This is what gets me up in the morning

A great careerism/publishing Twittervation between @Drugmonkeyblog and @Tollkuhn occurred last night. @Tollkuhn drops this bomb – a sentiment I’ve expressed in the past and still believe. 

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Invariably, postdocs who say this are taunted with “Ooh, and who gets to decide which half? YOU? And I bet you think you’re in the safe half because of delusions about your smahtz.” No. @Tollkuhn nails it. We’re not working in a meritocracy anyway, and a huge number of highly qualified scientists won’t get research jobs. Now we have to roll the Glamour/pedigree dice. Why not just roll any fucking dice? I would be no more or less sanguine about not getting an academic job because of a coin toss as I would be because of not having back door connections or a CV full of Glamour.

And what does reducing the postdoc population by half mean? I don’t really care. It might mean cutting PhD programs by half, but not necessarily… you could move the bottleneck from PD—>PI to PhD—>PD. The same glamour/pedigree bullshit would apply, just earlier. And people never seem to get tired of believing that a biomedical PhD is great broad-based career training for things other than research and is also worthwhile in itself. I almost believe this myself! Either way, it won’t happen… as long grant money can be used to pay postdoc salaries that are half what industry pays, there will be too many.

Relatedly, DrugMonkey addressed the alt-careers scam yesterday as well, particularly the NIH’s role in perpetuating it. I’ve discussed this before, pointing out the PI’s and institutions play a major role in setting unrealistic expectations for trainees and creating a culture where non-research careers are considered a failure. @DrIsis took me to task on this a bit:

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Yes there are. And to make a somewhat strained analogy, a middle school guidance counselor can hand out pamphlets about body image or drug use, but kids absorb the culture they’re in. Nancy Reagan on Diff’rent Strokes and the “war on drugs” marketing to kids didn’t make a whit of difference: everyone can smell half-hearted bullshit. It is hard to accept lazy lip service from administrators (no PI at my uni has ever said that words “alternative careers”) in the context of the culture we’ve been immersed in since our first day of grad school… a culture which , btw, extends beyond academia. When I had an offer from an industry start up, the head of research said “You look like you’d be competitive on the academic job market, why are you applying for this job?”  Not even the pretense that someone might seek our or prefer an industry job prior to failing on the TT job hunt. So….

And before I forget, I am so fucking sick of being called a “snob” because I don’t want to apply for jobs in geographical locations that would destroy my spouse’s career and leave us lacking things that are important to our quality of life. This accusation is just self-righteous K3rning.

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13 Comments on “This is what gets me up in the morning”

  1. jbashir says:

    I just tell people that I am a snob. That usually shuts them up.

  2. rxnm says:

    Full disclosure: I left “rural people repulse and frighten me” out of that explanation. I grew up in a red flyover state, though, so I know whereof I speak.

  3. DrugMonkey says:

    “Just say no” worked, actually. I had a post on that once and am still waiting for someone to explain the long 80s decline in drug use with another reason.

  4. rxnm says:

    Economics? Maybe? Sorry, I don’t even know what “economics” is.

  5. Dr Becca says:

    Being called a snob is far less harmful than being called “not dedicated enough to science.” Like you say, it’s K3rning, pure and simple.

  6. Paul Orwin says:

    The problem is not too many postdocs or “unsustainable” paradigms of research – the problem is that the budget for science is stagnant to shrinking. We need more jobs for Ph.D. scientists, not fewer scientists. Do you think we are running out of science? Do you think that the problems are basically solved and we should be winding the whole thing down?

    Now, I am not an idiot, I know that the political climate is not great for asking for more $$ (I just had that point driven home to me rather strongly by a certain review panel) but we still need to fight for it. It needs to be woven into the fabric of every political conversation (something like “how are we going to fix X without adequate funding for science?” where X is whatever we are talking about). Oh, and the same applies to public K-12 and undergrad education. Just my $0.02

  7. rxnm says:

    Dr. B… Yeah, I think it’s a double-edged insult. Snobby about geography = not #passionate enough to put supposed elitism aside to take any opportunity at all to bleed at the altar of Important Science.

    Paul, Yes, more money would be great. But when there IS a big influx of money, it gets spent on short term gain of hiring a shit-ton of more “trainees” without long term expansion of career opportunities. K-12 and UG science is just about making competent citizens, should be fought for much, much harder.

  8. bill says:

    While I was still in academia, this wasn’t what got me up in the morning — it was what kept me in a foetal position under the covers hoping the shitty world would go away.

  9. Paul Orwin says:

    @rxnm I am not sure your first point is true – certainly some $$ that enters the system as grant funding ends up supporting more trainees, but surely some funds techs, postdocs, start up for new faculty, CAREER awards, etc? The problem is that we don’t see a long-term growth in funding, we see bolus injection of funds. As to your second point, I think they are very closely related issues, and basically are all of a piece with using our human potential to the fullest. As a scientist/educator I don’t think these things can be separated from one another (and it is misguided to try).

  10. rxnm says:

    Bill, Right… well, my postdoc work is kinda done and all I’m doing is applying for jobs (and teaching, and managing a rotation student, and trying to get tantalizing prelim data for job talks and something to present at SfN). If anger and frustration didn’t get me up in the morning, nothing would.

  11. rxnm says:

    Paul… yes, I see your point. Though we’ve discussed how thing like the K99 career award basically get used to make sure postdocs from pedigree labs get preferential treatment on the job market.

    What I’d like to see is changing the research workforce so that there is a class of research scientists who make a wage that is similar to other professional, non-faculty university employees, with similar career expectations, benefits, raises, etc. At the same time, severely limit (at least 1/2) the number of postdoctoral “trainee” positions. Certainly each researcher then costs more, but the benefit gained by having more experienced researchers in the lab should compensate.

    To keep quoting myself, academic research is the only industry that thinks it’s a good idea for everyone but management to be a temp. It’s a false economy.

  12. Dan says:

    “The problem is not too many postdocs or “unsustainable” paradigms of research – the problem is that the budget for science is stagnant to shrinking.”

    Ironically “more money” without the proper strings attached is sort of what led to the current glut of postdocs in the first place, no? The US spends plenty of money on the medical sciences. It’s just (1) Americans aren’t getting their money’s worth because scientists spend the money on big money glamour projects (because that’s what required to get published in CN&S journals, which is what gets one a job) rather than what the people actually need, and (2) the money isn’t distributed equitably. NIH money should be seen like welfare: every new scientist should get it. The government already made a large investment into the education of that trainee after all. It’s asinine to cut them at that point before they’ve had the opportunity to prove they can independently contribute to science. There should be a cap on the size and number of NIH grants any one scientist can receive. If PIs are still convinced they themselves (and not their armies of un-promoted lackeys) can manage more money and more projects, let them grovel to industry, patient advocacy groups, venture capitalists, etc.

  13. rxnm says:

    I’ve heard even a lot of the Oldz say something like this this. Start up and an initial “welfare” grant should give new PIs enough to show what they can do in the first 6-8 years. From then on, funding renewal should be mainly based on past performance, not future plans.


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