Home > Daily Struggles, Moron Management > The Life of a Postdoc

The Life of a Postdoc

Found this blog via a comment on Young Female Scientist this evening
Rising to the Occasion
Saxifraga is in Scandinavia and says of herself

I am a newly minted PhD in the natural sciences. I work as a research scientist and is currently holding a temporary position as an associate professor. I moved to a new country last year. I moved to a very remote place in the far north for the temporary position. I recently got engaged. we will move in together soon after four years of doing the long-distance relationship thing. I will be appointed assistant head of department when I return to my home institution. The past year has all been about new experiences and there are more to come.

Saxifraga weighs in on the postdoc debate (see here and here and here) that’s been taking place on Young Female Scientist:

As others have said post docs are people who already have a PhD. We are not in a training phase (at least not more than any academic should be). We are generally a young, enthusiastic, smart and productive bunch of people, and we wouldn’t have made it where we are now, if we weren’t all these things. Anyway the perception of the post doc – phase as some sort of prolonged graduate education seems to be firmly rooted. Ideas such as “post docs should have better mentors” or should be provided with more guiding or better structure” seems to be flourishing among those who wants to improve our conditions on all continents. Sorry to let you down, guys, but we do not need guiding or structures or mentors more than any young-ish person might need those things, and we do not need any particular help in finding these.
What we do need is for PI’s to live up to their responsibilities and treat people on their pay roll with the respect and independence they deserve. Why is it, that anyone in their right mind would hire someone with 20+ years of education and even consider not using this capacity to the fullest? I do not believe in post doc years as a training phase where the person in question should be protected from all other aspects of academic work than writing articles. On the other hand it makes me furious when I hear about post docs (or grad students for that matter) publishing in their advisors name and fame with very little to show for themselves when they need to move on.

Nicely said.
Science Woman also has something to say from her new vantage point as a postdoc:

As a post-doc, I don’t just do my own research. I am trying to get my undergrad to finish his thesis, which is taking more and more of my time as he gets down to his final weeks, and produces frequent draft fragments. I am also helping a MS student in our group with some modeling in order to reduce her workload as she tries to meet a grant deadline. After this immediate deadline, I imagine I’ll stay somewhat involved with her research as it has significant topical overlap (though not methodological overlap) with my funded project. I also contribute ideas, critiques, and/or labor to projects that S and Boss are working on, usually with short time-frames.
As a post-doc, I am expected to develop new project ideas and contribute to grant proposals. Unlike the biomedical fields, it is rare in -ology to have six digit multiple year grants which can fund an entire post-doc or PhD, so the process of grant-writing is much more ubiquitous. Especially if I want to keep my job past this year. To wit, Successful Woman called me up on Friday and asked me to contribute to a small grant proposal due in mid-month. So I spent a couple of hours learning some background information this afternoon.

That is just the beginning of her list. You’ll feel weary by the time you get to the end, and will agree her that “No wonder I am having trouble summarizing it in one to two sentences for my CV”.
I remember my postdoc years as a particularly exhilirating, wonderfully terrible form of hell wherein I worked like a dog for love of discovery and less pay than a coal miner. On the plus side, I did not have to breath coal dust.
I don’t think that will help Science Woman with her CV, either.
What I find most disturbing in the whole discussion on Young Female Scientist is how many men (I think it is mostly men) feel compelled to write to her and tell her she is too negative, she needs to adopt a more positive attitude, blah blah blah. Reminds me so much of being told here that I need to be more polite so that people will listen to me and take me seriously, blah blah blah. Ms. PhD is being told that she should not focus so much on all that gender inequity business, she is working herself into a lather of negativity over things that aren’t really there and THAT is what is causing all her trouble. So, you see, really, she only has herself to blame. And her negativity. Whereas, if she could just be positive, life will bring her roses. Without thorns, no doubt. There aren’t any gender issues for female postdocs that might be worth complaining about on one’s own blog. Because, when you do, it upsets men.
And GOD KNOWS, we don’t want to upset any men.
Ms. PhD is very outspoken and a strong writer. She pulls no punches. She details the sour truth that comes with the postdoc life; it’s not all hearts and flowers and kittens frolicking in the sun. She talks about gender issues. She is bitter about what she has to be bitter about. And she doesn’t mind telling you so.
And of course, for this, she must be silenced. If possible. By the nervous men of the world who think that if one woman speaks up about the shit she has to go through, it could upset the whole apple cart. (Of course, they’re right. That’s why they want us to shut up.)
Keep bitching, Ms. PhD. There are plenty of us out here who want and need to hear all that you have to say.

  1. NJ
    November 8, 2006 at 10:09 am

    OT-Let me be the first to say it here:
    Madam Speaker
    Sounds good!

  2. November 8, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    Ideas such as “post docs should have better mentors” or should be provided with more guiding or better structure” seems to be flourishing among those who wants to improve our conditions on all continents. Sorry to let you down, guys, but we do not need guiding or structures or mentors more than any young-ish person might need those things, and we do not need any particular help in finding these.
    I guess I’d much rather turn this around.
    I fully agree with the “more than any” point, but would have come to a different conclusion. All of us need more and better mentoring. I’ve actually had quite good mentoring here as a junior faculty member– much better than what I really received career-wise when I was a post-doc. This is by and large due to a single individual who is very wise in the ways of how things work, and who has also been extremely supportive.
    At least in my field, I think that part of the problem is the extreme meritocracy myth. We hire only the best, yadda yadda, thus any sign of weakness is an indication that a mistake was made in hiring you. Anybody who asks for help, therefore, doesn’t deserve it. Which is all foo-fa, but whether admitted or not, that attitude is there. And it’s not healthy. It should be OK to ask for help. We always go on about how science is a collaborative enterprise, etc. Given that asking for help is something that people are reluctant to do — because of at least the perception, and possibly the realtion, that they will be seen as weak — having strong mentoring programs is good, because then help is “by default” available without your having to lower yourself to asking for it.
    And, truthfully, many post-docs are still just developing an independent clue. Like grad students, they range widely. Some post-docs are very bright and technically competent, but just barely getting their legs as completely independent researchers. Some grad students in their third and fourth year could take over their labs. By the time you’re a prof, being able to be an independent research effort leader is a must, but I’m not sure I’d like to see that become an assumed part of the job description for all post-docs.

  3. November 9, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Evgeny, can you post a link here to that discussion on Ms. PhD’s blog? If you know where it is?

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