Eggs versus wallsPosted: June 11, 2012
“BETWEEN A HIGH, SOLID WALL AND AN EGG THAT BREAKS AGAINST IT, I WILL ALWAYS STAND ON THE SIDE OF THE EGG.” – HARUKI MURAKAMI
Super pissy exchange about postdoc-hood over at the Drugmonkey blog. The usual “postdocs are exploited” vs. “postdocs are deluded about their own abilities and importance.” This ties together in a number of ways with the endless oversupply/pipeline debate. I have some opinions here. I do think the academic career track is narrowly defined and actively policed in order to drive down wages and create surplus of highly skilled labor. This benefits PIs, institutions, and funding agencies and ruins the career ambitions of the majority of postdocs. For example, working outside academia will essentially destroy your chances on the academic job market – it has to, because if it didn’t it would be really hard to recruit good postdocs with $38,000 and a kick in the nuts. Likewise if science graduate students had to go into debt, like law or medicine, it would be much easier for industry to siphon off talent.
That said, I love being a postdoc, though it is constantly tinged with anxiety about my prospects on the academic job market. Science-wise, postdocs have got it made. You can do science unimpeded by pretty much any other responsibilities. This is fucking awesome, it will never happen again, and it should be enough to get you out of bed in the morning. If you don’t love your work and the time and freedom you have to do it, you are a bad scientist, in a shitty lab, or don’t really want to be a scientist and haven’t figured it out yet. Yes, the pay sucks, but whether you go into academia or industry or food truck management, substantially higher paychecks are in your future. You are statistically likely to be an intelligent, competent person, and these are in short supply the world over.
For PIs: the fact that you look back and see yourself as stupid and deluded about these issues when you were postdoc does not mean you are not stupid and deluded now. It is completely reasonable for people to question—or completely disregard—your opinion of the fairness of a system that has massively rewarded you. Also, your own brilliance as a lab head does not generalize. You may be an essential intellectual contributor to everything that comes out of your lab, but the entire spectrum of Kindly Wise Mentor <——> Credit-Stealing Hack exists out there in the R1 world. There is often a large asymmetry in the career benefits of a project for the PI and the postdoc, mostly depending on the prominence / career stage of the PI. So tread a little lightly when you tell people (anyone, anywhere come to think of it) that they are unequivocally wrong to feel exploited.
I know that if I get a TT job, it will be hard to resist the feeling that my postdoc anxiety and griping were overblown, my hard work got me where I wanted to go, and that ability and merit are usually rewarded. But it is important to resist these feelings, because they are self-serving bullshit.