randombio.com | science commentary
Sunday, March 17, 2019

Postdoc Forever

An article in Nature shows how misunderstanding the process can lead you to waste a quarter of a century being a postdoc


L ast week an article showed up on Nature's web page about a guy who said he'd been a postdoc for 23 years, had 19 papers with 5 as first author, then applied to 57 academic institutions, 22 biotech/pharma companies, and 25 positions in government agencies, hoping to find a position as a principal investigator, with no success.

He couldn't figure out why he couldn't get a job after all that work, so he interviewed fifty college professors. He's writing a book about his experience. He didn't mention what journals his papers were in, which suggests that none of those fifty profs bothered to tell him anything useful.

They told him things like “Trust your intuition,” “Finish what you start without striving for perfection,” and “Ward off despair.” Maybe, he concluded, he was just too honest in trying to nail down his findings before publishing them. He was just too darn critical of himself.

Sorry kid, that ain't the reason.

The reason you don't know the answer is that you asked professors. I am friends with many tenured professors. I know their work and I've read their grants. Some of them are reasonably smart, but there's one thing you need to know: college professors never tell the truth.

Narrow road to success
The long, winding, narrow road to a cliché

There are many reasons for this. Mostly it's because they have no clue what the truth is. But also it's because they don't want to tell you that academia is hopelessly corrupt. Saying that would mean admitting it to themselves, negating the value of a lifetime of boot-licking, ass-kissing, and wasting time in meetings, and dealing with the certainty that any comment they make that is misconstrued in any way will cost them their career—tenure notwithstanding.

Last week I stopped in to visit a friend of mine, a tenured university professor. It's one of the lowest ranked schools in the country. The quality of research done there is a far cry from what's done in most other schools, or what I saw in the big government labs I worked in, and their bureaucrats are as corrupt and vindictive as they come.

I commiserated with him for a while, and then he said something that surprised me.

He was on the faculty search committee and they'd advertised for an assistant professor. Of the hundred or so applicants, five had grants. Only those five, he said, were considered for the position.

This school is not unique. One guy at another school in the western US told me they had 57 applicants for an assistant professor position, three of whom had grants. Their short list consisted entirely of those three.

These days, unless you have a grant, your application for an entry-level faculty position is usually simply crumpled up and thrown away.

Even if you have a grant, you also need a minimum of three or four papers in top journals within the past five years. In biomedicine this means Science, Nature, Cell, Neuron, maybe PNAS and a handful of others. If your papers are all in lesser journals, or if your Science papers are older than five years, their attitude will be, as one professor told another in one of those Harry Potter movies, that they feel you've rather lost your touch.

What they're really feeling is greed. If a candidate has a grant, the university doesn't have to pay them one red cent in salary or give them any start-up funds. Everything is paid by the government: the new assistant prof. pays the school from the overhead budget on the grant to get a job. When it's a choice between paying an employee a hundred grand for salary and supplies vs the employee paying the school fifty grand for the privilege of working for free, the choice to the bean-counters is pretty easy. No matter how good you are, nobody on a search committee is going to risk explaining to the university bean-counters why they threw away a hundred grand when they could have had somebody almost as good for free.

In other words, universities have manipulated the system by making the ratio of PhDs to available positions so high they no longer have to pay them any salary at all. The universities have found a way to shift the entire cost of faculty onto the taxpayer.

Even schools that openly call themselves “bottom-feeders,” as one department head I met called his own medical school, require grants. Nowadays, college professors are paid mostly or entirely by the federal government. It's a direct subsidy that supports the diploma mill colleges, which in my opinion is all of them. For all practical purposes, a college professor is a government employee and acts like one. It's no coincidence that this gives the bureaucrats total power over the faculty.

Another part of the reason is laziness. Search committees are composed of faculty who have things to see and people to do. They don't want to be on a search committee, so they do the easiest possible thing, which is to count the papers and grants on the applicant's CV. Several people told me they have a rule that, regardless of what is printed in their job announcements, nobody gets hired unless they have a grant.

As for industry positions, their interview process is like this: they give you a Visitor badge and lock you in a room. One after another, members of their staff come in and ask you the same questions again and again. This goes on for six to eight hours without a break, which means you're unable to eat more than a few bites of your lunch. Every person who speaks to you has to like you. If even one of them dislikes your age, height, sex, race, your answers, or the color of your eyes, or if one of them thinks you're a threat to their job, it's over. The goal seems to be to select people on their ability to talk under pressure for prolonged periods on an empty stomach without getting tired, hoarse, or slipping up. If you happen to be susceptible to migraine headaches, as I am, it can be pure torture. And if they see you taking a sumatriptan, they'll assume you're a drug addict.

And then you run into companies that have no intention of hiring anybody, but interview you anyway just so they can mine your ideas. One time many years ago I had a senior research scientist follow me around the whole day trying to get me to give him ideas for a new biotech product. Another time they surreptitiously recorded my talk and used parts of it on their corporate web page. If they don't give you a tour, that's what's happening.

None of this was true twenty years ago, but anyone telling you that you don't need a grant to get a faculty position in the sciences is giving you out-of-date information. Even if by chance none of the other applicants have a grant, schools would rather leave a position unfilled for years than hire someone without a grant. Then they complain bitterly about being unable to find any “good” (i.e., free) candidates.

I know one guy who “forgot” to tell the search committee that his R01 grant had a co-principal investigator. When the school found out, they demanded that he ditch the co-PI as a condition of employment so they could steal his money for themselves. It didn't matter that the co-PI's contribution was essential. The guy asked his former friend if he'd do the work as a consultant and was told there was not enough money in the world to make that happen.

The unanswered question is: how are postdocs supposed to get grants? The answer is that they remain postdocs until they get one; or they send out a thousand applications and hope to get lucky. But if they think that some university is ever going to pay them an actual salary, they are, quite frankly, deluding themselves.


mar 17 2019, 3:35 am. updated apr 20 2019, 1:39 am


Related Articles

Is an academic career worthwhile?
Last month, advice for a young scientist. Now, some advice about graduate school. The fountain of wisdom never stops.

Better advice for a young scientist
Thirteen rules based on years of observation of how a science career can go horribly wrong.


On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

back
science
book reviews
home