Friday, September 01, 2006

Labor (Day) Weekend

Yes folks, I will be working tomorrow, the day after, and possibly some of Monday. I'd like to think of it in part as a statement against the whole UAW thing. What good is a union going to do for me? Not working this weekend would actually be worse, I think, than just getting these experiments done.

So yesterday was AWFUL, but I went out with a friend and vented for a few hours about how I really can't see what staying a postdoc any longer is going to do for me. Sure, I'll have more experience. So what? Do I really need more experience?

Yesterday was particular awful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I realized something really depressing this week.

I'm terrified that my PI thinks I'm going to stick around here for a lot longer than I want to. I thought I was safe, because I've been a postdoc for long enough that I can't be one much longer, thanks to length-of-postdoc limits.
But I was wrong.

Although some universities are now putting limits on how long a person can stay a postdoc, they've gone on to condone, even encourage, what used to be considered a really unusual thing: yet another intermediate step.

Yes, that's right, the Super Doc position- known as Assistant Something Scientist/Researcher, depending on where you go, is becoming more and more popular.

It used to be hard to get these positions, because these people get paid almost as much as starting faculty, and since they can't write their own R01 grants, usually someone else (usually a faculty member) has to pay them the big bucks off of his/her own grants.

On the one hand, it could be viewed as progress. It used to be quite common for a person to remain a postdoc for years and years. Some universities like to claim the average postdoc length is 1-3 years, but that's bullshit. Most people switch labs at least once. So even if they switched labs, the sum total of the average postdoctoral work (I'm talking mostly people who go on to faculty positions, here) was frequently in the range of 5-9 years.

Now it seems that, although the sum total of time is still insanely long, at least for the last few of those years, the person might actually get, you know, paid more.

After all, there's nowhere near enough faculty positions for all the people who want them. Where else are we going to put them?

Enter the mentality of "Well it worked before with the postdocs, and now they're getting all organized and starting unions and stuff, so let's see if we can't pull one over on them again."


What's sad is, I don't think anyone has even noticed yet that the pattern is repeating itself. So, you heard it here first, folks. Those with science PhDs are doomed to repeat history because we didn't learn it.


In other news... well there is no other news I can actually talk about here.

On a positive note, I did some benchwork today and it was GREAT. I feel less tired, less stressed, and less generally depressed than yesterday. I'm still royally pissed off about a whole pile of things, but I'm hoping I can come in tomorrow and get some actual DATA. The day before data is like the night before Christmas, only better, because if it worked, you know exactly what you got. No need to shake the box.

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At 8:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading your nonsense, I really think that you are a big loser. You are bascially a grown up geek. You should think about smoking some herb and getting laid.

At 6:58 AM, Blogger dlamming said...

I'm going to ignore some of the points of your post, and go after "what could the union do for me?" After all, you're correct - mandatory 40-hr weeks or not working on the weekends are pretty useless! So here are things a unions could push for:

1) Job security. Postdocs can be fired without cause and without notice, which pushes people to work harder and take less vacation time. In an ideal world, postdocs (after a 3 month probationary period) be hired for ~2 year contracts, during which time they could only be fired for cause.
2) Vacations. See above. Everyone needs time to relax and recover, so why don't postdocs get vacation time like everyone else? If you have a good boss, you don't need specified vacation time, but some people probably do.
3) Paid maternity leave.
4) Increased availability of child care
5) Conferences. One thing I've noticed is that how many conferences you go to vary a lot both by lab and by person. Every postdoc should have a yearly travel budget (probably about $1000-$1500), and perhaps an equipment budget as well. Most good fellowships provide this anyway, but lots of people don't get them.
6) Health care (tho I think we should go for universal health care, so...)
7) Disability/workers comp. Accidents happen. If you're injured at a construction site, no matter who's fault it is, you're entitled to workers compensaion payments if you're unable to work anymore. Sure, the system gets abused sometimes, but injuries are a real problem... and accidents are just as likely to happen in a lab, though usually they are less serious. Still,if you get blinded or crippled by a lab accident, wouldn't it be nice to know that you're not going to starve to death as a result?

That's all I got for now. :)

At 8:47 AM, Anonymous Betsy said...

I think there are some advantages to the "Research Assistant Professor" position (or whatever they choose to call it). Particularly if you're at an institution that doesn't consider postdocs as staff, being promoted could get you benefits (e.g. health insurance, defined vacation time) that you would otherwise be denied. Depending on the position (and the institution), you might be able to apply for funding that you wouldn't be able to as a postdoc. If you want to remain in academia, it's a great option. Probably doesn't mean much if you intend to go into industry. But if you were on an academic hiring committee and saw 2 applicants, a 6-year postdoc and a 3-year postdoc who went on to a 3-year "research professorship", with all other things equal, who would you hire? To me, if someone has been promoted (even if it's a bullshit promotion), that means that they're not just skating along, that their boss thought enough of them to keep them around, even if they didn't have to.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger John said...

You seriously think no one has noticed that research faculty do not have the possibility of long-term job security? And that their numbers are growing?

The straightforward way to look at the situation is that there is (still) ample research funding, but universities are unwilling to allow the number of tenured faculty to grow at the prodigious rate it has since WWII. So well-paid but non-secure positions are available (and have been for years) intermediate between post-doc and tenure-track jobs.

I don't see a conspiracy from the top, rather the research jobs are a bonus of the ample funding available in some fields.

Universities try to allocate faculty slots on the basis of TEACHING needs, usually undergraduate teaching needs. So just having lots of people who want a faculty job, and have research funding in hand for the next few years, does not move a university to open faculty slots.

At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yes, that's right, the Super Doc position- known as Assistant Something Scientist/Researcher, depending on where you go, is becoming more and more popular"

Are you referring to "Research Assistant Professors"? a non-tenure track, all soft money semi-faculty? working under a big PI running his lab, writing his grants, mentoring students and all kinds of work.

I am not sure RAPs or super-postdocs as you call them, get paid as tt faculty. TT gets around 70-80K. Where I am right now, TTs get 83K right off the bat! RAPs typically get between 50-60K. However, depending on his/her skill set and experience, it could be slighlty higher.

If you are not referring to a RAP, then I wish you provide us with the title and salary range, hell you never know, one of us could apply for that job! LOL.Things are quite bad on my front with loans and credit cards and what not!

Mr. Dubious

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are an intelligent, talented woman, and it is a shame to see that the system is not helping people like you achieve your full potential.

you need to read this article by Greenspun which explains why women leave science - basically because they are smarter than men and realize a bad deal when they see it.

At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


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The OMMBID blog ( is open to everyone, is updated regularly, and provides a forum to debate and share information on advances in the field as recorded in the book. The blog enables users to be more involved in the process of content development.

Please visit the blog, write posts, and if you wish, please advertise it on your own blog.

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Philippe Campeau
Resident in Medical Genetics at McGill University

At 5:31 AM, Anonymous Abel Pharmboy said...

After reading your threads on the UAW, I tend to agree that the union might not be able to answer the critical question you raise:

After all, there's nowhere near enough faculty positions for all the people who want them. Where else are we going to put them?

I abhor the Assistant Scientist/Researcher designation solely because it is more indentured servitude without the chance to write your own R01s, or even R21s.

For really committed people like you who are great, the institution should make you a Research Assistant Professor, a position from which you could write independent grants. You should be able to have this designation with your current PI (or new PI), with the stipulation the institution will provide you lab space if you are funded. I have seen this work many times with chairpersons who are committed deeply to junior faculty development.

The only caveat is if institutions were to abuse this designation and pool Res Asst Profs into common labs, or not follow through on space/equipment commitments after grants are funded - study sections easily see through lack of institutional commitment and word gets around very, very quickly as to who is playing nice with their junior faculty.

The overall problem is that there is a disconnect between the training/career development and independent research arms of the US biomedical research enterprise. Yes, indeed, we trained far too many grad students and postdocs in the 1990s only to find that economic pressures at NIH and research institutions did not translate into the requisite increase in faculty slots. Now, it's even worse - if you are lucky enough to be in the 0.5-2% of applicants to land a faculty position, you get to face the worst NIH funding situation since the early 90s.

I'm not yet in a position to implement the answers, but I sure wish that someone at high levels of NIH would ask the questions you are and take some bloody action, already!

At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Daniel Lemire said...

My honest advice: quit and go work for yourself. At least, quit in your head.

I left quite rudely my post-doc (in the middle of it) to do contract work. What??!?! Contract work? Yes. That's what I did. I created my own company. 6 months later I was earning much more than I could have ever earned with my post-doc. I spent a few years in industry. Came back to a professorship in a small university, moved to a government research lab, and finally got back to my home town in a relatively interesting school as a prof.

Meanwhile, I know plenty of people who played it safe and stuck with the post-doc only to end up "assistant this or that" as you say.

Actually, I'd go back to industry right now if I could. But at this moment, there is no nice job or nice business opportunity, in my home town...

It is a misconception that industry is less interesting than university. Get this out of your head lady!

So quit. Really do quit.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear Anonymous, I love your comment. It made me smile.

Dear dlamming, we already have all that at UC, almost as much as any faculty do (I'm referring especially to things like childcare and maternity leave, anyway). It's called APM-390. Unfortunately it seems most of the postdocs- and everyone else- are in the dark about that.

Betsy, I've never seen anyone get an RAP position after 3 years. It's more like the only place they have to put you after 5-7 years, when you hit the postdoc limit. And to me, most of the people who've been kept around tend to be on the insecure side. They feel safer having someone else write the grants while they're sheltered for a few more years. Which I can respect in some ways, but in other ways I don't think it does anyone any favors. It means we're selecting for people who are uncertain of themselves, who just cling to their PI as long as they possibly can. What kind of leader is that?? Or they're just slow, and they need to be postdocs that long to come up with an interesting idea of their own? That's no good. The other side of the coin is the issue that PIs can use it as a way to keep an underpaid grantwriter on staff. I say that because it seems to be what most RAPs end up doing- writing grants for people other than themselves. So it's just extended exploitation in those cases. All around, not much better than a postdoc, though you have a point that it might look better on a CV.

John, yes I seriously think no one has noticed that research faculty are basically just the grown-up older brothers and sisters of the current burgeoning postdoc population. I haven't seen a single article about it, despite the huge burst of publishing on the Plight of Postdocs and all that stuff that makes us sound like flightless, soon-to-be-extinct birds.

I agree that universities are just looking for people to teach and don't want to give jobs to people just because they have research funding.

Why isn't there are better mechanism for doing government-funded research, besides universities? There are more research-only institutions popping up here and there, but they have a whole pile of other problems I won't talk about here.

Mr Dubious, who asked about RAPs and said they don't get paid as much as TT, that's an interesting point about it differing a lot depending on where you are. Where I am, I think the difference is minimal. RAPs get ~55k, and TT assistant profs get something like 65-70k starting (depending on whether they know anything about how to negotiate). It also depends on where your salary comes from- a K-grant or someone else's R01 or what.

Dear Philippe, thanks for letting us know about that! Everyone should go check it out (which I haven't done yet).

Abel Pharmboy put it nicely, that Assistant positions are basically glorified servitude... though where I am, you can write R21s in that job title, and someone was telling me about R03s the other day. But it all requires special permission from the Dean, of course, who has to like your PI, or the whole thing is moot.

Did I mention how much I hate the politics of hiring?

I have to say, along the lines of telling NIH what to do, that this crap about not giving grants to young people because of how their universities behave... is very much blaming the victim.

I got screwed on this with my postdoc fellowship applications, but instead of people coming right out and saying "This PI is a complete psycho! Get out of there right now!" they made up some bullshit about how it wasn't clear how much 'training' I would get there, yada yada. In SRA-speak, that basically means "get out of there right now!" but I didn't know that then.

My point being, NOT giving me the money gave me no options whatsoever, and I was told to wait another year -??? Where the hell was I supposed to go in the meantime, with no funding?? And they had nothing bad to say about me or my proposal, so far as I could tell. Just that I wasn't good at choosing labs.

Which I had, of course, figured out on my own by the time I got all this helpful feedback!

So I have to wonder how many good people we're losing because they're unlucky in geography, and for whatever reasons (significant other localization being a big one for many people) can't move, are getting screwed just because some former department chair pissed off someone on a committee at NIH a few years ago and got the whole university onto the shitlist.

Daniel, I admire you. If I had any interest in creating a company- or anything marketable, for that matter- I would have done it by now. Ditto for moving back to my home town, but that's just me. That said, it's always good reinforcement to hear from intelligent people who say industry is not dull (or at least, not any more than academia).

At 11:12 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

p.s. to anonymous about the phil greenspun article, oddly enough i had already read that one. i like phil, but sometimes he depresses me, and sometimes he amuses me, and sometimes he annoys me, and frequently i'm just jealous because he says what i already knew but he says it better than i've said it.

At 8:30 PM, Anonymous Angela said...

Hello, I just found your blog and it is really interesting that this is the first post that I read. I am assuming you are my age or even younger and at one time I was on track to have your "job" but working as a simple research assistant with a BS for a PI who took all credit for everything (while demeaning and sexually harassing us) convinced me that I might want to rethink my plans. Your comment about losing people because of geography and the localization of research centers is why I am no longer working in research. Of course I am also now a mother of a preschooler which would make things like working Labor Day weekend especially unpleasant (not that it is pleasant anyway.) I am going to be coming back to read. I actually found your blog when I was thinking that blogs by scientists might be a way for me to reconnect to my "field" in some way. BTW, I always loved benchwork, I could probably be a lowly assistant and enjoy myself working with the right investigator.

At 11:37 PM, Blogger element said...

Great blog. I just added you to the list of blogs on Element List (

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Can I hire you? Really wish I had funding for a bright, mature technician of my very own.

I laughed at your blog post about your precocious daughter, but I hate having to put my (real) email address so I never comment on sites that require it.

Element- Awesome! I love your site! Thanks for blogrolling.


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