Friday, March 04, 2011

Response to a question

At 8:26 AM, Anonymous said...

I went ahead and reported my PI. It seemed at first they could do something for me. But then I finally got the answer; PIs run their own separate groups and everyone has a different style of running their group. As such, we can't help you.
So, on it goes with a PI that wants me to work 12 hours a day (minimum), 6 days a week (minimum).
I am sick of it and wish there was a way out.
What do you do now, MsPhD? Did you find another job? Is it related to science?
Maybe unemployment even is not that bad.

I had the same experience, although in my case I was not complaining about the hours. I knew I was expected to work hard, and I did.

If the long hours are your major complaint, I say start applying for industry and government jobs. It might take you a year or more to find a job you like.

There is no academic postdoc lab where you can screw around, unless you plan to end up unemployed anyway.

To answer your question, I did not find a job.

The economy is terrible and all these statistics you hear about people who have PhDs being employed are bullshit - most of them include postdoc appointments in their calculations of "employment". However, all of us who did a postdoc and ended up with:

zero social security
zero unemployment benefits
zero "work experience" as far as anyone in the Real World is concerned

will tell you that a postdoc is "employment" only in the sense that you are making enough money to make ends meet (usually).

Universities consider it "training" or even refer to postdocs as "postdoctoral students".

The paradox is, postdocs don't qualify for access to the student rates for the gym, and aren't allowed to use the Career Center or any Alumni Services.

So look at it this way: you already don't have a job. At least you can pay your bills, right?

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At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

working less than 12 hours a day 6 days a week is NOT screwing around, and being forced to do so is ridiculous and possibly illegal. it is entirely possible to work hard while still having some sort of life outside of the lab. working hard doesn't automatically equate with being a slave.

also, depending on the institution, post-docs can be considered employees like anyone else. i am. and there are many ways to translate a ph.d. and post-doc experience into skills needed in the "real world". just adding another side to the story here.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're a little unrealistic. Part of being a postdoc (or a grad student, or a PI) is that at times you're going to have to really press the pedal to the metal and work those 12 hour days. And working for an hour or three on Saturday or Sunday is definitely very typical.

However - hours worked vary widely between labs and between institutions. In my old department, very few folks were around before 8 am and after 6pm. At my current institution, that's not the case, and many people in my lab work past 7 pm (or 11pm) daily.

BUT - postdocs in my old lab, and current lab, got faculty jobs in ~5-6 years while working reasonably sane hours and having children. I can't work 12 hour days, and no one should expect to, but I'm doing ok thus far. You need to find a model system to work on where the hours can be more relaxed, and a PI who isn't such a workaholic.

At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shit, I think I did not post my comment anonymous. I hope you do make it anonymous!

At 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of unemployed smart sheeple.

At 6:05 AM, Anonymous app said...

Perhaps Anonymous would prefer a PI like the one I had for my first postdoc. After I arrived he took me for a coffee and short chat about work, based on which he decided that (i) I was a dud, and (ii) I was going to make him look bad for supporting me for that postdoc fellowship. He then proceeded to shun me for the rest of my time there (3 years). That meant I was left to do whatever i liked in whatever hours I wanted to do it in. It was great! (Well, that particular aspect was great; the rest sucked of course.) Actually that was my most productive postdoc.

But I guess that kind of scenario couldn't arise in the biosciences given the different nature of bioscience research (compared to maths or theoretical physics). Anyway, it sounds like Anonymous' situation is one more illustration of the exploitation of cheap disposable postdocs under the guise of "training" them for jobs they will never get (in most cases). Sickening.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

re: working 12 hours a day, lots of people claim to "work" 12 hours a day, but most people don't. Lots of labs are run this way, but with time for coffee breaks, lunch, seminars, meetings, dinner, drinks, etc. It doesn't have to be a total grind.

However, this situations sounds abusive to me, and I think the only solution is to leave, and try to find a way to let other people know so that more students and postdocs don't fall into the same trap.

I'm glad you wrote this out for people to see. I am so tired of people acting like it's the "rare exception" to hear these kinds of stories. I don't think it's that rare at all. My graduate school included several PIs like this, who treated their postdocs like technician slaves. It's NOT OK.

App, Yes, those kinds of postdocs do exist, but the problem is that you can't get much done without funding, and postdocs can't get their own funding, so if your PI doesn't support you and doesn't pay for your experiments, you're going to burn out using your energy just trying to get the most basic reagents and access to equipment. That's what happened to me.

jc, I <3 Paul Krugman. He's completely right. More education does not equal more employment.

Anonymous, I wasn't sure which comment was yours! I hope I didn't out you (or anyone else) by accident.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Of course MsPhD is right, this is the norm for a post-doc in biosciences. 12 hours a day doesn't seem that bad to me. I work 10-11 routinely in private industry with a 1-2 hour commute (a day) and obligations outside both of those.

My situation has not been as abusive but I do get constantly asked what my status on x project is which of course takes time away from completing y and z which they will just yell at you for the next day. Bad bosses though are everywhere.

I'd say first focus on finding another job, and getting the hell out of there. As you continue your search is this terrible job market you might have to make tough decisions about how important it is for you to stay in science or how important to leave to just take any job knowing you might not be able to get back in. Then second, work on coping mechanisms. I've dealt with guys like this and you need to find a strategy for you (have you thought about seeing a therapist? I recognize you might not have health benefits but some organizations do offer free services). You might need to totally withdraw and just turn inside yourself and go to your happy place when he comes by, speak as little as possible, and give him as little ammunition as possible. Or you might need to start standing up for yourself and get him to back down.

MsPhd- I completley forgot about post-docs not having beni's, not contributing to social security, ad probably having no opportunity to start a retirement account (besides on their own). That really magnifies the years of lower/lost wages. Do we expect our scientists to work long past "retirement age" just to be financially secure then?

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nope, you did not remove me, so I did it now. Would it be possible for you now to remove that I removed the post? :)

At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean, you can repost my story, if you still have it, but not with my name, that was really stupid of me. I wanted to email you, but could not find an address that fast..
Unfortunately all of it is true, and in fact it's even worse than I described as it was not the entire story..

At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Puccinelli said...

This isn't too relevant to the topic at hand, but... Please continue to blog! (If you can, that is.)

I'm only an undergrad, but what you have posted in the past has offered me a perspective that I wouldn't have found otherwise and I really appreciate it.

I hope you know that you are awesome.

At 4:55 AM, Anonymous pranusha said...

Working for 12hrs a day and 6 days a week is really bit difficult. But the problems we are having must compromise us to work like a machine.

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


In this case, I don't recommend seeing a therapist or standing up for yourself. At least, based on my experiences, neither will work because this is an abusive situation and Anonymous is clearly already past the point where coping mechanisms are going to be more than a bandaid. Best bet is to get the hell out of there ASAP.

e: benefits, yes this is a bad feedback loop. Currently, senior scientists can't/won't retire because they don't want to AND there is no financial incentive to leave (and only disincentives). I've posted about that before because I think it's a major issue in why there aren't more job openings, and how the generational gap is fucking up our supposedly mentor-based "system". Most of the senior scientists now got their jobs in the era of 5 jobs per applicant, not 300 applications per job like we have now, e.g. for example as detailed in this article.

But won't it be even worse in the future, as people stay in postdoc positions longer and longer? I'm guessing yes.

@pucchinelli, glad you like the blog, and thanks for the compliment. If I have anything new to contribute, I will, but I think in the meantime other bloggers (like FrauTech here) have really taken up the cause and they're doing a great job. And if you have any specific questions you haven't seen addressed anywhere, feel free to send them along. But I'm starting to see more discussions about these things in the mainstream media (see the link above, for example) so I'm not sure my blog is really filling a gap like it was before.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

@Anon, Right, except that once you've removed it, I can't repost it. You can feel free to write it again and just make sure not to leave your blog name on there if you don't want anyone to see that, although I'm not sure if I understand the point since so many of us blog under fake names anyway (?). Obviously, up to you to decide how many identifying details you're comfortable including.

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that sounds like my first lab. I don't think it's the hours themselves that are so bad as the continual attitude that "you're not doing enough!"

In my case, my labmates and I tried talking to trusted faculty to help us resolve our situation. To a person, the faculty replied that publicizing would only hurt us, not our advisor. They said that if we were serious that the situation was untenable, we should just leave. When the lab quit en masse, suddenly the faculty were shocked. "You mean it was really that bad??" Thanks, guys.

No one will do anything to help you. They never will. Get out.

And this is why I want nothing to do with academia.

At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Quagmire said...

What is ironic about your situation Ms. PhD is that the physical sciences such as chemistry are fast approaching the choices you are facing. They are going into longer PhD and Post-Doc stints kicking and screaming. They still have hope that something can actually change. I think they would be enlightened to read blogs by life science/bio PhDs like yours.

At 5:05 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

@Anon 1:01, LOL, I love that. "You mean it was really that bad??" So typical. The problem with scientists is that they're taught to be so suspicious of "anecdata" that they don't believe *any* first-person accounts. So they have to witness it for themselves, or have multiple data points before it's true. Hence, the abusive advisor has to abuse *multiple* people before it actually happened. Otherwise you're just imagining it, or exaggerating it, or you asked for it, or it's just because you should have known better and gotten out sooner. Right?

Quagmire, I couldn't agree more. Everyone thinks they're safe or that they've found some little niche or loophole until the tide turns against them. I really thought I was going to be able to sneak into a faculty position if I positioned myself by doing something really important and doing it well, but it turns out to be irrelevant when the economy tanks and hiring is not about skills or qualifications.

At 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as someone who did a 6-year postdoc and then left academia and it's been awhile so now I've finally regained some clarity and can look back with more objectivity....

my suggestion is this: you always have choices, you have options for your life.

However, as with anything else in life, each choice comes with trade offs. Clarify what your priorities are and how far you are willing to endure or sacrifice or tolerate for it, and for how long. Set metrics or benchmarks by which you will evaluate periodically if your sacrifice is succeeding or is being worth it. (sort of like a grant proposal - how do you know if you are succeeding if you don't have clear metrics by which to measure success or progress?)

And have contingency plans in place ahead of time in case your Plan A fails. Don't wait until Plan A is hopelessly failing and you're so consumed with despair that you can no longer think clearly or drum up any motivation for a Plan B. But unfortunately you may already be at that stage.

Options for postdocs in horrible situations:

1. You always have a choice to leave that lab. yes your career may suffer catastrophic set backs. Or it may not be all that catastrophic after all, you may be able to move on with less discomfort than you think. You don't know if you don't take a chance. By continuing to stay in a situation that's not working out and which is not changing though, you are guaranteeing that you will NOT have a chance.

2. If you choose to stay in this lab, still train yourself anyway to be mentally prepared to leave as a last resort or back up plan. Spend as much time and resources as you need to convince yourself that you will be OK if you leave that lab or academia. Having a contingency plan makes staying and enduring mentally easier because you feel less hopeless, you feel more empowered. This can make a big difference in your daily mental health which can really impact your work objectively too.

3. While you're staying and enduring, but with a contingency plan in place for when you decide to stop the madness, realize that you have choices to change the way you behave. If your PI makes demands, you have the option to not do it, and the manner in which you stand up for yourself. This may get you fired or result in other severe back lash, or it may not, depending on lots of things. you as the postdoc may not have zero power despite being expendable. the extreme specialization of projects can work in your favor because firing you and replacing you is still an inconvenience to the PI. If anything, if you stand up for yourself and he decides not to fire you, you would have gotten your way on this issue and your PI learns that you still produce results so he may ease up next time. And if he doesn't, you have your contingency plan in place for when you really can't stand it anymore. It depends on your situation. But just realize that you do have choices.

4. If you have only one path to happiness which is a TT job, that's not emotionally healthy. you shouldn't make your intrinsic happiness in life completely dependent on that (or on any other one specific objective for that matter). Because if you do, it will take so little to make your world collapse. When you're a basket case, your unhealthy mental state gives you tunnel vision and prevents you from being able to see viable alternatives to your situation, even those that ironically could also lead you to this same goal (TT job).

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've observed these labs all to frequently, and I think often its related to pride. "I work these horrendous hours and don't have a life outside of lab... see I'm a fantastic scientist." Honestly, I don't think hours you work always correspond to how much you accomplish. Its more about time management and multitasking. But, that being said its also one of my greatest concerns on my search for a postdoc (technically I've been a postdoc for a year - but in the lab that I graduated from while my husband finishes his degree). I've come to a realization that perhaps I care more about having a life than having a life that is all about science. Even with several very good postdoc offers I'm considering trying to find a teaching position some place instead. Honestly, the scientific system seems broken. I've enjoyed your blog.

At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel your pain. I recently just ended a 2 yr postdoc. I worked 12+ hours a day and did weekend work. By many standards I would be a successful postdoc with 5 first author and 4 co-author papers. However this means nothing when they are all sitting on your bosses desk and not going out for submission. It is so awful I had to take another postdoc because I am not competitive for a national lab or academic employment. It would be different if my papers needed a lot of work but he has never read the first draft. Now that I have started new employment my advisor has now decided to start reading them. It is the most frustrating situation. I hate having someone else in change of my future.


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