Saturday, November 15, 2008

Interviewing my replacement

No, I haven't quit.

But while my lab is, in my opinion, plenty big enough already, my advisor is always interviewing more postdocs.

Sometimes they are very good, but don't end up coming.

Sometimes they are mediocre or not so great, but do end up coming. Sometimes they get better after they arrive, sometimes not so much.

Sometimes they are awful, and don't get an offer.

And sometimes we get people who are clearly very smart, very accomplished, very nice, and yet they come here, to our lab.

Sometimes they love it when they arrive.

And sometimes they have that look on their faces of "What the hell was I thinking?"

A couple of our star postdocs have that look lately, and I am kind of laughing at them because I can see them cultivating the denial. You know, that little speech you give yourself that goes like this:

I just moved here from far away... I don't want to move again... I have a fellowship... I made my spouse move here with me... It's a nice place to live.... the lab is not so bad... And all that crap going on with the senior postdocs trying to leave??? That's their own fault, it won't happen to me... I will learn from their mistakes... Besides, I am way smarter than they are...

But it is especially weird for the senior postdocs, watching these new people come in and interview. It makes me feel old. It really hit me hard this year, the generation gap. I feel like I shouldn't be working with people this much younger than me unless they're working FOR me. Maybe that's a really bad attitude, but on some level I feel like I've been left back several grades in school.

And I resent it, since, like most postdocs, I have a set expiration date whether I want one or not. So in a way, no matter what happens, I know I am interviewing people who will be here after I leave.

And I do realize that some of them might end up being my competitors if Advisor puts them on whatever is left of my project, whether or not I manage to get a job somewhere I can continuing working on it. Advisor has a long history of competing with former postdocs after they leave.

And I'm watching CNN and they're talking about tens of thousands of people being laid off from various companies like Citigroup, and I'm thinking, This is not good. My parents, children of people who grew up in the Great Depression, are already saying this is going to be another time like that. My mom was telling me about how my grandfather took all kinds of odd jobs, worked in a cardboard box factory for a while because he couldn't get a job doing what he was trained to do.

Yeah. That's encouraging.

So against this background, I have to pretend like everything is normal and peachy-keen and meet with these postdoc candidates and try not to growl at them too much.

We usually meet with them at least briefly. I always ask the same questions in the same order:

1. What do you want to do after your postdoc?

usual answers:

a) Academia
b) I don't know

2. What do you want to do here?

usual answers:

a) listing a few specific techniques
b) spouting some vague buzzwords

3. Why did you pick this lab?

usual answers:

a) something about Advisor (met at a meeting, connection through their graduate advisor)
b) something about location
c) something about their spouse getting a job here

4. Do you have a project in mind?

usual answers:

a) no
b) names something a senior postdoc started and took with them
c) Advisor mentioned something about....(buzzwords associated with a specific project)
d) names something they worked on as a graduate student that they want to continue working on

(Note that I have yet to meet one who proposes something totally new that is neither a continuation of their thesis work nor something already going on in our lab or a former postdoc's lab)

After the visit, we are asked what we think about a candidate, but negative evaluations have to be pretty serious and widely held by several people in the group to change Advisor's mind. Which is to say, it doesn't matter if we think the person is mediocre and potentially sexist but it's hard to tell for sure ... several of us would have to say in no uncertain terms THIS ONE SUCKS/SEEMS LIKE A TOTAL JERK/WE CAN DO BETTER.

So obviously I'm questioning whether I can really be objective about new postdocs at this point. Probably not. But that's okay, because I think Advisor knows that, and my opinion on this subject won't be taken into account from here on out, anyway.

Meanwhile, I can see some of the youngest postdocs in my department looking at me, and thinking:

I'm not any smarter than YFS is, and she clearly works hard enough so... Holy shit, I better hope that doesn't happen to me.

We were talking about the rollercoaster feeling, how when things are going well we don't want to face the possibility of having to give up our projects, which we love and are totally invested in, to go... work at a company.

My friends who aren't so in love with their projects, or don't know what to do next, don't seem to care as much.

They think it would be fine to leave whenever, and they don't really worry about publishing papers because they hate to write. They're fine with the day-to-day. They're okay with the labs they're in, and aren't ready for a big change. So for now they'll stay where they are.

I love these people, but I wouldn't want such apathetic postdocs working for me if I were the PI. I would not want people who are so uninvested in their projects in my lab. Maybe it's futile to think about, because it might never happen that I'm ever a PI.

But I say to myself that if I were the PI, I hope I would notice this kind of thing and try to get each postdoc working on a project they really liked. To help them find that thing that gets them excited. To me, that's the whole point of science. Science is hard enough without working on something you find boring or pointless!

But when the experiments are going really badly or the administration is being bitchy, we all think

"Anything would be better than this! Cardboard box factory, here I come!"

I guess we're all going to feel these various stages of rollercoaster or apathy until something about postdoctoral positions changes drastically. Or at least until our expiration dates.

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At 11:18 AM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

I totally agree with you about the economy. I think we're in for a really severe depression. This means very very few new academic jobs.

As current professors retire (though I suspect this will get delayed, given the possible status of many people's retirement funds) instead of rehiring the now empty position, universities will start to contract. They will have two reasons to do so a. no money and b. no incoming students. I say no students because high school students, will realize that they can in no way recoup the loss of earning power if they go to a university.

I think two things will happen as consequence of fewer jobs in general but more specifically fewer academic jobs. The first is a principal we know happens when there is a limiting resource - increased competition. The second is that it will become more common to do 5-6 year postdoctoral fellowships. It is the second one that makes me feel nauseous. I'll be too old and then no one will hire me because of my age. Ugh! It doesn't look good.

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get the feeling you're not very impressed with the answers you get to your interview questions. Am I wrong? Or if I am correct, can you give some examples of answers that you would be more approving of?

At 6:26 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

How does the PI *not* notice? In my group, if a post-doc wasn't publishing, it was a major problem. What were we supposed to do, wait for a green grad student to figure out how to piece together a manuscript? (of course, once you'd been in the group a year, expectations were much higher....)

At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm soon to be unemployed. No idea what I will do in 7 months. I AM looking but so far nothing is grabbing me.

At 8:37 PM, Blogger Moose withthoughtslikemine said...

My supervisor in continually aware that his team is not really engaged in his work as he would like us to be. It's not that we don't care - we're just so focused on our day-today-activities that we tend not to think about the big picture. I think it helps if everyone in the group is given something to do beyond their own little projects, that adds to the lab as a whole - It may cultivate a sense of oneness.

I liked the level of detail of this entry. Cheers.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I don't know what field you're in, I guess I thought it was something bio-related. But you don't seem to realize that postdoc fellowships are ALREADY 5-6 years long! The only reasons they're ever shorter than that at my university are:

a) people quit and get a "real" job in industry/law/etc. (as long as there are jobs, they'll do that)

b) the PI decides they think a foreign postdoc isn't good enough, and they're not eligible for very many fellowships

Anon 1:21,

You're right. Great question.

I guess if someone says they want to have their own lab, I like the (few) people who say "I'm interested in working on X [big picture question, ideally with a hypothesis about it], which is related to [but distinct from] what this lab has done before, and I'd like to work on that using Y technique that this lab is known for." And then we can go on to have a scientific conversation about what their project would be, which makes it easier for me to learn about how they think.

If they don't have that creative spark to begin with... even if that's not the project they'll actually end up doing... well those postdocs are a dime a hundred.

For people who say they want to go to industry, well we don't get many of those who are open about it, but when they are they know exactly what sort of thing they want to do later (drug development vs. clinical trials vs. technology, etc.). Then when they list off a bunch of techniques they want to learn/use, it's clear that they've done their homework about what kinds of jobs there are out there.

One of the problems our lab suffers from, which I think is probably pretty common, is that you aren't automatically qualified for a job in industry when you finish your postdoc. You have to go out of your way (not very far, but you have to make the choice) to get the kinds of experience that industry is looking for.

I love it in the rare cases when postdoc candidates say they picked the lab because they met Advisor and just really liked Advisor and thought they would work well together. But most people don't seem to really think about the reality of the PI-postdoc relationship.


If the lab is too big. In our group, postdocs publish when they push, not when the PI does.

Anon 8 pm,

AMEN. Good luck.


I agree that having other things to do helps, but I'm not sure I agree that those things should have to be given to you. I think you should be able to initiate collaborations, and are hopefully reading papers and thinking about the big picture on your own. You'll have to eventually if you want to continue on in academia, or industry, although I think it's probably more critical to have your own vision if you're going to write grants and try to start your own lab at a university where you're going to get very little feedback.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Lamar said...

PI don't care so much about levels of ambition & creativity because students and postdocs are cheap labor. It's also difficult to motivate people once they reach a certain age.

You can spend five minutes with a set of postdocs and tell who has "it". Different postdocs are on different tracks in their advisor's mind whether the postdoc knows it or not.

I just met up with a friend from an old lab at a conference. She's at the end of her third year as a postdoc. The PI is obviously just using her to crank out data with no real regard to her career. When she arrived, after her interviews, we all knew that she didn't have "it". But she got hired anyway, because the work still needs to get done. I try giving her the old advice of taking charge of her career, be more aggressive, seek forgiveness, not permission, but it doesn't take (probably because she doesn't have "it"-if she did, I wouldn't have to tell her this).

Out of the, say, 100 postdocs I've personally known, about 90 didn't have "it", and none of them got faculty positions. Of the remaining 10, about half of them got their dream job. So the postdoc is a big triage process, it's just that the triaged postdocs are usually unaware of their status, or even that such a process exists.

There's a part in Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage" where the young protagonist spends some time in a bohemian city trying his hand at art. After some time, he notices the intense competition (a female companion hangs herself) and he directly asks the grumpy head instructor if he has any real talent and a realistic shot at becoming a professional artist. The instructor flatly says "no" but is somewhat impressed at the protagonist's direct inquiry and gumption. The protagonist then thanks the instructor and moves on in life.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

The more I think about it - there are differences in how things are done in each of the sub-discplines of biology. In the way that mentorship (or lack thereof) is carried out, in the length of the postdoc, in the expectations of a postdoc or a PhD student. These are real differences that make the experiences of people in molecular genetics, microbiology, and ecology and evolution different.

At 1:38 PM, Blogger Labness said...

On bringing in new labmates:
I am an undergrad working on my degree project in a well-funded 17-person lab. Of the 17, 5 are undergraduate students.

I think that it's important for the whole lab to interview undergrads. I've worked in a good number of labs, and have never heard of this practice. However, it seems to make sense.

When the PI interviews an undergrad, all may go well. However, it's usually a grad student who teaches and supervises the undergrad, not the PI. And the student spends a lot of time in the lab.

Some of my undergrad labmates have a terrible time in the lab. Joking around upsets them, and they have a hard time fitting into our lab. They are not well-liked because they keep to themselves. This could all be avoided!

A meeting between the potential undergrad and the lab as a whole (at lunchtime, in the regular lunch location in the lounge) could be beneficial for both parties.

Spending an hour talking and hanging out will give a good idea of the compatibility. This way, both the student and the lab can benefit.

Do you know of such practices?


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