Dr Shellie has run the job search gauntlet and — O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — has multiple appealing offers from which to choose. Reflecting on the process, and her years of anxiety leading to this point, she says:
… I think that if your goal is to get a tenure-track job at a research university in a place you want to live, it’s hard to know your chance of success much in advance. Many smart people with excellent records do not get jobs. Which is too bad, since it can take 5-10 years just to get ready to apply — counting the time you spend in a PhD and a postdoc. And how are you supposed to predict your chances then — when you are starting grad school?
How indeed? I don’t think the situation for postdocs has improved since this article appeared in 2002. In biomed research, I would guesstimate that about 10% of postdocs end up with “their own lab”. Worse, this is not simply tough competition — so many personal/political factors enter into the success equation that you might as well roll dice as try to forecast your future as a researcher by any rational method. It’s my blog, so I’ll go ahead and quote myself:
The system is broken: there are too many PhD graduates and not enough real jobs for them. A postdoc is not a real job; even a tenure-track position, one step up the foodchain from a postdoc, is not a real job. A real job will not be yanked out from under you every few years, unless you or your boss can continually win funding — and when you get down to 20% funding levels, between politics and the sheer volume of work dumped on the granting committees, you might as well pick the names out of a hat. A real job does not leave you entirely at the mercy of your superiors, who can demand insane work hours from you, knowing that if you won’t sacrifice your life on the altar of their lab/department/whatever, there are ten other PhDs clamoring for the chance to do so. I’m no fan of the dismal science, but the law of supply and demand does seem to be consistent with observed phenomena here.
Now, that gloomy beginning notwithstanding, this is not another postdoc complaint post. (That one is in the works; I’m saving up links for it here and here.) Right now I want to take a much more positive perspective, inspired by Dr Shellie, who asks:
How should I think about recruiting graduate students, when I am encouraging them to pursue an uncertain career path?
This is a very good question indeed, and the best thing about it is that a newly-minted research professor is asking it! Is it really ethical (anyone? anyone?
BuellerFree-Ride?) to encourage students into grad school, given that the standard “career path” is long, tortuous and more than likely to land the weary traveler somewhere other than that fabled destination, the faculty slot?
Another way of looking at this is to ask: is the system so irreparably broken that we should dismantle it — starting by turning away grad students — or can we work with what we have, and fix it? I’m a meliorist rather than a revolutionary myself. Further, if you want to be a PI yourself you’re going to have to take on grad students, and more generally if we want research to flourish we, as a community, are going to need grad students.
So, since we’re going to continue to lure bright-eyed, unsuspecting college kids into the postdoc trap via grad school, what can we do to reduce harm? Herewith some thoughts:
1. Inform, inform, inform. Let ‘em know upfront what they’re getting themselves into.
1b. Repeat, repeat, repeat. They’re young, they’ll think “it won’t happen to me”. We’re all bulletproof at eighteen.
2. Present alternatives, and treat those alternatives with respect. Don’t be another type-A asshole in a labcoat who thinks, and acts as though, any deviation from the One True And Shining Path To Glory (why, research of course) represents complete failure as a scientist and as a human being. Scientists reading this are nodding their heads, the rest of you are probably thinking huh? surely he exaggerates — but I assure you I don’t. Throughout the community of science, at least in academia where I’ve spent most of my time, there is a powerful and pervasive assumption that research is the pinnacle of human endeavour and that a person would only do something else because they couldn’t make the grade in research. This is not a conscious belief, it’s a largely unexamined background of feeling, something absorbed by intellectual and emotional osmosis from a peer group of self-involved, highly-focused people who have, given their material situation, a deep investment in believing they are doing something that sets them apart and above. It is also, of course, utter and unmitigated horseshit. Don’t perpetuate it.
3. Give a damn. Your students are not fungible data-production units, they’re people with lives outside the lab, hopes, dreams, and all that crap. You don’t have to get all touchy-feely if that’s not your style — just understand that some of your students will find that they don’t want your job after all — and that’s OK. Some will even start out with other destinations in mind — and that’s a good thing. Wouldn’t you like to see more people with solid research experience go into teaching, journalism, policy development, marketing, law, medicine and a dozen other vital professions? Wouldn’t you like to see an ecologist become US President right about now? Don’t take it as a personal affront if someone doesn’t make emulating you their sole ambition; take the time to consider what might be best for them.
I’m sure there’s more — comments, please! For one thing, I am clinging still to the last forlorn threads of hope that I might be taking on students myself one day, and those putative students will need all the help I can get.
Finally, to Dr Shellie, an answer of sorts: if you’re asking yourself at this early stage whether it’s ethical even to take on students, then you are probably just the sort of PI who should be taking on students, and who will provide them with solid lab experience with which they can do whatever they want — even research.