What do postdocs need to succeed?

Jun 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

In a burst of well-intentioned activity, that would also have the potential to boost the bottom line, our HR (HR!) is spearheading /leading/ waltzing into the fray to design a Training Program for Postdocs.

There is potential, yes, potential, to do something good. I can smell it. Training in teaching, training in grant writing, training in managing a lab: these are all good things to learn. Some people will want some of them, other will want or need other training. At a small place, such as the where I am, it is possible to tailor what we offer to what is needed. These are things no one ever even thought about teaching me, and I learned a lot by making mistakes that I probably wish I hadn't made. No, not probably.

Ah, but the meeting yesterday was magnificent (not really). The way the head of HR presented it was an excellent example of administrative weasel. "I'm only the reporter" and "Other people are making the decisions" and "I'm happy to coordinate", she said. I.e., I'm not going to admit I'm in control, so that if you have problems, you can't blame me.

There are some good people, with good heads, involved, and there are some good ideas, including the list above. There was some discussion about whether NIH would allow this (yes) and whether having a second graduate student track would be useful (yes). Then, without actually saying anything overtly, the admin's kicker came out: well, we could charge tuition for this, and of course, it would be mandatory for every postdoc in our (albeit small) medical school.

That was my WTF moment. To my credit, I did not explode, or curse, or refer to anyone's progenitors in derogatory terms. See: old dogs *can*.

What I did say is that if it were not voluntary, the BigDog PI's would never sign on. Period. In tight NIH modular budgets, NO ONE will want to include tuition. Period. And unless the administration was willing to move money from one ledger to another, I did not see how this could generate income.

I made a passionate speech about putting the trainees first, that any program needs to add value to them. The driving question here should be "what do our postdocs need to succeed?" Not all trainees need the same thing, be they grad student or postdoc. And a new foreign Postdoc may not be ready for any of it, and need something else altogether. I explicitly asked "Is this a money making scheme? Or something to add value to our postdocs so they are more employable?"

I know I reached the faculty. The admin/carpet people had their plastic faces on.

Eternal Vigilance.

12 responses so far

  • Morgan Price says:

    "Training in teaching, training in grant writing, training in managing a lab" -- all things that will further the myth in a new postdoc's mind that they are on track to become a PI?

    • potnia theron says:

      It is not necessarily a myth. There *are* some PD's that have the drive and ability to become academics. I believe in giving people options.

  • Microscientist says:

    When applying for an NRSA, and may other sources of post-doc funding, the PI has to write a section about developing an individualized career development plan or some such. It's supposed to include these types of discussion and instruction. No way could you make someone pay for it though. Many schools also have organizations such as Professors for the Future, which put together similar training seminars.

  • pstdc says:

    One alternative career to academia, which this typically-anxious postdoc has been thinking about, is working in a non-profit (or maybe even founding one!). Relevant skills include:

    How to write a good grant proposal - I was fortunate to be trained on this in my previous postdoc, but not everyone gets the opportunity.

    How to run a good committee meeting: Have an agenda, have a chair keeping things on time and on track, and at the end of the meeting, ensure that it's clear what's expected of each person (if anything) before the next meeting or any other specific deadline.

    Project management, budget and timeline, etc... A research lab is basically a small non-profit within a much larger non-profit (if it's a non-profit Uni).

    Admin book-keeping: you could probably transform a 3-month course for community college attendees into a 1-week course for postdocs.

    Track down a range of grad school alumni working outside of academia, and get them to come talk about their careers and how they found their positions.

    Each bit of training should have some sort of named certificate that can go on a resume (resume, not CV). It should be something where employers can look up what it means on the university website.

  • becca says:

    Good grief.
    Tell em they can have 10% of the differential between my job after the postdoc and my postdoc salary for 1 year. So if their training results in an assistant prof gig at 75k/year, they can have ~2.5k back. But if they can train me such that McKinsey will hire me in a senior role at 150k, they can have ~10k back.

  • wally says:

    At my university, if postdocs were charged for such things, it would create a system of haves and have-nots depending on how supportive PIs were, not to mention how much funding was available. My university has started this new thing in which departments/units have to pay tuition for employee classes. Previously, all classes were free for employees - so they were available to anyone. Now, some depts are refusing UNLESS the class will directly benefit the department (so if the employee wants to get a degree - or take some classes for personal enrichment - those are disallowed), and some depts are letting some employees to take classes, and others not. And some departments are just saying no - whereas others are supporting whatever employees want. I hate this so much - things like this need to be freely available to all.

    Sorry for the rant!

  • Luna says:

    Am I the only one who is **appalled** that your administration is planning to milk the PIs even more in the name of "supporting postdocs" by charging them tuition from the PI's grant? It's very clear that this money is going to go to enrich the fat cat deans and the deanlets even further. This is blatantly dishonest and practically daylight robbery; if they come to pass, NIH should be informed of such schemes on the part of your administrators.

    • potnia theron says:

      No many are appalled. And, there are worse schemes out there. And, NIH/NSF knows. I'd disagree with the "enrich the fat cats". I think it is more desperate than that.

  • Ola says:

    The problem here (as is so often the case these days in academia) is the administrators.

    Remember the time when the "Dean" used to be someone on sabbatical from their Department, and after a couple of years they went back to running their lab? Remember when we didn't need 15 different HR people whining about "regulatory compliance" for our labs? Remember when job titles like "senior associate vice provost for international liaisons" didn't yet exist? Remember when you could just order shit off a grant and not have to go through 8 different administrators just to get a fucking invoice paid to a supplier? Remember when teaching was something you did because it was fun, not just something to please the back-room pen-pushers who really make the decisions after the P&T committee has submitted their report?

    These people just keep on proliferating, to the point where soon there will be no actual faculty left. How in the fuck did we, the faculty, ever let this happen? Seriously, fuck administrators and fuck everything they stand for!

    • A Salty Scientist says:

      Perhaps the increase in administrators is a side effect of the poor funding environment. I've only been on the TT for a few years, but I've seen several once (but no longer) well funded investigators move into Admin. I agree with the *fuck administrators* sentiment, but I'm afraid that like most of what ails us, the proximate cause is too few grant dollars. I also agree with Potty that this is more desperation than willful malice. Harm is harm though, so indeed, fuck administrators.

      • Sam says:

        Eh, I see less of the ex-PI situation and more of the expansion if the professional administrator as dean/VP/deanlet and too many non-academics making the big decisions.

        My uni consists of three colleges. The president's leadership team (our structure doesn't have a provost) is made up of nine (9!) vice-presidents. The deans of each of the three colleges also have VP positions that put them here (although two of them are pretty much lifetime admins). The remaining six include VP of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, VP of finance, VP of External Affairs, VP of Development, etc.

        Combine that with a Board of Trustees made up of business folk, and how often do you think the majority of people weighing in on decisions that affect curriculum, research, etc. have experience teaching students or doing research?

        I'd say everything is ROI, but that excludes all the money thrown away for optics.

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