Great things will be coming your way

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.

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17 Responses to “Great things will be coming your way”

  1. Craig Says:

    Yep. Completely agreed.

  2. GMP Says:

    Totally agree with the post.

    My experience is that often times PIs worry about the future of their advisees more than advisees themselves.

    Very true. Sometimes advisees are so passive about their future prospects, take their time getting their ducks in a row, procrastinate looking for another position, that you want to shake them and yell “Wake up! Wake up! WAAAAAAKE UUUUP!”

  3. Scientistmother Says:

    I mostly think you’re right, in that most PI’s are honest about the challenges. There do exist a minority that like to blow air up the asses of their grad students. This minority does dangle empty promises, C/N/S papers. I know bc i started my phd in an institute full of them. Thankfully I was not young & naive & got out. Sadly, many weren’t and are still stuck there

    • Schlupp Says:

      I agree that *some* people like that do exist. But I think that is on the level of “individual personality trait” rather than “systematic feature” as suggested in the article.

    • Massimo Says:

      SM, I think that the “empty promises” to which the editorial was specifically referring are of relatively easy and well laid out career paths. Are there really PIs out there telling graduate students something like “work with me, you’ll easily get a job as a faculty” ? And are there really students who take what they say at face value, without even examining the person’s record ?
      I can see someone blowing his/her own horn, for example by saying “out of my ten past advisees, two are now faculty at research universities”, which is not to say that YOU will be one too, but at least suggests that they have been effective mentors… that’s fair, I think.

  4. Calvin Johnson Says:

    I’ve often had would-be scientists come to me brimming with illusions (e.g., prospective grad students who phone me up and make it clear they plan to get my job and, oh, also never ever leave San Diego) and I’ve tried to point out the difficulty of this path. Usually they get upset that I harsh their dream, man.

    On the other hand, I have seen very senior people (e.g., the late D. Allen Bromley, then Bush I’s science advisor, in a Physics Today editorial in the early 1990s) say, more or less, It’s easy for young people to find a job, “if only” they would (a) consider switching to another field (because we all know there are entire fields of science completely lacking researchers, with faculty positions and grant funding just waiting) or (b) consider applying for a more teaching intensive position (because, what, competing against 200 applicants is far easier than competing against 50?). So it’s quite possible to find administrative types who, out of touch, do think there are easy career paths.

    But I agree, rank-and-file professors largely know the score. I don’t think we hide it.

    • Massimo Says:

      Calvin, I know exactly what you are talking about, I have had that happen myself. I have also (largely unsuccessfully) tried to talk out of physics graduate school a number of students whose best grade in a senior physics course was C. The called me “cold” and “elitist”. I made the mistake of thinking that they wanted my opinion, when they were simply giving me an opportunity to support a course of action on which they were already dead set anyway. Maybe they even did well, who knows…

      • GMP Says:

        Ahahaha! This reminds me of a student who told me it’s “un-American” (I suppose intended as a rough synonym to “elitist”) to tell a student they are not cut out for doctoral work in the sciences. Apparently, I am supposed to perpetuate the myth that anyone can do anything arbitrarily well with enough hard work. Well, I beg to differ.
        No one has a problem saying that to succeed in the NBA or the NY Philharmonic you need to be VERY talented, and no amount of hard work compensates for a lack of talent in the upper echelons of sports or arts. However, in the intellectual enterprises we are not supposed to refer to talent as necessary, as that is apparently “elitist”. I wonder how many disgruntled students (and perhaps some postdocs) refused to hear well-meaning advice that they likely don’t have what it takes to do well in a particular discipline (I am assuming/hoping that the PI says this out of genuine, non-biased professional conviction, rather than sexist or racist or otherwise discriminatory standpoint). This is much different than being forthright with a promising person and telling them they are very good but that the competition is fierce and they still may not make it, despite great promise.

      • Calvin Johnson` Says:

        GMP: the myth that anyone can do anything arbitrarily well with enough hard work

        Not only is this a myth or at least a semi-myth, but it quickly becomes clear that their idea of “hard work” and my idea of “hard work” are in most cases vastly different.

        I would venture that many students seem to believe that desire alone is sufficient to succeed, and that (magically) out of that desire the hard work will come, effortlessly, and then, also effortlessly, the desired goal.

        The few students who actually do work hard, by which I mean actually working hard rather than finding excuses for not having the time to work hard, often do achieve some success.

    • Massimo Says:

      we all know there are entire fields of science completely lacking researchers, with faculty positions and grant funding just waiting

      No, come on, they are not “lacking in researchers”, researchers are there — it’s just that they are simply nowhere near as good as us. You see, Calvin, you and I, thanks to our training as physicists, hence our obvious, accepted superior ability and fundamental knowledge, could simply walk into any random field and make seminal contributions (granted, experts in that field would not appreciate them but that’s because they are stupid)… 😉

  5. prodigal academic Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I totally agree with you, Massimo. One of the reasons I never really planned on a career in academia was the fierceness of the competition, which I knew about way back as an undergrad. When I discussed my grad school options with my research advisor, we talked about what I wanted to do with my degree and the impact of my choices on that goal. Of course, I ended up a professor anyway, so what do undergrads really know… 🙂

  6. Just a Grad Student Says:

    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.

    So, potential grad students are too dumb to locate info on their own about how they might get the grad school application fee waived (last post), but they are savvy enough to have a realistic sense of their chances for academic employment 5-10 yrs down the line?! Yeah, I’m not buying it….

    My SO applied to grad programs in astrophysics in the early ‘90’s, and many of the application packets he got in the mail contained a notice, typed up on a little piece of paper a few inches long, warning applicants of the dearth of faculty jobs available in that field. Now why would grad schools bother w/this if most students were well-informed? I think some people are very fortunate to have good mentors, with whom they develop good relationships, and to whom they feel they can go to for trusted advice about their future. These are the exceptions, not the rule.

    You, Massimo, and your blog commenters w/faculty positions, are the exceptions, not the rule. It is *not* a good idea to extrapolate from your own experience about what being a grad student today is like. You know what you say to your own grad students, o.c. But trust me, you have *no idea* what it’s like to work for your esteemed colleague (you know, the one you think is such a great mentor and all-round wonderful human being) as hir grad student.

    I haven’t read the offending editorial; perhaps that person went too far and set you off. But in my (relatively) short time in school, I’ve already seen several examples of point #0 in your post to believe that this is merely and urban legend. Many grad students *are* naïve and idealistic – that is both their strength and their weakness.

    • Massimo Says:

      So, potential grad students are too dumb to locate info on their own about how they might get the grad school application fee waived (last post), but they are savvy enough to have a realistic sense of their chances for academic employment 5-10 yrs down the line?!

      You are misquoting me, but aside from that, where is the contradiction ? In one case we are talking about information that may or not be prominently displayed on the school’s web site and that an applicant (especially a foreign one, not familiar with the language and/or the different educational system) may not have an easy time digging out, in the second case we are talking abut a situation that is discussed in dozens, no hundreds of articles in all languages on newspapers and blogs, easily accessed with a simple Google search. Come on, now…

      warning applicants of the dearth of faculty jobs available in that field. Now why would grad schools bother w/this if most students were well-informed?

      Because they know that those same students who ignored the many, repeated warnings received from parents, teachers, friends and all mentors of any kind, who covered their ears with their hands each time they would be told something that they did not want to hear, who elected not to seek out any information, no matter how easily available, simply because they had made up their mind already anyway (and again, nothing wrong with that, if you ask me), well these people ten years later may be crying foul, saying “no one ever warned me !”. So, they are giving them yet another warning. It’s a futile effort on the part of the school, because the students will say that anyway.

      I’ve already seen several examples of point #0 in your post

      Can you please elaborate ? What have you been specifically told ? Did the person show you data ? Did you ask questions ?

      • Schlupp Says:

        “because the students will say that anyway.”

        Ah, come on, surely not! After all, they can just employ the infinitely more elegant flourish of claiming that the very fact that they were warned implies that they cannot have been warned at all.

      • Massimo Says:

        It surely is an interesting take. I wonder how well it would go over in other situations…

        “With all due respect, Officer, how was I supposed to know that this is a 35 mph zone ?”
        “Sir, there are signs on the side of the road that tell you what the speed limit is…”
        “Well, Officer, that proves my point ! If someone has bothered to put signs, it is clearly because the driver does not know what the speed limit is…”

        Gotta try that, next time.

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    I’m another one who saw the writing on the wall pretty early on, i.e. at the undergrad level. It’s clear as soon as you walk into an average lab (at least in the life sciences) that the only “old” people there are the PI and maybe a tech or two – the vast majority are young trainees, both students and postdocs, and there are clearly going to be many, many more applicants than PI positions. I remember our profs even stating this explicitly, at an information session they ran for undergrads interested in doing a PhD, but it didn’t seem to be new information for anybody in the room.

    I started my PhD thinking that maybe I’d like to at least try for a permanent faculty position – hey, I’d been top of my class all through my education, so why not? I agree that it would have been difficult for anyone to talk my naive and idealistic 21 year old self out of that decision 🙂 However, for various reasons, I realised by the time I finished that it wasn’t for me. However, I still wanted to do a postdoc – I wasn’t ready to quit lab work just yet, I knew I’d enjoy and be good at it, and I wanted to travel. As it turned out I *did* enjoy it, I published better than any other postdoc in my lab, and was an asset to my PI. I don’t think people in my position should be denied the chance to do a post-doc, even if they know up-front that they don’t want to be a PI.

    • Massimo Says:

      One must not be wanting to see things and/or think about the future, there is no other explanation. In my first year as an undergraduate physics student, the lab TA (a person in his late 40s with a degree in physics) was fond of telling all of us that the lucky one among us would get to replace him.
      On my third year, when the time came of picking my elective courses, I was going to sign up for theoretical ones only. I was called by the undergraduate advisor and told that I was “foolish” not to take a single “applied” course (e.g., electronics or programming). “What do you think, that you will be feeding yourself with quantum mechanics ? HAHAHAHAHA….” (can’t recall exactly but, damn close to actual quote, laughter was there for sure). After that conversation I decided to switch from particle to condensed matter physics, expecting that, since I would not be feeding myself doing quantum mechanics, I should pick a field with what I thought would be greater applicability — turned out to be wrong.
      At the end of my undergraduate studies, it was either going to America or quitting science right there, there was no graduate school opportunity. I chose the former. I had no idea of what the employment situation for physics PhDs was on this side of the ocean, but I would have come anyway — too exciting an opportunity to pass on, plus anything would be better than nothing.
      On my first day in Tallahassee (August 8, 1987), the graduate chair, when I asked him what Florida State physics PhD graduates did told me: “A third go and teach at community colleges, a third find employment in industry, a third take on postdoc positions.” My follow-up question would have been “Of those who take on postdoc positions, how many end up with faculty jobs ?”, but I did not even have to ask — he went “…and of those who take a postdoc maybe one in twenty will get a faculty job, albeit not necessarily at a research university” (those were still the good days, you see ?).
      I remember that conversation as though it happened yesterday. As I walked out of his office my thought was “Well, OK, let’s cross that bridge when we get to it — now I just want to enjoy it”.

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