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postdocs -- ask your mentor

David Shivak shivakd at fhs.mcmaster.ca
Fri Aug 15 16:26:06 EST 1997

In article <a-schmi-1508970719020001 at vortex5.life.uiuc.edu>,
aloisia schmid <a-schmi at uiuc.edu> wrote:
> Judith Gibber <jrg43 at columbia.edu> wrote:
>> 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". 
> 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?

>O.K., so if there are 2000 post-docs now, and they earn about $20,000 then
>currently there is about $40,000,000 per year spent on post-doc salaries. 
>That money is being handed out by the NIH and private funding agencies. I
>am not being flippant.  If they need to come up with the money, or go
>without the labor, they will come up with the money.  Admittedly there may
>be fewer psot-docs available.  But is that better or worse than keeping
>people scratching along, knowing full well there will never be enough jobs
>for everyone?

Hi all.  Yes, I'm another male lurker.

Just to put things into perspective, (from the 1995 Science careers issue 
vol 270:123-127) in 1993 ~10,000 postdocs were in the life sciences ALONE.

The number of PhDs graduating in the life sciences is >5000 per year.

Anyone see a problem with this?

MDs believe in population control, and as a consequence MDs are paid well 
and have little problem finding a job.  The "selection" takes place at 
the admissions level.  The time wasted by rejected med students is minimal. 
(This system does have problems, no doubt, but it serves as a good 
contrast for PhD production).

Where does the selection take place for PhDs?  After +12 years of 
education and postdocing.  How much time is wasted?  Well, that depends 
on how much you enjoy your work.  If research was your only option then 
you have not wasted much time.  If research was one of many options 
available to you then one will waste a decade or more before being forced 
to admit that one cannot find a reasonable job in research. Quite a long 
time "scratching along" to find out that the lottery ticket you bought 
wasn't in the top 1% that everyone hopes they are in.

Yes, I agree society should value research more and pay scientists more.  As 
David Goodstein has noted, however, this is difficult when scientists 
"reproduce" exponentially to fill available funding.

As other posters have pointed out, being smart and hard working is no 
longer sufficient to be in the top 1%.  Being lucky, from a good school, 
single-minded, smart, rich (or spouse-supported), and connected may help to 
get a position.  It is difficult to plan to be lucky or rich.

Sorry to be depressing.  I think there are good opportunities for these 
smart, hardworking scientists outside of the traditional maze of academia.  
There is a whole world outside of the lab with different challenges and 
better odds.  Leaving traditional university research is no badge of 
shame.  In many cases it is a very difficult and courageous decision 
made by people in a tough situation.

David Shivak

David Shivak - email shivakd (at) fhs.mcmaster.ca * 
Check out the web site Careers In (and Out) of Science @  

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