Friday, September 17, 2010

Dodging a Postdoctoral Bullet

In general, I am not a particularly sadistic person; at least, no more than the average professor. Every once in a while, though, as I am mulling over a potential blog post topic, I think to myself "This one is going to freak out the [select one or more: undergrads, grads, postdocs, assistant professors, associate professors, professors, administrators, adjuncts, social scientists, reptiles]", and then I do the post anyway. With a few exceptions, I don't deliberately try to upset anyone, but there are certain topics (letters of reference, tenure, interviews) that lend themselves to freak-outs among certain segments of the academic population.

Today's target topic: postdocs, as told from the point of view of a supervisor of postdocs.


First, some context: In my field, postdoctoral researchers are well respected, are paid a decent salary with benefits, have a lot of independence, and typically spend 1-3 years in this position before moving on to another job: a faculty position, a job in industry, a researcher position at a national lab or a government agency, or something else entirely.

Postdocs can be hired in a number of different ways. In my case, I can either acquire funding and then seek a postdoc, or I can identify a postdoc candidate (possibly when one contacts me) and then one or both of us can seek funding for a project.

Sometimes I get e-mail from postdoc candidates or I meet one at a conference. Some of these possibilities are interesting enough to pursue further.

You would think that it is easy to identify excellent postdoc candidates -- or, at least, easier than trying to guess which applicants to graduate school will succeed and which will not -- but it is surprisingly difficult. For example, I have supervised apparently promising postdocs who never published anything, or did so only under torture (or if I wrote most of the paper). How did they get a PhD in the first place? Did their advisers write their thesis and/or papers and not happen to mention this in the recommendation letter? One wonders.

I have been thinking about this recently because a few times in the past year I have had semi-close calls with postdoctoral aspirants who seemed quite promising, but on further inspection turned out to be much less so. If I hadn't happened to find out some information that is not typically included in a reference letter, I might have ended up with a(nother) disaster postdoc.

Some of you may be thinking: What if this so-called "information" about these prospects was wrong? What if these were really talented people and you denied them a career opportunity for no good reason? These are valid points, but be assured that I wouldn't dismiss a person based only on a vague rumor from someone I didn't know.

Example 1: A postdoc candidate e-mailed me, I wrote back asking some questions to get a better sense for what his ideas and interests were, and he responded a while later.

There were some possible red flags in his e-mails. For example, when writing to a potential postdoctoral supervisor, it's probably not a good idea to complain about how much work you have to do and how busy you are and why you took so long to respond. Why would I want to work with someone who easily whines and may already be having difficulty managing their time?

But these were little, ambiguous red flags, not big, obvious, glow-in-the-dark ones. Perhaps he was just trying to convey how industrious he is, and it didn't occur to him that he would seem to be complaining and incompetent. Maybe he thrives on being extraordinarily busy and is actually intensely intellectually engaged in his thesis research but just didn't express this clearly. I was willing to overlook the apparent whining and not over-interpret at this stage.

There was enough that seemed possibly promising in his academic background, so I wanted to know more about him. I asked a longtime, trusted colleague (and supremely nice person) who knows this student well, and, after a bit of reluctance and vague hmmming, he sighed and told me about this PhD student's bad attitude, laziness, apathy, poor quantitative skills, and marginal qualifications even to be a graduate student. There were also apparently some ethics issues. If I just went by my correspondence with the postdoctoral candidate and his CV and even the reference of his main adviser, I would never have known he was such a (potential) disaster.

Perhaps in the course of getting more than one letter of reference, some of this information would have come to light anyway, but I decided not to pursue this opportunity any further.

Example 2: A finishing PhD at Prestigious University with exactly the right background and interests for someone who could be a happy and productive member of my research group introduced himself to me at a conference. We had a brief chat that established that we had some mutual research ideas that might be the nucleus of a future proposal, and agreed to talk more. In the meantime, I casually mentioned this person to some people I know well at his current and past academic institutions, and every single one said "Hmm.... well.... there are some things you should know..." (there followed long -- but consistent -- lists of strange, unpleasant, disturbing behavior that resulted in great disruptions of research efforts by the student and everyone else in his immediate surroundings). Another dead end.

I know there are excellent postdocs out there -- I have even worked with some -- but it is not safe to assume that anyone who makes it through a PhD program and who wants to pursue an academic career is automatically well suited for postdoctoral research. And it can be very difficult to predict this just based on a written application or even a conversation or exchange of e-mail with the candidate.

I have brought postdoc candidates to campus for interviews in the past, but the applicant pool is typically international, and therefore some of the interviews are by phone or Skype, which is convenient, but not the same as spending a day or two with someone.

Letters of references are also not as candid as they should be. I know that various candidates for various positions spend a lot of time worried about their letters of reference, but 99.76% of such letters are positive. It is rare to find one containing the information that my colleagues divulged to me in person in the examples above.

Certainly we have to be careful not to ask the opinion of someone who is unobjective, uninformed, and/or vindictive, and we need to filter information for bias or personal views on issues or characteristics unrelated to a candidate's qualifications for a job (e.g., being female, having young children etc.), but candid, accurate information can be a life-saver for me and the rest of my research group, so that we don't spend large amounts of time and money on someone who cannot or will not be a productive member of the group.

75 comments:

Mordecai said...

Strange question perhaps, but as someone who supervises grad students and postdocs, how do you understand the word "lazy?" I haven't heard the word used in an academic setting since high school.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Hm. This can be a tricky situation. In the second example, it seems the postdoc contender really did have a trail of bad work at several institutions. But the person from the first example, it's harder to say with just one data point. (Though the email red flags help).

I was once involved in a situation where, due to some weird sexism/power play, a project leader (PL) accused me of having done no work on a project. This was completely false. PL called one of my supervisors who initially believed the story before hearing my side, because they had been friends with PL far more years than they had known me. Fortunately, I had dozens of other project leaders who could say, "That's crazy - Ada is a fantastic worker." But if someone outside the institution only called PL for a reference, they would have a wrong impression of me. It's unlikely they'd call other people they knew to verify the story - they'd just take it at face value.

Anonymous said...

Postdoc here. I agree that both of those candidates sounded problematic, and I'm currently guilty of not replying promptly to potential postdoc #2 adviser because, yes, I am swamped with research. (My reply to him isn't simply a description of my background but a little analysis too, and I have multiple manuscripts needing revisions to push out asap.)

But this isn't really a good excuse--I'm guilty as charged and obviously taking time to comment here.

My main point is that I was very surprised to read you that you think your postdocs receive good pay. Where do postdocs receive good pay? What is good pay to you? In fields like mine, few people jump straight from college to the PhD track, PhDs typically take five years, and roughly 3-5 years of postdoctoral work are required before one has a shot at academia. This means it's not unusual for people not to break $50,000 per year until they're maybe 33 or 34, and then the increase is modest. I dislike that my postdoc is in an area where, if I had chosen not to live with my boyfriend, I would have had to ask my parents to co-sign my lease for a one-bedroom apartment w/o a dishwasher. I'm 30. I'm barely saving enough for retirement, and I've been saving 20-25% of my income since the start of grad school. I feel enormously undervalued--I'm quite aware my PI cares only about my publication output--and I have days where the "sticks" of financial and professional insecurity motivate my work (or disingenuous days when I can pretend they don't exist and simply enjoy the science). But I'm increasingly dispirited about small sacrifices (e.g., not being able to afford to go to friends' weddings) and the fact that, unlike in other professions, there's barely an illusion of mentoring or care for long-term growth. I've only seen it as lip-service. My postdoc is a high-risk, two-year contract that, even if I did well in, would not dramatically improve the odds of getting a more 'secure' (e.g., 6-year TT) position. I don't know of any other industries like this for people who have worked so hard to get an advanced degree.

In short, I wonder how many postdocs feel underpaid and discouraged about finding a long-term place in academia. This will absolutely affect their performance. I'm really sad about how it has affected mine, and I don't see an easy remedy.

Disagreements are welcome.

Anonymous said...

Postdoc here. I agree that both of those candidates sounded problematic, and I'm currently guilty of not replying promptly with some analysis to potential postdoc #2 adviser because, yes, I am swamped with research. But this isn't really a good excuse--I'm guilty as charged and am obviously taking time to comment here.

I was very surprised to read you that you think your postdocs receive good pay. Where do postdocs receive good pay? What is good pay to you? In fields like mine, few people jump straight from college to the PhD track, PhDs typically take five years, and roughly 3-5 years of postdoctoral work are required before one has a shot at academia. This means it's not unusual for people not to break $50,000 per year until they're maybe 33 or 34, and then the increase is modest. I dislike that my postdoc is in an area where, if I had chosen not to live with my boyfriend, I would have had to ask my parents to co-sign my lease for a one-bedroom apartment w/o a dishwasher. I'm 30. I'm barely saving enough for retirement, and I've been saving 20-25% of my income since the start of grad school. I feel enormously undervalued--I'm quite aware my PI cares only about my publication output--and I have days where the "sticks" of financial and professional insecurity motivate my work (or disingenuous days when I can pretend they don't exist and simply enjoy the science). But I'm increasingly dispirited about small sacrifices (e.g., not being able to afford to go to friends' weddings) and the fact that, unlike in other professions, there's barely an illusion of mentoring or care for long-term growth. I've only seen it as lip-service. My postdoc is a high-risk, two-year contract that, even if I did well in, would not dramatically improve the odds of getting a more 'secure' (e.g., 6-year TT) position. I don't know of any other industries like this for people who have worked so hard to get an advanced degree.

In short, I wonder how many postdocs feel underpaid and intensely discouraged about finding a long-term place in academia. This will absolutely affect their performance, potentially even before they finish their PhD. I'm really sad about how it has affected mine, and I don't see an easy remedy.

Disagreements are welcome.

Female Science Professor said...

Good pay for a postdoc is substantially more than what they made as a grad student; a typical range is from 2x more to a salary similar to that of a starting assistant professor.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 8:13 here. Two times the grad stipend, which is roughly the NIH pay scale (actually a little more), still means postdocs qualify for low-income housing in many cities.

Anonymous said...

"This means it's not unusual for people not to break $50,000 per year until they're maybe 33 or 34, and then the increase is modest"

"I'm barely saving enough for retirement, and I've been saving 20-25% of my income since the start of grad school. "

I don't understand this.

OK so being very conservative, let's say you were making 25k per year as a grad student for 5 years and 35k as a post doc for 3 years. And you saved 20%. That means you were saving an average of $5,750 per year. That is way, way above the average for savings in America. Perhaps you have a somewhat unrealistic expectation of what "enough" retirement savings is?

At any rate... If I weren't in grad school I am certain I would have become a high school teacher. Then I would have made about 30-35k depending on where I worked and this would only have increased about 10% over the first 8 years. This would include some mandatory retirement as well, but nowhere close to 6k/yr.

Anonymous said...

As a postdoc I wonder what my references would say. If I had to describe myself when I was finishing my PhD I would have said smart and nice, but maybe "isn't living up to potential" and "doesn't work hard enough". I was lucky to get my current postdoc position because it's a perfect fit for me - I love what I do and published three first-author papers on my postdoc work in the first two years due to a great interaction with my adviser. I still work sporadically, because sometimes I've really got something to run with and other times I don't, and I imagine someone could describe me as lazy given the amount of time I don't spend in the lab.

That said, I think the productivity and success of a postdoc described in negative terms by fellow faculty may also depend on your personal interaction with said postdoc. It's not that the faculty member was wrong, ill-informed, or biased, just viewing a student in a different position. Though it's true that a student may graduate with a PhD and not be someone you want in to your lab for various reasons. Personally, I think both my adviser and I are glad she gave me a chance despite my very short publication record coming out of grad school. Wish us luck on the Nature paper we hope to submit in another month!

Anonymous said...

I have definitely had postdocs who came highly recommended that were not very motivated or productive (worked 9-5 M-F if I was lucky). This schedule can be okay if you are organized and productive, but if not then I would call this "undermotivated" (read "lazy"). On the other hand, I've had postdocs who came with strong but not amazing letters who turned out to be amazing. In later years, I found that their advisors often were reluctant to let them leave. In this case, phone calls to their other references led me to take a chance and I was so glad I did.

Regarding how many postdocs feel underpaid and discouraged, having been a postdoc, I am sympathetic to this. However, it's important to remember that for many postdocs, they paid NO tuition for graduate school, and were actually paid a stipend while they were taught how to become scientists. Thus, the scientific community has invested a large amount of money (at least at my MRU, tuition and stipend come to almost 50K$/yr; over 5-6 yrs, that comes out to about 250-300K$) in these postdocs, who come out of graduate school with NO debt. This differs dramatically from medical school, nursing school, etc. where students pay for the privilege of being taught and most have to repay their student loans as they enter the workforce. I wonder if we switched to a system where graduate students had to pay all or part of their tuition, whether we would fix the problem of PhD oversupply, discouraged postdocs and also weed out those folks who are "undermotivated" all in one fell swoop.

Anonymous said...

I would hope that all post-docs would make substantially more than double what they did as grad students, as grad students are generally employed "half-time," i.e. 20 hours per week, and post-docs are employed full time. (But I know this isn't always the case.) I agree with Anonymous at 8:13 that the academic path is terrible for one's lifetime net worth. I made $60K at a government job out of undergrad. It will take me 5-6 years of pay at less than half that amount as a PhD student, then another 1-3 years of pay at probably less than than amount as post-doc before making that salary again in academia. I'm willing to do it because I really want to do independent research in a field that excites me. But there's a huge financial disincentive not to.

Anonymous said...

I was a PhD student that wanted to do a postdoc and become a professor, but I left with a masters and got a job making 6 figures and I am only 25. I think most people want to do postdocs because they feel pressured into it, at the end of grad school, if you are burned out I suggest industry.

Dave said...

At any point did you consider asking these candidates to discuss their research with you? It seems that if their CV was more reflective of their advisor than of themselves, then this would come out when you talk to them about their research and they cannot explain it beyond superficial terms. It seems that prodding for whether this applicant "works hard" or not is, while a good thing to know, somewhat beside the point.

The point of the postdoc is to prepare this person to conduct original research in a lab that they lead. Certainly hard work is helpful in this regard but it is not sufficient (and by some professors' definition of hard work, such as working nights and weekends, perhaps unnecessary or counterproductive if forced on them every night and weekend). The point of the postdoc is *not* to work hard for you and be thankful for the salary just because it's better than being a grad student. The salary is still lower than what many scientists could make outside academia, and they accept the cut in pay because they also expect their own career to benefit by preparing them to do excellent, original research.

This is not to say these postdocs you interviewed were good, but rather to say that was is "good" is not as simple as "impressive CV + my friends say the person works hard". A good postdoc is someone who has a good record of research, understands their research inside and out and can prove this to you in a discussion, and who is capable of generating new promising research ideas. Hard work is beside the point; they probably worked hard (as well as doing lots of other stuff more complex than just working hard) to get to this point, but if they didn't, and they still got to this point, then who cares? Ask them to teach you how to accomplish so much in so little time. Maybe you could learn something from your postdoc.

Female Science Professor said...

With one, I had e-mail correspondence about research; with the other, just a chat at a conference. I consider those to have been research discussions. Based on what I learned about each, I saw no reason to proceed with discussions.

Re. $$: If a postdoc salary that is similar to a starting assistant professor's salary is insufficient, certainly industry is a higher-paying option.

Doug Natelson said...

Regarding postdoc salary, this seems to vary dramatically from discipline to discipline, as do grad stipends. In physics here at Rice, the grad stipend is $25,900/yr. That's not too bad given the cost of living in Houston. Postdocs do not make "well over twice" that level, but in physics my sense is that $45K is the low end. Some prestigious positions (Oppenheimer fellowship at LANL, for example) are much higher (> $75K). It's the life sciences where things seem to be particularly bad.

grumpy said...

FSP,

have you ever decided, for whatever reason, to just not reply to the potential postdoc?

This is happening to me right now. Two emails out and 20 days gone by and still no response from a potential postdoc advisor I contacted by email. Any suggestions?

studyzone said...

The postdoc application process is a two-way street. Just as letter-writers may not be completely open about postdoc candidates' research skills/idiosyncracies, lab members are not always open about their PI's skills as a mentor/lab head. When I interviewed for postdocs, everyone I spoke to regarding one lab (both present and former members) spoke glowingly about the PI. Based on their feedback and my interaction with the PI, I ended up joining the lab. However, I quickly learned that the PI has some challenges in mentoring and funding that, had I known, would have altered my decision. When I brought this up with a labmate, I was told that no one wanted to say anything that would cause me to view the lab in a negative light, even though they knew it would be an issue. [I ended up staying in the lab and working through the issues.]

Anonymous said...

Recent postdoc here (now Asst Prof). I realize this is getting way off-topic from the original post, but for the record, in my field postdoc salaries are categorically awful (IMHO). Per the NIH scale, postdocs start at 37K (at my current institution, grad students make 27K). Please also remember that if you are doing your postdoc in a moderately large city or on one of the coasts (and many of us do), your rent is easily quite expensive. I paid $1000/month for a studio apartment as a postdoc (and I was in a small college town on the East Coast - ti's not like I lived in Manhattan). $1000 a month is already >30% of a postdoc's income...and I did mention that is for a studio?

Female Science Professor said...

Can we just assume I am talking about postdocs who make $45-70k and move on for now? (with all due sympathy to those who do not make a 'living' wage for their geographic/family situations)

Anonymous said...

I find that evaluating recommendations for applicants at any level is tricky. For a variety of reasons no one wants to put negative things about a person in writing. It is all about reading between the lines, seeing what is missing, and for those candidates that are appealing, making the phone call to discuss those details with the letter-writer. I've learned the hard way that you've got to do the legwork up front, or you risk suffering down the line.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

have you ever decided, for whatever reason, to just not reply to the potential postdoc?

I receive multiple e-mails per week from people looking for post-doc positions, and I ignore the vast majority of them.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I respond to all the postdoc applications I get (about 1 a month) with a standard reply that says that I don't have any funding, but if the prospective postdoc has their own fellowship, I'd be glad to talk further. That is usually as far as it goes.

Since I really don't have postdoc funding and haven't advertised any positions, I get two groups of applicants: those who are in my field and would like to work for me, and spamming grads who send out to every PI whose e-mail address they can find.

I even reply to those postdoc applicants who clearly have no idea what my research field is, which seems to be about 1/3 to 1/2 the applicants.

Dave said...

Re. $$: If a postdoc salary that is similar to a starting assistant professor's salary is insufficient, certainly industry is a higher-paying option.

NIH, NSF, and NSERC (Canada) have postdoc minimum salaries in the 30k's. The majority of postdocs I have met make between 30k and 40k, and the vast, vast majority between 30k and 50k. I know of no science department that pays first-year profs this little. Some other postdocs make more, perhaps as much as a professor. What's your point? Obviously everyone here talking about the low salary of postdocs means the former group and not the latter.

unlikelygrad said...

@Anon @ 10:21:

Grad student here, and theoretically employed half-time. When I was a TA, 20 hrs/week was about right. But any grad student on an RA who tried to work "only" 20 hrs/wk would be kicked out of the program for being lazy, or at least lose their funding.

My stipend is just over $20k a year. During the summer I worked a minimum of 40 hrs/week, frequently closer to 50 or 60. Assuming an average of 50 hrs/week, I made $8.50/hr, which is pretty pathetic. Now that classes are going again I probably spend ~30-35 hrs in lab each week, so my pay rate has gone up to ~ $12/hr. Still not too great for someone with a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

Anonymous said...

@unlikely grad:

You only see your stipend in the $20K's, but a grad student RA at my university costs about $50K -- that is with tuition, fringe benefits and overhead that has to be paid to the university.

A postdoc who earns $40K salary actually costs the PI $75K at my university.

These are not small sums to raise.

MattPatt said...

Anonymous --

Isn't this an apples-and-oranges comparison? In some sense, yes, the tuition waivers and overhead might "count" as compensation. On the other hand, you can't pay rent with a tuition waiver, and you wouldn't need one in the first place if you were doing any other job in the world. And with that BS in the physical sciences and/or engineering, it wouldn't be unfeasible to find a position that paid whatever equivalent sum you want to come up with... except then it would all go straight to you.

I mean, I'm not denying the reality of funding from the PI's side, but it is cold comfort on days when even ramen is a stretch.

grumpy said...

"I receive multiple e-mails per week from people looking for post-doc positions, and I ignore the vast majority of them."

Any strategy for getting someone like you to actually take a look at, say, my pub list?

I doubt this particular prof knows my advisor personally either. Plus my advisor "strongly advises" me to stay and do postdoc with him and doesn't seem interested in helping out much if I don't heed his "advice".

(another) former academic said...

@anonymous 5:08

The size of my landlord's mortgage is irrelevant to amount of rent their apartment can command.

Similarly, the fact that universities use 'overhead' on research grants to fund core educational activities is irrelevant to discussions about the value of the labor of the people who actually do the work that has been funded.

Also, if you are going to count the value of grad student and post-doc benefits towards their salary, you need to do the same for the jobs you are comparing them too. Everyone, everywhere costs their employer more than the salary listed in the classified ad.

Anonymous said...

MattPatt,

I know how it feels to be a broke grad student.
What I am saying that RA's are stipends rather than salaries, and the student should not forget the tuition, benefits, and very small deductions (low taxes, no social security deductions) that come with it.

Imagine you want to pay your own way through grad school in the physical sciences -- how much would you have to make to do that and graduate at a reasonable pace? Paying for tuition out-of-pocket is brutal (higher than tuition remission), plus you certainly have to put down money for health and you have money deducted for social security and you are taxed at a higher rate... For most people, it is not possible to work full time and go to grad school school and progress at a reasonable pace. Most people can then only work part time, so how much could you possibly make as a BS in the sciences working part time to put yourself through grad school? There is no way you'd make much more than $25K+tuition.

Madscientistgirl said...

Sorry FSP but one more comment about money. The median income in the US is a little less than $50k/year per household. Many, many people in the US manage to raise a family on that and for many families both parents have to work to make that much. Yes, it is more expensive if you live in some cities and it is more difficult if you have a family. However, even post docs with kids are still among the most fortunate in our society. I knew (single) people who had trouble living within their means on their $24k/year graduate stipends in a Northeastern city. They typically had gone to private universities and private high schools on the East coast - that is, they were the children of the wealthy. They would spend $100 on a pair of jeans and $200 on a purse. The problem was not the level of the stipend.

As a post doc now working with students, I am beginning to understand the difficulties with hiring and managing people. It is really tough. I totally commiserate. I also get mad when I see people milking the system.

DrDoyenne said...

As a post-doc adviser, I've found that "unusual" questions of the candidate often solicit revealing answers that are predictive of their subsequent performance (works for potential grad students also).

A colleague and I have found that students and post-docs who grew up on a farm (or in some similar rural situation) typically excel in our field (ecology), rarely complain, don't mind getting dirty, finish what they start, play well with others, are extremely hard workers, and rarely feel they are "entitled".

People with other backgrounds can also exhibit these characteristics, of course, but a farm background is almost a guarantee (at least in our experience).

So, if a candidate says they grew up on a farm, they go to the top of the list. Unfortunately, with the disappearance of family farms, this question is no longer as useful as it once was.

I now ask questions along the lines of, "Tell me about an instance growing up (<18 yrs old) in which you had to do something you really disliked and how you handled it."

The key is to ask unexpected questions that the candidate has not prepared for. Because there's no time to figure out what the "right" answer might be, I get some pretty honest and revealing answers.

Anonymous said...

@Madscientistgirl: "Milking the system"? How does that happen? I can't imagine.

The opportunity cost of the PhD (and the vast majority of postdocs, except maybe the plush ones in physics) is enormous. I think most people know this. A large majority of PhDs and postdocs will never get TT jobs, even though most want one when they start. Most try to do good work, and most produce publications.

If you're comparing the postdoc to a random person, the postdoc is probably in a comparable spot (minus job security and the potential need for a large lateral move in a few years after s/he becomes 'too old to be a postdoc.') The mean adjusted income of Americans working full-time is $45k for men and $35k for women. Keep in mind the postdoc has already been working for $20-25/k for 5 y. If you're comparing the postdoc to the postdoc's peers with similar undergraduate education or the population of people with postgraduate education, the postdoc is in dramatically worse financial shape. While many professional students acquire debt while pursuing their JD, MBA, or MD, their annual earning potential is manyfold (sometimes an order of magnitude) higher.

FSP, industry isn't always a clear option. There are a lot of fields that involve very fundamental science or public goods problems, and it's not straightforward to move to their private sector corollary.

A lot has been written--see, e.g., Science magazine's articles on the subject, and I think CHE's-- about how postdocs (and grad students to a certain extent) are providing an enormous, unsustainable subsidy to research in the United States, especially considering that most of them won't get the payout (TT position) they aspire to.

Anonymous said...

Getting back to the main topic: putting all these points together, what do we think are the best indicators of who will be a great postdoc?

In my field (astronomy), the primary (yet simplistic) metric is number of first-author papers published. Of course, unless someone is a few sigma above the mean, how do we discern? In that case, I think you're correct, FSP, that perhaps it is the non-advisor letters of recommendation that may provide more realistic insight.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous postdocs and others,

as postdoc at a 1st tier, private research university in a department with plenty of famous professors, I am underpaid at $50k, a deal that is owed to the large candidate pool and the career value of the position.

While I live comfortably on that (low cost-of-living in my area), I find it discouraging to make the U.S. median income despite many years of education and a PhD from a world-class institution. Friends of similar age and similar technical ability make three times as much in the industry. An engineer with a undergraduate degree starts out at $120k at Google nation-wide, and still at $85k working for an SME in a place like Boston.

I'd find my package acceptable if I wasn't contributing much, but a recent project review demonstrated to me and others that I did make a substantial contribution - that's my job. The slew of journal articles that I have produced this year does not cohere with the 1% salary increase that my institution bestowed upon me. They cite poor performance of the endowment - yet I am being paid out of a federal grant, with the university profiting from generous overheads. I do not find money a prime motivator. My problem has more to do with feeling appreciated. The numerous perks, including good benefits and conference travel around the world, do not make up for a lack of appreciation.

So what does a frustrated postdoc do? He's off to solicit competing offers from other institutions and companies. If I do think that I don't receive my fair market value, I'll have to demonstrate that. Let's see.

Meadow said...

This could be one more way to hold back women because they are the ones who are more likely to be characterized as "difficult" and "strange."

I also see your point FSP. I'm looking to hire people now and I'm concerned about the same things you are, striving to be fair. The thing that irritates me most is lack of initiative. The nicest person in the world with no initiative is 100% worse than the pain-in-the-ass who gets something done.

Anonymous said...

I think women are much more likely to be subject to that kind of judgment, even by other women and decent men. So I would hesitate to make that kind of decision. I know that I have was harmed early in my career by a malicious person spreading misinformation to decent people who might then share it.

Before I hire someone I talk to the references on the phone, and ask if there are any possible red flags. Then an email conversation and a phone conversation with the potential hire.

Female Computer Scientist said...

To Anon@ 08:47:

You should probably be clear for the readers here who are not engineers. $120K at Google still means code monkey. There, a PhD doesn't matter diddly squat - you still start as a code monkey.

$50K to lead your own research, travel to conferences, advance the field - that's fantastic, and very, very rare in industry.

And, sorry to tell you, but "atta-boy!" is as rare in industry as it is in academia, unless you get blessed with a good manager.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The nicest person in the world with no initiative is 100% worse than the pain-in-the-ass who gets something done.

Neither niceness nor initiative are sufficient by themselves: competence is needed first. I've had to deal with a grad student who is very nice, has lots of initiative (starting new collaborations and new journal clubs), but is totally incompetent at the core research skills of our field. What makes it worse is that he thinks highly of himself and doesn't really hear any criticism.

Anonymous said...

"The mean adjusted income of Americans working full-time is $45k for men and $35k for women. Keep in mind the postdoc has already been working for $20-25/k for 5 y. If you're comparing the postdoc to the postdoc's peers with similar undergraduate education or the population of people with postgraduate education"

This, in my experience, in demonstrably not true.

I have made more money per year with my measly 25k grad stipend than 80% of my friends (elite liberal arts BAs), and no these are not washouts - they are high achieving (3.5+GPA elite liberal arts grads). Some of my peers have spent money getting additional education and so are actually in the negative.

Others are trying to start their own businesses (law firms, tutoring centers etc). They are eating ramen and peanut butter, and will probably for a very long time. Others are struggling to find ANY job in this economy with a BA. At any rate... no. Post docs, having made 25k for 5 years and having just gotten a raise to an avg of ~40k are NOT "far behind their peers with undergrad degrees from the same institute."

joyous726 said...

Personally, I think that even if a postdoc seems awesome and has great recommendations w/o red flags, it is the PI's prerogative to hire who she chooses as the best fit for her lab. Lab chemistry or at least PI/postdoc is important... I think before hiring a postdoc it's critical that whoever you choose will be able to work with your managerial style and not need babysitting, or be an asshole.

So, I completely see where you, FSP, are coming from.

And, sadly, a PhD does not mean that someone is capable. I see people pushed out and graduated all the time, and at different major institutions. I suppose if the rec letters don't point out the deficiencies of the postdoc applicant, I might assume that the referee is an idiot as well. Or that, yes, people should be more candid of their opinion of someone's strengths and weaknesses.

And, sheesh about the postdoc money. It isn't like you don't know what you're getting yourself into!

(I should perhaps note that I'm a postdoc myself?)

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

have you ever decided, for whatever reason, to just not reply to the potential postdoc?

I'm rather with Comrade PhysioProf here - there are so many emails that come in to me and others (I really hate "Dear Mr. EuropeanFEMALEScienceProfessor") that I tend to just hit delete.

But as dean I am now seeing letters like: "I wrote to Dr. X last week requesting a (post)doctorate position and I didn't get an answer!!!". This is a major red flag for me, I don't think we need people like that here.

Athene Donald said...

Having hired many postdocs over the years, some good, some bad, I pay a lot of attention to the cover letter. Sometimes one can find excellent people whose qualifications and experience do not superficially match what one is ostensibly looking for, but whose cover letters/ introductory emails give convincing reasons for why they are right for the job. This shows a degree of enthusiasm and motivation for working on the specific project that is encouraging. Applications that come in with a standard cover letter (particularly when beginning Dear Sir) always put me off. And standard cover letters make it easy to hide one's general flakiness/laziness etc, while a personalised one tends to show an individual's true colours - useful for the hiring professor, but of course maybe not so good for the applicant. Two obvious cases come to mind, when the applicants had no immediately relevant experience but they were obviously academic high fliers who made a strong case for wanting to join me. Both went on to very successful academic careers after their time with me, building on the breadth of experience they had been able to construct.

So my advice for applicants, do your homework and only apply for jobs that appeal and that you can make a convincing argument for in the covering letter. Otherwise I, like many of the respondents here, will just ignore the application. And for goodness sake, check the gender of the person you might be going to work with!

Athene Donald said...

By the way, you may be interested to know that the Guardian(a UK liberal newspaper), published a list of women science bloggers at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/16/women-science-blogging. I suspect it is fairly UK-centric, but your blog made it onto the list.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to leave two more cents on post-docs and pay. In most decently-paying jobs, if you're wanted somewhere that isn't where you are currently, your employer helps you out with moving costs. Most post-docs have to relocate, which can be very expensive. My husband has a wife (me) and a child to move across the country for his post-doc. Driving with an infant is not an option, so we've had to hire movers. Plus we need to pay deposit and first-month's rent at the new place. And my husband doesn't get paid until the end of his first MONTH (standard for his post-doc university, apparently), so we'll have to pay second month's rent before he gets paid. That's over $6,000 total moving costs and rent up front we need to come up with for him to be able to transition from PhD candidate to post-doc. How many grad students have saved up $6,000 of cash floating around by the time they defend? A little relocation help would be nice, but I've never heard of such a thing in academia.

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe it depends on the field/institution, but moving expenses are definitely covered for some postdocs.

Anonymous said...

I make 30$ a month more as a postdoc than I did as a grad student. If you are a PI and think your grad students/postdocs are well paid, you are delusional. Quit lying to yourself.

Dave said...

Regarding the issue of postdoc salaries, there seems to be some talking past each other between postdocs and profs here. I think everyone can agree with FSP that 50k + research what you want, travel, flexible time, etc., for many people trumps $100k for a job that you hate. But what is lost is the idea that postdocs do not generally do what they do for the money. The fact that many postdocs make a lot of money is a red herring. Postdocs do what they do because they want permanent positions where they can keep doing research they want for a living.

So let me introduce a new category and rank it as FSP did:

(professor) 70k-120k + research + teach + committees + freedom + job for life

is better than

50k + research + freedom + good chance at obtaining previous job description after postdoc ends

which, for people who love research
and science, is better than

120k to be a codemonkey at Google

which is much, much, much better than

50k + research + freedom + after two years you don't get a research job and have to give up doing science and work a codemonkey job where they don't care at all about the skills you developed in 10+ years of postgraduate study and training.

Got it? Postdocs do what they do because they like research, and they want a permanent job doing it. Since a postdoc is not a permanent job, you cannot expect them to be happy, no matter how high their salary, unless the postdoc is vastly increasing their odds to obtain the permanent research position that they want. No postdoc in the world would accept the deal they have, no matter the salary, if they knew that at the end of it there is no permanent job in research. It would be idiotic for them to do so.

So profs, if you want to tell a postdoc to be more appreciative of what you give to them, don't talk about their salary. Talk about how working with you is going to make them into such a great scientist that universities (or industrial research labs) will be banging down the door to hire them. If you cannot offer them this, then your money means nothing.

Anonymous said...

moving expenses for postdocs? what fantasy world do you live in? please let us know so we can all get postdocs there.

i'm fine with getting paid like shit, but i'm not fine with people pretending it isn't this bad. pretending anybody gets paid more than the NIH minimum is just fooling yourself?

if you can't sleep at night with paying your postdocs that, don't hire postdocs.

Anonymous said...

Dave, please tell me where these 50k$ postdoc jobs are.

Anonymous said...

I am currently paying a postdoc $50k, the benefits package is pretty good, and I paid moving expenses (from Europe). Clearly postdoc salaries vary a lot, but I don't get the disbelief of some commenters.

Anonymous, channeling CPP said...

Everyone seems to treat the PI's as though they are some strange beings from outer space who could not possibly understand the poor postdocs' circumstances. Grow up! All the PI's were postdocs too and lived in shit just like you do and came out the other end. No one handed them the keys to the Kingdom of TT just because. You do a postdoc to get a chance at a TT position; there is never any garantee any one person will get a TT position. And you make what you make en route to TT, that's the deal. Fuckin' whiny babies.

Anonymous said...

I think a big part of the problem is that it's nearly impossible to be fully happy as a post-doc. It's sort of like going through the teenage years with your parents - you think you're ready to be independent and it feels like you have a lot of responsibility but noone ever acknowledges your readiness or give you full credit. I know I was pretty miserable as a post-doc. I mean, I wrote the proposal that funded my salary with someone else's name on it, didn't get to make decisions about how money was spent, was forced to hire people I didn't think were the best for the job to work with me, and was always seen as a puppet of my advisor despite the fact that the ideas we were following were mine. I think this became abundantly clear when I took the research with me and my post-doc advisor dropped that line from his program. In the end, unhappiness isn't about money but living on the financial edge is much more painful when the other benefits seem to fade and the money is a much easier problem to identify.

Anonymous said...

what a great life for post doc

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous channelling CPP:

Please be aware that many current PIs got their current positions at a time when the odds of doing so were much better than they are today.

mixlamalice said...

FSP: "Can we just assume I am talking about postdocs who make $45-70k and move on for now? (with all due sympathy to those who do not make a 'living' wage for their geographic/family situations)"

Dave: The majority of postdocs I have met make between 30k and 40k, and the vast, vast majority between 30k and 50k.

Though this is a bit late, I have to say that I am exactly like Dave. In my Materials Science Department, post-docs were paid between 35-40k, and it is said to be one of the best departments in the field in the US.
My girlfriend was a post-doc at the Harvard Medical School and she and all her post-doc piers were also paid in the same 35-40k range, with a slight increase with the years of experience.
I had some friends at NYU or Berkeley that were paid a bit more (40-45k) but I've never seen anyone paid more than 50k for a post-doc (except perhaps those guys that had a bizarre status because they were in their 7th year of post-doc and older than tenured profs, but I haven't asked).

I know that 20 people and 4-5 departments/universities don't make good statistics, so does anyone know what's the pourcentage of post-docs paid 45k and higher, or if this information can be found somewhere?

Because if it's 5%, yes we can just assume the article is about them and move on for now, but it won't make it really relevant.

Bec said...

Some of these comments from postdocs are bizarre. People say (from personal experience) that there are decently paid postdocs, in good situations and other postdocs just flatly deny the possibility? Perhaps in your dicipline/country, that is the case, but there are obviously fields and locations where it is a good life. I'm in my first year of postdoc, and my income allows me to spend less than a third of my take-home pay on renting a two bedroom inner city apartment in one of the most expensive cities in my (non-US) country. Some of you may not have it so good, but stop speaking for all postdocs.

mixlamalice said...

Anonymous channelling CPP:
Everyone seems to treat the PI's as though they are some strange beings from outer space who could not possibly understand the poor postdocs' circumstances. Grow up! All the PI's were postdocs too and lived in shit just like you do and came out the other end. No one handed them the keys to the Kingdom of TT just because. And you make what you make en route to TT, that's the deal. Fuckin' whiny babies.



Well, I disagree. It is not because some survived the "live in shit" (as you said) with success and without complaining that others who would like to change things and point the issues are fuckin' whiny babies or jealous losers...

It is always like that: people that didn't like a system become its more proactive defender once they managed to get into it...

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"All the PI's were postdocs too and lived in shit just like you do and came out the other end."

While as a PI, I appreciate this defense, it is factually incorrect. Many faculty in engineering schools were never postdocs. Some were even hired directly into tenure from industry without ever going through the assistant professor stage (this seems to me to be the biggest source of professional failures among engineering and business school faculty).

Postdocs are rare in the fields in which there are industrial jobs. The prevalence of postdocs in a field indicate an overproduction of PhDs relative to what the field (academic and industrial combined) can absorb efficiently, and an over-reliance on grant-funded low-cost labor. The postdoc positions are the equivalent of the contract instructor positions on the teaching side: useful as training, dangerous if they replace full-time long-term teaching and research positions.

FrauTech said...

Whoa whoa whoa...engineers straight out of school DO NOT make 120k. Maybe two out of every 10,000 get hired at Google and do ok, but I doubt even google would pay that much to someone with no experience.

Let's put the avg entry-level engineer pay between 45-60k, depending on where you live. That's generally a lot better, a lot easier, and requires a lot fewer years of education than for a postdoc to make that much. But engineering (or being a lawyer or doctor) is probably the exception. Granted you're getting paid crap for all the years you went to school, but presumably you have more job security than any of your non-academic friends. That said, a very good friend of mine is a post-doc. She makes quite a bit less than me and works 12 hour days average, sometimes up to 18 hours. I don't think expecting students to be "grateful" for crap pay plus the mindbending hours expected of most grad students and post-docs is having reasonable expectations.

Februa said...

FSP, Indeed this can be a worrisome situation. I believe we have one of the post-docs you describe in the lab. But I wonder, how do you sort out if the info you are receiving on the down low is accurate vs the info in the reference letters/info coming from the candidate? I mean, how do you know the secret people you are talking to arent misleading you against the candidate? I can think of numerous instances in which numerous people I know (PIs, admins, grad students, post-docs) would bitterly do just this.

Anonymous said...

Current university-mandated minimum postdoc salary for a new postdoc at Stanford University is $42,223. This is the MINIMUM across the whole campus including the Medical School. Postdocs in engineering disciplines tend to be paid more. In my lab, the range is $45-55,000 depending on level of experience.

http://postdocs.stanford.edu/handbook/salary.html

Anonymous said...

Not sure why so many are talking past each other. It's clear that there are vast differences in postdoc pay between disciplines. In my field (astronomy), current postdocs typically run $45K-$60K with benefits and retirement. I don't know the official statistics on faculty hires; the ones I know of run from $75K to $95K for 9 months.

That anyone is pursuing a career in an NIH field (where the average age of a first grant as a PI is now 42!) is amazing to me. It sounds awful and hardly surprising that so many postdocs are unhappy.

Regarding FSP's original question: in a hire we did two years ago, we offered to two postdocs who had come out of the same program. Though both had strong applications, one was the clear frontrunner, with a very strong letter from his advisor, direct experience in fields wherein we wanted to add depth, etc. Well, the second is now a star while the first is fairly unproductive, complains about work when he is assigned it, and has expressed an interest in dropping work in the area we most wanted him to work on. In retrospect, the things that might have tipped us off were a) extended interviews in advance with both candidates and b) close attention to the secondary letters of reference.

On the other hand, while everyone wants the perfect postdoc, there are so many variables involved (not the least, personality matches between colleagues) that you are going to win some and lose some.

Anonymous said...

One more data point for what it's worth. I am midcareer tenured faculty. I did do a postdoc, a little over 10 years ago. The situation in my field (at the intersection of physical and earth sciences) was similar then to what it is now. So I do know pretty much exactly what current postdocs in my field are experiencing.

In our field postdoc pay averages around $50K right now, in our expensive city it's a little higher, but most of them get subsidized university apartments (pretty good deal for this city, though still not cheap by broader US standards). Often moving expenses are covered - I certainly have covered them myself in many cases.

Having been a grad student and postdoc not all that long ago, I think that it is simultaneously true that the system can abuse grad students and postdocs for cheap labor while not offering a guarantee of a career, and that many grad students and (perhaps to a lesser extent) postdocs are leeches on the system who use up a lot of resources (even if their take-home pay is low by some standards) while doing little and enjoying the freedom that comes from not having a "real" job. Which is true (and of course in many happy situations it is neither) depends on the situation.

At my institutions grad students are paid over $30K, the cost to my grant is pushing $70K. Postdoc now costs me over $100K, for them getting typically in the low-mid $50's.

I also get lots of postdoc requests and only take seriously the few that seem like they really know something about what I do and would stand a chance of contributing to it. I do try to answer all but the spammiest ones at least briefly though.

Finally, in my field while TT jobs are scarce compared to those who nominally want them, it is not as competitive as some other fields (e.g. bio) and it does seem to me that most of those who are truly good - ambitious, creative, hard working, willing to actually do the job with all its burdens, and lacking in major personality defects - get them eventually (sometimes quickly) if they try. You can say that is just someone who has become part of the system defending it if you like, or you can take a moment to think about whether your own perspective is any less biased by personal circumstances...

mixlamalice said...

Here is the best I could find, from this study in 2004: http://www.sigmaxi.org/postdoc/highlights.pdf

To summarize, some quotes:
"more than 50,000
people hold postdoctoral appointments in the United States.
Most are doing research in the life or health sciences, but 22 percent are in the physical sciences or engineering, and 4
percent are working in the social sciences or humanities.
We contacted 46 institutions, and we ultimately heard back from more than 7,600 Postdocs.
The NSF found that the median salary for postdocs was only $28,000 in 1995. Since then, funding organizations, both public and private, have made a considerable effort to increase postdoc stipends, and
many universities have followed suit. As a result, compensation has increased considerably. The median salary for respondents to our survey is $38,000 in 2004.
"

So I guess post-docs that make 45-60k + benefits, retirements and moving expenses paid exist and maybe common in some fields, but they still can't be consider as the "usual post-doc condition".

For the record, I am also now part of the system, and pretty happy with it. Still, I hope that I won't say in a few years to post-doc "I didn't really enjoy my time as a post-doc, so I can't see any reason why you should enjoy yours. My only advice will be to suck it, you whiny baby. Because I made it, it means that it's doable and a good system".

Anonymous said...

Salary issues set aside and to be honest I'd act the same way you did in both cases you described, I'd like to bring to your attention one thing, taking the word of someone whom the applicant didn't mention as his referee.

I had a similar case, I switched supervisors during my PhD. The first one was really a d**k but a careful one, a total d**k to those beneath him and always flattering those above him. Most of his senior colleagues naturally have a good impression about him (including his ex-supervisors) but he has a very bad reputation among his peers and a horrible rep among his students & postdocs.

I don't believe in right & wrong it's usually a clash of conflicting interests. However, in that case I was right, proven by subsequent publications. For the record the ex-supervisor got in trouble with the university (didn't get fired though), not because I asked that but rather because he was intelligent enough to call names my director of studies because he approved my supervisor change on the basis of new interests.

When asked why I stopped working with him, I say something which is only partly true that my interests changed. I'm not interested in saying an old story about a collaboration that didn't work out for whatever reasons and to be honest, if I was the interviewer and saw someone being a sorry ass and a crybaby at that age I'd send him back to kindergarden instead of hiring him.

Time is money and I don't find it fruitful nor interesting telling a crybaby story, even if it indeed had a negative impact on my work. I want to be positive.

The thing is that I applied to a position where the interviewer asked me if I had worked with anyone else in the past (apart from my supervisor & referees). Denying facts is silly, so I said with whom I worked, what I worked on and why I switched supervisors (new interests, not a crybaby story).

The rest of the interview went well, I answered all his technical questions, we went through my CV which I was told he found impressive and we also found common ground for future research.

I am in position to know the interviewer changed his mind 100% when he talked to my formed supervisor.

I might have done the same thing however what I want to point out is that when an applicant doesn't mention a certain person as a referee, there may be reasons why he doesn't want to include him.

I can understand why you asked your colleague and I'd probably do the same thing. However, since (s)he's not listed as a referee by the applicant, no matter how well you know him, my advice would be to take everything (s)he said with a grain of salt, as sometimes personal relations & politics interfere with judgement.

Anonymous said...

I would say to any PIs out there who do not at least reply to inquiries from postdoctoral applicants -- it demonstrates a clear lack of tact and professionalism to not give a reply. It takes about 3 seconds and costs nothing to send a form email that you are not taking postdoctoral applicants at the moment.

Female Computer Scientist said...

I would say to any PIs out there who do not at least reply to inquiries from postdoctoral applicants -- it demonstrates a clear lack of tact and professionalism to not give a reply. It takes about 3 seconds and costs nothing to send a form email that you are not taking postdoctoral applicants at the moment.

Sadly, so many of these are spam. I just got a letter from someone asking to do a postdoc with me. He's not even in the same discipline as me (or even two standard deviations away. For example, I do graph theory and he is a Milton scholar). There is exactly zero overlap whatsoever. His cover letter is clearly a form letter that he's probably sent to every single person in my department. (We get a ton of these). Honestly, I don't see it as a lack of professionalism to not reply. For all I know it's a spam bot and by replying I'll suddenly be getting viagra offers 24/7.

And even if this guy isn't a spam bot, he's demonstrating a lack of professionalism by clearly not doing 30 seconds of research to find out that neither I, nor anyone in my department, does anything remotely close to Milton.

Anonymous said...

An idea: Ignore the reference letters... these are meant to say only good things. Invite the potential postdoc for 3 months to your lab. This way you will get to know if you can work with him/she. Do not trust opinions from your colleges, because we all are different and different people get along with different people, and finally some people do not really say unbiased appraisals about others. Even my comment is biased: I hate slackers who get themselves by academia just because of their shiny reference letters or sexy-looking passports.

Anonymous said...

It might be irrelevant now but we post-docs have the same problems! It is so difficult to find a good supervisor / professor / tutor. I have been working since finishing my Masters in different labs across Europe and I can tell you there are probably good supervisors out there but surprisingly I never had one... it is so difficult.

Anonymous said...

Well, i can contribute from both perspectives, having been a recent postdoc and currently a lecturer. while i sympathise with the Prof about finding god postdocs, i have to make the point of finding good Profs to work for as well. your article is very much one sided, which is fair enough as it is a blog, but have you never been there? some of your descriptions are very simplistic and outdated. for instance, the wage discussion. a good wage should not be one where the salary is higher than a grad student. this is obvious. a good wage should be characterised by being compatible to the candidate going to full time work outside academia. in addition, 1-3 years and then moving to a faculty job is not at all typical. in physics, it is now late thirties, and 3-4 postdocs. in engineering 2-3 postdocs. so candidates should not be viewed as some kids who did their phd, but professionals who actually choose to work for you. now the that viewpoint changes things. it is a two-client problem, and not only some poor should having to live up to the standards of the prof. in the article your only criterion seems to be publications. do you promise them that you will support them, find funding for their ideas, let them publish without being over-controlling? do you promise them your time, or if that is not possible, independence? teaching experience? these are things i would look for when i was a postdoc. the truth is today's postdocs are very bitter, among other things, because there are no jobs. they work very hard as a result, but many wont get through. not because they are not good, but because there are no jobs. and this situation is taken as an advantage point by many profs who have actually 'made it'. there are a lot of profs who abuse their postdocs and use them as cheap labour. so please excuse the former postdoc who gets emotional when hearing about the lazy postdocs.

Anonymous said...

I concur with the idea of hiring for 3 months and looking what comes out of it. Interviews stress the hell out of me and I always seem to say a wrong thing. However I got into my PhD program by going in and working. Since working is something I do infinitely better than being interviewed, and I'm actually quite normal in a normal setting, everything went fine, I got the position, I got nice papers out of it. Now however I have the same problem applying for postdocs... I think people who get the jobs are not necessarily those who show to work, but those who present nicely.

Anonymous said...

You come across as a completely obnoxious, self-righteous professor. Just remember that hiring a post-doc is a two-way street. You may be judging the post-doc, but the post-doc is also judging you based on the quality of your research and your scientific acumen. Unless you are perfect in those areas, how can your expect your post-doc candidate to be perfect as well?

Anonymous said...

I agree, the author sounds like a very self-righteous person. I wouldn't want to work with someone like this in no ways.....

Anonymous said...

As a former post-doc I find these situations funny. Professors (in most cases) only have limited funding, so they prize every dollar spent. Post-docs feel undervalued because compared to their friends who are engineers, got industry jobs after undergrad, or got a sweet gig after a masters they're making peanuts. So one side is saying "man you're lucky you're getting anything at all." The other side is saying "jeeze, why the low pay?". This situation comes form a lack of funding at the top which puts a stranglehold on postdoc positions. It's sad really. Because it pushes good scientists away from the field. Yet many PI's not realizing this think they're "sorting through the good and hard working postdocs". This is of course false. They are sorting through the leftovers after everyone else jumped to industry. Thus finding bad apples is more common...and really the problem with "lazy" postdocs is that you don't have enough funding to support them...not necessarily that they're crap scientists. Certainly they've been more productive than a huge percentage of the general population.

Anonymous said...

I think you are a cheap employer that is complaining about the workforce, when the workforce is getting minimum wages to do the most likely irrelevant work that you do. You should consider yourself lucky for having a position, so don't whine about postdocs, you would be nothing without them.

Jimi Wills said...

In response to
"Dodging a Postdoctoral Bullet"

Hmmm... I was confused at first because I read the post on blogspot.co.uk, and I assumed it was a UK post. The confusion came with the talk of benefits... the only benefits I get are the fantastic people (mostly) I get to work with.

But they're mostly mad as a brush - I don' know whether it's because you have to be mad to start with or because the PhD process makes you that way - and have sacrificed so much of their lives to their vocation.

My experience in the UK is this: some PhD students take a pay-cut when they graduate, because while their salary is larger than their stipend was, they suddenly have to start paying taxes and so are taking home less net per month.

Benefits? What, using the printer for free? Academic research must be very different in the states! I'm no longer a postdoc (technically) but I'm on he same pay grade ... near the top (after 8 years post doc) ... and I make over £36k, around $63k. I got offered a job in industry in London... they wanted to pay me £90k (over $150k). It was a 9-5. Comparatively, academia in UK is poor pay for very long hours.

But I don't wanna live in London. And I don't particularly want to leave academia. But I sure as hell don't wanna be a postdoc anymore. If you work out what I got per hour (for the hours I worked, not what I was contracted) it's around $15/hour. I came out of uni ("grad school") with over $30k debt, and that's what I have to show for it? We sure don't do it for the money! I'd've been better off in Kwiksave.

Now I'm a lab manager involved in a mass-spec soon-to-be SRF. It's fantastic. I feel like I'm achieving something for the first time in my career. Even though I have papers, including in Cell, it never actually feels like an achievement, because we never get to stop and enjoy it. Being a postdoc is crap. A crap job for crap pay. With no future unless to wanna be a PI. The only up-side is knowing that somehow, in some small way, you might be contributing to society. Perhaps. Maybe.

http://scigomad.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/in-response-to-dodging-postdoctoral.html