Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Risks and False Rewards

Lately I am faced with a strange choice:

a) an offer to relocate to a really undesirable location for what sounds like a major step forward in terms of being valued for my abilities and helped along my career path

b) stay where I am, which is much riskier, and where I am miserable almost every day, but which is more likely to be finite and has the potential to be much, much flashier and therefore might put me on a more upwardly mobile trajectory in my career path


While mulling this over, and wondering when to break the news to the people here that I'm seriously considering leaving, things have been pretty crappy, and in general, only getting crappier.

Things getting crappier here do not make me think "Gee, I definitely want to stay!"

And I really feel that, of the people I should talk to about how unappreciated I feel around here, none of them are particularly sympathetic to women struggling to make a go of it in academic science, even with all the odds against us. They're not blatantly sexist assholes, they're the more insidious kind: the ones who are threatened by women, but don't consciously realize that they display subtle little ways of favoring men...


I was talking to someone today about how I feel as though the non-PhDs around me are often treated with more respect, expected to work a lot less, paid more, and generally given better resources in terms of the authority to get their work done, than I am.

So I said, I feel like I'm being punished for having a PhD.

This person reminded me that many people believe there are more rewards for going the PhD/postdoc route.

Though she did acknowledge that it is noticeably riskier.


Then we were interrupted, or I would have told her that not only are the risks getting riskier, but the rewards are getting riskier.

But clearly no one realizes that this is part of why we're losing legions of smart people -especially women- at the postdoc level. Most women I know tend to look at an impossible, crappy situation and have an instinctive yet practical response that goes something like,

"There's no way I'd subject myself to that! Isn't that the definition of insanity?"

When you pay non-PhD lab staff more than graduate students or postdocs, you encourage them to stay longer and do menial work. Ok. How else will you get anyone to stick around and do menial work? So that makes sense for science as a whole.

But when you pay graduate students and postdocs less than non-PhD staff, AND give them zero job security, AND expect them to work constantly with no reasonable amount of hope of ever making it to the next level...

Isn't this what they call a zero-sum game?

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At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Carla said...

Hi Ms. PhD,

I understand where you are coming from. I am working as a lab manager/senior lab tech. I have a master's degree, and 5 years of lab experience under my belt. Yes, some days the work is menial or administrative (placing orders, etc). Most of the time it is NOT menial though. I am generally valued and respeceted for the work I do, and for my management skills. And yes, I am paid more than graduate students, and probably quite a few post docs as well. Is this right? NO. I have never understood why someone at the PhD level is punished with low pay, long hours, and unbelievable expectations. I was a PhD student myself at one time, and I chose a different path, for some of the same reasons you are mentioning here. I have noticed a disturbing trend as well...I have worked with 2 female post docs who decided to step backwards on their career path and become senior level lab techs. Why would they do that, you ask? Because they are respected for the work they do as senior techs. They have projects of which they are fully in charge. They are able to work a reasonable schedule and reasonable hours. They have job security and benefits. They can be moms to their little children at home. And you know what? Both of these women are damn happy they took that path. Is it right for everyone? No, of course not. But I think it definitely contributes to the brain drain of woman at the senior level of science. And it also leads to the zero sum game, as you call it.
Who knows how to make the system better? It feels so fundamentally flawed as it is.
Just my two cents.

At 8:38 PM, Blogger Holly said...

It sounds like you have a difficult decision to make; I don't envy you... except that you actually have your PhD (!). It sounds like the riskier, sure to suck royally option because it already does and probably will continue to isn't much of a choice. How likely is it that sticking it out will get you where you want to be and how much longer do you have to stick it out? I can't say that the dilemma I faced was all that similar, but I did leave a place that I really hated - so unhealthy - and am now in a better place for me personally though maybe not professionally. Time will tell... but I am certainly glad for quality of life that I got the hell out. That's my 2c for what it's worth. Good luck.

At 9:44 PM, Anonymous Fitz said...

I had a long postdoc (5 years). I spent 2 of them as a genuine postdoc and then 3 more as a "lab manager" of the same lab (pay = 2X as much) with the promise of a promotion to faculty. It never happened. When I made a motion to leave I got offered essentially the same position but with a better title. no thanks! I ended up taking a genuine faculty position. Although I definitely made sacrifices, I am insanely busy but so much happier, for the reasons you have discussed: I get the freedom to pursue my own ideas! One of the things that really was cutting when I was a post-doc and writing my first grant applications, however, was budgeting for scientific support by people with an MS who made twice what I did and had GREAT hours. That experience definitely made me wonder what I spent all those years doing with my life. Anyway, I can certainly empathize. My advice would be to get out. I wish you the best of luck and will keep reading.

At 9:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what kind of offer? another post-doc?

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a question for you, and everyone else in science who complains about their long work hours. Are you actually told you have to work that much? Or is it self-imposed? I made it through my PhD program working no longer than 40 hours/week on average. Of course I'd stay late occasionally for an experiment, or work an occasional weekend, but I never felt the need (or the pressure) to enslave myself to the lab. I wouldn't say I set the world on fire, but I got my name on 7 papers, 2 of them first author, during the time I was there (6 years). I've now been a postdoc for a little over a year. I work 40 hours per week on average, the same as I did as a grad student. Nobody tells me I should work more, and I don't feel like I should work more. I seem to be accomplishing things. I'm at a good institution. I'm not saying these things to gloat, I am truly curious about this whole expectation of scientists, especially grad students and postdocs, to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week. Can anybody enlighten me?

At 3:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon who did not work 40 hours:

I am curious; the 7 papers that you mention, were they all from your dissertation work. Did you do all the work on the first author papers yourself?

Well, that's how it is for some of us in science. I do every single thing right from the ordering, washing glassware, growing cells, making measurements, data analysis, writing all by myself. It takes me about 60 hours a week to do this.

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the previous comment hit the nail on the head. The more responsibility one takes, the more hours it requires. If you get handed a working project the day you arrive at your postdoc, strictly utilize techniques you mastered in grad school, hand off the writing to your mentor, and have killer support staff I can visualize a 40 hour week.

However, even under those circumstances if you hit a bad stretch where you get negative results for 6 months (and it will happen) you absolutely have to put in the extra hours. Otherwise any search committee worth its salt will wonder about your lack of productivity/publications during your posdoc career.

Is it also somewhat self-imposed? To a certain degree, yes--I plan to kick as much butt as I can during these years so I don't have to do another postdoc.

Then again, anonymous 40-hour-a-weeker could simply just be much more efficient than most people....


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