Why finding a postdoc position is like (online) dating

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Finding the perfect date, science edition… Picture by Jonathan McPherskesen via flickr.

This year, I’ve received a surprisingly high number of e-mails from friends and former colleagues asking me for advice on what to do post-PhD. Now, first of all, I’ve been really honoured/humbled by this, although I wonder every time if I’m even the right person to dispense advice. After all, I don’t have a hell of a lot of experience and I certainly did get it wrong once*.  However, having now had a year of correspondence with various people, I’ve realized that I do have something to say on the topic. I have also come to realize that a lot of the advice that I dish out to people resembles things that I have heard about online dating**, and so I’ve decided to write out some of it***: Continue reading

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Sometimes it’s the little things

lego-chickenpoxToday, the Office of the Dean at our Department sent an e-mail to the staff mailing list, informing them that a case of chickenpox had been diagnosed in a student. The e-mail also informed people they were decontaminating the areas where the student had classes, but wanted to make people aware of the possibility of exposure and asked them to look out for symptoms of chickenpox, just in case.

So, first of, I was fascinated to “encounter” a case of chickenpox. Of course, I know that the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, but the number of cases are so small in the countries where I’ve worked I didn’t really expect to ever encounter one.

However, what also struck me was that the e-mail was sent to the staff mailing list. Now, in case you’re not familiar with the US academic system, postdocs do not count as staff. And this isn’t just a wording issue. It means that postdocs are not eligible for a bunch of things that staff are entitled to (eg here at UPenn, staff are allowed to take 2 classes per semester, postdocs are not). We are also not on the staff mailing list. Which may seem like a minuscule detail. But considering that e-mails concerning important issues (which apply to everyone in the department, not just staff – such as a case of chickenpox) are sent are sent out via this mailing list, it shows just how these little things could potentially have wide-ranging consequences. Surely, including postdocs on such e-mails is not too much to ask for?

(Oh, and just a footnote: I received the e-mail because our tech forwarded it. Other e-mails we receive via our PI. I’m not sure other postdocs in the department are so lucky to have co-workers who look out for them.)

The listening game

The last few weeks have been busy: I was visiting old friends in Germany and San Francisco and other old friends came to visit me in my new home, Philadelphia. Since most of my friends are also scientists, naturally much of our conversation evolved around academia, gossip about old co-workers and experiences with new labs. Interestingly, although our careers have diverged extensively, there was one recurring theme that linked many problematic experiences: PIs who don’t listen.

Pis who don’t listen… Cartoon [De Niro as Newton] by RedPen BlackPen.

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Is more really better?

As long as I can remember, I’ve heard teachers, professors and politicians say that we should encourage more high-school and university students to pursue a career in science. And I used to be a believer. After all, the people who said this, were the ones at the top, the ones with a proper oversight of things. However, today, I’m not so sure anymore. In fact, I’m becoming more and more convinced that encouraging people to pursue a career in science (or at least research) may just be a way for universities to generate competition and thus obtain a source of cheap labor.

conspiracy-theory-alert_display_imageSounds like a conspiracy theory? Maybe. But here’s why:

As I grow older, more and more of my friends, who used to work in research (and who really liked doing so) drop out. They move towards alternative careers, such as science communication, industry, teaching etc. And they generally list the same reasons for doing so:

1. Early-career researchers get little reward for their work: this primarily means that they consider themselves being underpaid and overworked. Money matters.

2. There’s too much insecurity, pressure and competition as you move up the ranks: there are many, many good scientists with great publication records, who’d all like to have a junior group leader or tenure track position. Obviously, the more people you feed into the system at the lower ranks, the more will compete for the jobs at the top. But there are increasingly less long-term contracts handed out . Security matters. Moreover…

3. … science is becoming less of a vocation and more like a job: It seems to be less crucial nowadays how good or creative you are, and increasingly important how well you can manage and advertise yourself. Your ideas and hands-on experience seem to matter less than what your CV looks like, in what labs you’ve worked and how well you’ve published. And since the results of your first five to ten years of research may therefore define your later career options, this discourages “outiside-the-box-thinking” and taking on risky projects. Often this also means, that science-related non-research activities are undervalued: I’ve filled in fellowship applications where there is no option to include teaching or the organization of science events as an asset.This is extremely frustrating, if you consider that much of science knowledge is actually passed through the grapevine: by great teachers and lecturers who transmit their love of science as well as up-to-date knowledge, and by experienced lab staff who show you the do’s and do not’s of experimental design and lab techniques.

Motivated teachers matter!

Motivated teachers matter!
from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

So, all in all, my interpretation of the data: thanks to increasing numbers of PhD students and postdocs, there’s plenty of “raw material” to chose from. Therefore PIs and legislators can get away with providing low job security, as well as relatively low salaries. Also, having more early-career researchers also requires less personal touch and more standardized metrics.  And keeping it this way means a cheap workforce, which is why people at the top encourage more students to pursue a career in research. And thus the vicious circle continues…

Still think it’s a conspiracy theory? Maybe. Maybe also have a look at Paula Stephan’s book, How Economics Shapes Science. It provides a much broader and nuanced overview of the interplay between economics and science, including a detailed analysis of supply and demand in research.

But please keep this rant in mind, next time someone tells you we need to recruit more students into science!