Friday, February 22, 2008

Career Myths about Grad School and Postdocs

Today I'm thinking about some things I used to think, and some things I know are still common beliefs about science. All of them can be dangerous assumptions, to differing degrees.

1. Appearances don't matter as much in science.

One of the things that attracted me to science was the false belief that it was more about putting in an honest day's work for a good cause than anything else, and that smart people didn't care what you wear or whether you're a minority or not.

Boy was that wrong!

Looking back, I got this impression based on working in the lab, down in the trenches, as it were. I liked the uniform of jeans and a t-shirt.

It never really occurred to me until relatively recently, but I've blogged about it a lot: to get from the trenches to the office, some people will judge you based on totally irrelevant criteria.

I knew this was true in other jobs. I just didn't think it would matter as much in science.

2. A PhD automatically means people without a PhD will respect your opinion more than they would have before you got the PhD.

When I had already been a postdoc for a while, I found myself in a sticky situation with a technician who just would not listen to anything I said.

Once upon a time, I looked up to the technicians. Many of them had more experience than I did, and some were immeasurably helpful to me.

I've always believed that, in terms of day-to-day things in the lab, a PhD just means you've logged a certain number of years at the bench. And experience, so far as I can tell, reigns supreme at the bench. And you never really know how much experience anyone has until you work with them.

Appearances, even in science, can be deceiving.

I didn't expect him to just take my word for anything, I would patiently try to explain my reasoning, but he just refused to listen.

Looking back, I think things were fine until he found out I had a PhD.

I've run into this a lot. People treat you a certain way when they assume you are a grad student, and they treat you differently from the moment they find out that you are not.

In retrospect, this was a horrible example of exactly the kind of sexism I have always tried to avoid, because I literally could not get my work done.

The PI was unreceptive. On the other hand, I never really spelled it out because I sensed that it would get me in trouble AND do nothing to improve the situation. Maybe I was wrong about that, but there's no way to know. And these things do have a statute of limitations.

I was thinking about this because someone I hadn't seen in a long time was asking me how my work was going since last we met.

I was thinking back over the setbacks I've had this year, large and small.

This last year was crippled with mostly small setbacks, but several of them could be traced to the same couple of sources. But there were at least a couple of large setbacks. In at least one case I lost a lot of time, but there was nothing I could have done differently.

But I'm not sure there was anything I could have done to make things turn out differently with this guy.

The biggest problem was that it took me a while to figure out if this guy was just weird. You know how some people in labs are just argumentative. I know someone who is like this, but it's how he behaves with everyone, no matter if you're young or old or tall or short or male or female or any color of the rainbow. That's just how he is.

And for a while there were no other women around, so I couldn't help wondering if it was really just me, or if it was actually because I was a woman.

The worst kind of woman. A woman with a PhD.

3. Sexism used to be worse, so women who complain about it now are just ungrateful and negative.

Maybe it's actually worse to be aware of sexism. That's certainly the message I've gotten from talking with older women faculty, who were either born with blinders on and apparently never took them off, or cultivated a kind of denial that I just can't muster.

It's like the conversation over at Jenny F. Scientist about whether outright falsification is worse, or not as bad, as cherry-picking from non-robust data.

The argument is that totally false data is much easier to identify than data that has been 'massaged.' By this reasoning, cherry-picking or massaging data is much more insidious, and much more dangerous, because it's a much bigger waste of everyone's time.

So while it might seem intuitive that blatant sexism is worse than subtle sexism, I don't think that's really the case anymore. Everyone agrees that blatant sexism is bad, and most people will speak out against it.

The problem with subtle sexism is that it's not minor. Passive aggression can be just as destructive as overt aggression. But it's much harder to prove.

Seems to me this is like the cherry-picking. Everyone's first inclination, when they can't be sure otherwise, is to blame themselves. And then we end up in situations like the one I just described, where you miss the crucial moment to do anything about it.

4. Faculty have not only personal experience, but also lots of ideas about what you should learn in grad school and as a postdoc.

False, false, and false!

For a while now in science, the gradual creeping increase of time in grad school and postdoc has been widening the generation gap.

But I had the unusual experience recently of hearing someone with an MD talking about what should be taught in grad school.

This same person was telling students to finish their PhD just because it would be useful.

I'm sorry, but what the hell would you know about it???

Similarly, I noticed pretty early in my postdoc that most older PIs have no concept whatsoever of what it's like for us as postdocs now. Most of them did a postdoc that lasted a maximum of two years, and then they got a job.

The end! Ta da! Wouldn't that be nice??

Again, if you haven't ever been through it, how much could you really know?

And yet, these are the people in charge (you know, the ones I'm always ranting about).

Worse than that, I heard a PI recently exhorting grad students to do a postdoc, but when asked about what exactly should be learned in a postdoc position, this PI had no idea how to respond.

(Here's a hint: if you're a PI, you should know the answer to this!)

5. A PhD is a useful jumping-off point for many careers, so it's a degree worth getting, even if you realize early in grad school that you're miserable.

This was probably true when grad school was less than 5 or 6 years. It may still be true in the UK and some European countries where grad school is ~ 3 years max.

But I don't really think it's true anymore, or good advice at all.

I mean, sure, if you're miserable and more than halfway done, you should probably finish. But isn't that true for most endeavors?

But if you know before you take your qualifying exams that you hate it?

Get out.

And whatever you do, DO NOT go to grad school to figure out what you want to do.

Figure it out first.

Along those lines, I'm starting to wonder if we shouldn't be requiring students to go out and work for a few years before grad school.

I sincerely doubt that graduate programs could get away with the same kinds of abuse if students knew a little more about how much better it could be, and demanded it.

But that's just one theory.

On the flip slide, I've noticed a disturbing trend among my friends who worked before grad school: they tend to want to just put their head down, do their work, and get back out of academia as fast as possible.

I think this is bad because these kinds of students are not invested in giving back as they go along. I don't like the idea of grad school as a purely selfish undertaking to get a degree. I think this really misses the point.

If you just want to pay your dues and get your degree, get an MBA or a JD.

If you can see that things need to be better, but you're not willing to say it, please go away. We already have enough people like you.

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At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

GREAT post! Should be required reading for everyone thinking of grad school. The problem is, we can tell people these things but they probably won't listen. I know when people told me things like this when I first started I just shrugged it off. Oh well, its like telling your daughter it might not be a good idea to marry her high school boyfriend; she'll learn, but only with her own experience......

At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, so I did a cop out and posted my comments back at my blog... (You certainly don't need to approve this comment when moderating--I'm not trying to do an unsolicited blog plug, I just wanted to give you a heads up).

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous HG said...

I sincerely doubt that graduate programs could get away with the same kinds of abuse if students knew a little more about how much better it could be, and demanded it.

I think Fiebelman makes the same free-market argument about tenure-track jobs it in his book A PhD is Not Enough". Only I doubt it's really the case that people who apply for these jobs don't know what they're getting into; they're just willing to accept being miserable in exchange for the perks of an academic job. I would tend to believe the same about grad students.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger B said...

No! Everything you say of the legal profession is true, too. Don't encourage the lost to seek out a JD. It has many of the same shortcomings as a Ph.D with the added downside that there's not even the possibility of getting grants to fund it. There are way too many other ways to gain valuable life lessons without spending $150k! :)

At 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved the post - good thoughts, and here are a few of mine to go along. The denial of sexism you refer to I prefer to call "willful ignorance". Willful ignorance watches someone else be put in compromising and avoidable situations and does nothing. Somehow this behavior is rationalized by either thinking that they are somehow absolved of responsibility (after all they weren't the ones being sexist) or by reasoning that it really isn't their business and they sure wouldn't want to make their own life any more difficult. Either way, I think the people who do nothing are just as guilty as the offender(s). You mentioned PI's that can't explain what students should get out of a post doc - I would suggest that could be because either they didn't get what they needed OR because the student experience is not even on their radar. They want the labor force, and expect to not have to make a deliberate effort to benefit the student experience. In my thinking these exact types of people (the sexist, the willfully ignorant, and the self absorbed PI) are EXACTLY why people with work experience put their head down and just try to get the work done. Get in and get out and don't let them have any more control over your life than they already do as committee members etc. Move on to a career where there is at least some level of autonomy with how one chooses to treat the students and colleagues they may have. Just my thoughts, I'd love to hear what others think.

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous jasonbourne said...

Well, first of all, when you meet a new person, you judge him/her by his/her appearance. This is true in every walk of life where humans exist. This implies you should never go to a job interview with jeans and a tshirt. From what I read in your blog, I deduce that you are in your mid thirties. It is appalling to see that you learned this fact of life right now. Second, you are wrong to assume that PI's don't know what being postdoc means. My own PhD advisor was personally against postdoc process and he still does not employ one despite having 8 grad students in his group now. He advised me to get out of it as soon as I can and that is what I did. I have a faculty position now and I know that postdoc=cheap labor. Nothing more, nothing less.
Only 10-15% postdocs ever get a faculty position somewhere so it is deadend in most cases. What is worse is that it makes you less employable outside academia. It looks like employment gap in your CV and it is kiss of death. I hope this is not news for you.

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous fan of jeans said...

Hi MsPhD - I'm curious about some of the things you mentioned in the "appearances don't matter" category. I'm still a (young female) grad student, but lately I've been kind of obsessing about proper postdoc attire. I see the female postdocs in my lab dressing nice - slacks, great shoes, shirts that require ironing/dry cleaning, accessories, etc. But the male postdocs wear jeans/khakis and t-shirts/sweatshirts. Part of me thinks I'd be taken more seriously (i.e. not confused for a secretary) if I dress casual/"scientist-y" like the guys, but part of me wonders if that would backfire ("She's not mature" and such). This is, of course, for day-to-day in-the-lab clothes, not for things like conferences. Thoughts? Is it a lose-lose situation? Do you think different faculty judge differently (older faculty vs. younger)? Or am I just completely overanalyzing things? Somehow I don't think any of my fellow students think about these things, but maybe you do. Or, of course, maybe I'm the only crazy one...

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous JR said...

In the past paragraph of your entry you are being way to hard on people who just want to muscle through and get their degree. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not the student/postdoc responsiblilty to fix the graduate education system, nor do they have any influence to do so. Staying under the radar is the smartest thing you can do.

The biggest mistake is to think that graduate school is still school. It really is the start of a career in science with some on the job training. The actions that help one manage a career in the more traditional workplace are the same that will help one get through graduate school with the least amount of pain and the most benefit for the time invested.

We've been through this before. The whole system is orchestrated from the top to benefit them. Whatever gains the students/postdocs get are leftovers. The only tangible benefit to being a student is the degree. The best thing you can do is charge through and finish before you turn 30. That's it.

For postdocs it is the same thing. The only tangible benefit to being a postdoc is getting a job. In exchange for inferior salary and working hours, you are expecting mentoring to help/enable you to find a job. The moment you see that this exchange is not going to happen, its time to end your postdoc. Consider yourself a free agent and make the best of it.

I think the most punishing myth about graduate education/postdoc is the time to completion. For young people, esp. women, to spend all of their 20's and most of their 30's postponing life and generating little salary with little promise of making up the difference later is tragic. Maybe it is just me, but I don't buy in to the idealism of science. A friend once told me that you can't eat a paper, whats the real value.
Most other professional careers can be just as punishing in the beginning, but it is justified because you know there is something on the other side for you. Here I am thinking generally of MD, JD, MBA.

Another myth is that the trainig period of both students and postdocs rely on an incredible amount of manual bench work. Of course performing experiments is a useful aspect of learning, but to have the success of people's careers rely on their ability to perform PCR without contamination is wrong. You are not getting a PhD so that you can learn how to pipet. You are getting a PhD to learn how to think, write and communicate your ideas and conclusions to an audience to that they can be meaninful and advance the general understanding. The fact that in the US we have 35 year old Americans with PhDs and have to import more 35 year old foreigners with PhD to perform what amounts to skilled manual labor has to be the most obvious signal that there is something very wrong with career development in the life sciences in this country.

Cherry picking data is just as bad as falisification of data. The fact that there is even a discussion of which is worse signifies that there is some kind of acceptance of using bad data. The troubling part is to read any paper in the last 15 years and you can be reasonable sure that some amount of the conclusions are made from cherry picked data.

I know that I and others don't always agree with your opinions, just as I am sure that many do not agree with me, but your blog provides a valuable service to people starting off in graduate school. Reading about people's real life experiences in science and the ability to communicate with them is something that I never had, but looking back, wish I did.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 8:22,

I'd like to think it is always more persuasive to have more examples, and detailed examples are best, rather than vague warnings (which is all I got from the grad students I knew when I was finishing college).


I think links will show up with trackback, but it does help if you let me know! I am kind of busy...


I really think most people have no idea what they're getting into.

Anon 12:14,

Glad you liked it. I agree.


I don't know where you came from. I would not go to a job interview in jeans and a t-shirt. That is not what I said.

Are you implying that every day at work is like an interview? If so, then I want to hear why.

Your PhD advisor sounds smart in the sense that I agree that the postdoc process, the way it is now, is stupid. However, I think it can be more than cheap labor if it is done correctly, just like grad school.

I don't know if your advisor taught you everything, or let you learn on your own, everything you needed to know during grad school. If that's the case, then of course a postdoc is not needed. However, I don't know too many grad students who felt that way when they finished.

It might be interesting to talk more about how the introduction of the postdoc process has weakened the grad school process. Instead of being an extension, now it seems like things that should have been taught in grad school are put off with the assumption that someone will teach them in postdoc, but they never do.

Thanks for the great idea for a future post.

fan of jeans,

I do think it is sort of lose-lose!

My solution is to wear 'nicer' jeans/pants and sweaters. Not the 'working on my car on the weekend' outfit, but not 'secretary from working girl', either.

What can I say, I have to wear comfy shoes. I am on my feet a lot.

I saw a senior professor the other day in the med school wearing huge heels and a suit. But she sits at a desk all day!

You're not overanalyzing. Ask jasonbourne. He seems to know.


I agree with all the things you said, except for two.

First, the idea that you're not in grad school to learn how to pipette.

I think that learning to work with precision, and which variables matter, and troubleshooting, are all critical to success in science.
The best way to learn that is to do it, ideally with more experienced people by your side to help you over the speedbumps.

Later, when you haven't done it yourself (and you can't have done it all, technology changes too fast), you better at least have the concepts down for what kinds of things could go wrong, so when you're supervising your own students/postdocs/technicians, you're not a useless potato-head.

I mean, you have to train these people! If nothing else, you're learning so you can teach the next generation.

Whether it is in academia or industry, you're gaining experience you will use, so you should learn the best you can, and then you should pass it on.

This whole system is based on apprenticeship for a reason. It IS a craft. There ARE skills. One of those is pipetting. If you can't run a PCR without contamination, you don't understand the principles of PCR.

The proof is in the pudding. If you can't make pudding, you can't demonstrate why your ideas are worth my time. The main difference I can see in my field between the really good folks and the average folks is that the really good folks know how to get the experiments to work so they can test the big ideas.

The phrases I hear most often from average labs in journal club where they're discussing someone else's Cell/Science/Nature paper, is

"Yeah, we tried that. We couldn't get it to work."


"Yeah, we thought of that. But we couldn't figure out how to test it."

I've always liked that it's a blend of hands-on and ideas, that was one of the things that drew me to science.

But as we've discussed before, it's a spectrum. Some people are fantastic technicians and have no ideas; others can get by with lopsided gels because they're brilliantly creative (or cajole someone else into running their gels, because they're irresistibly charismatic). And everyone else is in between.

I dislike the practice of using foreign postdocs as 'skilled' labor for two reasons.

1. Like US postdocs, they're not all skilled, for precisely the reason that not everyone thinks that the basics are part of PhD training.

2. Unlike industry, it does not make sense to organize an academic lab like a factory.


Second, I fundamentally disagree with the idea that grad students and postdocs have no influence to change anything.

But that is a big enough subject to warrant a whole post (or a few). If I forget to do it soon, please remind me.

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous JaneB said...

Hi, another excellent thought-provoking post - and here's a longish response.

I think post-docs have a key role in terms of developing belief in your own abilities and the confidence to really make a mark. Some people may enter grad school with those qualities, certainly some leave with them along with the PhD, but _in my experience_ going straight into a faculty job or equivalent is not a good move - plus the people with the great self-belief are more commonly male than female. I said more commonly!

A post-doc allows you to start a project knowing what you are doing from day one - a great boost after spending teh first x months/years of your PhD trying to work out what makes a project tick. A post-doc allows you thinking time - to develop your own ideas, to consider which kind of career in science you want without the stress overload of the dissertation/grad school expectations, to sit back just a teeny bit and LOOK at other people and their values and the system - without all the other screaming demands of service/teaching/writing new classes/tenure panics - the many joys of the full time academic post, especially outside the R1s. It (potentially) allows you to work in at least one different lab, one which you were able to choose in a more informed way.

The problem comes when you are on your second or third post-doc because you have chosen how you want to move on and yet haven't managed to get the right next-step post. Or when you have landed in a bad lab where you are being used as slave labour - though that still gives thinking time (all those long lab hours can be pretty good percolation of thoughts time) and can lead to papers/connections - at least some kind of useful citric acid from the lemons if not honest-to-goodness lemonade.

I think that it is very important that people have alternative route maps in their heads, always have some ideas about options and cut-off times in case the kind of job they really want just doesn't come along with their name on it. But working one out can be hard, especially when it means bucking against social conditioning that anything other than an R1-PI job is a failure. Which is NONSENSE.

These views are probably shaped by my context... I'm in the UK equivalent of a post-tenure faculty job, pretty much, and I have a UK training so went from start of undergrad to PhD in hand in a little more than 6 years. Post-docced for about four years (3 different labs, including 2 years in Canada), and began this job just before I was 30. I planned to focus on chaining post-doc jobs until I was 32 then assume that the faculty job wasn't going to happen and move on - I had a couple of plans for alterative jobs and had begun to build contacts, attend relevant sessions at conferences etc. Meanwhile I applied for around 100 faculty jobs in the two years of my search for a post, once I began my second post-doc, attended a lot of interviews, and also applied for a large number of post-docs, fellowships, funding streams... I'm not a high-flier or a star, but I like to think I'm competant and I love the mixture of tasks in the job - the detail work, the repetitive skilled craft tasks, the teaching, the long arc of a project, the writing, the reading - it's just the forms and the bureaucracy that get me down and that applies to any part of life or any job, I think. And I still don;t have to wear heels/ a suit every day! (mind you, unlike many of my male colleagues I do feel obliged to wear clean, ironed clothes lacking holes, stains or dubious-taste logos, to wash my hair regularly and brush it every day (or tie it back neatly at least) - but I think this is an obligation based on self-respect and respect for my students/colleagues/institution rather than an externally imposed gendered requirement...)

Sorry for hijacking your comments again!

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


THANK YOU. A very excellent comment, you are welcome here any time, at any length.

Very inspiring, really, since sometimes even I forget what I like(d) about being a postdoc (especially in the beginning).

You might say you're not a high-flier or a star, but I think just having the drive to do 100 applications for jobs PLUS applying for funding automatically makes you a star. You really can't appreciate how much work that is unless you've done it yourself.

A la propter doc's lab, you get a gold star in my book! =D

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My own PhD advisor was personally against postdoc process and he still does not employ one despite having 8 grad students in his group now. He advised me to get out of it as soon as I can and that is what I did. I have a faculty position now and I know that postdoc=cheap labor. Nothing more, nothing less.
Only 10-15% postdocs ever get a faculty position somewhere so it is deadend in most cases. What is worse is that it makes you less employable outside academia. It looks like employment gap in your CV and it is kiss of death. I hope this is not news for you."

What dreamworld do you and your PI live in? If only 10-15% of postdocs get faculty positions, the percentage of people like yourself who didn't do one, or did a very short postdoc, is probably about 0.1%.

Also, the bit about a postdoc looking like a gap on your resume is also a load of crap. Almost every industry job listing I've seen and/or interviewed for(for Biotech R and D) has specified that postdoctoral experience is required.

Like anything else in life, a postdoc is what you make of it. You can learn a lot, get better at science, gain insight into your field, etc, all while being used as cheap labor. They may be using you, but you also have to use them.

At 2:28 PM, Anonymous CC said...

Only 10-15% postdocs ever get a faculty position somewhere so it is deadend in most cases. What is worse is that it makes you less employable outside academia. It looks like employment gap in your CV and it is kiss of death.

Jason, what field do you have in mind when you say that? It's absolutely not true as far as biotech/pharma hiring is concerned, where lab head jobs typically require a postdoc. For management consulting it might be the case, though.

I do agree with JR on two points:

1) There's nothing selfish about putting your head down and grinding out grad school and postdocs. I was a shouter, and precious little it accomplished. Believe me, the research people do in return for a stipend is public service enough.

2) Absolutely, you need to learn lab skills. But the duration of a typical grad school plus postdoc(s) stint is far longer than is needed to reach that level. Anyway, aren't you the one who was complaining that new PIs lack basic lab skills?

At 12:42 PM, Anonymous jasonbourne said...

CC and anonymous, I am in physical sciences. Well, people outside academia do not know what postdoc means. When I told my friends I am going to do a postdoc, they had no idea what that meant. The type of industry jobs you are talking about that require postdoc (e.g. genentech) are no easier to grab than an assist. prof. position in an R1 university. If they were that easy, Ms. PhD would not be whining in this blog now, would she? The type of jobs Iam talking about are finance, consulting, semiconductor industry etc. (i.e. real life non-academic jobs). From my experiences, more than 90% of PhD scientists end up outside academia anyway. That means you will make a life out of something which has nothing to do with your research speciality.

At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jasonbourne, you definitely are comparing oranges to apples here. Biotech companies, IP law firms, consultants, and venture capital companies dealing with biomedicine generally know what a postdoc is, and want to hire people with that experience. I've never, ever had a prospective employer say to me "oh, you have a gap in your resume here, what's this postdoc thing?" In fact, without the postdoc thing they never would have called me in the first place.

Yes, biotech jobs are pretty hard to get, perhaps not as hard as academic positions still tough. MsPhD, from what I've read, regards those jobs as beneath her, and thus I doubt she has put much if any effort into applying to them. Thus she continues to whine on this blog. But isn't that what blogs are for?

At 5:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two points of disagreement.

"Figure it out first."
I've concluded that, at least for me, if you know what you want to do, you shouldn't get a degree, unless the letters are absolutely necessary to do it.

Second, as for older students wanting to keep our heads down and do the work, trust me, we tried to pipe up. It was beaten out of us at the last place. We learned noone wants our opinions, just our sweat. I really tried to apply my industrial experience to shape up my lab, and while my advisor encouraged me with words, the more I had suggestions or asked for his backup on things, the more he avoided me. I figured out he wanted me as far out on the limb as possible while he was clinging to the trunk yelling "I'm right behind you!"


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