In defense of whining postdocs

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 [0].
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) [1].

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.

[0] 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.
[1] 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.

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5 Responses to “In defense of whining postdocs”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    As an ancient postdoc with little prospect of ever getting to the next level I prefer to do my whinging (pseudo-)anonymously on blogs rather than in real life. I’m pretty sure that real life whinging wouldn’t get me or most other postdocs anywhere – we would just be told to get lost. It’s not the lack of respect that provokes the whinging I think; that just makes it seem even more of a waste of time unlikely to have any effect. Instead, what provokes it, in my case at least, are the overly rosy, totally naive, and downright dishonest descriptions of our circumstances and how career advancement works in academic physics that I come across in blog posts/comments and occasionally in real life. When I read/hear it I just can’t resist calling it for the bullshit that it is.

    These days, when I occasionally have a real-life whinge to “mentors” it is mostly for the entertainment value. My favorite one is to ask them “Hey, how come flashy postdoc X who has never managed to do research without having his hand held got a faculty job at Big U. while those of us who repeatedly publish on our own in PRL never get a look in at even the most minor research unis? Why do you think that might be?” (Of course, I know perfectly well why it is; I just ask it anyway for the fun of making mentor squirm.)

    P.S. This is the first time I comment on a livejournal blog. It’s annoying that it forces me to be anonymous rather than pseudonymous.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      the overly rosy, totally naive, and downright dishonest descriptions of our circumstances and how career advancement works in academic physics that I come across in blog posts/comments and occasionally in real life.

      Care to elaborate ? I may be contributing to that myself, albeit inadvertently…

      P.S. This is the first time I comment on a livejournal blog. It’s annoying that it forces me to be anonymous rather than pseudonymous.

      Don’t get me started on LJ… it sucks like you wouldn’t believe it. The commenting thing is just the cherry on the cake. I am just waiting for my paid subscription to expire, and then I am so moving my blog elsewhere. In the meantime, I’ll whine about it a lot (LJ, that is, not my blog).

      • Anonymous Says:

        I’ve elaborated on it probably too much already, e.g., in the comment section of this post
        as “ancient physics postdoc”, also here and here. Each time I promise myself that it’s enough and I will retire from it, but then can’t resist making another comeback…

        For what it’s worth I think you do a pretty good job of describing the postdoc and career stuff. Maybe a bit rosy sometimes, but nothing too excessive – otherwise you would have heard from me 😉 As far as blogs go, the worst for this IMO is the “everything is wonderful and we’re all doing great” brigade over at, where some (not all) of the bloggers and commenters like to advance the notion that “Even though it might not be clear to you, the powers that be are infinitely wise and fair and everyone gets what they deserve in the end.” As a random example, one commenter there assures us that

        “having a fun advisor and a good research project counts as much as hanging around with the Ivy league. If you do well, you’ll be fine and get a postdoc and faculty job in a good place you’ll enjoy your life and do good job at. Smart people are recognized no matter where they are,[…]”

        I wonder what that guy’s definition of “doing well” is. How many single-author papers in PRL does it take to qualify as “doing well”?
        Compared to that, your blog is very enlightened!

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        I agree with you. Having received my PhD and done a postdoc at second tier universities, I have heard my fair share of comments from faculty at those places to the effect that “it’s not where you are, it’s whom you are working with that matters”, “the cream always rises to the top”, etc. While there may be a grain of truth to that, these comments are generally disingenuous (at best), made for self-serving reasons by professors who want those graduate students to stick around, as opposed to transferring to some ivy league school.
        On the one hand, I may well serve as a poster child for those who say those things, for I ended up with a faculty job in spite of the lack of pedigree. But I for one know how much luck had to do with that, and would never recommend anyone wanting to pursue a career in academia to do as I did.

      • de_horror_vacui Says:

        My general impression, in working with young professors at a rather poor research university for awhile, is that they really do believe that “it’s whom you are working with” as long as you’re working with them.

        For many of them, I don’t think they realize that it’s not true. I’m not convinced that scientists are smart enough to realize that they’re only interviewing people with a certain pedigree or whom they know while they assure their graduate students that they’ll have as good a chance as anyone.

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