Acquired Taste

Sweet, salty, bitter, and sometimes delicious.

Post-doc’ing

Posted by unbeelievable on September 15, 2009

Having a Ph.D. doesn’t mean what is used to mean. Or, perhaps, what it meant in my mind before acquiring one.

It used to be, if you had a Ph.D. and a couple crappy articles, you were in to a teaching heavy school (perhaps a nice small liberal arts college…) and if you had a couple of good articles, you went straight to a Tier 1 school –a Big 12 or Pac 10 school, or even Ivy League if you were lucky, to try your hand at writing even more articles, getting in a few textbooks, and of course, getting tenure.

Now what’s the routine?

Have a few crappy articles? Well, the job market’s pretty tight. So you can compete for a fairly crappy school (for the record: crappy in academic speak means teaching four or more classes per semester at a school that nobody has ever heard of….which may not sound hard but is truly punishing for those who are actually trying to create good academic experiences for their students).

Or you can do a postdoc. More on that in a sec.

What if you had a few really good articles? It’s not so easy to get those Tier 1 jobs, anymore. You can get a decent job at a reasonable state school, but if you have had this much success in graduate school, t you know you’ve got potential. Just a few more articles, and Stanford will be rolling out the red carpet, right? So what can you do?

A postdoc.

Oh yes, you will initially be excited by the prospect of breaking the 25,000 K per year mark. And, in theory, a postdoc is just doing what you already did in grad school, minus the pressure of the dissertation, minus the need to T.A., right? Five first-author articles in the top journals.. here we come?

Except, no.

It’s quite possible you will come out of your one, two, or, god forbid… three year post-doc with little more than a few sixth author publications and a ton of wasted time.

Fact – people who can afford to hire post-docs generally have grants. Those people generally want to become more famous than they already are (to get more grants, which allow them to (a) boost their salaries and (b) offload teaching responsibilities, which the majority of professors who are truly “research academics” at heart prize). Are those people going to let you be first author on a paper, especially when you’ve only been around a year? Sorry, don’t count on it. Two years? Maybe one, if you push them and are lucky. Sure, they might give you a conference presentation or two… but if you’ve been doing anything in graduate school, you already have a ton of these, so who really cares?

Fact: You will not have time to do “your own research” as a post-doc, unless your new boss isn’t paying attention. That’s not to say he or she won’t promise that when you sign on. “Of course, our projects come first, but when there’s downtime, we encourage you to work on publications that are relevant to your interests!!” Just so you know, “downtime” to these people means Winter Break and weekends (that they’re not asking you to work overtime).

Fact: If you are any good at your post-doc job (meaning you make a significant contribution to running the lab in some way) your new “mentors” are going to want to keep you around awhile. That is, until NIMH grant #194343 runs out, and you will be dropped like a sack of potatoes. They may even hope to break your spirit enough that you become a “lifer” and never actually leave the safety of the lab, leaving you the opportunity to do glorified clerical work (better order those binders and sort the new arrivals from the lab supplies catalog) for the rest… of your life.

My advice is to be very…very…very careful with postdocs. My experience with postdoc’ing, combined with those of a few friends, has led me to believe that they CAN be wonderful in some cases…but true time-wasters in others.. and even career-killers in some. More advice soon on what to look for in a post-doc… and what to avoid like the plague.

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One Response to “Post-doc’ing”

  1. gr8tful said

    Hey my dear, I hope all is well!
    Sending you all my love!!

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