Thoughts on phd-postdoc-faculty transition.

Nov 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I was looking through the "unpublished draft bin" of this blog, and found something interesting. Its a good story, with a good outcome/update. The original title was: (one of) The real tragedy(s) of the phd-postdoc transition. But that doesn't work any more.

Here's the first part, written Sept 2014

This is directed to be who are doing more "little" science. This is not about the people finding postdocs in Honking Big Labs. This is more about people who are not on the NIH track. People who look to NSF for funding. Ecologists (in the scientific sense, not the public perception of pollution sense), systematic biologists, evolutionary biologists, organismal scientists, botanists, comparative systems biologists, paleontologists.

In the Olden Days, people like this got jobs right after their PhDs. They taught their way through grad school, so they knew how. They wrote NSF DIGs, or Leaky Foundation grants, and had already done the PI-thing. And the rejection-thing, too. Their theses were multiple single-authored papers. By and large there were no postdocs for these people. There wasn't money to pay them. And, yes, jobs were very competitive. There were no adjuncts in those days, and a significant portion of my PhD cohort left the field.

Now, that's just not possible - to get a tenure-track job right out a PhD program for most folks like this. Some scramble and come over to the dark side (NIH-funded work). Some places have set up post-doc programs, with some teaching, and some research, and some space to grow for people in these areas.

Here is the tragedy. Let's put it in terms of Emily. Emily is defending her PhD in the next few weeks. Her mentor is an old friend of mine, but a very old-fashioned field biologist. A very old-fashioned descriptive field biologist. He has trained hordes of incredibly successful students. Emily was marginally interested in something I did years ago, and I had some old (raw) data that had never been published. We worked it up, and got a good paper (she's first on it) in a solid organismal journal. She's got about 5 first authored papers.

Emily hasn't had time to write her own postdoc grant, because she's been finishing her PhD. She got a 6 month teaching appointment, but things are looking grim. Not sure what will happen. If a postdoc is not in a big lab, with lots of projects and funding, you have to scramble to find your own money, and its damn hard to do that while you are writing up your thesis. There are not lots of positions, either as postdocs or as profs, for the Emilys of this world. I don't know the numbers: whether the percentages are different for the organismic biologists vs. the NIH-funded/health relevance postdocs coming out of the big-mega-labs.


OK: back to 2017:

What happened to Emily? As her teaching money was running out, she was contacted by a very new, very good, very scientifically glamorous young faculty who had seed money for about a year of postdoc. I suppose this is the professional equivalent of a hailmary pass. Emily jumped on it. We talked about it as being risky but high potential reward. It was a chance to learn new things, and do a postdoc in a Major Department with the brightest young up&coming in the field.

This was just avoiding the problem of writing a postdoc proposal at the same time one is writing a PhD thesis. It is not common in organismic/non-medical types of research. Emily was both good and lucky.

The position proved to be a good intellectual match. She did lots of good work, got more publications out, and thrived. While there, she developed an idea that was the brilliant offspring of her thesis work and one part of the program of Dr. BrightYoungFaculty. It was funded by NSF first time through, and paid for another 2 years of PD for Emily. Of course, since she was a postdoc Dr. BYF is the PI, and Emily doesn't really get credit for it, despite writing. It's not so much someone stealing your best beloved baby, as not getting credit. This is a touchy area, and worthy of more consideration, but not today. In this case, Dr. BYF is good, and supportive, but still neurotic obsessed focused on concerned about her own tenure issues as much as she is about Emily's future. I imagine that Dr. BYF is thinking that Emily got a job and some pubs and that is appropriate. Sufficient?

Emily applied for jobs last year, and got one job offer, but it had some issues (like expectations that all seed money would be paid back in 3 years through grant overhead), and she turned it down to finish up the postdoc. She's applying again, and I've got all paired appendages crossed for her. She's philosophical about the ups and downs of the postdoc, and perceives the advantages. It is a very mature response, and one that lets her move on, do good work and not get stuck in recriminations and self-recriminations. I'm writing letters for her again, so I'm going to find out what happens in the next chapter.


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