Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sigma Whatever: part II

Ugh, Worked 13 solid hours today, and have another day of potentially infinite length tomorrow. I think my hourly wage this week is significantly less than the $14.95 quoted in the report.

Okay, whatever, we're not in it for the money. That's news.

But the part where postdocs can supposedly

focus on research without having to teach or be burdened with administrative responsibilities... freedom from ancillary responsibilities enables these scientists to be tremendously productive

This is in the 2nd paragraph, and it's COMPLETE BULLSHIT. I'm sure there are some postdocs, somewhere- maybe in Howard Hughes land?- who don't have to train graduate students and technicians, do ordering, write their own or their PI's grants, attend meetings about policy and safety....

I'm not sure these spoiled brats really exist in significant numbers as postdocs, but somehow they all magically appear when it's time to snatch up the few available faculty positions. How that does work??



I was surprised that Molecular and Cellular Biology have more postdocs than any other field, and that Developmental Biology, for example, has so few. What's up with that?

I always assumed that the kinds of biology that tend to take longer (say, waiting for mice to grow) might require more years to complete X # required publications to get a job. So it would stand to reason that the 'slower' kinds of biology would have more postdocs, not less. But according to these numbers, that's not true. Does that mean Developmental is just a really un-popular field right now?



More frightening claims made in the report:

Women with children report working almost six fewer hours per week in the lab than their childless peers, whereas for men the reduction associated with parenting is only three hours per week. This difference may explain part of the 10-percent disparity in publication rates between men and women, something observed both in our survey and in previous studies.

OH. MY. GOD.

I couldn't believe the way they said this. Don't they have any conscience whatsoever?

And, I find it very interesting that already at the postdoc level- does anyone know if this is true in grad school- women have fewer papers than men do.

Since only 1/3 of postdocs have children, this seems to imply that most female postdocs have children-?

Has anyone really done any kind of correlation analysis on whether women with children have fewer papers than women without children? This is all so Larry Summers to me. Somebody should check the actual data for the survey (I don't have time right now!).

In general, what bothers me the most is fundamental contradiction in the way the report is written:

On the one hand, supposedly postdocs are complaining that they need more guidance. I think what we really mean when we say 'guidance' is in terms of how to deal with having a boss and getting our next jobs. I don't think we need more guidance in the lab. Yet postdocs also report that they have very little freedom to set up their own collaborations, terminating failing projects, write papers, or determine authorship on papers. This would imply that postdocs are not, as the report suggests, flailing in the wind with no direction and too much freedom.

On the contrary, the survey results strongly support the notion that far too many postdocs are being treated like SuperTechs far too much of the time.

Finally, and I should get going here because it's late and I'm exhausted (but pissed off!!!), the Hypotheses they list at the end for whether structured oversight, their main proposal, is a solution.

Hypothesis 1: Structured oversight would make postdocs happier.

Huh? The more rational among us realize that in a broken system, instituting more systematic control is NOT the solution. We have to THROW THE WHOLE SYSTEM OUT AND START OVER.


Hypothesis 2: Structured positions attract people who like structure.

Okay, this statement by itself makes sense. Then they go on to say something that I can't interpret, because it's a totally nonsense run-on sentence. Can someone please translate convoluted run-on into English? From what I can make of it, they say Hypothesis 2 makes no sense, and that they 'tested it', but I can't see how they possibly could prove this statement wrong, since it's a very logical statement.

If anything, I think more structure will do exactly that: attract people who like rules and classes and being told what to do. Is this good for science?

I think not.

Hypothesis 3: Structured oversight, satisfaction and productivity are all associated with a common, unobserved, underlying cause.

HELL YEAH. And it would have been OBSERVED if they had analyzed the survey data correctly.

I'm 90% certain that if the responses to every question were analyzed for gender and race, they would find great evidence that satisfaction among young white guys correlates highly with being in well-funded labs, predominantly headed by old white guys.

Satisfaction among everyone else is pretty low.

Oh and I LOVE their suggestion that NSF or NIH "could" require research plans and formal feedback "of a randomly selected subset of fellowship recipients."

NIH already requires progress reports for fellowships, just like for Real Grants. PIs don't read them or make them an occasion for more formal feedback than usual. And random checks? Give me a break.

Either institute some accountability for PIs, or don't bother.

We should build something into R01 review requiring that PIs help place their postdocs in gainful employment of some kind.

I don't think forcing postdocs to attend more classes to make up for their PI's complete lack of mentoring is the solution.

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12 Comments:

At 4:08 AM, Blogger dlamming said...

Lots of comments:

For what it's worth, I've never seen postdocs have to write grants and attend meetings about policy and safety. Some postdocs I know do help with grants from time to time - but that's a valuable learning experience for them as much as it is helping the PI. Some postdocs also spend a lot of time going to meetings about postdoctoral training, but it's all optional.

Re ordering: I (a grad student) do the ordering for my lab. Other people keep TC clean, or make buffers, or tend water baths. Doesn't everybody have a lab job?

Developmental biology is certainly not the only (or even the main?) field that requires waiting for mice to grow.

Personally, I think guidance also includes help in lab. After all, if you have awesome projects and a great publication record, it's going to be much easier to find a job.

 
At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with structure in the laboratory, as long as it isn't embodied by a PI who looks over you shoulder all of the time. When people say they want more structured oversight, my interpretation is they want more guidance in their project. How many people do you know toiling away at projects that are a waste of time and effort because their PI doesn't have their best interests at heart, and allows (or worse, encourages) them to pursue things that are in their best interest to do? You seem to hold people who would like a little advice and mentoring in disdain as "SuperTechs", but you have to realize that not everyone enters their postdoc as an expert in the field, and in fact many come from different areas of research and expertise. You can't just expect these people to jump in and know all of the relevant questions, techniques, etc.

 
At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, the number number of mathematics postdocs is so small it barely gets a mention!

Back to my nonexistent lab for more LaTeXing.

 
At 7:48 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dlamming said I've never seen postdocs have to write grants and attend meetings about policy and safety. This is exactly my point- most of the toiling we do goes unnoticed, even by grad students, because we do it outside the wetlab. I know I for one had no clue postdocs did so much of this stuf when I was a grad student.

And most of it is not optional. Writing grants, while seemingly optional, is not really volunteer work.

Lab jobs are great when you have responsible lab members. When you don't, they're a joke.

I've never had much guidance in the lab, or wanted it. A little shove here and there when I was going off course, yes, but the only person who ever held my hand was a technician, when I was first starting out. Along those lines, I think it's ridiculous that technicians are training students.

I think postdocs who switch fields should READ LOTS OF PAPERS, GO TO MEETINGS, AND ASK QUESTIONS. They shouldn't be told what to work on or how to work on it.

If you can't figure out how to jump into a new field and ask lots of good questions, you shouldn't have a PhD. Dumb questions are okay too, and you'll probably need to ask lots of technical questions. But that's totally different from having someone tell you what experiments to do.

 
At 9:03 PM, Anonymous qiafucked said...

I think you need a "build a better postdoc" post on what the structure should be...it is always fun to fantasize after all.

And re: guidance about careers, I think many PIs have a hard time with that because they only know the path they took (which may have involved luck and/or cronyism, things difficult to replicate). My PI, for instance, can only tell me about becoming a tenured professor, and considers other career tracks to be for failures. I kid you not--he refers to teachers, science writers, etc. as "failed scientists". (I dream of pointing out that he is a failed teacher...)

 
At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's up with the young white guys....old white guys thing...I take strong exception to such sexist/racist comments....Do you have a basis for such insinuation?

 
At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think postdocs who switch fields should READ LOTS OF PAPERS, GO TO MEETINGS, AND ASK QUESTIONS. They shouldn't be told what to work on or how to work on it.

If you can't figure out how to jump into a new field and ask lots of good questions, you shouldn't have a PhD. Dumb questions are okay too, and you'll probably need to ask lots of technical questions. But that's totally different from having someone tell you what experiments to do."

Most PIs don't give postdocs the leeway to sit around and try to figure out a project. They have specific projects that, when a postdoc enters the lab, are given to him/her to work on. The postdoc contributes to the project, and comes up with experiments and ideas of his/her own, but they aren't given carte blanche to do whatever they want. This is why they are POSTDOCS, not PIs.

Your view of things is very narrow and biased. I enjoy your writing but find you to be very inflexible and judgemental. To suggest that someone that needs a little guidance in their postdoc shouldn't have a PhD is, frankly, ridiculous.

 
At 7:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think postdocs who switch fields should READ LOTS OF PAPERS, GO TO MEETINGS, AND ASK QUESTIONS. They shouldn't be told what to work on or how to work on it.

This sentiment is just silly. When you switch fields you are (hopefully) bringing your previous expertise to an area that needs it. And you are offering to take a hit in productivity for a while to learn something new. You can't know what the standards are for your new field, or what the open problems are. In my experience (I've done this three times now since my undergrad days), it takes 1-2 years to be able to identify really good (important yet tractable) problems and build an experience base to address them. You should be able to count on your mentor to keep you from wandering off the path - otherwise what's the point in working for them.

If you stay in the same field for your entire training, you'd better be up and running a lot earlier in your career. But you have to work as long and as hard as those of us who switch fields a couple times. If you only do one thing you have to come out of that training as one of the best couple people in the field. Period. Otherwise what's the point in hiring you? I mean, hiring your mentor would be the safer bet. They're already established and have demonstrated that they can perform at that level.

 
At 9:30 PM, Anonymous kevin. said...

You said Dlamming said I've never seen postdocs have to write grants and attend meetings about policy and safety. This is exactly my point- most of the toiling we do goes unnoticed, even by grad students, because we do it outside the wetlab. I know I for one had no clue postdocs did so much of this stuf when I was a grad student.

I think Dlamming has it more correct than you do, actually. Everyone goes to policy and safety meetings, but it should be once. At most it should be once a year. If you're doing more than that, someone needs to fix that--you, your PI, or chair or whatever. That's just stupid. I don't know what 'policy' you're talking about, but it sounds like a micromanagers wet dream over there.

Second--most postdocs don't write their own grants or help with their PIs other than a look over and discussion. That's just silly. You're doing the PIs work anyway, and they have a grant, so they should do that. It's their job after all. Now a fellowship, that's different, but once it's done you've couple a couple/few years. After that, I agree it gets complicated. If your PI wants you to write for your own money, well I guess you do that. Otherwise, it's time to get yourself a job and write a grant for yourself. A postdoc in my old lab kept being urged by the PI to get his own little NIH grant. Idea being that 'you've already shown you can get your own money, so you're more hire-able.' Strung along for his green card, too. Fast forward two years with no joy on the grant apps and five+ years into his postdoc. Research and publications are going great, but he's getting strung along with promises of a better "Instructor" type position at the school instead of looking out for himself. Jive. So, he decides to apply for jobs "just to see" and sure enough he gets one, and blammo, cya, he's gone and never looks back and now doing great.

No one in my current lab writes grants after their fellowships run out (if they got them). The PI thinks that it just distracts you from getting research done and papers out. The PI (an older white guy) has had very good luck getting his people hired, so everyone leaves eventually to something good or good enough. Our postdocs just stick around on the lab R01 until they can find a job. I have a feeling that most of the PIS of the high-end labs have sufficient funding to make sure the people don't write a grant until after they get their own lab.

Oh, and technicians can teach students just fine. I wouldn't trust my current PI to know practical research stuff. He's great for direction, good controls, seminars, and letters of reference. Everything else he's a menace. Technicians, students, and postdocs are the only ones who know anything about anything. In a lab with no or few postdocs, technicians have an essential role to play as the lab parent who protects you from the sometimes-clueless PI. Your PI's job should be to provide you with the money and resources so you can get your research done. Sounds like you're being exploited by a bad mentor.

 
At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog off and on and find it quite interesting. I just started work in a lab that has 6 post-docs and a couple of techs (no grad students). I am one of the techs (the reason I took this job, is because I kind of switched fields and although I have a DVM degree, it didn't give me any relevant mol. bio. experience, so here I am!).
Anyway, from my experience, my PI is a very big man in his field and has high expectations of his post-docs. They work almost 80 hr weeks/weekends and have more than five top priority projects. Of course, they have really good publication rates and I guess eventually it will be a win-win. But it seems extremely stressful (and this coming from someone who would have 18hr study days) I often wonder if it is worth doing a PhD and a post-doc.
Having spent three years in grad school (post DVM) in a MS program, I did learn about how to work a project, plan experiments, analyzing data and so on. You know, usual things you learn in grad school. One thing I did notice was some of the post docs in my lab, seem to lack the investigative skills. This seems more apparent in foreign educated post-docs, they don't know how to trouble shoot experiments, present obviously misleading data at lab meetings without rational explanations and of course, the usual communication problems. I guess, that is one of the reasons why my boss readily blows a fuse at every lab meeting. Do you see this often?
Another thing, that I have noticed is the post-docs in my lab are hesitant to offer my boss any suggestions regarding their projects and usually have him determine what needs to be done next. Like I said, I have just started the job and these are just my observations, but it strikes me as extremely odd. What is your take on this?

 
At 11:12 AM, Anonymous liza said...

First of all, I think that people who answer these postdoc surveys are people who are generally happy in their jobs. That's normal. When you are confident, you think that everyone wants your opinion. Perhaps I am overconfident right now!

Second, I switched fields as a postdoc, and while I was able to write 90 percent of a (funded) million Euro grant proposal, I am dying for more guidance. I think that a happy medium needs to be struck between being a "supertech" and a postdoc cum PI. Isn't that exactly what a postdoc is for???

Third, and this is to the last poster, technicians do not get put on papers as authors in France. Even if you did all the work, you just get an acknowlegement. FUed? I should think so.

Fourth, and I think that this applies to your previous post, ms. PhD, it is obvious that the bar is set incredibly low for PhD admissions in science, or at least chemistry (my field). PI's want workers ("hands"), and do not do the kind of mentoring and job counselling that you might find in other fields. This is a serious issue, and if the ACS comes out with another study on how "we are not training enough people in science" I am gonna barf.

 
At 6:49 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

For what it's worth, I've never seen postdocs have to write grants and attend meetings about policy and safety.

dlam, I think it's safe to say your lab is an exception. At least in labs where the PI isn't actually at the bench anymore, the senior postdocs (I've encountered) end up running the day-to-day show.

 

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