We are all Rob Knop. Well, us postdocs are, anyway.

Rob Knop is in a jam all too familiar to researchers and their long-suffering loved ones. He’s on the tenure track, but he doesn’t have independent funding — and so his university is basically planning to kick him out:

Vanderbilt has made it 100% clear that without funding at the level of an NSF grant, I will not get tenure, regardless of anything else. Indeed, my chair has told me that funding is the only issue he sees as being a serious question with my tenure case.

Note that Rob is clearly a sufficiently good teacher and colleague, and his scientific acumen is clearly sufficiently well regarded, for him to be granted tenure — which is the only form of job security available in academic research. Still, he’s a goner if he doesn’t make that funding cut — which, these days, somewhere between 10 and 20% of applications do, depending on field and political climate.
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.
There have been a number of responses to Rob’s cri de coeur, and if you’re interested in the issue Google blogsearch and Technorati (if it’s working) will find them for you. I have been collecting links on the “postdoc problem”, and meaning to look for actual data on same, for some time — maybe I’ll even write that post one day. For now I just want to grab one sentence out of Chad’s response:

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career.

And this is key. The majority of successful (tenured, funded) academics got that way largely by luck. Most of them have all kinds of fairy tales, as Rob puts it, that they tell themselves so that they can believe it was talent and hard work and nothing else, which is why they continue to urge smart kids into dead-end “careers”. (I do not mean to imply that Chad is untalented and lazy! The point here is that he is one of the few who recognizes what he owes to dumb luck.)
You cannot bank on luck.
I’m not saying “don’t ever go to grad school, don’t ever try to make a living out of research” — research is addictive, just look at me, still kidding myself I have more than a year or two left. But I am saying “you probably won’t make it”, by which I mean “have a backup plan”.
For my own field, biomed research, I would encourage would-be grad students to consider medical school instead. You can do basic or clinical research with an MD, and you have a backup career (a real career, not ten years of indentured servitude as a postdoc followed by “tough, yer out”). Hell, if you’re really keen you can do an MD-PhD — although frankly I don’t see the point. You learn nothing about research in a PhD that you can’t learn on the job, and it’s not as though you’re going to go straight from school to running a lab. You’ll be serving a kind of apprenticeship, a sort of postdoc, in any case — but you’ll be treated better. (There’s a widespread perception among PhDs that MDs make lousy researchers, but no one ever presents any hard data and my own experience indicates that the proportion of idiots is the same among MDs and PhDs — roughly 90%, as per Sturgeon’s Law.)

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