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postdocs -- ask your mentor

Judith Gibber jrg43 at columbia.edu
Fri Aug 15 00:28:54 EST 1997

I agree with Bart, Alice, Paula, Kit, Deb, et al.: The current situation 
for post-docs stinks.  Where I disagree is with your characterization
of the postdoc as a "job", rather than as a "traineeship".

In a job, you expect 
	a. to be there long-term
        b. to be hired because of what you can do for the boss
	c. to be paid a decent salary
Since you think a postdoc should be a job, you are understandably
angry about c. -  not getting paid a decent salary.
In a traineeship, you expect 
	a. to be there short-term
	b. to be there only as long as you are learning something new
	c. to be paid a skimpy stipend

Looking at it this way, c., the low pay, is okay.  Most trainees are 
paid very little.  Undergrad interns here make $1000/month;  MD residents
earn about the same as postdocs.  It's acceptable because of a. & b.

The problems today are a. - that you're "stuck" in a postdoc for a 
long time with no real job in sight and b. - that you're spending lots of
time doing more of the same, rather than broadening your exposure to 
new techniques, ideas, perspectives.  It's a traineeship gone awry.

If you think of a postdoc as a job, the only logical solution to the
postdoc crisis is to demand that the pay be increased.  A fair increase
would be, what?  $20,000?  And there are how many postdocs?  I'm taking 
a wild guess here:  2000?  So that would be a mere $40,000,000 per year.
Who's handing out that kind of money?

I think that the postdoc should be a training period, and we should 
focus on changing it back to what it was:  a) a short-term position and
b) a chance to broaden one's scientific skills by learning something new.

Phrasing the problem this way suggests alternative solutions. For example, 

1. Scoring of PI's grant proposals could include a factor based on the
success of their postdocs:  A higher score if a postdoc gets a permanent
job after 1-2 years in the lab, a lower score if the same postdocs hang
around for >3 years.  PIs would be pressured to make the postdoc a 
short-term position.

2. PI's could be required to show that postdocs they support will be doing 
something substantially different from the area of their graduate
research.  PI's would only get those postdocs whom they are willing to
train, rather than taking those postdocs who already have the needed
skills and can churn out the most papers.

3. "Additional solutions are obvious, and are left to the reader as an
exercise."  ;)

(NOTE:  I mean the above as an approach to the problem of postdocs
in general.  I realize full well that for any individual postdoc, 
batting around imaginary solutions like this may seem trivial compared
to the more immediate problem of no money in the wallet.)

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