The one thing that I appreciate about this editorial, is that it may be the start of a useful, long overdue debate over postdoctoral appointments in the sciences, their duration, scope, the responsibility of Principal Investigators (PIs) and so on. I
largely totally disagree with the author’s statement and diagnosis of the problem, as well as with her proposed remedy, but that will be for the next post. What I wish to discuss today, is an aspect of the above-mentioned article that really rubs me the wrong way.
I find most disturbing her talk of “empty promises”, her repeated allusions to the (alleged) lack of forthrightness on the part of the scientific establishment, which may not give prospective graduate students “a realistic assessment of their chances of becoming a lab head”, to the (supposed) dishonesty of PIs, who “[…] given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise […] could [not] afford to warn [them] against entering the ring — if they frightened away their labour force, research would grind to a halt”.
It is not the first time I read similar contentions. I do think that it is high time that my category start speaking out forcefully against this kind of nonsense, though. Yes, it is nonsense.
Letting it go unchallenged is unwise. In particular, we badly need to clear the field, once and for all, of the following “urban legends”:
0. “Graduate students and postdocs are naive, idealistic young women and men, who fall victims to the unscrupulousness and selfishness of PIs luring them into a perverse, endless device, shrewdly dangling before their eyes the carrot of that cushy faculty job awaiting them”.
Something along these lines may make for good comics material, but has nothing to do with reality — at least that of academia as I have come to know it over the past two decades, both in Europe as well as in America.
Since my first day as a physics major (October 1981), for the following twenty years (until I received tenure), I have been warned by every single mentor I have had (no exception) of the extreme difficulty of making a living as a scientist. I do not believe that my experience is unusual, and fully understand how incredibly lucky I am to be a scientist now.
I do not believe that there exists a single PI out there making sailor’s promises to (prospective) trainees — and even if there were, no one would take them seriously. Ask any first-year graduate student in any scientific discipline whether they understand what their prospects of success are at landing, for example, an academic job in their field. Graduate students and postdocs are not stupid. We should give them a bit more credit.
1. “No one would choose this path if they knew how hard it is”.
The reason for there being as many science graduate students and postdocs as there are, is that there are many who want to be — simple as that. If you do not believe me, just try this for yourself — try talking your postdoctoral applicants out of seeking a postdoc. Tell them how hopeless it all is, how heavily odds are stacked against them, how most likely they will not succeed, and deeply regret their choice in the end. Then you tell me how many heed your advice, and how many send the same postdoctoral application to your colleague next door, after listening to your words.
Are all those applicants fools ? Do they believe in fairy tales ? Is it conceivable that they may have gone through graduate school without realizing “how hard it is” ? Or, do they fully understand that it is a difficult path, but want to give it a try anyway, just like you and I did, just like it happens in every other walk of life, in every other profession ?
The “social engineering” approach, whereby only a fraction is allowed to give it a try, is not only unfair — it does not work (how would you pick them anyway ?).
2. “PIs have every interest in keeping their postdocs around”.
That’s just hogwash. The vast majority of PIs (I would say every sane one) see their long term postdocs as headaches, not assets. PIs know that their own best interest is ultimately exclusively served if their advisees succeed, in or out of research. Having a lot of postdocs just “hanging in there”, seen from the outside as “stuck” with them, does not make a good presentation for PIs — it surely raises a red flag with prospective postdocs and graduate students. And, PIs are hardly happy to see an ever larger chunk of their dwindling grant go year after year to keep these individuals around (individuals whose scientific future grows increasingly doubtful with the passing of time), a chunk with which they could often hire a junior postdoc and a graduate student. They surely respect and value their senior postdocs as scientists and colleagues, but for the most part they have simply grown attached to them, regard them as friends, and feel responsible toward them and their families. They extend their appointment often knowing that it is not the right thing to do, but because they do not know what else to do, and cannot just let them go.
My experience is that often times PIs worry about the future of their advisees more than advisees themselves.
Let me make it absolutely clear: none of the above is meant to question or dismiss the timeliness or relevance of the editorial. I am just tired of seeing my category (not beyond criticism, to be sure) painted in a way that is untruthful and unfair.