Tuesday, April 08, 2014


More than 3 years ago, I wrote a post about hiring postdocs. This post seems to have been linked to a site that diverts some traffic to my ancient postdoc-post and keeps the comments coming (intermittently). The most recent comments are all negative: I am an insensitive jerk etc.

OK, maybe so. The point of the original post was to give a PI's-eye-view of the topic of hiring postdocs, and any topic related to the selection of a few and the rejection of most has a high probability of making some readers angry. Nevertheless, given limited funds for hiring postdocs, PIs must make hiring decisions. How do we do that in a situation that is not as structured as the admission of graduate students or the hiring of faculty?

Different fields have different cultures regarding postdocs: for example, regarding bread-and-butter issues such as salary and fringe benefits, the rate of success of postdocs seeking post-postdoc employment relevant to their training, and more cosmic issues related to respect and independence in their work. And even in the best of circumstances, the postdoctoral years can still be ones of anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

Anyway, here are some recent comments on that semi-ancient post, with my further thoughts on the topic:
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.
Fact: A typical starting (just-out-of-PhD) postdoc funded by an NSF grant in my field and at my institution makes anywhere from about $42k to $62k per year (salary). At my institution, postdocs paid from a grant also get fringe benefits, calculated as a % of salary and paid by the PI (with indirect costs to the institution). I am not making any judgement about whether that salary is decent or abysmal; that opinion will no doubt vary considerably. I will say that this all adds up to a lot in the context of a typical (for me) grant budget.

Opinion: It is quite true that my work is irrelevant. Conveniently, the work of my postdocs is therefore also irrelevant. Nevertheless, we manage to do some interesting basic science.

Fact: I consider myself very lucky to have a position.

Opinion: I still get to whine.

Fact: Over the years, I have wasted a lot of money on unproductive postdocs. I would like to avoid that experience if at all possible (hence the original post).

Opinion: I have worked with (and am working with) some great postdocs. I consider our working relationships to be mutually beneficial.

(Excerpt) Yet many PI's .. 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.
This opinion about "leftovers" does not apply to my field. I don't understand the point about not having enough funding to support postdocs and so that explains why some postdocs are unproductive(?). If someone accept a postdoc and the salary is not as high as the postdoc thinks it should be, does this give them license to be unproductive? Isn't that self-destructive, among other things?

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?
Of course the applicants are also judging whether they want to work with me; this is as it should be. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions (such as NSF Postdoctoral Fellows), I hire postdocs using funds that I obtained, so I do get to choose which postdoctoral aspirants I think will do well with the project, do well working in my research group, and do well developing their career.

In the time since I wrote my original post about trying to avoid unproductive postdocs, I have had similar experiences to the ones I described. For example, there was the time when an aspiring postdoc who wanted to work on an ongoing project for which I am PI assumed that one of my colleagues was the PI and explained the project to me (in person, at a conference) as if I knew little about it. Did he not even look at the project webpage? Perhaps I would have been more sympathetic if he had at least explained the research well and described an interesting way that he would contribute expertise or ideas. Alas, he did none of those things. This is not about expecting perfection; this is about expecting a certain level of knowledge, initiative, and drive.

I may be an obnoxious jerk but I do want to state here that I think it is important to be respectful, supportive (financially and otherwise), and appreciative of excellent, hard-working postdocs. I hope to be so lucky to be able to continue to do so.


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that if it is funding you obtained that you have every right to pick and choose who gets to work for you. The comments made to that page seem to be people who are cranky with the not new problem of "I'm not being paid enough for what I do".

A postdoc said...

While I agree with most of your post, the bit about the salary is very different in biological sciences. I am a postdoc (Biological Sciences) in New York City, and for us the starting salaries are still (in 2014) around 39k (NIH minimum). 62k is something we hardly ever reach - even after 7-8 years of postdoc. So the frustration about low salaries is not entirely unjustified.
Given the fact that typical postdocs are usually in their 30s and usually have kids to raise with these salaries, this does not create very happy postdocs. But of course, we are in Science for the love of it, and not materialistic things like money. I just wish my 3 year old and 6 month old understood this...

Anonymous said...

NSF Postdoctoral Fellows get $62k (not sure if the same across all NSF programs)

Anonymous said...

OMG, people, this post (and the first) is not about salaries. Please take the discussion somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

In my lab (in the biological sciences), I know bad post-docs are a waste of money and can prevent the lab from accepting potentially more productive students and post-docs. Incompetent post-docs are also a waste of the PI's time and the lab's resources. I think PIs should certainly be selective in who they take, especially when funds for highering post-docs are limited.

Phindustry said...

An old professor of mine said, "there are always more open post-doc positions than there are qualified people to fill them". The five other profs in the room wholeheartedly agreed. The post-doc in my old lab was incompetent. He needed my help every day then it got to the point where he had to meet every-freaking-day with my advisor. He's in his third post-doc, and if he gets a faculty or industry post I'd be thoroughly surprised. I know plenty of post-docs are talented, but I've met so many that are post-docing because they can't do anything else. I can't blame a PI for wanting the most out of a post-doc: they need results since they're on the taxpayer's dime. Post-docs: if you want more cash go get a job in industry. You're lucky that a PI wants you around.

Anonymous said...

I was in industry for a decade and have returned to academia in an administrative position where I interact closely with various research labs. One of those labs functions with many post-docs who are expected take the responsibility to train students (undergrads and grads). This lab is very productive for everyone. Here a post-doc is a mentor, needs to direct the student's project such that the results will feed into the post-doc's overall project. A different lab functions with mostly students and few post-docs. Furthermore, those post-docs are not assigned to mentor the students. This lab is less productive and I find the post-docs are less willing to take on responsibilities, less likely to collaborate with other researchers in the department, less proactive for the projects and do not take risks. Really, it depends on how the PI utilizes their personnel resources.

Advice I would give to post-docs is to recognize that the post-doc is different from the graduate degree. Often the duration is shorter (in our field of biomedical science, post-docs are 2 years at an institution) so you need to step up the research pace. You need to be able to generate papers in those 2 years. Stay focused and make sure you deliver. This isn't just for the benefit of the PI. It is for your benefit as you need to find a job afterwards and you will be judged on your productivity, which usually means number of publications.

Anonymous said...

I recently visited this old post because I am hoping to hire a new postdoc, but have very limited funds. As people have suggested, some postdocs are great and others are not so great. I've had mixed (mostly not so great) results with postdocs, so I'm trying to be very careful this time around. I have a couple of candidates that I think are excellent, but sadly, my funds are very limited, so the salary I can offer is not as much as I would like it to be. I plan a significant raise for the second year, and with a little luck in getting more funding, I could do even better. But it's a real catch 22.

On the other side of things, it's important for postdocs to remember that the postdoc is still a training position. It's a means to an end, that end being a permanent job of some sort. So, while we all wish that the salaries were higher, you need to be looking ahead and planning to get to a "real job" as soon as you can. As Anon at 10:15 said, this will benefit both your PI and you.

LM said...

There are good and bad postdocs, and the bad (slow and/or counterproductive workers, not independent) can be very bad. I see this even as a postdoc myself.

What worries me is whether "off the record" conversations are all that accurate in tagging these people, or if it just penalizes students where there has been some social weirdness.

BBBShrewHarpy said...

LM, IME PIs are careful not to flag students in ways that will damage their postdoc prospects. We all realize that different working styles will mean that not every grad student finds a great match in grad school.

Based on experience in my group, I think having a bad postdoc in the group is the worst things for the team, far worse than having a bad grad student. And "bad" can mean a lot of things: unproductive, certainly, but also unhelpful, defensive, selfish, jealous of the grad students. We recently lost one such member. He was replaced more carefully with two good matches and the whole atmosphere in the group changed. However, I think that it would have been difficult for the previous postdoc's adviser to flag him in such a way that I would have understood not to hire him because what was wrong with his behavior was not obvious in any kind of objective metric. I'm not sure, even now, whether I would have been able to flag him as a bad match.

Anonymous said...

I personally think that postdocs should be paid competitive salaries as one comes after 5-7 years of graduate school training. PIs should stop behaving like they are employer as they are not. They do not provide competitive wages, benefits and severance pay after post-doc finishes. Heck, they have no control over their own funding so why pretend that they are like a boss.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 8:43 said:
I personally think that postdocs should be paid competitive salaries as one comes after 5-7 years of graduate school training. PIs should stop behaving like they are employer as they are not. They do not provide competitive wages, benefits and severance pay after post-doc finishes. Heck, they have no control over their own funding so why pretend that they are like a boss.

Oh, FFS. If you want a competitive salary, go to industry. The world doesn't owe you anything just because you got a PhD. Postdocs are advanced traineeships, paid accordingly; they don't generate revenue, they are paid on taxpayers' dime, and they pay circa $40 K . If you can't get your head around that working in academia on taxpayer funded research is not the same as working in a company, then I can't help you.
Nobody forces anybody to go to a postdoc. It's not indentured service. It's additional research and training; if you want an academic position, it helps you increase your chances of getting one. It might also help get a great industry position. But If you want a high salary right out of a PhD, then don't do a postdoc, go do something else. I don't understand why that's so hard to comprehend.

Anonymous said...

One issue here is the legalities involved in a hiring decision. You can't just hire how and who you want, you are bound by rules. Something off the record may fall outside those bounds.

Anonymous said...

Oh, FFS. If you want a competitive salary, go to industry. The world doesn't owe you anything just because you got a PhD. Postdocs are advanced traineeships, paid accordingly; they don't generate revenue, they are paid on taxpayers' dime, and they pay circa $40 K . If you can't get your head around that working in academia on taxpayer funded research is not the same as working in a company, then I can't help you.
Nobody forces anybody to go to a postdoc. It's not indentured service. It's additional research and training; if you want an academic position, it helps you increase your chances of getting one. It might also help get a great industry position. But If you want a high salary right out of a PhD, then don't do a postdoc, go do something else. I don't understand why that's so hard to comprehend.

No, post-doc is not a service and it should be treated as one. Also, working in academia is same as working in industry, what is the difference? As such it is not a training, but a professional work and they should be paid accordingly. I am aware that many people accept this salary to be able to enter the US workforce (not necessarily academia). If you want professional science done professionally, you should be able to pay professionally. No, just because it is paid by taxpayers money, it should be cheap. 60% indirect of the same taxpayers money goes to the university for paying administrator salaries and they are not paid $40k/year for their job (not even department secretary is paid this money). why scientists should be paid this money? For your record, I am not a post-doc.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow. Having worked in industry and now finding that there are not nearly enough positions in industry for all the post-postdocs who want them, I'm continually amazed at how oblivious academics are to the reality of what it's like out in the Real World.

For those thinking it's easy to get a job as a PhD in industry, with or without a postdoc: it's not. It's also a catch-22: you need to do some postdoc, but ultimately nobody in industry cares about your academic postdoc experience. They want you to have industry experience, as much as possible, as soon as possible.

And to the PIs who think they're "training" their postdocs to get a "permanent" position, this is just false. Most PhDs are not working in the fields for which they are trained. Go look at the statistics.

Sadly, the only people who understand this are already outside of academic science, so we're not really in much of a position to fix anything. The system is hemorrhaging smart people faster and faster.

Colleen said...

As a 4th year Ph.D. student starting to look for postdocs, I found your post very helpful and I don't understand why it's inspiring such defensiveness. Personally, I have known a handful of grad students who SHOULD have been unhirable as post-docs based on factors like an inability to work independently. Whereas, I hope that in addition to my technical skills it will also be seen as desirable that I have maintained active, long term collaborations as a grad student. In fact, I am hoping that my "soft skills" will help set me apart from other technically qualified applicants who might not share my charming love of puns and other delightful attributes (this may be delusional but it does help me sleep at night - "they may have 15 papers but PEOPLE LIKE ME DAMMIT!").

Anonymous said...

Your post highlights the importance of verifying references. For graduate students, it is challenging to find a reference that can accurately predict if that person will perform well in graduate work. So as a professor, you take a chance. However for post-docs, you have the opportunity to inquire as to how they behaved during graduate studies. Even if you make allowances that people can change and mature over time, there are some points that you would predict to be fairly consistent: is the person a hard worker? are they a good coworker and share lab responsibilities? does everyone hate them because they are disrespectful to others? do they learn quickly? do they perform well? do they take initiative?

A warning to grad students that while professors expect you to learn during your studies you are also expected to behave in a professional manner. To not do so during your graduate work will affect your ability to find a post-doctoral position.

Finally, asking other colleagues about the potential post-doc can also work to the post-docs advantage: I know some profs who are notoriously slow to publish or themselves went through funding difficulties which resulted in slower research. Having a colleague in the department who can tell you about the post-doc and the situation may offer insights that some of the challenges the person faced were out of their control.

Anonymous said...

These posts and comments defending the postdoc system is exactly why I discourage young people from going to grad school and becoming postdocs. It is absurd that a system that relies so heavily on the work of a large class of highly skilled workers, should still label those workers as trainees and use that as justification for paying them low salaries and telling them that even that is a privilege. This is exactly why I advise undergrads not to go into academia as a career. There are so many more worthwhile careers that young, motivated, hardworking and intelligent people can pursue which will reward them more for their efforts.

Anonymous said...

This is an important and interesting topic, but nothing is gained by indulging and rehashing off-base complaints. You covered the relevant issues well in the original post.

When you bust your butt winning a grant with only 1 in 10 odds of success, of course you can't afford to make an unproductive hire. And taxpayers shouldn't stand for it, either.

Anonymous said...

One of the biggest problems with the postdoc, as I see it, is the lack of legal protections. I (a postdoc) was in a situation recently where my PI said they would renew my contract, but then reversed their decision a few weeks before the contract expired. When I reminded the PI that they had verbally agreed to renew my contract, their response was, "You don't have that in writing." !!! This left me in a huge bind because 1- I brought my own research funding (hence was not draining lab money), and 2- Postdocs (being contract workers) do not typically qualify for unemployment, according to my department's HR person. Luckily, I was able to transfer my fellowship to a new lab where I am now happily working. I understand the view of a PI, that they have to maintain a strong research lab, and let go of those who are not performing to expectations. On the flip side, if these expectations are not communicated clearly, and then even worse, there is flip-flopping going on (yes, I'm renewing your contract/nevermind, no), it's a disaster, especially for the postdoc! I hope that the PIs reading this blog are giving the proper, university mandated notice if they are letting go of postdocs or grad students.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that the quality of post-docs must be a gaussian distribution just like everything else. So you could be highly unlucky or highly lucky but the greatest likelihood is that you will get an average postdoc. Perhaps with a little bit of careful observation, you could gauge this person's strengths and weaknesses early, and tailor your mentoring to ensure that they achieve the upper limits of their potential. Or you could just decide they are lazy and get rid of them, which may be easier.

Anonymous said...

Postdocs are employees, like everyone else who is not a student. Calling them trainees is convenient for PI's because they get to pay them as little as they are allowed to, and also treat them poorly. It is also the case that while PI's whine about the quality of their postdocs (and also often their students), they are often mostly incompetent managers and not necessarily good enough that even a hardworking, sincere and productive postdoc is able to land a decent academic position after it. Postdocs are more often than not in a situation wherein they bear all the risks and consequences of a failed research program, but only some and often not even this of any of the benefits of a successful research program-so, like the commentator cited in the post, I find it hard to take a PI's complaints about their postdocs seriously.

Also, I agree that many academics seem to be quite clueless about the availability of employment outside academia-it is quite hard to make the jump from academia to industry, and for most postdocs there is little or no institutional support to aid in search of employment outside academia. In fact, the same PI's who would complain about (please note that I mean this generally) the quality of postdocs, would in my experience, be unwilling to do the slighest bit of work to help their postdocs find employment outside, and would rather be upset that their postdocs may not be working hard enough on projects in their lab.

I have worked as a postdoc in (very) reputed labs and am now employed in industry, and my experience has been that there is little to no workplace protection for postdocs against abuse and unfair targeting by their PI's, and academic environments can be very abusive workplaces for people in such positions. It does not help that PI's also hold a disproportionate amount of power over their postdoc's professional futures.

Anonymous said...


In a previous life I did a PhD and my wife did one postdoc after her PhD both of us went at top/posh unis.

Nobody can force anybody to be productive, if someone isn't happy (s)he may as well boost batteries a bit, think about the next steps in life and spend their time and enerfy preparing for that. I did it at the end of my PhD despite the best efforts of all opposing forces.

My reasons for wanting to leave was salary, low quality of life and long working hours (for low pay, in finance I work more), though these may differ from lab to lab, country to country etc

Perhaps not completely fair to my supervisor, who tbh was fine and the low salaries/scholarships were not his fault but again no regrets for doing what I wanted with my life.

In short, if someone is demotivated because of the general outlook, there's little you can do about that.

The question of finding the right people for the job during an interview is an interesting one. I'm a financier these days and have friends in other industries so I've been able to see several hiring practices used in many places.

In my view no approach works when you're dealing with smart people who want/need this for other reasons than those stated. On the other hand you don't want to deal with dumb people or suckers so it all becomes a bit convoluted.

If I were you, I'd try to find people who are realistic about the outlook, well aware of the downsides and really want to take a punt - someone being open about this is likely to be honestly interested, happy with the risks and he may well prove to be productive for the first years.

Be open, ask them how they feel about doing a postdoc, cite the upsides of your group but also ask them how they feel about the downsides they're likely to face (lower income, unstructured career progression, uncertainty) and see what their response is.

Anyone saying silly stories that I always wanted to do this, science is all that matters to me etc etc is either a moron or a liar who treats *you* as a moron.

Keep in mind that they may not know themselves what they want, indecisiveness will rarely bring productivity though.

If they can't hold this conversation like adults, why expect them to behave like adults when they're onboard?

Anonymous said...


Wow. Having worked in industry and now finding that there are not nearly enough positions in industry for all the post-postdocs who want them, I'm continually amazed at how oblivious academics are to the reality of what it's like out in the Real World.

What is it like out in the Real World?

This is a genuine question.

Anonymous said...

IMO, a postdoc is a necessary step for getting a job in Academia. In my experience, only about 10 to 20% of the graduate students want to go into Academia.

The PI can't give higher salaries than the government agencies allow in their budgets. Those who want high salaries need to go to industry right away. Of course, international students can't always do that and their option is almost always a postdoc, until they get a green card. Therefore, they just need to suck it up, and most don't complain.

Also, a postdoc who whines about their salary and how they are Ph.D.s blah blah blah, I'm falling asleep wake me up from the nap when you're done complaining, has a bad, entitled, attitude and doesn't have what it takes to succeed in a tough, competitive environment. Do you think that if you go in industry or get an Assistant Professor position anyone will coddle you? Life will continue to be tough and unfair. It's up to you how you respond, either take it in stride and succeed or fail by your own doing.

I've been a professor for 9 years, I only had a postdoc once, but she was working in someone else's lab, so I can't use that experience to judge. I have more experience with grad students. Most graduate students in my lab do a great job, are independent and enthusiastic. I don't hear whining and I wouldn't tolerate it anyway. You've got to understand that as a grad student and/or postoc you are working for yourself, it is your career. When we hire faculty we don't give a hoot about anything else other than publications. You don't have them, you're screwed. So better work towards those and forget spending your energy in useless conflicts with the PI.

Admittedly there are some pretty bad PIs out there, who make it very hard for the grad students and/or postdocs to publish. I don't see a way around it, since it's just human nature, but whining and complaining, looking in other people's backyard and finding fault with others, bemoaning the unfair world, instead of always finding solutions to advance your own career, never did anyone any good.

Anonymous said...

Science is a tough career choice. As a postdoc who was lucky enough to find an independent position and is now looking to hire postdocs, I fully appreciate the range in applicant quality. One of my major issue at all stages of Academia is that trainees need to stop being the victim. You always have control over your own destiny in some form or another. You should not stay in a bad working situation, and no PI can make you do anything. If your productivity is low and you blame the lab or PI, then switch labs or be more productive. Choose your advisor wisely, throw yourself into your project, understand your project. I would assume that all entering this career path have done their research and know of the salary levels, working hours, and possible issues that may arise. While it is a tough path to make it through all of the training required, don't play the victim. Be the architect of your own future as much as possible, and don't let anyone or any situation stand in your way.

Anonymous said...

I am a postdoc now, I am a little surprised to read there are incompetent postdocs, and also that advisors help the postdocs much. In my case I was never helped much, I was told 'this is the code, this is a paper, you need to do X' and had to do everything on my own from the start, even as a starting graduate student. I also had another advisor who would suggest some direction and then I was on my own. This was as a graduate student, so I have never really experienced an advisor (not even in my current position) who sits down with me and explains things, I have to do everything and find new ideas, and I do not complain about this at all, it has just been my experience and it helps me. But I have met incompetent graduate students and was also surprised to see this because they were really lazy and did not like studying at all, they copied the homework from someone else and failed exams, and of course, they have the worst attitudes and are always creating drama, they always have excuses for everything. I wondered why where they trying to get a phd that is known to require lots of work if it was so annoying (and one of them even told me it was so boring to her!) for them to do it.
I went to a good college, I have many friends who are postdocs now and are really good at what they do, so I guess my surprise is a result of having been in an environment where everyone was interested and hard working to one where I found people who weren't, that or I am just very naive.

Anonymous said...

I had an unproductive period in my last postdoc, due to personal problems. Also the PI was unhappy with their life, was interviewing at other unis, getting married and having kids, and also much weaker than their publications etc suggested (colleagues had warned me explicitly about that, but I was confident about working totally independently).

By various shenanigans (some facilitated by moving university) they managed to get me to resign (at great personal cost, with no other job lined up).

I can totally understand this PI's course of action (and other PI's dilemmas about what to do- if anything - about an unproductive postdoc).

On the other hand, your surprise at the reaction to your old post is surprising....