STEM postdocs and solutions to the problems

Dec 15 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

16 responses so far

  • sopscientist says:

    Thanks for saying it like it is. $$ doesn't grow on trees.

  • DJMH says:

    Your arguments almost entirely amount to, "But that would cost money!" I think it's fine to point out money is a finite resource, but the cost of a program by itself is not an argument against it. Many depts likely spend $10K on their annual holiday party. Is that the best use for that money?

    If you could suggest a program that cost less (or even was free) and would help address these issues, then that would be an interesting discussion. "Waah money" isn't.

    • potnia theron says:

      answer to 1) Part of my argument is that with limited resources, this (which is essentially buying a tech for a female postdoc) is not necessarily the best use of money. It is not so much that these things cost money, it's that departments and colleges and probably universities are not going to invest in what is perceived as transient members of the community.

      answer to 2) Other programs? As I imply at the end of the post, I don't think that programs (at the departmental level) that invest in postdocs is going to solve the problem of women & URM & POC &tc in STEM fields. Even if the rich universities (as suggested in the original post I cited) did this, as long as there are too many phd students coming out, there will be positions at "poorer" schools that can't or won't do this, and people will take those positions, and experience the problems outlined.

      The problem is not that long postdocs particularly punish/select against female scientists and force them into a horrible choice between career and family. It is that there is a greater supply of human beings who wish to be scientists and academics then there are positions for them. All the things suggested by Kozorovitskiy are essentially a bandaid on pumping arterial wound.

      • DJMH says:

        Well, I'd wager the postdocs coming out of the "better" universities are more likely to get faculty jobs so maybe it's worthwhile to think about how to keep women in those pipelines.

        Re "perceived as transient", first of all again this is not an actual argument against the proposals, it's an argument of "we've never invested in postdocs in the past!" which isn't really an argument. Second, NSF ADVANCE grants focus exclusively on recruitment and retention of women faculty; what if they had an equivalent for keeping women postdocs in the pipeline? (Given the terrible drop off in women at the postdoc to faculty transition, it might be more effective....) That's the sort of place one could look for money for this problem. Universities don't need to care about postdocs per se, they need to care about grant dollars that could help.

        I agree about the oversupply of PhDs, though.

      • mrl35 says:

        "departments and colleges and probably universities are not going to invest in what is perceived as transient members of the community"

        An alternative way to think about this is that departments don't seem to compete on the quality / accomplishments of their postdocs in the same way that they do with grad students.

        It's hard to see who would be attracted to a department on the basis of its current stable of postdocs - not grad students because they typically have limited contact with postdocs, and probably not new faculty either because they will most likely hire a new postdoc from outside for themselves if they have the funds available to do so. Furthermore, as you mentioned, postdocs are "transient" so current postdoc quality / quantity may not be a good predictor of the future postdoc population.

        Thus department don't invest in postdocs, just not because they may leave, but because there is no incentive for them to do so. Indeed, many departments and schools (such as my own) barely acknowledge the presence of postdocs while they are still in the department...

  • qaz says:

    I've got a simpler solution. Make more damn faculty jobs. The long postdoc is entirely due to the difficulty that students have finding faculty jobs. It does not make them better faculty. It does not make them better trained at being faculty. It merely holds them back while fighting in the arena for the magic ticket out of postdoc hell.

    We are leaving so much amazing talent behind.

    • potnia theron says:

      Yes, I would totally applaud more faculty jobs. I work towards more faculty jobs. But I don't think that is realistic.
      The answer (as suggested below) may be to train fewer people. Stop seeing Postdocs as cheap labor. Commit to taking students/postdocs for whom you can and will find future jobs.

  • MM says:

    while we're making more faculty jobs...

    1. Reduce the number of PhDs. This could be done well by having useful masters programs, instead of the ones they have now which are full of pre-meds that had somewhat borderline grades. Interested in scientific communication? Masters. Interested in science policy? Masters. Interested in working at the bench in a large biotech firm? Masters. Interested in teaching at a SLAC? Masters. Like school and don't know what to do with yourself? Join the Peace Corps or Teach for America and ponder, don't waste tons of time and money on a degree you likely don't want. Making PhD programs 20% of their current size should do it.

    2. Severely curtail the number of people allowed to be supported on non individual grants (like F32s), so that there are fewer postdoc positions available, and they are less likely to be seen as cheap labor. Instead, require the use of Research Assistants. These people could be cost-shared between an individual lab and the university, to facilitate their ability to transition between labs, making them more of a department resource, and providing them with job security.

    • Ola says:

      News flash: post-doc's are far from cheap labor.

      If you're at a decent institution with a PD association, as a PI you will be mandated to pay NIH NRSA levels ($42.8k and up) plus fringe (26% where I am). That makes a starting post-doc fresh out of grad-school a 55k hit on a grant. An experienced one will run you closer to 70k. On a modular R01 with a budget cut (say 225 directs), blowing 1/3 of your available funds on a single person is not really "cheap labor".

  • sel says:

    Yeah, the world is not a fair place. Tell the prospective postdoc to look at the salary inversion for professors at their current university. I'm assoc and about to go up for full prof, and my salary is less than the assistant profs we hired last year.

    (I also bought my house in 2007. You want to talk about not fair....)

    And thanks to new state regulations, if I hire a postdoc, I have to pay their salary, their health insurance, and their spouse's and childrens' health insurance. None of which I budgeted for in my current grant, and if I put it in any future grants, the NSF will laugh. Congrats, postdocs, you've priced yourselves out of a job.

    • potnia theron says:

      Actually salary inversion has been a thing for a long time. It was a problem in the 90s, when asst's made more than assoc's.

      But... you also grew up in an age of antibiotics and never horrid ear infections as a child. For me, I'm glad I lived long enough to see no-smoking in restaurants.

  • Ola says:

    I want to take issue with this idea of "long" post-docs. It seems the current batch of kids have a conniption if they go a day over 5 years.

    Way back when (early 2000s, middle of the NIH doubling) many post-doc tenures were already 6-7 years. The "long" post-doc' is not some new thing that came about suddenly in the recent budget tightening. Most of my cohort did 2 of them, followed by a couple years in a "limbo" position (RAP, instructor) writing all kinds of grants before applying for a TT job.

    So please, stop already with the whining about how starting your first faculty position 10 years after your PhD is some new-fangled awful thing. It's normal, and has been for the better part of 2 decades.

  • Sam says:

    What is everyone's ideal for a good postdoc tenure? I had 5 years of PD and two as a staff scientist (overgrown PD) in the 2nd PD lab. For me, I am glad for the what I then perceived as "extra years." After a few years perspective in the new job - I certainly bitched about the toe when I was in it.

    I wouldn't reject the long post-dissertation/pre-faculty time. Some of us just mature slower. 😜

    Although without the pay bump to the SS I'd have likely left and ended up somewhere else doing something I didn't enjoy nearly as much as I do now.

  • […] Scientists identify effective and novel mechanisms to block chikungunya virus You’re Surrounded by Bacteria That Are Waiting for You to Die Letting the dumpster fire burn on and on Congress let the NIH drop the HIV/AIDS set-aside: Implications for NIDA? STEM postdocs and solutions to the problems […]

  • Kathy Barker says:

    The world is not a fair place, but that doesn't mean we don't work to change it, to try to make it as fair as possible.

    Naiveté vs realism is a self-defeating way to look at these issues. Of course, it will cost money to do the right things. So? What are we here for?

    Imagine the difference a single payer health care system would make to P.I.s and postdocs- and maternal leave...why talk of cutting out more jobs when basic human needs are not being met?

    • potnia theron says:

      You are, of course, correct. I have said this in several places in the post. It's more than "it costs a lot". I am still not convinced that doing this would be the best use of limited resources, from the perspective of a department trying to encourage and retain women and URMs.

Leave a Reply