Sunday, December 27, 2009

reponse to comment on last post

Dear person who wrote as "lou dobbs" (pretty sure that's not your real name, but if it is, boy that sucks),

I know what you mean. But. I have no intention of hiring cheap, international postdocs just so I can, how did you put it, chain them to the bench? HIre and fire? Ruin lives? That's not me, and I will do everything in my power not to let it be.

I'm already the corporate psychopath, as you put it, in the sense that there is a significant split here with blogging and my daily life. I am both very devoted to mentoring and very devoted to actually getting science done.

I find I am in the minority in more ways than one.

I'm not the sort of person who is going to burn out my students so I can profit off their labor. Besides, I wouldn't want students who are obedient to the point of self-destruction. The smart ones never are. Call me a crazy optimist, but I think when you find good students and encourage them to be creative, they will be motivated.

If I were running a lab, I would keep it small but with the aim of high productivity per person. I liked the way Janelia Farm talked about it when they first started (although I don't know if they have actually stuck to their original plan of capping the size of labs, or how that is really going).

Of course, those people don't have to compete for NIH funding the way everyone else does. NIH caps the size of labs, too, actually, but for whatever reason they don't care if folks out in the rest of the country want to have a 30+ person factory. I don't understand why it would be so bad to cap it everywhere, for everyone.

I know plenty of people who feel like you do. They quit science for exactly that reason. Nobody IN science (or at NIH) seems to consider the possibility that Americans are quitting science, not because of the low pay, or the lack of job security, or the difficulty of having a family, or the geographical restrictions, or any of the other practical reasons, but because they have a CONSCIENCE.

And I absolutely agree with you that we need to track where postdocs end up. I have been saying this for years. For that matter, most grad schools don't track past "our students get postdoc positions". Puh-leeze. Of course they do. That is nothing to brag about.

The numbers I've seen are pretty dismal. Nobody tells you, when you are an undergrad thinking about going to grad school, that less than 10% of PhDs will get research university faculty positions. They all act like, "When you grow up, you can have your own lab!" hahahaha.

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At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

(1 of 2)
Hello again,

Thanks for your earnest reply to my post. Lou dobbs isn't my real name, although I am a major network news anchor.

Some points for further discussion. I might have to split this across a couple posts.

-1. the phrase 'corporate psychopath' needs some clarification. It describes the office managerial stereotype that is devious, manipulative, and agressive. I don't want to dwell on it here, but suffice to say I don't think you meet the definition.

-2. The 'You' I referred to in my last comment is the (generic) struggling postdoc trying to make it to PI, and the compromises that those people will *have* to make to their notions of mentorship, peer-interaction, and granstmanship in a hyper-competitive, brand- and fasion-orientated work environment where your reputation hangs by your citation index and your media savvy. Whatever minority (woman, young, caring professional manager with an active interest in her young charges) you see yourself as within that context is an interesting point, but I didn't mean to have a go at your personal capacity for a scientific career. So, sorry if this caused offense.

-3. Personal choices about your lab managerial style will have consequences for your science, some good and some bad. I can't comment on that and sincerely wish you well. However, I do think it is important to recognize that you won't go far in getting good students, obedient or otherwise, if you aren't paying attention to the factors outlined above, and there's the rub. Students cost money and need money. The competition to get money requires that you compete. Moreover, you have an obligation to either train scientists who can compete for funding effectively and pragmatically within the real world.

-4. You didn't address my point; namely, that the entire system works for the benefit of PIs and tech industries that require a well-trained and cheap labour force. Period. It was less about whether you personally *would* take advantage of it, but as a PI you *will* stand to benefit and will have less interest or motivation in reforming it. Moreover, my point also wasn't about mediocre obedience, it was about costs. Cheap smart hardworking rebellious people now cost the same as cheap mediocre obedient hardworking people. In fact, they're probably cheaper.

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

(2 of 2)

-5. By the way, It would be easy to prove me wrong. Just show me the letter signed by X number of Nobel-Prize-winning US scientists that states that domestic scientific labor market reform is a key problem in US competitiveness in science, and urging Obama (or Bush, or any other President) to HALT ALL further funding increases until the problems are addressed.

Can't find it?

Hm, OK.

Now look for how many eminent engineers, scientists, and others wrote in support of H1B visa expansion, or any number of letters stating they need more MONEY / PEOPLE to feed in the furnace and keep US science the best in the world like we are in, well, finance.

-6. I agree that managing, mentoring and engaging with your people is a key skill and ensuring they don't burn out is critical for ensuring data quality - in the long-term.

But, we don't live in, or compete in, a long-term world anymore.

As for the lab PI these days, they're lucky if they have someone working longer than a couple years. There are pressing medium- and short-term goals that always take precedence - namely, funding, high-impact papers, and getting attention. There are always pressures on money, time, and project ambitions.

Therefore, I don't think it is odd to suggest that, while your aspirations are noble now, your lab management priorities might just change as your aspirations become more Nobel.

-7. There are other ways of getting around the NIH science cap- for example, running a second lab in some mammoth institute in China, Singapore or South Korea, which don't have any controls on the number of people they can employ while still ostensibly holding NIH grants. As I said, brand recognition and media savvy - half a big name in science is worth more than one exceptionally dedicated nobody.

-8. When you think back, did anybody ever promise you a lab? Nobody did, I'm sure. You worked hard for the science and the thrill of discovery. If you've made it this far you've done more than most ever will with their lives and you have contributed something valuable to future generations.

-9. Regarding conscience: There are a lot of good reasons for leaving science as you mention, but the moral argument you make is interesting. Personally, I think curiosity carries a lot of our sense of moral worth as individuals. We will inevitably triumph over all personal obstacles, with the implicit assumption (beaten into us in grad school) that the satisfaction of curiosity will benefit humanity as a whole.

While this truth stands, attention will be on the moral value of science and not the moral value of labor reform.

-10. For the system as you put it to change, it will take a significant percentage of well-educated, competitive, dedicated individuals with a voice in the community to decide that their individual pursuit of the truth is less important than the collective effort of a community; and that their efforts are backed, publically and financially, by the highest achievers in the scientific community.

If even 1% of US scientists had the funding and support to shut down their science careers and go do this instead, it would make a huge difference.

The tragedy is this will never happen, because (1) PIs are (collectively) a pack of elitists who *do* recognize the fundamental immorality of the present system of postdoc exploitation and go with it (either because they have to, or because they know it works for them), and (2) Postdocs so desperately want to join the party that they won't bite the hand that feeds them. I'd love to see evidence to the contrary.

You Stay Classy, YFS, and happy new year.

At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The numbers I've seen are pretty dismal. Nobody tells you, when you are an undergrad thinking about going to grad school, that less than 10% of PhDs will get research university faculty positions. They all act like, "When you grow up, you can have your own lab!" hahahaha.

This is a reason I HATE the term "alternative career" and how disparaging most of academia is to those who leave it. If 80-90% of us wind up doing something else, why is staying in academia the standard and only noble thing? It's a case of having ones head up ones ass. Getting a science degree and using it in anyway? I think that's noble anyway you shake it, dammit.

At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The numbers I've seen are pretty dismal. Nobody tells you, when you are an undergrad thinking about going to grad school, that less than 10% of PhDs will get research university faculty positions. They all act like, "When you grow up, you can have your own lab!"

Exactly, and not just when you are in undergrad, but even when you are in grad school about to finish your PhD! And why wouldn't they say this? if they had told us the truth back then we might have quit then and there or switched careers without bothering to finish our Phds, and then the PIs would be left without anyone to do their research for them (except very newbie students who are too green and inexperienced to be of much use). well my PhD advisor was a very old guy and totally out of touch with today's competitive climate so I think he truly believed that literally anyone who finished their PhD and didn't suck too much, would be assured of a PI position somewhere. My grad department had very few young faculty so the only ones around were those who got their jobs decades ago and were similarly out of touch with reality. It took me years of postdoc-ing to realize that it's all a lie. I wish I had found your blog years ago.

At 5:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very, very nice insightful comments, Lou Dobbs. I wish you would post here more often.

At 7:12 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

Nobody tells you, when you are an undergrad thinking about going to grad school, that less than 10% of PhDs will get research university faculty positions.

I was told. Mind you, I didn't really believe them, I thought they were putting me down/saying women couldn't do it/afraid of the competition/all sorts of other reasons. But I was told, I can't deny it. And I tell my people, now I have people to tell. And most of them, especially the good scientists who believe in their ideas and are enthusiastic about their science, clearly don't believe me.

At 3:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ "Lou Dobbs":

In your first comment here, you said "Lou dobbs isn't my real name, although I am a major network news anchor."

however in your comments from MsPhD's previous blog post, you had said, "Science won't be fixed in the US because we (academic postdocs) aren't the reason for science investment....And the tragedy is that, if you or I ever actually make it to PI, our care factor about these issues that you blog and comment on and I'm obsessed with will drop to zero overnight...."

So I'm confused - are you a major network news anchor, or are you a postdoc?

I will assume you are a postdoc not a major network news, what is your plan for your own career in light of the issues you raise (and which I wholeheartedly agree with)? Are you still trying to get a PI position and do you concede that if so you will then care less than you do now about the postdoc system? or are you going to leave academia so as to not support this system that you are so against?

At 5:43 AM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

@anonymous 3:14

Yeah, you've got me. I'm a postdoc.

Wow, good questions. S__t or get of the pot, huh?

I was trying to point out that the problems in the academic postdoc labor market benefit PI's and because of this, our situation won't improve until one of two things happen: (1) we drop out and get into another career / area, or (2) we successfully become PI's. In the event of the latter, the competitive nature of the research community means that competition for resources, and not the welfare of trainees, will be the highest priority.

In my opinion, this is why the misery of the extended postdoc situation goes back fifteen years now, and why it will continue for the forseeable future. PIs, whether they want to be or not, are part of the problem right now. They don't have to be, and I sincerely wish they weren't.

None of this answers your question!

what is your plan for your own career in light of the issues you raise (and which I wholeheartedly agree with)?

I've decided to retrain in a different career. This decision comes after a dozen publications and four and a half years of postdoc 'training', including getting independent funding for two PI's.

Bottom line - I want to establish a stable financial basis for a family, which I want to have, and the need for working future beyond the age of fifty, which I'm going to need (I'm mid-thirties, and haven't saved much). It's going to be extremely tough.

I see it as a rational decision based on a dispassionate assessment of who I am as a person versus the career I've trained myself for.

Are you still trying to get a PI position and do you concede that if so you will then care less than you do now about the postdoc system?

I'm giving up on trying to become a PI and academia after a long struggle. Ultimately, it was for my own reasons, which are a mix of financial and personal considerations. I don't want to pretend this is a political statement about the academic situation.

Yes, if I became a PI, I would no longer give two hoots about the *general* postdoc situation. I would care greatly about my individual postdocs / PHD's that I train directly, within the context of what care I could offer them. I would probably also take an interest in other postdocs in the research institute I was in. But I would have many other concerns as well, chief among them publishing, getting money, and marketing my research to the community.

And I certainly wouldn't have any time and / or interest in trying to reform a system that my other PI colleagues, and seniors, all depend on for their own research careers. That would be frustrating for me, but I'd probably put up with it. Many otherwise good people do.

I would imagine that, as a PI, the biggest frustration would be in not being able to keep good people that take a long time to train up, and not being able to have a more direct role in bench research.

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

What do you mean, the postdoc problem "goes back 15 years now"? That would put us at 1995. It goes back at least another 10 years earlier, more like 1985. I am too lazy to look up the National Academy reports right now, but they have done one periodically on the postdoc problem, and it always makes the same recommendations, and nothing ever happens.

Although, I did take a smidgeon of encouragement from David Brooks this morning on Meet the Press, saying something about how change always comes from "passionate outsiders". He didn't mention bloggers, but that was what came to my mind.

I was talking to a friend (currently a postdoc) the other day, who said he thinks the change has to come from people who are not in academia. The pressure would have to come from somewhere else, he said. What's not clear is where that should be- government? Probably not without some impetus. Another cold war demanding a longer-term research expert workforce?

Having said that, I think it's a little lame that you're telling me - and everyone who reads my blog - what you assume I would do, based on what you assume you would do.

From what you've written, we have very different goals and priorities.

Anyway I wish you luck with your new career and appreciate that you took the time to articulate your point of view.

At 3:31 AM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

Dear YFS,

Thanks for you good wishes and the same to you.

I agree it is difficult to reconcile the actions and intentions of individuals with the economic trends that force certain behaviors. We're all an N=1 and how we choose to live our lives or conduct our career matters greatly.

I've nothing but admiration for people who stay at the bench in the face of the facts in front of them; it's clearly passion that keeps them there, as any dispassionate assessment of the facts would send them running.

Ref. change coming from the outside; I certainly hope so; I have little faith in postdoc unions or other social sectors to rectify this situation. Too many people have a vested interest in its continuation. But I think committed individuals who research, analyze and present the data are the best way forward.

And as for what you would do in your lab; well, I guess time will tell. I certainly hope to check in with you in ten years and see how your lab is going, by reading the blogs of your many postdocs. :)

At 6:19 AM, Anonymous app said...

@ lou dobbs:

As someone who recently started a faculty job after 10+ years of postdoccing I've had to confront the moral issues you mentioned, so for what it's worth here is one person's approach:

Re. PhD students: I will only take them on if doing a PhD with me at my university will put them in a better position for future careers than what they otherwise could do. In practice this means I will only take students from China, India etc. At least they will be able to return to their home countries afterwards and have more and better options than if they just joined the workforce there straight after graduation. If any Americans, Western Europeans etc apply (which is unlikely as I'm at an Asian uni) I'll tell them "Dude you must be totally nuts! Go off and train as a lawyer, doctor, accountant, financial engineer so you can have the normal comfortable life that your smarts and hard work deserves. Or at least get yourself into an elite Western uni so that you have the option to join the Wall Street orgy afterwards."

Re. postdocs: There are a couple of things here. It's not just about the abysmal academic job prospects. One thing that repeatedly came up when talking to other postdocs is that many of us could live with the prospect of having a "mini career" in academia. I.e. 3-5 years to indulge our scientific interests and harvest some fruits of our hard-won expertise from the PhD years, after which we graciously accept that there ain't room for us to stay and move on to other things.

The problems in practice are: (1) For most postdocs it is a mini career as a serf rather than scientist. Faculty "colleagues" view us as overgrown students whose sole purpose in life is to plow our master's field. (They call it "training" - a delightful euphemism if ever there was one.)
(2) When the time comes to move on, it turns out there isn't much in the way of "other things" (as MsPhD has often pointed out). Sure we could go back to square zero and train as a lawyer or something. But for people in their mid thirties and above... The ones who had the good sense or fortune to spend time at elite institutions can head over to Wall Street, but for the rest of us community college beckons...

My approach to dealing with this (which is purely theoretical so far) is:
(i) Treat postdocs in exactly the same way as I would treat a junior faculty colleague: as an independent scientist who is just as much entitled to scientific fulfillment as I am. Give them full opportunity to have a satisfying and productive mini career as a scientist. This is of course after pointing out to them that a mini career is probably all they will get, and urging them to instead postdoc at an elite institution if they at all can.
(ii) Shift the focus of my research from the current abstract theoretical stuff towards stuff with technological applications. In the longer term make contact with "industry", develop join projects with them etc. That way future postdocs and students will have a path to a decent career where their interests and expertise are relevant (and so will I if I need or want it, which is quite likely).

Probably you are going to tell me that this would not be possible for faculty in bioscience at a research uni in USA/Europe. That postdoc serfs are essential for faculty survival, etc. But that doesn't seem to be universally true. E.g. it doesn't seem to be true for bloggers Drugmonkey and Jane B. -- they both seem to be having satisfying and sustainable careers in academic bioscience without all that.

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the change probably has to come from outside academia since within academia, those who have enough power to change anything have no motivation to do so since the present system benefits them.

Maybe funding agencies (NSF, NIH, etc) should change the rules by which their grant money can and can't be used. For example if grants can't be used to pay postdoc salaries anymore. So the only way for PIs to have any postdocs (other than those who are on independent fellowships) is to make them "real" employees - with benefits, better job stability and so on. The money to create these new positions could come from university overhead which in turn does come from research grants, but it would be indirect. This way the PI can't directly control the postdoc's salary or period of employment. And, one grant ending or one project not panning out and the failure to get that particular grant renewed, wouldn't necessarily lead to the personnel on that project losing their jobs. Hey, if the PI doesn't lose his job just because one project didn't pan out, why should the postdocs? If anything the captain should go down with the ship (like how in the corporate world managers and CEOs can get fired when company performance is bad), but in academia it's the other way round - the captain is the only one left standing because of TENURE while everyone else gets tossed overboard. This is blatantly unfair and propagates the culture and system of postdoc exploitation.

At 10:28 PM, Anonymous G said...

I wish I had you as a mentor/supervisor when I was getting into medical research...

I left after six months to pursue genetic counselling.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

I'll be quick - I think it's time we all moved on to fresher posts...and I'm also back at the bench...

@App 6:19: Congratulations on having made it to the other side, be sure to send me a postcard one day :). Your post is refreshing as it indicates that new faculty are aware of these problems and are attempting to think ways around them in a constructive manner and I hope the same is true of your colleagues.

Ref postdocs, I'm sure your interaction will depend on whether they come in to work on your project, or work on their own; also, the nature of their funding. It's an important step and I'm sure you'll make mistakes, but good luck! And you are right to point out that there is much variability in the postdoc life beyond serfdom. Unfortunately, this variability in the experience results from its inherent unpredictability, and can be as much of a problem as anything else.

Ref PhD students: I am glad that you recognize the value of academic science as a vehicle of social mobility. This is a powerful good that academic science probides to the world, and your hiring practise is noble, provided candidates are otherwise identical in their passion and suitabilty to your projects.

But here is the point: relative to western-educated so-called 'rich' postdocs, do those new students have the same rights as the other candidates? Do they have an equal bargaining position? do you have more power over their future? Do they know how to exercise those rights, in an alien environment? In short, do they have more to lose, and do you have more to gain, by such a hiring practise, beyond their relationship with your science?

Clearly the answer should be no, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Otherwise, your argument would be no less specious than that made by the elite western university-educated people who hire illegal aliens to do cash-in-hand work because they 'can't find americans who will' for the price.

Also, never forget that it's never too late in life to do something different. When you finish, you'll be exactly the same age as you would be if you'd never done it.

And I'll leave it there, sir.

@4:09 Anonymous:
That's a valid point but NIH hiring practises do come with additional regulations and some semblance of safeguards on number of postdocs, contractual recognition etc.

It's interesting how we have accepted the shift in thinking of ourselves as employees rather than apprentices and we now demand stable employment rather than the professional courtesy of recognition as a peer and help finding a position as such.

There are some fascinating articles written in Science about the nature of postdoctoral labor, and how we have shifted from a craft union model to a trade union model, while a tournament selection system took over in the absence of any real political leadership from within academia. If you go to the Science website and search for "Taken for Granted" index I'm sure you'll find it. Good luck!

At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello "Lou Dobbs", I'm Anon4:09

you commented on my comment (sounds funny eh?) by saying "It's interesting how we have accepted the shift in thinking of ourselves as employees rather than apprentices and we now demand stable employment rather than the professional courtesy of recognition as a peer and help finding a position as such."

Professional recognition as a peer?? Help finding a position as such?? HAH!! That will NEVER happen for the majority of postdocs (including me). PIs claim that they will give you this if you work for them, but after you have done your part they don't keep up their end of the bargain. Until you get fed up and quit, or until they run out of funding and you have to leave prematurely. Or until you ask for the "professional recognition as a peer and help finding a position as such" and they get offended and say you are being insubordinate and replace you with a newly minted postdoc who is only too ignorant and happy to begin on the path you've just finished.

Do I sound very cynical and jaded?

The reason we postdocs think of ourselves as employees rather than apprentices is because that's how we are treated. there will never be any "professional recognition as a peer" for the majority of postdocs because most PI do not see postdocs as proteges or junior colleagues in the making, they see them as employees to be used for their own gain. This is the most common scenario I see with most other postdocs too.

I do envy the few postdocs who ARE being mentored, who ARE allowed (or even - - encouraged!!) to have independent thoughts and given the academic freedom to work on their own ideas. Those are the ones who actually have a chance at an academic career. The rest of us who are merely being used as employees, have no chance of ever being recognized as peers. So the best we can hope for is for our situation (the employment model) to at least be stable and decent-paying while it lasts. But even THAT is not forthcoming.

At 1:34 AM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

Dear Anon 4:09,

I can completely understand your frustrations and I'm sure many who read these posts will find common cause with you. It's less cynicism than an accurate reading of the variable and problematic working conditions we face as postdocs, and the power that PI's can wield in our lives.

My point was it wasn't always like this. The postdoc was never mandatory and it was a professional relationship. But, as more money poured into the system it outpaced the capacity of the traditional acedemic model to sustain them. Generation X+ grew up in the new academic system, but the illusions of the previous model persist to this day, and indeed (as you point out) are true for the chosen few.

The traditional academic model says that postdocs are apprentices learning new techniques and being mentored into an academic position. Although this notion is quaint the illusion of the 'postdoc as peer' remains a motivating force for us. Why else would we take our hard-won academic qualifications and work long hours for little pay and uncertain prospects, if not that we were essentially working for our own benefit, rather than the PI?

From your comments I can tell you've stopped drinking the Kool-Aid. That's great. But, don't spend the rest of your 'employee' postdoc raging against the system. Use the freedom you have in terms of hours etc. to your advantage. Do courses, network, find what other fields of employment need bright, motiviated people who don't want to spend the rest of their lives slowly dying inside.

In the old model, this would be viewed as 'failing'. In the new model it's anything but.

Maybe when you're out you'll still feel angry about your experience as a postdoc. If so, get involved and make it better for the next generation, or at least help shatter the old illusions.

You are right that you have to have your own and original ideas to get noticed. A postdoc should be the opportunity to develop those ideas. If you don't have any, get out. If you do but you can't work on them, get out. If you do and you work on them and they don't land a high-impact publication, get out with some satisfaction that at least you answered your own questions and delivered something novel.

Alternatively, if you're fed high-impact projects, are viewed as a 'safe pair of hands', are young, enthusiastic and hepped up on the Kool-Aid, or are just too darned persistent to quit, you're welcome to stay. They'll make good use of you.

Welcome to Adacemia 2.0.

OK, I'm leaving the thread now!

At 11:47 PM, Anonymous vimax said...

the byword 'corporate psychopath' needs some clarification. It describes the appointment authoritative average that is devious, manipulative, and agressive. I don't appetite to abide on it here, but answer to say I don't anticipate you accommodated the definition.


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