Monday, February 15, 2010

Response to comments on kool-aid post

@Anon 12:59, As one friend of mine puts it, they don't pay you to go to school unless they are using you as slave labor and you'll never get a job afterwards.

Keep in mind, most of us who are postdocs now were told that getting a PhD would GUARANTEE us gainful employment when we finished. Boy was that a joke! Little did we know it would not guarantee us employment in the disciplines for which we trained.

Doctor Pion wrote: A postdoc is not required if you want to take a teaching position rather than one where hiring and tenure are impossible without major and continuing grant support and a track record of producing publications and students with a PhD. Ditto for taking a job in industry, where more academic experience is not necessarily a plus.

I wish I could agree with this, but I don't think it's true anymore. Maybe some teaching positions, but since most people have postdoc experience now it has become a de facto requirement. Especially in industry. At least in my field. Maybe not so for engineering/the other end of the spectrum. Yet.

re: healthcare, me too, but it really depends because there is no regulation or enforcement. Many places still don't give vision or dental; or support dependents. Many still take healthcare costs out of fellowships, even when it is illegal to do so.

re: reducing numbers, I agree.

re: salary, it depends on where you live. In much of the country, yes $40k is not bad. But most postdocs are concentrated in the most expensive metropolitan areas, where it's really not enough to afford to have a family, much less buy a house.

Americans are especialy penalized since we tend to have enormous college debt to pay off, which most European postdocs do not have.

It's also interesting to note that many of the Scandinavian and Swiss and German fellowships pay much more than NIH standard.

re: distractions - so you're saying you didn't have to write grants as a postdoc? Well I guess it was a different era.

@Grand Inquisitor, I don't want kids. I never said that I did. But I don't see why my personal preference should be forced on anyone else. I don't see that childlessness should be a requirement for being a scientist.


Here's my opinion, FWIW. I'm not saying this is what I did, but objectively it is what would work best if you were just concerned about your career and not about your personal happiness in other aspects of your life.

1. Ditch the boyfriend if you want a career in science. Long distance doesn't work. Inflexible men are incompatible with your having a successful scientific career.

2. Your thesis committee is wrong. They are either clueless and/or biased by a conflict of interest. Moving away is much better for your career. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you.

3. You have to have at least one Really Big paper, and ideally multiple good papers, to get a faculty position at an R1 university. This is not negotiable.

4. Ideally you want to go to the good lab with the nice boss and get multiple papers. But this will not be enough and you will probably have to get very lucky or do a second postdoc with Powerful A-hole Boss to get your Big Paper and R1 Job.

Good luck with whatever you decide. No matter what you choose, you will have to sacrifice.

@Anon 4:45, Thanks for sharing that stat. Interesting to note that it's easy to talk about postdoc salaries in the abstract and end up arguing without any facts. $75k is quite a bit more than $40k. Yay NSF, boo NIH.

@Jeanne- Yes. Completely agree. Thanks for writing that!

@Anon 8:28, there are several things that go into this.

re: money, consider

1. Payscale is grandfathered. Newer postdocs are actually paid more than older ones. My starting salary seemed high at the time, but 5+ years later and with incremental yearly increases, I'm making barely more than first year postdocs are getting. It's unfair but it's how it works everywhere I've ever heard of.

2. Postdoc length is limited in some places. So you might get kicked out before you reach the 7 year mark. The few lucky ones get faculty positions at that point.

3. Most places still do not have or enforce postdoc "programs" and salaries are negotiable. That means some postdocs can be paid more, but it's a function of whether and how they negotiated. And we all know that women tend to negotiate less and/or we are penalized when we try to negotiate. My advisor acted like I was INSANE to insist on NIH scale, which was more than my university offered at the time. And yet, I know he paid his male postdocs above NIH scale, and he paid one of them an extra supplement because the guy had kids. I mean, WHAT??? Does that seem fair? I went to a better school and had more publications coming out of my thesis lab than any of the guys did when they joined, btw.

re: suspicions, consider

The qualities that make for a successful postdoc are at odds with the qualities of an eventual group leader. To wit, successful postdocs in my current lab are those who look like the boss, agree with the boss, do what the boss says, might occasionally inject a smidgeon of insight but generally have no ideas of their own (at least not ones they would say out loud). And/or they are good at sneaking around the boss, and the boss doesn't know it (okay so that last one is probably useful no matter what, if you are good at being sneaky).

A good leader has ideas of her own, knows how to make them work, and often has trouble following a bad leader just because they are in the position of authority.

I think the problem is fundamentally one of personality type. I am not a follower. I am also female. This is a lethal combination in most of America, but especially in science.

I'm screwed if I speak up, and I'm screwed if I don't. If I say nothing, I'll never get what I need. But when I ask for what I need, I am being difficult or demanding. It's a lose-lose proposition.

I am also devoted to mentoring, obviously, and I'm good at time management, or I wouldn't have this blog. I value communication and I make an effort to communicate with my trainees and with my advisors, with varying success. I try to deal with conflicts immediately rather than letting them fester, and I've gone out of my way to try to learn how to work collaboratively with different personality types.

Seems to me that my advisors have failed in all of these ways. They have often failed to communicate and assumed I could read their minds. They mismanaged money and time, they were bad managers and absentee mentors.

I did not need them to micromanage my science, I needed them to run a functional lab. And they couldn't do that.

But I am a difficult woman for wanting it and I am "entitled" for thinking I've earned it by working hard to get a PhD.

I thought a postdoc was supposed to be a time to just work in the lab, free of distractions?

So how come I never got to do that?

Also, I don't understand why impostor syndrome would ever be seen as a good thing? Is that because it makes some people, but especially women, less threatening if they seem insecure?

Seems to me you want people who are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses, and who have made it their business to get the training they need to do the job they want.

Impostors are people, so far as I can tell, who are underprepared, and deep down they know it.

The other kind of impostor I've seen, and I do feel this sometimes, are people who have never had adequate role models, so we never pictured ourselves in certain roles. So then when we get there we suffer a kind of internal stereotype threat.

Again, not something anyone should want or look for - and so far as I can tell, its presence/absence has nothing to do with anyone's eventual success.

I think you're absolutely right that those who enjoyed their postdocs tend to overpopulate the faculty ranks. But it's not true that all faculty did, and it's probable that time has helped heal many old wounds. It's also well-known that people tend to rationalize what was "meant to be" based on the outcome of the events, not on how they felt about it at the time.

Apparently it's pretty unusual to be able to maintain an objective memory of of painful past. Supposedly it's more common among writers.

At any rate, I have not had the kind of luck you have had, and my luck does not seem to be improving.

I thank you for your thoughtful comments. I wish more PIs were able to discuss these concepts with an open mind.

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

Payscale is grandfathered. Newer postdocs are actually paid more than older ones. My starting salary seemed high at the time, but 5+ years later and with incremental yearly increases, I'm making barely more than first year postdocs are getting. It's unfair but it's how it works everywhere I've ever heard of.

I have this problem too. I've been a postdoc for 7 years now, and my salary is only just slightly above what a brand new first-year postdoc starting in our lab today makes. Next year those postdocs will be making equal to what I am now. My salary has actually stayed flat for the last 3 years not even a cost of living increase.

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From "Anon 3:09" who wrote a comment in the last post:

@ Doctor Pion: You fail to include the fact that most regional comprehensive universities also offer benefits which postdocs do not get. For instance, I have several friends who are assistant professors at such institutions, and their employers match a certain percentage of their retirement contributions. That can add up to quite a lot in the end, and this is money that we don't have in the bank, should we choose to continue on as postdocs. Furthermore, I am paid through and NIH fellowship, but my employer still doesn't cover 100% of my health insurance, and I have to supplement dental and other insurances if I want them.

@ Thise: So, the tax amount I mentioned earlier is a very rough 10% of the salary. I don't itemize deductions. And, the taxes I pay (married, but with no dependents) end up being between 3-4K, annually. Good for you if you can get out of paying more income tax! Please share with us how you do it!

@ Mrs. PhD: I can't believe it's supposed to be a good thing to have imposter syndrome, either. That is the most ridiculous complaint to make about anyone: that they don't suffer from imposter syndrome!

At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Imposter syndrome is usually considered a NEGATIVE trait, not a positive! The fact that someone (I'm guessing a PI) told you that you should be having imposter syndrome speaks volumes. It shows just how little disregard PIs have for postdocs if they believe that any postdoc who actually has a healthy self esteem should be squashed. because we can't have postdocs being confident and realistic, why, they may challenge their PIs at some point!

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just have a question for you guys. Would your company ever recommend to make kool-aid soda? Cause Welchers came out with their own soda. If kool-aid is so popular, why not come out with a soda that has kool-aid flavor? I think that would be cool.


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