The kool-aid strikes again
Prof-like Substance wrote one of these polly-anna posts about how good it is to do a postdoc.
So I feel the need to respond, violently, but I'll settle for writing something here. And then maybe later I'll go punch a wall.
To the specific points:
That isn't a ton of money given the training they have had to that point, but get over it. You're being paid to do research, and in most cases, have no other distractions.
Why this is an inane thing to say:
1. It's not a ton of money, true. But what if you want to have children? What if you have sick relatives to care for?
2. And why, pray tell, does it make sense to pay us poorly for 10-15 years as grad students and postdocs, but then magically bump up the junior faculty to as much as 3x more than senior postdoc makes? This is just stupid to me. I don't understand why it wouldn't be better for EVERYONE if we gave small, morale-boosting raises every year. More than cost-of-living, but it wouldn't take much more than that to make us feel just that much less like slaves.
no other distractions
Why this is an inane thing to say :
Are you fucking kidding me??? This is just wrong. I have never worked in lab where I could "just do research". I have been expected to manage the fucking lab if I wanted to do research, which typically consisted of doing much of the PIs job, the technician's job, and if I was lucky, I could also do a few experiments. Seriously- if the PI is not training the students, writing grants, or helping edit papers, who do you think does that? The postdocs do, that's who. If the technicians are not taking care of the supplies, the animals, repairing equipment, and ordering, who do you think does that? Me. The postdoc. Then, if all the fires were put out, I might have time to do a few experiments here or there. But it was FAR from having "No other distractions". Give me a fucking break. What the hell kind of magical postdoc land are you talking about??
Moving around. Yup, the academic lifestyle can be somewhat nomadic and that can put a strain of relationships and make for difficult logistics.
Why this is an inane thing to say :
I'll say it again, because apparently you come from an independently wealthy and immortally healthy family.
1. What if you want to stay married?
2. What if you want to have kids?
3. What if you have sick relatives to take care of?
4. What if you have some disability or health problem yourself?
Get a fucking clue. Most of us want to have a partner, who also wants to have a career, and probably also has geographical restrictions. I think it's ridiculous to expect us to live not just a nomadic lifestyle- personally, I like to move every few years - but a monastic one. I think this selects for a certain kind of scientist. The ones who can't form relationships with anyone, much less manage the interpersonal dynamics of a group? Or teaching? The socially deficient ones? Yeah, that's the old tradition of science. It's not one of the traditions we should keep.
Lack of independence. Now I know that lots of people get into situations where they feel taken advantage of or where they are stuck doing projects they don't care about. That is why it is critical to do your homework ahead of time and know enough about the supervisor whose lab you are joining to determine if you can work with them and get the mentoring you need. Don't just take a position in any lab doing something remotely close to what you like. Talk to other trainees in the lab! Talk to former trainees. Is the lab a good place to develop as a scientist? That information can be FAR more important than the project. Put yourself in a place to succeed.
Why this is an inane thing to say :
I've blogged about this extensively, but apparently I'm not getting my points across clearly enough. Or maybe you just have to have been through it yourself to believe it - we have FAR too many scientists like this in academia these days. If you can't believe other people's accounts of their observations, what are you doing in science?
Why the "do your homework" advice is a bullshit cop-out blame-the-victim mentality:
1. Because we DID talk to people in the lab. We DO talk to former trainees. This approach is not guaranteed. Here's why.
2. Because people tend to try to spin everything in the best light when you ask them about the lab. I was talking to a friend just yesterday who was furious with one of her colleagues for talking about some of the negatives of their workplace with a visiting candidate. She feels it is her job, nay her duty, to make everything about the place where she works seem as rosy as possible.
Personally, I find it completely baffling and frankly dishonest. But they probably don't even see it that way- they think they're just being "positive" and don't want to sound like they're complaining. In some cases, they're terrified of the potential for backlash. Even if there is plenty to complain about.
3. Because when you're first starting out, you might not know what to look for. If people are "spinning", it's even harder. If you haven't worked in a bad lab, you don't know the warning signs. That's not your fault. Especially since there are still plenty of people who act like no bad labs exist!
3. Because PIs of really bad labs go to great lengths to make sure that visiting candidates don't meet with people who will tell them the truth. My own PI does this. If the candidates don't know to ask to meet with me, is that really their fault? I don't think so. I didn't know any better when I was a freshly-minted PhD. And if the lab website isn't up to date, etc. how do you even know who's missing? Especially if it's a big lab and you don't have time to meet with everyone anyway?
4. Because things can change. The PI might go through a terrible personal tragedy while you're in the lab, or develop a drug/alcohol habit. The lab might lose funding - a stressful situation that tends to bring out the worst in even the best PIs. The best labs have some rocky times, and it's never your fault if this happens while you're there. What are you supposed to be, psychic? Give me a break. Shit happens. What nobody tells you is that in science, no one will cut you a break for that. All they'll care about is your publication record- or lack thereof.
To the general idea that a postdoc is the greatest time, blah blah blah. Yeah, I've said before, maybe 3 years of postdoc would be just the right amount to do something new, learn a few things, have some fun doing science and maybe reduce your chances of running into something truly awful.
But the average postdoc length in my field is more than double that long. It's in your late 20s and early 30s, when your peers are able to have functioning, adult lives. They can do things like buy houses and afford child care and take vacations. Yeah, I know that as scientists we're not supposed to care about those things, but we're not robots and I don't see how being robots would make our science any better.
I'm not arguing that nobody should do a postdoc. I think there are plenty of people who benefit from the additional training, and broadening your experience can be really good, etc.
But I resent that it is required, but I don't think it's true that everyone needs one. In fact, I found the 4th comment on PLS's original post to be an interesting one, since it kind of implies that part of the problem with competition for faculty positions in the US comes from importing all these postdocs from overseas. I do wonder whether more American grad students are ready to run our own labs after grad school, since in most cases our grad school training lasts twice as long as in other countries. No wonder American postdocs are more pissed off. We're already older and more experienced, and then we're told we're complaining too much if we point this out? This is ridiculous.
My biggest complaint, however, is how long the postdoc "training" has become, and that the postdoc "period" only seems to be getting longer. Meanwhile, NIH has no plans whatsoever to figure out what to do with all these unemployable PhDs when the economy is shitty and the old fallback plan of "just go to industry" just went down the toilet.
I'm sorry but the "it's good for you" band-aid only goes so far. These are peoples lives we're talking about. Let's not tell them "oh, it'll be fun!" That's about as responsible as sending your high-school kid off to New York to live on the street and audition for shows on Broadway. Of course it will be fun. But will it lead to gainful employment?
My magic 8-ball says: Outlook not so good