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postdocs -- ask your mentor

Judith Gibber jrg43 at columbia.edu
Fri Aug 15 18:06:42 EST 1997

On Fri, 15 Aug 1997, aloisia schmid wrote:
> O.K., so first.  Do I agree with judith's characterization of jobs vs.
> traineeships, in today's workplace?  No.  

You are looking at today, and asking "what is?"
I am looking at the future, and asking "what should be?"

We agree that doing postdoctoral research was once a coveted opportunity
to spend a brief period in a new lab.  We agree that today it is more 
likely to mean long years of work for low pay with the fear that no good
job will ever appear.  Thus, the role of postdoc within the community of 
scientists has undergone a dramatic and undesirable change.

When problems arise within a community, you can think about solutions 
from two different perspectives:

1.  The individual approach:  
    Conditions are bad;  What can the individual do to survive?

2.  The societal approach:
    Conditions are bad;  What can be done to improve the society?

These are both valid questions to ask.  You are taking the first
approach, and correctly pointing out that to survive in the current 
community, one is forced to do long postdocs, low pay, many publications,
etc.   I agree with you 100%.  It's just that this wasn't the question
I was addressing.

I was taking the second approach:  What SHOULD the community 
of scientists be like?  What IDEAL should we strive towards?
SHOULD the postdoc be a training period or a job?

To answer this, one must define "traineeship" and "job".  I defined 
a traineeship as being a)shorter term, b)more of a learning experience, 
and c) lower paid than a job.

And I argued that, until very recently, everyone agreed that a postdoc
was a traineeship, not a job.  I think it SHOULD be a traineeship in the

If you focus on "Today, it's more like a job", then only one solution to
the problem is obvious:  This job should be better paid.

But if you focus on "Ideally, it should be more like a training period",
then you see the problem in a different light.  Looked at this way, 
the low pay of the postdoc is simply not the central problem that needs 
to be solved in order for postdocs to be a training period.  Rather it is
the long duration and lack of learning that needs to be addressed.

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