Taken from Indexed
Incoherent Ponderer expresses his feelings about whiners in a recent post, inspired by this blog entry at Indexed.
The one thing that annoys me the most about whining is that it often works. My personal life observation is that the squeaky wheel will indeed get the grease, while the wheel next to it, perhaps in equally bad if not worse shape, but doing its job without producing any annoying sound, will be ignored (until it too starts squeaking).
But I must confess that I have a soft spot for whining postdocs, having been one myself for an extended period of my life (it’s a long time ago, but I still remember it — plus, I still whine, albeit not nearly as well as Ruchi, formerly known as Arduous). It is impossible for me to read or be told about one’s frustration with an unsupportive postdoctoral adviser, preoccupation with an uncertain career path, difficult relationship with fellow postdocs or graduate students, borderline exploitation and scarce consideration on the part of professional researchers (faculty and others who “have made it”), and not see myself in all that, at least in part.
It’s not that I have any sympathy for people in their thirties (sometimes forties), i.e., who have been on this planet for a while, who act as if apparently unaware of basic life tenets with which we should all become familiar way earlier than that, namely that nothing is handed for free (to most of us, that is), that one must compete for most desirable things (and a research career is certainly very desirable, longed by many, in the same league as actor, singer or footballer), that competition is typically not fair, that sheer luck plays a huge role in everything that matters (especially initial and boundary life conditions), and that at some point one may simply have to accept a disappointing outcome and move on .
No, postdocs should not whine, but honestly, I doubt if the above description really applies to many a postdoc; my personal experience is that most of them are quite smart, and are perfectly aware of how the world works.
What is it that makes many of them (us) unable to resist the temptation of crying foul every five minutes, then ? My honest opinion: Not the hope that at some point people around will be so sick and tired of hearing someone whine that they will do something about it, if anything else not to be driven insane. No, I think it’s mostly the lack of respect, from just about anyone (sometimes including the graduate students themselves), and the ensuing impression, the belief of most postdocs that nobody cares about them. That they are a disposable commodity, minus quam merdam (I do remember some latin… the little that matters, that is) .
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not about to write that the plight of the young postdoc merits a hearing at the United Nations. However, a postdoctoral adviser should at least pretend to care about the future of his/her postdoctoral associates.
It is mostly psychological. In most cases, the outcome will be the same and nothing really will be different, in terms of career. Whether one’s ambition to become one day a university faculty, or a researcher at a national laboratory, will eventually become a reality, rests primarily with one’s individual effort and luck. However, I do think that the morale of many a postdoc would be higher, and with that their enthusiasm and productivity, if they were reasonably sure that some (mostly moral) support will be provided by the person who is employing them, benefiting from their contribution to the research program (often a very valuable contribution indeed).
Very often, it would be just a matter of sitting down with the person and reassuring him/her, not by making empty and fraudulent promises, but by simply saying “Look, it’s a jungle out there, I think you have what it takes and you deserve to succeed — still, you may not, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with you. But rest assured that I am doing and shall do whatever is in my power to make it happen, and if it does not, I shall still provide all the reasonable financial and moral support to help you make a transition”. I do believe that anyone not willing to have, at some point (if necessary) this type of conversation with a postdoctoral associate, ought not hire one.
There are several, negative potential consequences from the failure of many senior researchers to provide the necessary support to their postdoctoral associates; the most serious is that graduate students who see their postdoctoral colleagues (that is, themselves in a few years) going through serious hurdles alone, without enjoying any mentoring or any other substantial assistance from their postdoctoral adviser, may start worrying about the support that they themselves will receive later on from the same individuals.
 The writing on the wall must be read, especially when it is written in big characters. A postdoctoral adviser expressing doubts about one’s likelihood of succeeding, or suggesting that maybe alternate career paths should be considered, ought to be listened to. For the most part, they are not mean-spiritedly trying to put someone down; they are speaking from experience and are likely right in their assessment.
On the other hand, postdocs feeling that they are being sold short, that their postdoctoral advisers are not sufficiently appreciative, not enthusiastic enough in promoting the contribution and work of their younger associates, unable to see their talent and creativity, failing to realize that each and everyone of those postdocs is “the best thing since sliced bread”, then the thing to do is simply move elsewhere. To stick around is counter-productive and leading nowhere.
 Few things can be as disheartening and frustrating to a postdoc whose appointment is nearing its end, as the unwillingness of a postdoctoral adviser to have a conversation about the postdoc’s future. It is not necessary to have one every day, but every once in a while it seems quite appropriate. To respond, each time the subject is broached, by uttering platitudes, beating around the bush, or even worse by saying something along the lines of “well, let us not worry about that, after all you still have 19 days worth of salary — let us instead focus on your next experiment/paper/calculation” is irritating and unprofessional. It reinforces the belief that the adviser is only interested in squeezing down to the last droplet of work off of that person and nothing else.
It is also short-sighted. It is true that, strictly speaking, a postdoctoral adviser can regard a postdoctoral associate as a temporary worker, to whom one is only required to pay a salary and from whom one may demand as much work as possible. However, the future success of a postdoctoral adviser to attract other collaborators obviously hinges on how well the previous ones have done professionally.