Saturday, March 28, 2009

Things I thought I'd have by now (besides a job)

Lately it has been bothering me that I've been putting a lot of things off, for lack of what a friend mine calls a Real Job(^TM).

Most of the time I don't mind, but watching everyone else get on with their lives makes me wonder if I would be happier if some of these things could be improved with or without a new job?

1. A better place to live

Our current rental is affordable, has parking and laundry and some other amenities. We have a lot of space, and the location makes it a relatively painless commute to lab.

However, it is not perfect, and we never intended to stay here this long. The main reason we've stayed is that the rent has not gone up, and Mr. PhD and I both really hate moving.

(Oh yeah and that part where we never know if we'll have jobs and might have to move to some other part of the country where we can at least be employed)

2. A new car

My car is getting old. It's not running as well as it used to, which is my main complaint. I hate being the person who can't accelerate.

And it has scratches and small dents here and there, but overall it will probably be okay for a few more years.

The last couple of years, though, I've thought it would be nice to get a hybrid. In fact, I've had to watch several friends get hybrids and try to pretend like I'm happy for them. Hmph.

3. Actual furniture

This kind of goes with "better place to live".

I really hate shopping for this kind of thing. Somehow I never seem to have the dimensions right, or the color ends up being wrong, etc. It's a lot of back-and-forth and by then the thing I wanted is not on sale anymore, or the only thing I like is wayyyyy too expensive.

Or as has happened before, I finally get something, and THEN we have to move. And then we realize it looks totally wrong (or doesn't fit) in the new place.

4. A vacation

There never seems to be time.

When there is time to go, there is not enough time to get a flight anywhere.

When there are sales on flights, I can't go.

Things are always up in the air, or experiments are going and need to be babysat on a daily basis. See also #5.

Or I end up using my "vacation" to do things I don't want to do, like attending other people's weddings or baby showers or funerals, or just visiting my parents to make sure they haven't killed each other (yet).

5. Help in the lab

Okay, so I have a student working with me a few days a week, but it's not really the same as having, you know, an actual technician.

I really thought that by now, even as a postdoc, I would have at least a partial share of a professional tech (sort of like how the PIs often share parts of admins) to help take care of stuff if I do go out of town or get sick.

6. Savings

See under "You should really invest: Oh, nevermind."

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At 1:32 PM, Blogger Toaster Sunshine said...

What's wrong with IKEA?

It's cheap enough that you don't even need to take it with you when you move.

(Heh, the verification word is "splat".)

At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious but do you think that as a postdoc you're supposed to have a student(s) working for you or helping you, or are you supposed to be helping the students?

during my first postdoc I worked alone on an independent project supported by a fellowship. Then my fellowship ended so I got a second postdoc working for a PI being paid from his grants so basically I'm his employee. Now I find myself in the position of having to HELP the graduate students with their research rather than having research of my own to do. the PI has been very disastisfied with the progress and incompetence of his grad students so he hired me to train them and get their projects to start producing results (these are projects for which we have to answer to grant monitors very regularly and show regular progress to keep funding from being terminated)

The grad students are slow to make progress because they are inexperienced (but hello, that's why they are STUDENTS), so the PI wants me - as the highly experienced researcher - to go in there and clean up their experiments for them, teach them how to do the techniques and analysis, and also to jump in and do the actual work on their projects when the deadlines are near because they are incapable of doing it properly on time, but then they will be first author on the resulting publications "because they are students and it's a good experience for them to be first author".

what do you think?? Is this normal? I'm the one who is doing the critical thinking on their projects, training them in how to do the technical work and even doing a lot of the hands-on experimental work myself (even coming in on weekends to work like right now while they are on spring break). I basically took over their projects and they became my assistants, yet they are going to take first authorship on the resulting publications because technically this is supposed to be "their" projects.

When I was a grad student I never had any help whether from technicians or postdocs. I certainly didn't have anyone holding my hand the way the PI wants me to spoonfeed these grad students now. So now instead of having my own independent research, I'm a full time student-spoonfeeder.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

LOL, IKEA = splat. That's basically what happened with my last IKEA furniture. The problem comes when you have to move sooner than you expected to, and the IKEA furniture doesn't survive being moved!


NO, that is NOT NORMAL.

I agree that part of our jobs is to mentor students where the PIs won't, teach them techniques, and help troubleshoot.

HOWEVER. It is NOT our jobs to clean up their messes if it won't be in exchange for authorship.

If I were you (and I might not be the best example to follow, so FWIW), I would ask the PI what credit I would be getting if not authorship.

And let me say up front, in case your PI tries to lie to you the way mine tries: Authorship is the most transferable form of currency we have right now, second only to portable funding.

It's all fine and good for your PI to try to buy you off with saying you're getting goodwill and nice rec letter, but I can tell you from firsthand experience, that won't help you if they look at your CV first and don't make it to your letters of rec.

I agree, I did not have anyone hand-holding or spoon-feeding me as a grad student, but I did have people who taught me techniques when I worked in labs before that, and I really appreciated the time they spent. And they were usually on the publications, and usually BEFORE me in the list. So they got a better deal than you're getting.

I think if you're going to help students and not get anything in exchange (besides good karma, if you believe in that?), it's simply exploitation.

Maybe you could bargain for them to help you with a project and be 2nd author on your paper in exchange for being 2nd on theirs? Something like that? Or co-first author?

Sometimes it's better to ask the PI, other times it's better to bargain with the first author themselves. Depends on who is involved and their level of integrity.

It's possible that the students are lazy and want to mooch off of you, but it's equally possible that they're really grateful for you to come swoop in and save them, and will be eager to help you out any way they can. A third possibility is that they resent being rushed and controlled by their PI, and you're just an agent in that endeavor. It's not clear to me from what you wrote how the students feel about this arrangement.

Maybe if you want to elaborate, our other readers will have other ideas for what else you could do?

I'm not going to give you the pat all-purpose solution repeatedly proposed to me, to "just switch labs".

I think you should try to see if you can improve the situation where you are, since it sounds like maybe you haven't asked for much on your own behalf?

At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 4:50 - your PI is whoring you out. He is pushing off his duties (mentoring, advising, report writing) on you. He gets paid the big bucks (he's being paid off the grant too!) to mentor and advise students. Your job is research and publications. Your job is not his job. It's not a compliment toward you for him to push his shit off on you... don't get all martyry, golly gee he needs me. He's an asshole and he's playing you. MEN DO THIS. Oh, poor helpless chap and women fall for it, hook line and sinker (sink her!). He chose the incompetent students, but doesn't want to lay in the bed he made. You are the enabler.

You are spoonfeeding students that shouldn't be students in the first place (more incompetent PhDs are exactly what we need in system!) and PI WILL TAKE CREDIT FOR ADVISING THEM. You will get nothing. not even a thank you card. RUN before your blinders fall off and the resentment kicks in.

At 1:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi MsPhD thanks for the response, I'm the Anon who spoke earlier about being the hired student-spoonfeeder.

I will actually be on the publications, just that I will be a middle or second-to-last author even though I'm the one doing ALL the critical thinking on their projects and the bulk of the actual hands-on work (I'm the one who comes in on weekends and during spring break, not them). So, to me this sounds like I should be a first author on resulting publications since they are basically following my orders and doing less work overall than me. However, my PI has said that no I should be middle author because this is supposed to be "their" projects, and as the more senior person I'm supposed to be magnanimous in helping to build up the younger ones.

What do you think? If what my PI says is true and is commonly followed protocol everywhere for postdocs, then I'm happy to step aside and let the younger ones take first authorship for my work, if that is supposed to be my role. But...if most postdocs in this situation would still get first authorship then I will consider saying something to the PI. I'm just trying to get a feel for what is fair or what is common protocol. Is first authorship based on who actually did the most work and/or most important work, or is it based on "whose project" it's supposed to be or who was assigned to the project first?

You asked how the students feel about me. I think it varies from day to day. Some days it seems they see me as an extension of the controlling PI like when I ask them to work as much as I do (because collectively we have to get results on time for the grant monitors) so for that I do believe they resent me and see me as another boss. But there have been other times when they were really grateful that I swooped in and saved their asses. So, how they feel about me just depends on the day to day situation.

Yes when I was a grad student I too learned from the senior students and postdocs. But that was nowhere near the level of what I'm doing for "my" students now. I mean, when I was a student I tried to take as little time from the postdocs as possible and was always grateful. usually the help I received was a one-off or last resort if I really really couldn't figure it out on my own. In other words I would try my hardest to do it on my own first, and only get help as a last resort. But now it is my job to be constantly on-call for "my" students and to hold their hands the entire way so they don't even have to spend time trying to figure it out on their own (because according to the PI, that would take too long). Frankly I don't think this is good for the students because they are not learning to be critical thinkers, they are only learning to be good instruction-followers.

But anyway, thanks for your response. I agree with a lot of what you said.

At 8:27 AM, Anonymous lost academic said...

In regards to vacation, that problem is common when you're younger and feel much at the mercy of your surroundings. Now is a good time to take control - plan a vacation, say, for the 4th of July, make your reservations and scheduling, and stick to it. Sure, things will come up, but you'll have those dates locked down and work with them, as will people that generally rely on you. You will have to find people to cover anything that does come up or any sort of regular requirements, but that's something you need anyway - you can't plan serious illness, funerals, or being hit by a bus either, and it's better to prepare others to cope than to just be there all the time for them.

In regards to furniture, it's an investment. I wouldn't go out in your position and buy nice dining room or living room sets, but there are places and sales and gently used things you can find with some effort. IKEA DOES offer furniture that will stand up to moves, but you need to spend some time looking at it to determine that. Anything you build with pressed wood and pine is going to have a shorter lifespan, period.

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Anon 4:50pm,

Sounds like you are being asked to do the job not of a postdoc but of an "assistant research professor" (what Ms.PhD likes to call an overdoc). The job situation you describe sounds very much like mine when I had such a position.

Postdocs should definitely have their lead role in research projects recognized through being 1st author on the papers. On the other hand, it seems appropriate for a "research prof" to have his/her name just before the PI's at the end of the author list, reflecting his/her semi-boss status. I don't think it would be a bad thing, as long as it was made clear to assessors of your publication list why your name is in the position it is.

I suggest you ask your PI to change your job title from "postdoc" to "(assistant) research prof" (temporary faculty position) to reflect the reality of the job he is asking you to do. This won't cost him anything more than a chat with the dean to get the authorization. It would be pretty good if you could put that title on your CV, since it will signal to hiring committees that you have more extensive experience of doing the job of a faculty member than a regular postdoc has.

Since you have already proved that you can do independent research in your 1st postdoc, it could actually be quite good to be getting this chance to prove yourself in a semi-faculty role, as long as it is recognized. The clearest way to recognize it is through the job title, so I recommend you push hard for that.

At 7:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear ya about the things that occur when one does not have a Real Job. I felt the same way (and still kind of do), but recently I visited my friends' place. My friend is a cashier at a cafeteria and his gf is a grad student. They live in a way better apartment than we do and their furniture and interior decorating are spectacular. This leads me to believe that the apartment, car, furniture, vacations, etc... are all things only you can allow yourself. Obviously. What I mean to say is if you really want to make something happen, you can, even if you are a grad student/cashier and making little money compared to people working in corporate America.

Also, with Obama's speech today, perhaps it is a good time to buy a (green) car.

At 6:10 AM, Blogger Clare said...

Hiya, as another young female scientist I enjoy reading your blog from time to time - many of your experiences match mine.
I think you should book yourself a vacation. Do it now. Really, it sounds as if you need one. Figure out where you want to go, find a cheap flight or whatever to get there, book it, and book the time off now. To hang with lab time, students and anything your boss throws at you at the time. Vacation time is "me time". Everyone needs it. So take it. What's really stopping you?

Good luck and keep blogging, C

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Student spoon-feeder,

What Anon 3:20 said.

Yes, magnanimous is good, but who's looking out for you? Clearly not your PI. It's NOT common protocol, so your PI is (surprise!) lying to you.

lost academic,

Well, yes and no re: vacation. As I'm pretty sure I wrote about, there is NO ONE I can trust to take care of things while I am gone, so it is an all-or-nothing proposition.

I am taking a bit of a "staycation" lately and while it's not ideal, it's the most feasible right now. Especially since I just got invited to another- gag- wedding yesterday, and will probably have to consider using my vacation for that.


Your suggestion is reasonable, except you're missing one thing: research asst. profs are PAID MORE. The PI might not be willing to talk to the dean. The dean might say no. And there might be no money. I've seen this happen repeatedly at my uni, I'm sure it happens everywhere.

There are also still plenty of ancient PIs who believe that once you're a research prof, you'll never be able to switch to the tenure track, so they use that as an excuse to not promote anyone.

Anon 7:01,

Yep, you're right. The thing is, to pull that off, you also have to make it a priority to shop if you don't have tons of money. My guess is that either your friend or the gf likes to shop. I don't.

Love the comment about Obama's speech. Was that for real?? I thought I was hallucinating when he said the gov't is going to back GM's warranties. WTF.


Thanks. I wish it were that simple. Maybe someday. Can't right now.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What do you think? If what my PI says is true and is commonly followed protocol everywhere for postdocs, then I'm happy to step aside and let the younger ones take first authorship for my work, if that is supposed to be my role. But...if most postdocs in this situation would still get first authorship then I will consider saying something to the PI. I'm just trying to get a feel for what is fair or what is common protocol. "

Are you kidding????This is NOT commonly followed protocol for postdocs everywhere, although it can happen in exploitative situations. The purpose of doing a postdoc is to get first author papers. Anything else is ancillary. I would argue with your boss that getting first author papers is more important for the postdoc than for students. You should at miminum get co-first authorship for these projects. If you aren't getting that, you're getting screwed. Royally.

"Is first authorship based on who actually did the most work and/or most important work, or is it based on "whose project" it's supposed to be or who was assigned to the project first?"

It is based on who did the most and/or most important work, and who actually writes the paper (although there are situations where this isn't the case, but these situations tend to be exploitative situations like yours).

If I were you, I'd step back from these students and let them guide the projects on their own. Offer them help and advice, but don't do the work for them, or come in on weekends to do their experiments. If your PI is unhappy with this, try to explore other options for employment. Unless you don't care about your career and just want to be an "overdoc" forever.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger quietandsmalladventures said...

LOL, will drunk ebay bid for alcohol :)

At 10:44 PM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

"research asst. profs are PAID MORE."

Yes. So after Anon gets the job title changed he/she should start asking for a salary to match it... If the PI is short of funds (the impression I get) then maybe make a deal that if/when more funds are procured in future, some of it will go to increasing the salary.

"The PI might not be willing to talk to the dean. The dean might say no."

And then we will know the answer to the question of whether the PI (and/or dean) is (a) a reasonable guy trying to survive in a difficult situation or (b) an exploitative asshole.

In the latter case, Anon should forget all about trying to help out PI; instead put his/her (Anon's) own interests above all else, demand 1st authorship on all papers where he/she takes the lead role, and spend most of time on his/her own projects rather than babysitting the students. (Or switch to another lab if that is feasible, depending on personal circumstances etc.)

"There are also still plenty of ancient PIs who believe that once you're a research prof, you'll never be able to switch to the tenure track, so they use that as an excuse to not promote anyone"

Yes, it's pretty much impossible to change from temporary faculty to tenure track at the same uni in my experience. But when applying for faculty positions at other uni's it can be quite good to have had a research prof position. From my (very limited) experience of faculty interviews, a major concern of the committee is whether or not the candidate is up to the task of producing phd's. A successful stint as a research prof can help reassure them about this.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger BP said...

Research assistant professors don't necessarily make more than post-docs. It varies considerably. I've never had one myself, but close collaborators of mine have. From our joint grant budgets, I can tell that their research assistant professors actually made less then they would have according to NIH-post-doc scale. The reasons they were "promoted" to research assistant professor was solely so they could write grants and be more attractive for faculty positions.
I'd ask for the "promotion," and if you get a grant funded with salary support then ask for a raise.

Research assistant professors can become faculty members. Four of the last five hires my department were research assistant professors elsewhere. Though granted I've never heard of one staying and being converted to tenure-stream.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Thomas Joseph said...

I have a job and I still don't have a new car. What's the point in plunking down an obscene amount of cash for something that will be depreciated the minute the salesman hands you the key ... and when we currently don't know what technology will be "THE TECHNOLOGY" to carry us (literally) into the next few decades?

Buying a hybrid won't make much sense when gas is $10 a gallon and everyone is driving electrics.

At 10:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi again, I'm the Student-Spoonfeeder from previous posts. Thanks for offering your suggestions.

Ancient Physics Postdoc: I took your suggestion and talked to my PI about a research faculty position. He flat out said No. The reason he gave was vague. He made it sound like it was a really big deal to get that done and "not worth it" -for him I suppose. Maybe he just doesn't want to have to pay me a higher salary.

I do have a question regarding what you said about being middle author if you are a research prof. I've never heard of second-to-last author having any significance at all. In each institution/lab/subfield I've worked in, I was told that only first author counts and last author (the latter being acknowledged as being the PI) and eveyrone in between is inconsequential and significance decreasing according to the order. So by that standard, second-to-last author is the absolute 'worst" position on the author list. Are you sure about the second-to-last author having some significant as far as research profs?

At 12:03 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...


Sorry to hear about that. Well, by now you know that your situation is definitely not normal for a postdoc. Without a job title like "research prof" you really need to have your lead role on research recognized through 1st authorships. Like Ms.PhD said, it is the primary currency in the job market. Your PI is basically forcing you to hand over your money to his students. He's robbing you! If you can't get the job title changed then I think any discussion about the relative significance of other positions in the author list is moot -- it's just different levels of robbery. Assessors of your future applications will note that (i) you are applying as a postdoc and (ii) for the last several years you didn't have 1st author won't look good, and your application is likely to go straight into the reject pile before any explanations of why you were in this situation get noted.

In case it helps to know why your PI is behaving like this I can fill you in, having seen this behavior myself at close hand. Some faculty members view their students as their academic offspring and their postdocs as "hired help" (think housemaid, gardener etc). These faculty often don't actually care much about their students on a personal level, but are very keen for the students to land good postdoc and faculty jobs since it reflects glory on the adviser. (The same phenomenon is well-known from actual parenting...) E.g., during my "overdoc" job my boss was quite obsessed with the need for his students to land good postdocs when they graduated. It needed to happen in his view to confirm that his research program, which he had set the students to work on, was as interesting and important as he thought it was. My own role in my boss' eyes was simply to help make this happen. His only concern regarding my career was to keep me as his servant for as long as possible...but at least I got a "research prof" title and a somewhat higher salary...

Actually, this pressing need that faculty have for their own students (and sometimes their own postdocs) to succeed as validation of their (the adviser's) research program is at the core of what is fucked up with regards to meritocracy in academia.

My advice now is to consult with your mentors (e.g., Ph.D adviser and former postdoc mentor). Tell them what is happening, ask for their advice and suggestions. Depending on how good your relationship with them is, maybe you can ask one of them to have a word with your current PI. Even if it is only to ask the PI how you are getting on. That by itself will let the PI know that there are peers of his that care about you even if he doesn't, and who are following your situation. Hopefully it might inhibit him a bit in the crap he is pulling.

A final thought: Although it is looking more and more like your PI is an exploitative asshole, probably should still keep mind open to the possibility that he is mostly just clueless. One lesson I've learned in academia is never underestimate the cluelessness of those you are dealing with. Including (especially!) PIs/faculty. If your PI is someone from a pedigree background who was sheltered by influential adviser/mentors and had his career handed to him on a plate without ever really having to prove himself with independent work (as regularly happens; my boss during the overdoc job was a prime example) then it may be that he simply doesn't understand the need that "regular" postdocs have to get their research contributions recognized through 1st authorships. In that case it is in principle possible to alleviate his ignorance through explaining your situation to him. Although getting through to him in practice is likely to be highly non-trivial...

Good luck!

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Ancient Physics Postdoc

thanks again for the long and detailed response. I think that the model you describe is exactly what is going on with my PI. Well I guess I will try to find another position elsewhere.

Just one more question: you mention that during your "overdoc" years you were actually a research prof and paid more. what salary does a assistant research prof makes? It is a LOT more than a postdoc or just barely more? And why did you call your research prof position an "overdoc" - is it also bad to be a research prof or just barely better than a postdoc?

At 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oops I forgot to say in my last post that I am the "student-spoonfeeder" , just in case you are wondering who was addressing you.

thanks again

At 2:12 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Hi S-S,

Finding another position elsewhere would be the best way out, if it's a viable option for you. Good luck with that.

About the research prof (overdoc) salary, where I was it depended on how many years experience you had post phd. Being ancient helped me in this regard. I got about 1/3 more than a postdoc. This was in a foreign country where postdoc salaries are pitiful, but taxes also low. My net pay each month was quite a bit more than what I made on previous occasions as postdoc in USA, but not a LOT more. BP mentions above that he's seen cases of research profs making *less* than regular postdocs, so I guess it varies among different places and different fields (and different PI's?).

About the status of research prof positions: In principle it's quite a bit better than postdoc since it's a temporary faculty position (like visiting assistant prof). In practice though it can sometimes be a dead end: a position where you get stuck indefinitely as the servant of a PI and then pass your expiry date on the job market for tenure track faculty positions. Ms.Phd has a post about this called "Death by Overdoc", which is where the overdoc name comes from.

The thing I disliked most about the overdoc job (besides the idiot boss) was the lack of time and freedom to pursue my own projects (which I had been used to doing a lot of the time as a postdoc). The boss had lured me in in the beginning by dangling the prospect of it leading on to a permanent faculty position at his institution, but over time it became clear that that was bullshit and so I quit. However, I'm pretty sure that the job title helped with landing a couple of faculty interviews recently, and was regarded favorably by the hiring committees as an official certification of experience in taking care of students.


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