are a bit less flexible (though most places I know are pretty good about this if you're getting stuff done). But in the best case, it's like working in an academic setting, but with more money.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Milo said...


They're constantly lamenting the fact that it's hard to find good people, and people with some research under their belts are always in demand.

I love hearing this, since I am having a heck of a time trying to find an industrial job. I'll gladly help out those lamenting folks... :-)

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Dr J. said...


Exactly. The problem is also that we are trained by people who „made it“ and these tend to have a very low opinion of those who left academic research: “too stupid” or “sellouts”. I´ll just make a brief aside as to how much I detest that, especially when I hear phd students/post-docs spouting their supervisors mantra of the evils of tech transfer and patents and big pharma when the supervisors themselves have consultancies with big pharma, are on biotech advisory boards and have a few patents hidden up their sleeves.

Anyway back to the point: I heard a talk by Paul Smaglik, the editor of Naturejobs. He wrote it up in an editorial but I don´t think that it was as clear as the talk. I now call it the Smaglik Square.

Draw a square. Divide it in two horizontally; the top half is Lab, the bottom Non-Lab. Then divide it vertically into three. These are Academia, Industry and Government. We are trained to think in that the only jobs are in the top left square Academia-Lab, with a little bit in Industry-Lab and Government –Lab. A certain amount of movement between these in your career is possible BUT after a certain age getting into Industry-Lab is almost impossible, while moving OUT of this square is usually quite possible. It is also possible to move down from Lab to Non-Lab, but again age starts playing a role.

In the bottom half start listing all the jobs that are possible eg science journalism/writing/editorship, tech transfer, human relations, marketing etc etc. These are actually present in all Academia , Industry, Government AND it is extremely easy to move between them all at any point in your career.

Looking at his badly scrawled drawing, it became clear to me that I was doing myself a disservice in staying in academia, especially as I was no longer convinced that all the sacrifices were worth it.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger TW Andrews said...

ScienceWoman, that's a really interesting description of the job situation. You're definitely right that in industry at least young people tend to start in the lab and move out of it. I think that people who want to move back into the lab after a some years outside of it probably start their own companies.

Regarding the non-lab jobs, as someone without a post-graduate degree working in biotech, I'm constantly amazed by how much education *everyone* in the field has. Even our pure salespeople have PhDs in biochemistry, molecular biology, or a similar discipline.

It makes me, the technical/scientific contact for our customers, feel incredibly undereducated. Which I am, and am only able to do my job because I've learned quite a bit about a very narrow field of research. My undergraduate degree in math helps the respect factor a bit, but I still have occasional problems with credibility until I estabilish my bonefides.

Anyway, I think that one of the things that helps drive biotech is that there are more people with biotech education than could ever be university researchers.



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