Search Results for "mouths"

Nov 04 2014

Pyramid Schemes, Mouths at the Trough, and the older you get the harder it is to remember anything (like your graduate experience)

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A while ago Eve Marder's article on the number of PhD admissions stirred up the natives. It's been incubating or brining or gestating (pick your favorite metaphor) in my mind for a while.

I've read that it's a lot like r- and K- selection. To increase your fitness in an r-selection scheme, and the number of your genes in the next generation, do you produce lots of offspring, invest very little in any of them, but hope enough survive to make it (think insects, or fish). Or, as a K-selection type, do you produce a smaller number, invest heavily in them (think whales and elephants)? Of course the point of fitness is leaving your genes to the next generation and any concern/investment/strategy for the offspring beyond survival is still about leaving your genes and your fitness. Needless to say trainees are not genes, and improving one's academic fitness is not necessarily the goal of Good People (though as is true of BSD's, YMMV).

One perspective of the olders is that the youngers are actually living this, and therefore in the worst place to judge. If it was true that the youngers were saying "don't limit admissions", one would be tempted to argue that they perceive themselves as being at risk. If the youngers were saying "do it to Julia", then one would be tempted to accuse them of arrogance (yes, limit admissions, but not me). Instead what I am hearing is the rational concern that verges on anxiety about the future. Their future. Their hopes. And no K-selected parent can ignore that. And, no thinking scientist who cares about the future of the field.

Part of Marder's arguments that irritated me were:

Admissions committees are bad at predicting who will end up deciding to stay in science.  ....I f we knew how to spot the 25% of our applicant pool ... [who will] become an outstanding scientist, .... might make it sensible to decrease the size of our incoming cohort. But it would be counterproductive and sad to limit our numbers and then effectively lose the creative, determined and possibly unconventional individuals who might not make it through a more restricted gateway.

It's not that I disagree. Admissions committees are political entities with multiple pressures and goals, many of which are not about the candidates. The problem with Marder's logic is that we should then admit everyone who wants to be a grad student. Why limit it to what we have now? There might be some great future scientist that we are ignoring with the current standards. I am guessing Marder would say no to that scheme. The argument against admitting everyone who applies is that admissions committees can make some decisions, and there are some people obviously not suited for a career in science. But are admissions committees, right now, only dealing off the bottom of the deck, only excluding those we know won't make it. Of course not. We are making hard choices. We are drawing a line. The question becomes where do we draw that line?

Getting into grad school (even right now) is a classic supply/demand problem in economics. While the demand for seats in grad school are higher than the available supply of those seats, that supply is fairly elastic. The real supply/demand problem occurs for faculty positions. We've set the supply for grad school at an artificial, predetermined level. This level, the line we draw, is determined by a number of factors, mostly funding, that have little to do with the excellence of the candidates and their potential for being scientists. It certainly doesn't think about the future much (all my grad students get postdocs).

I  still think the real issues go back to what happens to those trainees. Marder can argue that we celebrate all those who don't make it. She can say that it takes grad school to figure out if you have what it takes to make it. But that's not really thinking about the people in those roles. I've said before that it is a bogus and somewhat condescending argument that "PhD programs in biomedical sciences train you for many careers".  No one enters a PhD program because they think its a good way to become a high school teacher.  The question remains: is there a better path to the "" endpoints?

Yet, there is still validity in the argument it is not obvious who will be a good scientist at the point of admission. Previous research experience, if it is real research experience, is a strong indicator. One of the advantages of the British/Aussie/Kiwi scheme of doing "honors" as the fourth year in a three year degree is that there is a condensed year where it is possible for the student to figure out what its like and what they want.

The discussion about where to draw the admissions line needs to be an ongoing one. It needs to involve people all along the career pathway, not just the Eve Marders of this world. And to those who say that blogs/twitter/social media are a waste of time, I say: feh. It is one way those other career-stage people get a voice.







3 responses so far

Jun 16 2017

Resilience and funding and the NIH

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@thenewPI has a new post up titled: Is resilience the name of the game in academia?

Go read it. I'll wait...


She talks about @doc_becca, who is one of my alltime favorite people on the intertubz. Heck, we've even met in IRL, and doc Becca is twice as impressive in person as she is on the web (which is not true of all of us). I don't want to dredge up problems, etc, but she been done wrong. Many people who are Good and Working Hard, and as Doc_Becca sez " I have done EVERYTHING I was supposed to...".

But we live in a harsh funding climate, are being pushed and shoved out of academia. We live in a climate that is particularly harsh for the young, for URM, for women, for people who tick off more than one box. And these people are being denied tenure by zealous administrators who think about the bottom line more than the content.

As I, and many we all respect (lookin' at you, DM and datahound), have said over and over, one of the issues, if not THE ISSUE, is too many mouths at the trough.  See here. and here. and here. (These are all good reads, and if you don't know them, they are also worth a minute or ten of your time).

Applications for NIH funding are rising faster than the money for those projects. There are lots of suggestions about how to diivy up the existing funds, limits on the oldies, bumps for the young. But these, in my view are not just rearranging the deck chairs. They are worse, because they distract from the real problem and they divert energy from the solutions that really need to happen. See also this set of tweets from Michael Hendricks.

But one of the points I want to get back to is something that NewPI does a good job of talking about: the problem is really not so much that NIH peer review is broken. Lots and lots of chatter on the Tweets and various other places that talk about how horrible peer review is. From NewPI:

Taking a look on the inside of NIH peer review earlier this year gave me some prospective. I don't necessarily think that peer review itself is broken. I enjoyed participating and found that everyone was fair, but I realized that the 10-15% pay lines introduce an element of pure luck which has nothing to do with your worth as a scientist.

DM has also said this: when you get to 5-10% paylines (my IC is at 9% for established investigators), you are looking at lots of things other than just how good the science is. The difference in the proposals at 9% and 11% maybe trivial in quality. And this is where NIH staff comes in, and there are massive issues there, too.

But back to peer review: some of these issues are random, wrt to you, but not in respect to other factors:  Are you the last proposal before lunch, the first proposal of the day, following a bruising discussion about another proposal? Is one of your reviewers "saving it up for another proposal" and thinking that they can't go all out and advocate for two?

These are not the hallmarks of a broken system, although it could be perceived that way. They are the hallmarks of a human enterprise, where human beings are making decisions, lots of decisions, and giving scores and trying their best. Me? I get tired at study section. I do my damnest to stay alert, to read every proposal's specific aims, every proposal's full reviews. For the proposals I've reviewed: I read the other reviews, I take notes. In short, I prepare for study section. And yet, I am sure I make mistakes. Despite myself.

So what is a young person to do? Read TheNewPI's advice here about working with the study section. Read DM's advice and also here and here (and much more). Grantsmanship means looking at the system and doing what you can to come out on top. Read the damn instructions to reviewers and know what they are looking for and looking at when they read your proposal.

To those of you starting out: it's not an easy road. And yeah, resilience is gonna be important. But remember there are people out there who do want to help. There are people who will be on your side. Find them.

Resilience. Cleverness. Hard work. Desire.


33 responses so far

May 23 2017

What Trump doesn't know: Yad Vashem edition

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President Donald Trump [was scheduled] briefly visit Yad Vashem

Image result for yad vashem children's memorial jerusalem

Children's memorial

For those who don't know,Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It is a very powerful place.

Thematic and Chronological Narrative

Remembering the lost


I noticed this report from the Forward. Like is not the right word, but :

The Jerusalem Post took an uncharacteristic snarky approach and produced a video demonstrating what Trump will be able to cover in 15 minutes at the 45-acre complex. The paper quoted Israeli officials saying that an hour and a half is the “bare minimum” needed for a visit to the museum.

I visited in Yad Vashem. Recently. It shook me to my core. I could write about Auschwitz  and about my thoughts about Jews in Eastern Europe during the Shoah (search my blog for the tag "holocaust").

I could not write about Yad Vashem. Even now, one of things I remember is that my cousin came up to me and said something, and I thought or said "but we've only been here for an hour" and she said "we've been here for over four hours".

Yad Vashem was a place I did not, where one does not, know time. Evidently Trump is immune to not knowing time, no matter what pious and sanctimonious words he mouths.

10 responses so far

May 16 2017

More on not enough faculty positions

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Let's do a little math, before I start preaching.

Firstly, let's think about new jobs. These are back of the envelope calculations. Order of magnitude of the problem. For the purposes of discussion.

There are ~180 medical schools in the US. As for biology departments, according to Wikipedia:

As of 2012, the latest figures available in 2015, the US has a total of 4,726 Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions: 3,026 4-year institutions and 1,700 2-year institutions.

Now some of these schools have more than one "biology" department. Certainly medical schools have multiple departments that hire PhD's. But let's just say 5000 departments? 10000?

How many PhDs in "life sciences"? Over 8000 a year. Other sources (NSF) have other, even higher numbers: ~12,000.

So the number of PhDs each year, in life sciences, is about equal or greater than the number of departments. This makes sense: most of those (non-SLAC, non-CC) departments have multiple faculty, churning out PhDs. Even if every single department hired one more faculty person, that would still have an excess of many, many  PhDs.

Let's say that again, there are, roughly, each year, as many PhDs generated as there are departments that could hire these faculty.

I know people are waiting for "Boomers to retire", but I want to remind you that, again, that the youngest boomers are only 52. People do not retire at 52. Or 55. Or even 60. I'm mid-boomer, 62. When I talked to my chair about being on a 4-6 year retirement trajectory, he was shocked. I was surprised he was shocked. (but for me, damn there are other things I want to do).

I know people argue all the time about "alternative careers". I wrote about this years ago, when I started blogging with Mama Isis (and can't find the post). But no one starts a PhD program thinking "Oh, this is a good path to an alternative career".

Back to the problem. There are many reasons we, the mentors of academia, train people. Some of them are what economists would call "market pressures". We need trainees to survive. We need trainees to generate data to finish projects, write papers, get grants, and, well, survive. Some of us (yes, we all know these dudes, although they are not always dudes) who need trainees because their egos can't stand a small lab. They are competing for new students.

So what to do?

I think senior people need to make a commitment to finding trainees/support/help that does not involve bringing more mouths to the trough. I think senior people need to make a commitment to supporting the existing junior faculty in ways that do not require them to have enormous labs to succeed. This, in fact, will require education at the decanal level and above. NIH is the cash cow of many schools. Everyone needs to commit to education about NIH and the need to support research in the US, let alone elsewhere in the world.

Yet, expanding NIH is only kicking the can down the road. Supporting more trainees now, giving jobs to all the PhDs now will just mean this crisis will come back either come back in 10 years, if money is jolted into the system now, and current PhDs get funded, get jobs,  and start training an even larger next generation. Or if money is dribbled in, there will just be the continual pain that we see now.

It is not the scheme is unsustainable: it's just a matter of where the selection and sorting (in the evolutionary sense) occur in the life history of a scientist. Although my GenX friends (and yes, I have one or two who do not perceive me as the devil incarnate) will be skeptical, this was an issue debated as I was finishing my PhD in the early-80s. There weren't a lot of jobs to go around then, even to people (and yes, you may laugh heartily here), who perceived themselves as the cream of the crop (I didn't, but that had more to do with my identity at the time). Academia had undergone an expansion in the 60s, and those people were the Boomers of the time. They were hanging on to jobs (in our view) and didn't care that they were training more people than there were jobs. Places weren't hiring (imagine that). I remember long discussion about whether it was better to restrict entry into grad school, and let selection occur earlier, or to expand postdocs (in ecology/evolution/organismic science PD's were relatively rare at the time) and push selection down the road.  In those days (and to some extent now), in those fields, grad students were PI's, and lab or mentor affiliation was a weak tie, and certainly not necessary for the faculty, except as ego-props. The numbers of grad student admissions was more fluid, and often based on teaching assistant needs. I don't remember what I thought, except that I was tremendously relieved to get a postdoc.

But back to what to do? Please do not think that retiring the boomers will change the situation. Do you not think that the GenXers who do get jobs will see their survival as justification for doing what they need to do to survive? Do you not think the millennials who make it will turn into the boomers of 30 years hence? The boomers I knew back then were good people who would never ever ever abuse trainees, or promise things, or even inadvertently be part of the problem. We are all destined to become our parents, our mentors, and partly what we despised when we were young.

The solution? For me, right now, is to be aware, and work towards a change. Commit yourself to things be different, better. Reach out that hand, dammit.


21 responses so far

May 11 2017

Why do people become adjuncts?

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I don't know all the reasons, because I don't know all the adjuncts. But I know some.

Let's be clear about whom we are speaking. We are not talking about practicing professionals: doctors, dentists, lawyers, businessmen who come back and do some teaching, of various time commitments. Such folk have a variety of reasons for doing this, some reasons are even altruistic. But none of the reasons is money. These are the folks who make real money at their day jobs.

What we're talking about the ABD's, the recent grads, the young people who work for something like $3-4K per class, and given their hours, they make less than minimum wage.Indeed, most of the these folks would jump at a TT job. Most of these folks have been trying to get a TT job, and send out reams of applications, while trying to publish just one or two more papers. And, yes, an adjunct position is definitely a second-best option for the people I know.

So. A comment said that adjuncts are paid in a false coin: the promise of it being a stepping stone to a "real" job.

I disagree. There may be hand-waving and vague comments in that direction, but nothing substantial. Nothing that smacks of "promise".

Many of the people in adjunct positions that I knew/know, both IRL and in the blogosphere, have other considerations that prompted them to take an adjunct position: family issues (spouse, children, parents) that keep them from being able to take a job in the hinterland, a commitment to living in a Certain Place. Some I've known are married, with kids, and struggling to finish a PhD with no support, and need/think they need a job. Of course, people who can afford to stay in a postdoc position, often do. It certainly pays better than adjuncting.  And I have seem a few, by and large single, white, male, footloose and fancy-free, who can't find anything else, and are willing to try to stick it out in the system for a bit longer to see if they can get a job.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I think there are two things operating here, the first of which is choice. No one is holding a gun to anyone's head and saying "I will blow your brains out if you do not take this adjunct job". There is lots of information around about alternatives, columns in SCIENCE, and internet resources that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago. There is more than one choice being made here.  Choices that say: I don't want to move, I've commitments to this geographic area. Choices that say: I do want a SLAC, I don't want a SLAC, I want Ivy League, MRU, or I want to be in A Big City.

Some of these considerations are not frivolous, and they are valid life choices to make. We each decide what is important to us, and frequently our decisions look irrational or stupid to someone else who has made different decisions.  I'm not saying that its right, let alone a good thing, to make people balance two careers, to make people choose to be near family or take a job somewhere else or to ask a person of color, a LBGT person to move to place that is blatantly hostile to who they are, just because that is the only job there is for them. I also know that a choice to stay where one's spouse has a good job is a very different thing than the dilemma of a  POC or LBGT have to make. My point is only that there is some choice operating here, and no one takes an adjunct position without being aware of those choices.

The other operational consideration here, one more time, is too many mouths at the trough. If you are a faculty member, and over your lifetime, let alone right now in your lab, you've trained more than 1-2 PhD's who go into research, you are not part of the solution. This is true even if you are the Most Important BSD doing research to cure cancer, make disable children walk, or solve Global Climate Change. The reason there are not enough jobs, not enough grants, is because more people want these things than are available. Even if grant money flowed more easily, more frequently, and in higher aliquots, the positions available would be soft-money ones, that depended on continual funding, and not tenure track. It would be a marginal improvement, in terms of salary, but not in terms of security and future. Universities are not about the expand the number of TT positions.

So we've got adjuncts. Make sure your trainees know the score. Make sure the trainees in your department know the score.

19 responses so far

May 04 2017

Research for credit, adjuncts and abuses in academia

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A comment to a previous post said:

I did lots of research for credit, and always found it ironic that I was paying tuition to essentially volunteer. In some ways, research for credit is MORE problematic. Welcome to academia, where we vastly underpay people for their work (think adjuncts).

I responded that I think there are situations in which credit/no pay is appropriate: When there is teaching going on, when the student is doing a project that teaches how to do research, when it is not just washing bottles or cleaning animal cages. I think one diagnostic feature is that the teacher/prof is putting significant (more?) energy into teaching the student, than end product that comes out.

But the issue with adjuncts is more complex than this.

So to start:  I do not think that academics are particularly underpaid. I was just speaking with a physician friend, who view on academic physicians was quite nuanced. When I was in a clinical dept at MRU, there was quite schizoid views on the "job" of physicians. Many wanted to make significant amounts of money, which is by and large not compatible with doing  research. My friend said that she thought physicians needed to make a choice: to be academics, take the salary offered, and teach and do research and basically accept that you're not going to get all the perks of a private practice. And that if you did want to get "rich" you should eschew the academic route and just devote yourself to those private patients. The problem of course, is that people, physician people, wanted both.

The punch line from my friend was apt: I get paid plenty, and have what I need, as an academic physician. It is the psychological need or compulsion to have "More" that creates problems. Relative to private practice peers, academic physicians can/sometimes perceive they are not paid enough. I hear my readers laughing at "not enough" for people making > $100K/yr.

Which brings me to one of my favorite (attribution unknown) quotes: who is rich, and should be taxed more? Anyone who makes more money than I do.

Are adjuncts underpaid? If you asked my grandmother, who worked for pennies a day, less than minimum wage in today's dollars, she'd say you're crazy. You ask an adjunct who looks at tenure track people doing similar, if not the same, work for lots more, they would be adamant that yes, they are underpaid. It's relative.

But this comes to the question of why do positions  called "adjunct" exist? From the Administrator's perspective, adjuncts are cheap, very cheap, easy to justify to the bean counters  and make a difference to over all productivity. From an adjunct's point of view, it's a way to stay in the system and hope things get better. From an economist's point of view: adjuncts exist because there is a job offered at a particular wage, and there are people willing to do this work for this wage.

And so once again we return to the mouths at the trough problem. If there were a shortage of professors/teachers / people who could and would teach college courses (supply) relative to the number that need to be taught (demand), then wages would rise. But there is an oversupply of teachers. There is a supply of people who will do this job at this wage. They may get used up and quit, but right now there is a near endless supply of such people. Universities are churning out of PhDs who are willing to do that teaching at that price, so from the administrator's point of view why offer more money? (yes, there are arguments about quality, about commitment, about long term development, but they can be countered,  we are not trying to persuade administrators at this point, and this post is already too long). There is similar logic for postdoc salaries, but see previous parenthetical comment.

The solution seems obvious: stop training so many PhD students. Or be honest with the ones you do take in. Actually, it's more than being honest: think about exponential growth. If jobs for professors are in a "replacement" mode at best (ie no growth in positions), then within a lifetime, a prof should produce ONE replacement for themselves. If a prof produces even two, and those two produce two each, in 10 generations there will be a thousand (2 ^10 = 1024). And if all those people are writing one NIH grant a year, let alone one every cycle, then of course the number of submissions is going to go up exponentially.

So to come back to the beginning: are academics underpaid. If you want to make lots of money, academics is probably not for you. But everyone in the system now has a responsibility to understand the implications, the long term implications, of their actions.

18 responses so far

Jan 25 2017

the value and cost of doing a postdoc

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There has been lots of talk on the intertubes about this topic. Much of it has been from folks near the decision points. At my end of the age spectrum, I'm seeing it a bit differently. My perception isn't more right or wrong. It's just different.

So to start, it is import to remember there are choices being made here. As my father used to say to me: no one's holding a gun to your head and saying "be a postdoc or I'll blow your brains out" (or something like that, his exact words fade with time). But, as a good economist would say, The more information you have, the better decision you can make. Be informed about the future. Real numbers about who makes it and who doesn't. PI's let your trainees see what is involved in making sausage. Trainees, get beyond your views (good and bad) about what PI's actually do. And get beyond both your imposter syndrome and your special snowflake syndrome. Neither serves you well as this point.

Arguing that it's not fair to work that hard and not get paid like people industry is fatuous. That's like arguing that gravity isn't fair as you fall out of the tree. The world is. There are parameters, and guidelines and rules and a couple of laws. Anyone making a decision about what to do with their postdoc is (relative to the rest of the world) in a fairly privileged position.

I'm not saying it's an easy choice. Or in fact one that everyone can make in their own best interest... Family, commitment, children, all of these compromise that decision. Let alone fair. Somebody will have more money, brains or good looks and be making a different decision or have the option of a different decision. Being a scientist is  bloody hard work. Hard. Work. I'm not saying you don't work hard. I am sure you do. But its hard work in a Red Queen Context.

My concern here and now is that we (the people picking postdocs) are selecting for wealthy individuals who can "afford" to do this, and keep their lifestyle. We who have some control over the "fairness" may be, could be, aiding and abetting an unfair situation. When all the FLSA stuff was happening and people were looking at raising postdoc salaries, I heard junior colleagues agonizing. If I raise the salary of this NSF postdoc, I will have to cut my experiments. (Remember that NSF grants are an order of magnitude smaller than NIH). Those junior faculty are just trying to survive, too. What angered me, too, were the senior colleagues with five postdocs who decided to let one go to cover the raises of the others. That's a hard decision, keep five at a lesser wage, or drop one, and raise four up? The answer, to those of us who believe that the problem may be too many mouths at the trough, is that you don't hire five postdocs in the first place.

So young padawan, here is the world. You can make a lot more money doing something else. I know lots of people who did. Or you can make less money doing science. It's a hard road. There are no guarantees for those walking it.

 Note after writing: Ola had a comment on the managing people post that says similar things, in a different way. It's worth adding here:

As others have said, as a junior prof you need your ass at the bench and then every other waking hour is writing grants. If you're not submitting 5-6 grants a year for the first few years, you're not doing it right. Yes it sucks! You have to teach, run a lab, manage people, do department politics crap, mentor people, manage money, write papers, and have a life outside the lab possibly including young children. In short, you have to be all of the things to all of the people. This is not new, this is part of the job and has been for as long as anyone can remember.


19 responses so far

Jul 21 2016

Words I never thought I would say

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I'm so relieved that they are only taking 19% out of the budget. I can cut that much.

Update and explanation: The IC from whence my money (now) flows has a minimum cut of 17% for all R01s funded (although I'm not so naïve to think that this applies to everyone). This is my first dance at this particular IC, and I have no record or relationship with the PO for this grant. So I was expecting quite the worst, as in little understanding of what my budget. We talked about what would be the absolute minimum I needed to do the work. I tried to explain what could and could not be cut.

I had not padded the budget for this for two reasons. Firstly, its wrong and on the axis of truth to lies pretty damn near lies. Secondly, actually, there is no secondly. I know some people think that it is good grantsmanship to pad the budget in case of cuts, but that is not going to solve the problem (which is still, in my view, too many mouths at the trough).

So, the potential for cuts up to 40% exist.  That I had only 19% was of great relief to me.


No responses yet

Jan 13 2016

Early Scientific Failure and the Values of the Scientific Community

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”Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made.”

Bertrand Russell has made much of this:

“Observation versus Authority: To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”

This has generated some significant discussion and the need to "rescue Aristotle":

The problem is that, as we have seen, Aristotle did not arrive to his conclusion through logic, but via faulty data.

And... arriving at bad conclusions because of faulty data is not as bad as through failed logic?

We, as scientists, value being "smart" and "clever" and "insightful" to an extreme. Sometimes, we perceive bad reasoning as worse than bad data. Bad data could be someone else's fault, as was Aristotle's problem. But bad reasoning or logic is a fatal flaw in a society that values thinking.

data badTwo problems exist with this line of thought. Firstly, bad data implies bad thinking at some level. If one puts one's conclusions, based on bad data, out there in the literature, it is our responsibility to make sure that the data are right. There are lots of reasons data can be bad. Sloppiness and a rush to publish. Bad technique by trainees or others collecting the data. Errors in methodology that are not to know to the data collector, or the PI, or anyone for that matter. Willful ignorance, abject confusion, or even genuine lack of knowledge: these are things that need to be considered.

Secondly, if the end product is what counts, then it doesn't matter why one gets the wrong answer. The data and the logic are partners and collaborators in the results, and I am not sure why one should have the priority over the other. This is a discussion I have had with a lawyer friend, at great length with much scotch. Lawyers accept, nay promote, the idea that motivation is important. Most people do. Taking the other side (which I do not totally believe, but am happy to for the sake of a good argument with a better scotch), it is defensible to argue that motivation is irrelevant. What those results are is what counts. Sometimes I think that the knowledge that it could be an "honest mistake", sitting in the back of a PI's mind, gives them permission to less rigorous, less exacting, and push that data out even sooner. My lawyer friend says that I'm a cynic.



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Dec 15 2015

STEM postdocs and solutions to the problems

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Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy wrote a thoughtful post titled : "Why today’s long STEM postdoc positions are effectively anti-mother". She's on a search committee that has gotten applications showing that many applicants received their PhD more than five years ago, and some a lot more. Her central point is that the long time between degree and tenure track job impacts women disproportionately, for reasons that have been talked about at length: the ticking biological clock, the costs of postponing reproduction, the costs of daycare, the value of a stay-at-home partner, etc. These things are problems (and some are also problems for men who are involved in raising their families, not to mention gay male couples). I do not think, however, that some of her suggestions make sense.

Her first suggestion:

Award several thousand dollars to female postdocs with children when they go on the academic job market. This can cover high-quality childcare, travel with children or living costs for family caretakers.

First off, who is awarding this money? The PI paying the salary? Maybe some of the BSD labs have this kind of cash sitting around. I sure don't. The universities hiring the postdoc? Lots of luck with that one, when they are busy cutting essential fringes to postdocs, when we are arguing about what salary PDs should be making. Another several thousand dollars? The question now arises, who else should have a couple of thousand dollars to  go on the job market? People from disadvantaged backgrounds? But then, should women from the owning class get this anyway?

But being realistic is not necessarily the same thing as being right or wrong. Noted.

Second suggestion:

Create competitive internal scholarships to fund a research technician for a year, when a female postdoctoral fellow is pregnant, or with infant. The technician would carry on the fellow’s experiments during the time she must be away from the bench.

Again, there is a problem with funding. Right now, at my almost-MRU, we are having trouble covering some of the lab teaching. Arguments about even hiring a postdoc to half-teach, half-research (not a bad position for someone who wants to go into teaching) are met with financial arguments. Competitive? who pays? The university? They're not even willing to hire to cover the teaching, I judge it highly unlikely that they would consider this.

Another problem, from a social justice perspective, is that the "hire a tech" solution just kicks the can down the road. Who are these "one year technicians"? People who will have to leave their job after a year? Countries with maternity replacements have a new class of under-employed, transient, insecure young people who will take a job for a year. In America, these people are often called "adjuncts". It has been argued that there are lots of young people who want a job for a year, before med school, to get experience. I would argue they make lousy techs. I'd also argue that if you believe this, you've not talked to young people who are insecure about the future.

Kozorovitskiy's argument that

"The cost of some of these programs would be pennies in the budget of our great research institutions"

is, at best, naïve. Do the math: a technician is anywhere from $30 to 80K, plus fringes, depending on location, skill and what's needed. And if you're at a uni where the budget is in 100's of millions, yes, that can be "pennies". But these costs get pushed down to the department or division level. I know, and have known, what the budget looks like at that level, in medical schools, but even more so in A&S departments (like Chemistry & Physics). That kind of money just doesn't exist. If it does, its the start-up package for the next hire. It's bridge money for the almost-tenure assistant prof who didn't get funded, but needs to run more experiments for the pubs that will make or break them. It's money to hire (ugh) an adjunct to cover teaching so that the newly-tenured associate professor can take a sabbatical and ... well, recover, renew, refresh their mind. A department never has enough money. The decisions as to what to cover are, in right-thinking departments, painful, and in others, brutal.

But that doesn't mean this isn't the right thing to do. Hard verging on impossible is not the same as right. We'll come back to this.

She also says:

Moreover, such programs are likely to have immediate measurable impact on the success of women postdocs transitioning to independence in academia.

No, I don't think so. I suspect it will help the few women who have access to such programs. But immediate? Success is more than the transition to a job (although that is a measurable problem and a measurable outcome of change).  Again, is this the success that is important and immediate to a department?

The institutions that take the lead will attract the top STEM postdocs.

This is even dreadfully more naïve. Yes, a great program like this would attract great, if not top, postdocs. But if these are already the BSD [aka top] institutions, they don't have trouble attracting the best right now.  If the institutions are not top tier, and already having trouble attracting "top postdocs", would such a program make more or less difference than giving this money to their brightest young POC, URM or female faculty and telling them to hire an extra postdoc or tech?

Which brings us back to the problem of what is right or good or in the best interest of a department that is committed to diversity, supporting women (and URM, POC and others that are not part of the academic milieu in proportional numbers). From the perspective of a department that is interested in promoting women, and increasing women's presence in STEM, supporting postdocs is just not going to be the most effective and measurable way to so. Measurable counts here. It really does. If you want a program that costs money, you have to show that it works. Gone are the days when money is just strewn about the landscape. Accountability and  results are part of T32's and they are part of internal initiatives. Successful postdocs won't get counted in the accountability numbers. Faculty getting tenure, publications and grants are. Hiring female faculty, supporting those faculty, and providing them with the resources for success is always going to be higher priority that supporting postdocs who are going to be perceived as transient.

Her article concludes with an important and heartfelt plea:

We should ensure that the odds in academia, however low overall, aren’t stacked against female aspiring scientists who hope to have families.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

The world is not a fair place. When I was starting grad school (having worked through college), there was a guy my age, Howard,  but already a couple years ahead of me. He was rich. He wanted to do ecology. He had spent his teen years scuba diving in the Caribbean, and doing what is now called "unpaid internships". He did lots of research through college, when I was working in the library, and life-guarding at the pool, and coding social science studies by hand for mainframe analysis. No question Howard was Good, capital G. He was, is, bright creative and has totally changed his subdiscipline. He has trained generations of men, women, URM, POC and just about anyone who was interested in his work. But he never worried for one moment about what he would do or having kids with a nanny. Do we tax Howard to the hilt? (go read Kurt Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron).

The world is not a fair place. Things need to change, and even change faster than they have been. But putting forward unrealistic suggestions isn't going to change anything. I can easily imagine that The Boys In Charge at my new almost-MRU would look at these suggestions, make some grumbly noises and say "wouldn't it be wonderful, but...". And then throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, and loose the whole point about needing to reform postdoctoral programs.

The world is not a fair place. The problem here is not even so much that long postdocs hurt women who want families. Long postdocs are a problem that hurts everyone who wants to have a more secure job, a "real" job and move on. The question becomes why are there long postdocs and what can we do about them? And I come back to the "too many mouths at the trough" problem, which leads to the idea that the whole concept of postdoc needs to be rethought, reworked and reimagined.

Finally, I thank my Very Wise Postdoc, who read this, offered good suggestions and disagreed with me over and over. Everyone needs a postdoc like this.

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