Wednesday, August 05, 2009

I guess I'm flattered?

Realized today that the sum total of graduate students at my university who would have liked to work with me for their postdoctoral training has crossed over into "enough to start my own lab, complete with sports team".


Since I can't hire them myself, the conversation always devolves into the same old question that all graduate students ask about choosing a postdoc lab:

Who should I work for?


Of this list of famous guys, who should I NOT work for? What about this guy? Or this guy? (yes, because the famous ones the students choose are usually all guys)

Even if the student is smart enough not to make a list of the Usual Famous A**holes, it's still tough to answer. I can't think of many people who both impress me scientifically and seem to have a clue about mentoring (and aren't either anonymous bloggers, currently unemployed, retired, or all of the above).

And the list has to be further narrowed because most students are already somewhat picky about what they want to do. Without realizing how narrow they've become just during their few short years in grad school, most of them will already tell you: animals or no animals; cold room or no cold room; computers-only or no-computers. And so on. And they don't listen when you tell them the kinds of thesis projects to avoid (hint: certain animals!), so why would they listen about choosing a postdoc lab? Let's be honest, they won't.

The only thing I can do that I think can make an impression is to quiz them about what they really want to do in the long term. Where do they want to live in 10 years when they're done with postdoc and job search (ha ha ha? you think I'm kidding?).

It's amazing to me how many graduate students don't feel they have permission to ask themselves these questions. Even more frightening: it's because they're waiting for their advisers or thesis committee members to ask them these questions!

Yes, some students do the soul-searching part while agonizing over The Dissertation. For too many students, it's the first (only?) time they've been allowed to really take the time to ruminate on where they came from, what they learned, and what they have to show for the time they spent toiling away at the bench.

So here's my tiny piece of advice for today: you don't need permission from your PI or your committee to start figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your scientific career.

Even if all you're sure about right now is that you're being told you have to do a postdoc "no matter what". This is what they tell the students on my campus, sadly, and most of them buy into it as the gospel (even sadder). Because "no matter what" boils down to two kinds of jobs: faculty or R&D industry. There's zero recognition there are other kinds of jobs that don't require a postdoc.

Hint: there are some jobs where you don't have to do a postdoc at all!

And, you DON'T have to wait until you have permission to write your thesis to start figuring that out.

You just need to make a little time for being really honest with yourself, and one other thing-

Talk to people who teach, and people who don't. Talk to people in different kinds of departments, at small schools and big schools. Ask them about their funding sources. Try to picture yourself writing grants. If you were a grant writing maniac, what kind would you be? And the sooner you start, the better.

If you don't know any of these things, you might want to plan to do more than one postdoc, in different kinds of places (pretty common now anyway). How else are you going to do the experiment?

And here's another hint: if you can't face doing more than one postdoc, consider that you might need to take a long vacation after grad school to sort out what you really want to do longer-term. Because nowadays, it's pretty much required that you do a lot of postdoc for a very long time. And if you want to know how much fun that is, read this blog. Or just read the tag on this post.


As for myself, I'm trying to draw encouragement of the "I don't completely suck" variety from wherever I can get it these days.

So if these students really do think my science is cool and that I'd be a great mentor, I'll take that as a HUGE compliment.

Even if I can't actually be that great mentor helping launch them into illustrious careers.

Oh well. Can't help everyone all the time, I suppose.

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At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't need a post doc to get a job in industry. I didn't. I never was interested in the misery of academics (and wouldn't have been very successful at it either.) The economy wasn't as bad as it is now when I graduated, but it wasn't great either. I managed to miss an entire period of economic prosperity during grad school and finish after the implosion.

A good post doc can be an asset to get a job in industry, but definitely isn't a prerequisite.

At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recall one program (within the past 25 years), the question among the female grad students wasn't so much "who shouldn't I work for" as much as "who can I be sure won't require me to sleep with them for my degree". Sad, but true. (From what I hear, it continues...)

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think grad students should be advised that while aiming for an academic job may be their first choice, to not assume they will attain one and thus to always have a back up plan or an exit strategy right from the beginning. Therefore, they will be less likely to someday find themselves in the "oh sh**!" situation where they realize their academic career is at a dead end and yet they have no clue what else is out there or even worse no transferable skills. Not having transferable skills can be overcome, but having no clue when you're in a desperate situation really wrecks havoc on your life plans.

At 9:25 AM, Blogger Jenny F. Scientist, PhD said...

Sadly, most grad students aren't advised to diversify their skills- even though only a small percentage (<30%) will find academic jobs. Also, professors often discourage this; less time in lab, y'know. That said, I managed, my PI was pissed at me for several years, but too bad. I graduated, went to industry, and no longer have nightmares every night about how much I hate science.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Thomas Joseph said...

Where I work (government), our engineer was hired right out of her Ph.D. As a microbiologist, I had to do a post-doc (of course it only lasted 14 months). It entirely depends on your course of study and the demand for your particular skills I suppose.

Keep your chin up!

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous JSinger said...

I graduated, went to industry, and no longer have nightmares every night about how much I hate science.

Jenny, did you go to a PhD-level science job or leave research altogether? MsPhD and Anonymous are correct that you can get PhD industry jobs without a postdoc (and it's definitely worth looking if you're in that position and certainly worth taking a decent offer over just about any postdoc) but it's still the minority route.

At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in physical sciences, and when I've looked into PhD-level science jobs in industry (as well as talking with friends who did go into industry), I find a lot of the industry jobs to be unsatisfying as far as the type of work you do. There are far more jobs in industry that don't require a PhD, than those that do make use of your PhD. I'm still trying to find a job that does make use of my PhD so it would not have been a waste.

until I find that kind of job I'm still holding out in my postdoc for an academic or research position. However, it is also unsatisfying to have zero job security, crappy pay and benefits, and have your life be controlled by one person (your PI). I'm thus still open to industry jobs, I'm just trying to find one that doesn't sound too bad and doesn't make all my years of 'advanced' training moot.

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous mixlamalice said...

Since I am in the US, I tend to be more impermeable to flattery.
It is due to the fact that to me, in the US, the cheerleading attitude is really common, especially in sciences: I sometimes have the feeling that group meetings look like some kind of positive thinking psychotherapy (how great our group is) more than really scientific discussions.

If you go to Europe, people won't tell you you're great unless they mean it: if they don't say anything, you're probably just doing fine.

I have the feeling that in the US, it is when people don't say anything that you have to worry: when things go ok, people will tell you you're awesome, tremendous, great, oh my god and so on. I guess that when you don't hear any good comments at all, it means that you really suck.


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