Saturday, April 18, 2009

R1 vs. not so R1


I'm still torn about this question. And no, I've never deleted one of your comments.

I do think the facilities issue is an important one. Many of my frustrations in my postdoc have stemmed from, despite being at a "top" university (not top 5, but top 10 or 20), not having control over access to things I needed.

I think there are a lot of fallacies about "top" places, although I can't say for sure whether being in the top 5 wouldn't actually be 100% better.

But here are some of the misconceptions that I think have made things harder than they should have been at the postdoc level. In other words, the assumptions that don't match reality:

1. Your PI will make sure you have what you need to do your project.

2. Your PI is famous, and therefore has plenty of money.

3. Your PI has plenty of money, manages it wisely, and fairly distributes it among the projects.

4. Top-notch universities have top-notch staff, who are paid well to do a good job helping you with your projects.

5. Your PI is famous, and therefore has plenty of clout and will always been a help to your career, and never steer you wrong.

6. The other PIs in the department respect your PI and you for joining that lab.

7. Broken equipment gets fixed quickly at top-notch universities.

8. Your PI really wants you to succeed, because your success makes your PI look that much better.

So how much of that would apply if I were a junior faculty member where I'm a postdoc now? Try replacing "department chair" for the word "PI" in most of those and you'll see why I'm worried. Obviously #4 and #7 matter more than I'd like, especially at places that depend on shared facilities because no individual PI can afford to have one of everything just for their own lab.

What I know is that I've seen friends who took jobs at various levels of places, who got what they needed to do their work and who is making do with less than I'd want to settle for.

The ones at top schools have basically had no chance to fail, at least in terms of facilities. They got everything they asked for in their startup packages, plus a few other things that the departments didn't have before.

The ones at almost-top schools are already having problems. Not having enough grad students in the incoming classes; postdocs don't want to move there because of the location; university won't give them matching funds when they try to apply for equipment money; not to mention staff being laid off because of funding problems; being shunted in and out of various lab spaces in decrepit old buildings; things being extremely slow already and even slower at schools with no money.

My feeling is that it's a steep curve, and the differences between the various types of schools are huge. I was looking at NIH organizational reports the other day, it's quite amazing to see how much money some places are getting compared to others.

One of my fears is that nobody at the places with one digit less funding is doing the kinds of things I do. So even if I thought I had to way to do it for cheaper, the search committees look at me and say, "There's no way she could do that kind of thing here." And I know this is a legitimate fear, because I've actually had them say that to me.

And it's true. I can barely do it where I am now, and that's with a lot of begging and stealing and nagging my advisors and collaborators to help.... whether my PI just doesn't want to allocate the money, or actually doesn't have any money to spare.

I'm not sure if I'd want to do this as a PI, or that I'd want my future (imaginary) grad students/postdocs to do what I've been doing the last few years.

I think it's a bit inhumane and probably hurts the science more than anyone wants to admit. It hurts me... and it hurts me physically to think how much more I could have done if I had help instead of resistance every step of the way.

I would want to provide better for my students/postdocs than I've had.

It's so ironic, because it was never my intention to do Big Expensive Science.

Here's to being overqualified and underemployed.

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

Just wondering, have you been in this (apparently hard to accommodate) field ever since your PhD or is there any chance for you to switch directions a bit?

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to wonder if we are in the same Big Expensive Science field ...

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MsPHD, why do you want to get a TT position anyway? we all know that academic science is such a f***ed up world where merit doesn't get you anywhere and what counts more is your game-playing and political capital and favortism. And furthermore, so few people want to admit that this is the case, there is so much hypocrisy from those who are profiting from the system via above factors, they continue to spread the myth about how it supposedly is about merit and hard work and yada-yada-yada... why do you even want to be part of this culture? I think that if you did get a TT job, you will be surrounded by an environment that disgusts you. How will this make for a fulfilling career?

At 3:53 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

Thanks, yes, that's an interesting response.

I have to say that being in a not-R1-equivalent place has definitely slowed me down - it took a few years to get everything I needed in place. I didn't have a large start-up, so there was less pressure in the way of new staff who also needed me to get things going as fast as possible - and the low start-up did reduce a little expectations of what I could do during probation. It's worked out - having a faculty job has definitely slowed my science down, and if I had more resources (including the things you mentioned about graduate students or post-docs wanting to come here) I could have worked faster. I've deliberately moved my focus to areas where I can get a 'win' within the resources I have - but ultimately, I am able to do useful and exciting science which is related to my interests, even if I only do the 'cheap bits'.

I appreciate the frustration of ending up accidentally doing 'big money science' - in my PhD university and department all the work in my field is relatively 'cheap' but in my current departmental context, I'm at the expensive end...

Also, yes, you're right, a bad or simply incompetant or disinterested Department Chair can be at least as bad as a problematic PI... frustrating!

At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Saffron said...

I am a graduate student applying for a postdoc position. Everything on your list is embodied by my current PI and after reading your entry I realize how lucky I am...and how scared I am to leave the lab.

Is it really that hard to find a good PI? How can you tell when visiting a lab if the PI is nuts and everyone hates him/her?

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. PhD, I completely understand your frustration. Please do not be bothered by the comments of all the PIs telling you that you do not quite know what being a PI entails. In my opinion those comments illustrate the best what is wrong with the current system. Supposedly, graduate school and postdoc prepares us for the job of a PI. The training period is rigorous, draining, poorly paid and takes extremely long time. Then, when you are on the verge of being done with it you are supposedly utterly unprepared for being a professor and need further "on the job training"???!!! This is completely screwed up. Why bother with doing a postdoc at all? Why can't you get "on the job training" right after getting your PhD like so many of the older PIs did? I guess, there are two words for it: slave labor. The current system, starting with the PhD programs, needs a complete overhaul. The problem is that the only people that can do something about it are the ones who were able to thrive in it, so they do not have much incentive to make any changes - after all, their jobs are secure, so why bother?

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon- everyone asks that. The more new things I do, the less I'm sure what kind of department would say I was a good "fit."

Anon 5:54- could be? It's not the most expensive, but there are so many special issues with doing expensive science that are the same once you go above a certain cost level.

Anon 11:44,
Good question. My therapist says I should just stick with my original instinct to at least do the experiment. Gotta try, she says. I don't know, I need to talk to her again about this!

Maybe if I hadn't already spent a lot of time trying to do expensive research on the cheap, I'd be more willing to continue as you are doing. It's just made me really tired.

Saffron-see the archive. I should make a sidebar about this. I also recommend several of the blogs on my blogroll, who also have posts on this.

Anon 8:20, thanks. Yes.


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