Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Well technically, no.

Lately I've noticed a sad theme among the grad students and young postdocs.

No, they have not yet realized what a pyramid scheme they've bought into.

I mean sad because it's one of the same mistakes I made, so I decided I should blog about it here and hopefully save a few poor souls some pain.

So here it is, Yet Another YFS Rule for Postdocs:

If you are looking for an academic career, do not worry about what techniques you will learn as a postdoc.

Now, I know, some of you are saying But-! But-! But-!

But you are wrong. Now shut up and let me tell you why.

1. Most of the successful people I know did NOT switch fields for their postdoc.
Yeah yeah, I know. Your PIs are telling you to do something different and preferably far away. Ignore them. If you don't want to switch, you don't have to go that far, scientifically or geographically (especially if you're already in Boston or the Bay Area).

2. You will not be recruited to your future faculty position interviews for the techniques that you do, NO MATTER HOW COOL THEY ARE, if you don't have the other important things (famous PI; high-impact papers; topic relevant to the department; ideally also funding; ability to kiss everyone's ass).

In reality, your Future Colleagues actually do care what techniques you use, and if you're going to join their department, they WILL expect you to collaborate with them, which means you better bring something they want and need.

But even though many places still advertise for certain specialties (mass spec; structural biology meaning it has to be crystallography or NMR; etc.), they don't actually want you to show up and plug your techniques per se.

They want you to come and tell them a scientific story with a few main players, a plot line, and a fabulous conclusion (surprise ending is optional).

3. Last but not least, the techniques you think are hot today? Will be gone tamale.

Bioscience is moving faster than ever, and shows no signs of slowing down in this regard: whatever RNAi is now, will be something else for your first batch of postdocs, and the batch of postdocs who come after them.

Whatever you think you're an expert in now, yes some of that knowledge will transfer if you understand the concepts. But the key thing will not be what techniques you know. It will be how well you pick up new techniques every time you need to, even if you're not the one doing them yourself.

I've had some interesting experiences in this regard. Trying to troubleshoot over email? An acquired skill.

Trying to troubleshoot something you've never actually done yourself? Learnable.

Now try it over email. #$%^! Pretty damn frustrating.

Learning how to ask the right questions to help figure out what's wrong?

Priceless. That, my friends, is what a good PI is all about.

Now go out there and get yourself some useful training, not a bag of soon-to-be-outdated generic tricks that all your fellow postdocs also know.


...Unless you want to go to industry. There, they want you to have certain hot skills, and preferably a big long list of them.

The funny part there is, industry is actually ahead of academia in many respects when it comes to technical stuff. Some of their toys might not even be available to you as an academic postdoc. So you'll have to be careful to pick labs doing the relevant things (maybe collaborating with companies?) or do an industrial postdoc, if that option is available to you (and those are few in number these days, unless you're in Japan).

So choose wisely, little grasshoppers. Don't pick your lab for techniques.

Pick it for the mentor*; for the prestige; because you like the location and/or the other people in the lab.

Whatever, I don't know. I've tried all the obvious things and it didn't work out so well for me!

Just don't pick it because you think you want to learn X, unless you have an amazing cool question you want to use X to answer. Don't expect your Lab of X to hand you an awesome project that you can take with you to start your own lab, because they usually won't. All that time you've spent debating over model organism? Irrelevant if you don't know what kind of QUESTION you want to ask with your science.

Lesson over. Now go out there and sign yourself up for more indentured servitude. And yes, you can debate endlessly over what kind of pen to use.

Okay, go.

*if you believe in such things, like the Tooth Fairy

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At 5:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there really that many people who choose their post-docs in order to learn a technique as opposed to in order to ask certain research questions?

I have never heard of such a thing in my field of psychology. I know people who have been interested in learning a new technique (like a different way to measure neural responses) for their post-docs, but it's always been for the purpose of asking certain questions.

How common is this problem?

At 6:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ability to kiss everyone's assThe key to successful ass-kissing is to aim for the cheek and avoid the crack ...

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 5:11,

Many PIs look for a postdoc who already has certain skills to bring them to the lab- it's the best way to learn new things and have them taught to your other lab members, once you've left the bench yourself. To that end, a lot of graduating students think they can circumvent being used as a slave by looking for a lab where they are sure they can also learn at least one new thing.

The problem for most new PhDs in my field is that, unless you're going to stay in the same field, coming up with good research questions in other areas is hard. There are a lot of ins and out to using different model systems, etc. so things you think could be done aren't doable, and you won't know because you don't have the experience. If you have a "mentor" they might just tell you not to try - this is usually bad advice, but it's hard to ignore, especially if said "mentor" is also paying your salary and signing off on your fellowship applications.

Anon 6:42, I should have that embroidered on something. Maybe I'll have it tattooed on my own ass.

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Govt. Bureaucrat said...


Found your blog this morning and reading it makes me sad. It is a shame that this system is such a mess--so inhumane. There is increasing recognition of the problem...

However, the timescale that will be required to fix this mess is way beyond what those in the system right now need to solve their immediate dilemmas.

I hope that you can move past this current misery and find a place where you can employ your obvious talents a way that will benefit both you and your society. Problem is, once you leave the beaten path of UG>PhD>PostDoc>AsstProf there is no... beaten path.

Everyone I know who has left the bench and found other fulfilling careers, either in science or out, has had to largely invent their own way. There are no beaten paths (but there are a few goat-trails!)

I left a little later in my career than you. I was a soft-money prof at a med school and I was a hell-of-a-grant-writer. However, I became increasingly uncomfortable that my career was going to depend on a stream of grad students/Post-docs whose own career prospects seemed ever dimmer. I looked for an honorable way out. I finished my students and got them placed. My technicians had new jobs before I did. Nevertheless, it was a hard transition. My own post-doc advisor, a wonderful man with a good soul, was heartbroken. Many of my colleagues viewed me as a failure (one of them told me this flat-out a number of years later).

That is inevitable, I suppose. But my best friends, the ones who love me the most, saw that I was making the best decision for me. (My post-doc advisor came to recognize this too, but it took many years.) Today I have a job that I love.

I want that for you too. Stay with your therapy. What you are going through is tough enough even without clinical depression layered on top. And look around. Many have made the transition that you will make. They will talk to you about it. Once you overcome that sense of loss and focus on the future possibilities it may even become a little bit exhilarating!

Best wishes.


At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I chose my post-doc to learn a new technique (protein crystallography from small molecule crystallography). I then went on to chose my position to learn more new techniques (bioinformatics, university staff position). I could never come up with questions that are REALLY interesting to me or others, that's why I'm not a PI, and never wanted to be one. Now, I look for industry positions. Thanks for explaining my path to me!

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll go with you for the tattoo on our asses.

I tried to venture out for my postdoc to a new (now old) technique per advice of my PhD advisor. BIG MISTAKE. I went to a lab where everyone expected me to reinvent the wheel. There wasn't anyone jumping up and down to help me learn the methods and I felt very lost and useless. I left quickly.

Hindsight advice: stick to what you know. Instead of expanding your techniques, expand your research network. Call up people for collaborations. 90% of the people I work with are one trick ponies. The 10% superstars have exceptional facilities and deep lineages.

Being a one trick pony isn't how I imagined my scientific career, but it seems the more I tried to branch out, the more people (again, one trick ponies) said I was schizo and lacking in research direction. The flip side is going to a meeting and people saying "wow, you've done X, but what about Y?" as if I am responsible for everyfuckingthing. Unless you are well off with support and resources, stick to what you know and bring people together for related projects.

At 6:03 PM, Blogger Phagenista said...

The advice I continue to get is similar to Anon 2:14... be an expert at one thing and people will be forced to collaborate with you.

But just as much as you think about making your CV marketable, you have to do what you think you'll be happy with. I have research ADD and I need to be able to continue moving into different areas. So being the expert at one narrow thing isn't for me, and I know that I might have a harder row to hoe to tenure, but it's the way that might work best for me.

I have felt for many years that academic science is a pyramid scheme, but it hasn't bothered me. And that's because I think we should be supportive and encouraging of our trainees that want to do something outside the ivory tower. The problem is with thinking that the PhD and postdoctoral experience only prepares people to have jobs just like us... and not that they are incredibly versatile degrees that *should* involve acquiring many marketable skills (analysis, perseverance, presentation, expository writing, etc). I'm very glad that I'm in a department and at an institution that embraces the many faces of a science education and is just concerned with bringing up the next generation of government bureaucrats (and science writers, educators, etc) as assistant professors.

At 1:39 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

How quaint that there are young grad students and postdocs out there who think they can improve their chances by learning new techniques and switching fields. Hahahahaha!

I suppose they should be told the truth. Ok, so this is the way it really works, at least in physics. The key thing is to become anointed. It's a lot like becoming a "made man" in a mafia family.

PhD must be done under the supervision of a leading figure in a fashionable subfield at a top 10 research uni. Wonderfully supportive relationship with PhD adviser must be established. Should be followed by one or more posdocs in the groups of other leading figures in same or related subfield. Once again, what matters most by far is not what you actually learn or do but the nature of the relationship you establish with your PI bosses: it must be wonderfully supportive. (Obviously, to attain such a relationship it will help if you do good work for the boss. Equally obviously, other things that have nothing to with your qualities as a scientist are going to matter a lot for this as well.)

After completing phd and postdocs at illustrious unis under senior influential bosses in fashionable subfield(s), and achieving wonderfully supportive relationships with them, you have become anointed - congrads! You will now be viewed by senior figures in your field as someone who should get a faculty position. And probably you will get one without much trouble. The number of faculty openings is tiny compared to the total number of postdoc applicants, but large compared to the small subset of postdocs who have been anointed.

A few hints:
(1) For achieving the all-important wonderfully supportive relationships with PhD adviser and postdoc bosses, your research efforts had better be dedicated towards their greater glory by advancing their research programs. Don't start trying to do your own things, that will be a huge mistake.
(2) Faculty members will regularly lie to you about what does and doesn't matter for career success. The reason they do this is because of a deep-rooted subconscious conviction that if they pretend hard enough that things are a certain way then reality will change and become as they wish it to be. For example, it makes them feel good about their profession to say that independence is a valued quality in young researchers, so they will tell you that it is. The reality is quite different though, cf. (1).
(3) Don't worry about the supposed need to publish in glamor journals. It will happen automatically when your bosses are leading figures in a fashionable subfield and you are working under their direction to advance their research programs. And if you aren't working for such people then no number of publications in such journals is going to help you anyway. (That's the case in physics at any rate.)

At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Industry cares. Arguably too much or too little, but they care. Soup of the day: a broth of HPLC-MS, LC/MS, several spoonfuls of CE, some FITR, DSC/TGA, a sprinkle of FACS served with a side of RNAi.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Phagenista- I'm more like you in terms of preference. But it's not a formula that has worked well for me thus far. I tend to agree that the more typical route of being a one-trick pony seems to work for most people to get faculty positions. My colleagues are threatened when they realize I know all about all of their tricks, plus several of my own. They don't admire that: they hate it.

I tend to agree with APP. I just wish someone had told me this- exactly as written- when I was in college. Would have saved me from choosing science as a major.

At 12:49 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Ms.PhD, I'm not ready to declare majoring in science a bad idea - that's too depressing to contemplate! Maybe it's naive but I still think it offers relatively good (the best?) chances for finding occupations with intellectual creativity plus reasonable standard of living. If I could start over, probably I would study stuff in the general areas of physics, engineering and computers. I would try to get to the research frontier somewhere in physics/engineering technology where there's a free market and advances in technology are rewarded by the market in a direct and concrete way (in contrast to the political non-rewarding of research advances in academia that you discussed in your latest post).
Actually that's also what I intend to do now, after finally having found a (decent enough) faculty position after 10+ years postdoccing. If things go to plan then in a few years I'll be a science entrepreneur and academia can kiss my ass.

What would you do if you could start over?

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Another ancient physics postdoc said...

Similar to Anon@2:14, my experiences and observations has been that those people who are 'one trick ponies' - who do the exact same thing from Phd through postdoc - are the ones who become successful while those who expand their horizons and push the boundaries of their comfort zones and take risks, are seen as "not having research direction".

I'm not a one-trick pony because (a) I didn't know that this was the preferred model but even if I did, (b) I was told by my PhD advisor that it is good to broaden your horizons and that the postdoc is for doing just that (why would my advisor say the exact opposite of what was true?) and (c) intuitively it seems to be a good thing, as a human being, to broaden your horizons and challenge yourself in new ways.

so for my postdoc I changed fields, not just subfields. I took a couple years to get up to speed in the new field but managed to publish in good journals. However, now is where my experience meshes with that of Ancient Physics Postdoc. Because I switched fields for my postdoc, even though my PhD advisor was a well known figure in a hot subfield my postdoc advisor wasn't. AND I was also doing something independent and supporting myself with fellowships and grants. I wasn't being merely an extra pair of hands in the lab to carry out the PI's vision. Thus, during my postdoc is where I learned a ton of new techniques and skills and eventually published using them which felt personally fulfilling, yet my career stagnated. I just could not get a job beyond that of yet another postdoc position which really perplexed me for many years but now I know it's because I was doing all the wrong things to become 'anointed'. (I'm in physics too by the way.) Needless to say, I never did become 'anointed' even though I really do feel that I am more mature and have more insight that those who are, from having pushed my boundaries and challenged myself rather than safely sticking with what I already knew.

Yet over time, I became less and less 'marketable' while the one-trick anointed ponies are the ones who are now enjoying much career success as 'independent' PI's (which basically means they are doing the same thing since they were in grad school). When I talk with such people, some of them are truly so narrow-minded they have no idea a world exists outside of their own subfield. yet they are the successful ones. If this is the ONLY model for academic career success then I no longer am interested in getting an academic job.

that's pretty much where I'm at right now, I spent many postdoctoral years enjoying my research but wondering why I wasn't progressing in my career and figuring out on my own what is now so succinctly written in this blogpost and the previous comments.

At 4:12 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Another APP,

Commiserations. I share your disillusionment with what is and isn't rewarded in academic physics. In fact that's why I'm going to completely shift my research direction from basic science to technological applications now that I've finally found a faculty position. The plan is to develop commercial product(s), start a business, and get out of academia.
(To answer the obvious question about why I didn't do this earlier, let's just say there was some psychological blockage. Plus I think it will be easier to start up something like this as a faculty member rather than as a postdoc or a nothing.)

By the way, in case it's of interest to you and you aren't already aware of it, these days there are opportunities for academic jobs at universities in recently developed parts of the world (i.e. outside North America/Europe). Some of these are quite reasonable as far as salary and living standards go. It's sometimes possible to get these without being 'anointed'; a good publication record and recommendations can be enough. For independent types who are able to do research on their own steam in relative isolation, these jobs might not be too bad.


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