Detailed Response to Reviewer Comments
These comments are great. I'm glad to hear dissenting opinions re: the average postdoc experiences, and what other lab members witness or perceive as the way postdocs are treated.
1. All I can do here is write about my experience and the experience of the many (hundreds?) of postdocs I've met or heard from. Some of you will stick your heads in the sand and blame my mentors, but mine are not the only ones who have treated postdocs in ways many of you consider unacceptable, nor will they be the last.
2. I strongly disagree that postdocs should be given defined little chunks of someone else's R01 to work on. And someone said their PI doesn't give them time to sit around and read and think??? That's unconscionable. What are we doing here, if we don't have permission to THINK?
I think that grad students and postdocs should be given a general direction to head in, and as far as I'm concerned, they shouldn't even have to continue that way if they find something off the beaten path that looks interesting and useful.
We could talk at length about why this is a problem with the funding system, but we'll leave that for a future post.
You blindfold them, spin them around, and send them into the forest with a pen-knife. The ones that make it out the other side get a degree or a job. This may not be the best way, but it's how I think most of the best scientists got where they are now, and it describes my experience thus far pretty accurately.
I think it's terrible to claim we want independent scientists and then hand them pre-baked projects. We already have too many scientists who have no original ideas, that's part of why everyone is so competitive and always stealing from each other. A friend told me recently she went to a meeting where no less than four talks from four different labs were addressing the same question. If the majority of scientists were truly creative, original thinkers, everyone would be working on their own thing, their own way, and there would be no reason for anyone to ever worry about being scooped.
That's my fantasy, anyway.
3. In response to the person who suggested it, I do think 1-2 years to identify good questions is reasonable for switching fields, but not longer than that.
And I think mentors usually DO try to keep postdocs and grad students on the Usual Path- which I don't think is always a good thing. Otherwise how do we ever branch out into new areas, ask new questions? It seems to me that most science these days is "me too" science. To mix metaphors, of course it's easier to do a variation on a theme than to go hacking into the jungle. But what are we here for? Are we pioneers or aren't we?
I would rather be a pioneer.
I would also always choose someone young and fresh over someone old and established, but that's assuming they have similar management skills, which is very unusual. I think the main difference between young and old labs is that younger people tend to be extreme, whether they mean to or not: either completely hands-off, or expect everyone to do everything their way. Older labs are somewhere in the middle, where they've figured out which things can be flexible, and have established protocols for things that can't.
It's the really horrible lab that has been established for years and has never established a collection of lab protocols. But those labs still exist, too.
Perhaps the decrease in funding will weed some of those labs out.
4. MANY PIs have postdocs write grants and review papers, whether other PIs and postdocs realize that or not. NIH especially seems completely oblivious to the fact. I find it especially funny that postdocs are not allowed to write R01s officially, since many of us have already written R01s and had them funded- for our PIs!
You might think your lab is different. But consider this:if you don't know for sure, it's quite possible that your PI's current R01 may have been written, in small or large part, by a former postdoc or grad student.
Your next paper may be reviewed by a grad student or postdoc in your competitor's lab. Your last paper probably was.
This is just the reality of things nowadays. Nobody checks up on these things, and unless people "out" their PIs for unethically delegating their work, nobody will know how widespread these practices really are. It's quite common at all the schools where I've worked, and from asking around, I know this is not unique to my experience.
5. "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 [getting] 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. "
Congratulations. You're in one of the few, privileged labs run by older white guys. Your PI is probably very famous.
Most of us are not in your situation, and we can't all be- there simply isn't enough space & money to go around, and not all PIs are as good as yours sounds.
Even labs that used to run that way can't sustain that kind of situation anymore, because their R01s aren't getting renewed every cycle, even when they get high scores in review. And most labs that used to run that way have no plan for what to do now that they can't sustain their usual privileged lifestyle.
That said, I think that's terrible training. The postdocs coming out of your lab are exactly the sort who are going to struggle with writing their first grants and having to figure out how to subsist on a budget, because they haven't had any experience relevant to knowing how to do it. What kind of training is that?
6. To the very observant technician, yes I've seen PIs who regularly blow a fuse at poorly trained students and postdocs who present poorly controlled data at every lab meeting. Shouldn't they? Of course there are good and bad ways to do it.
This is probably why these postdocs are hesitant to offer suggestions to the boss regarding their projects, because he sounds like the type who wants everything done his way and expects everyone to read his mind, and is probably verbally abusive to boot.
You have to ask yourself, if he's such a 'big man' in his field, then why is he hiring so many poorly trained postdocs? Can't he figure out how to hire good people? Or does no one good want to apply there, because they've all heard he's a royal jerk?
Perhaps this isn't such a good lab.
7. Re: the person who complains bitterly about the older white guys thing.
It's a generalization. Obviously there are fabulously nice, liberated, genuinely mentoring, older white guys out there. I've met some.
But the fact is even the good ones got where they are now without facing many of the problems that their female peers faced, not to mention what racial minorities or people with physical handicaps or cultural/language barriers have to put up with on a daily basis.
Add to that the fact that, historically, the only people who could afford to do science were those who came from rich families. Here you have a rather spoiled, homogeneous population who either choose to ignore, or are ignorant of the fact, that the playing field is not level. These guys may not be the majority, but they're certainly the most powerful minority, and they're still around.
So to sum up, not all older white guys are the extreme stereotype I mean when I use that term. But there are lots of advantages to physically resembling the group of people who are currently in power.
When they walk a mile in my bra, they -and you- might have a better idea what I'm talking about here. I will never be able to walk even one step in their very privileged shoes.