Why a Postdoc is basically needed in Academia

Why a Postdoc is basically needed in Academia

I’ve been totally swamped with proposal writing over the past few weeks, hence my erratic posting schedule. Also, right as I was going to sit down and work on a post, I found out that I was denied for another proposal, totally sapping any motivation to do anything useful. For those of you keeping score, I’m 0-5 in the my first 6 months with a bunch pending. That’s not what I would call a stellar start to my academic career. Needless to say, I’ve contemplating career choices and shoulda-woulda-couldas, but I think that’s only natural at points when things aren’t going the way you envisioned. It’s not all bad; I did get very good reviews from my Chair, which means in the Chair’s eyes I’m doing some things right even though I don’t feel like it is.

One of the proposals that rejected was in a Young Investigator/Young Faculty category. For those of you grad students who see yourself in a faculty role one day, they’re designed to give you a fighting chance to get money because you will only be pitted against other newbies, not tenured faculty with uber connections. Now, when the YIA (young investigator award) winners were announced, I immediately started to googlestalk the winners. I wanted to know their profile, their research areas, who may or may not already have connections, etc etc. I’m going to put below two profiles of researchers who sought the same YIA and then point out a few things.

Candidate 1: PhD took >6 years, postdoc’d at two different world class labs for >6 years, started their Asst Prof position ~4 years ago, 40+ papers published. Summary: lotsa papers and 16+ years of high level research

Candidate 2: PhD took <4 years, no postdoc, started their Asst Prof position a few months earlier, 11 papers published. Summary: published a lot during PhD research, got lucking getting TT position without postdoc. ~4 years total research.

I’d like to reiterate that both of these candidates were pursuing the same YIA. And while I don’t know what the other candidate’s proposal looked like, I can totally see why the review committee could easily say “Yup, clearly candidate 1 is more qualified that candidate 2”. WTF? There’s a difference of 12 years between two people competing for the same YIA.

Look, I realize that I should totally be grateful for getting a TT position without a postdoc (and believe me, I am). And the fact that I did get offers from very good schools means that I’m doing something right. But, the point of YIAs is to ensure a relatively level playing field between junior candidates, and to me, that’s not a level playing field. It’s not even close. Now, from this, I’m going to draw two conclusions which I know I’ll catch some flak for. (Yes, I realize that I am biased…)

  1. Doing a postdoc appears to be necessary: That doesn’t mean that I would 100% change places for a postdoc right now. But that little devil on my shoulder is saying “you could have accepted a high level named fellowship, done 3 years of kick-ass research, and made a name for yourself before testing the academic waters”. I still think that when you get the call to the major leagues, you don’t turn it down. But, if I had know what I know now about the level of over “young investigators”, I might have thought about it for a lot longer.
  2. YIA should be dated from PhD graduate date: Yup, totally biased. I know. But, if you had candidates that did their PhD research ranging over a 4-7 years, then the worst case would be about a 5-6 year difference in the levels of the young investigators. That’s vastly different that a 12 year difference when you’ve had an army of students able to churn out papers over a 4 year period. Also, this would probably (after some transient period) put pressure on people to only postdoc for 2-4 years at max, which is what it was originally intended for. Postdocs weren’t meant for researchers to basically be a research scientist that’s paid in peanuts and pocket lint. They were meant to either sharpen your focus in a field or get additional training in a field that branches off from your original but without the burdens of classes and writing a thesis. Postdoc research has, at some places, morphed in to “getting cheap researchers to work on this problem”, with no end in sight. Setting the limit on YIA awards to be 5 years from when you’ve finished your PhD would level the playing field a lot more.

I know this will probably stir the pot but from my perspective, it’s severely tilted towards people who have postdoc’d and really screws over those that didn’t.

13 comments

I think I’m something like 0/10 on my last few grant proposals—and I’m an established researcher with 30 years of publications. I’ve basically given up on the field I was in and am retraining myself for a slightly different field.

Make sure that you spend more of your time on research and teaching than on writing grant proposals—the grant proposal game seems now to be designed to prevent progress by keeping people away from actually doing research.

I agree with you that too many institutions have made postdocs into semi-permanent underpaid positions. Like using contingent faculty for teaching, relying heavily on postdocs for research saves money in the short run while doing substantial damage to academia in the long run. It is a real shame that NIH favors spending money on postdocs over any other budgetary item (they hate spending money on lowly grad students, for example).

Yeah, I’m making sure to schedule at least 1 morning/afternoon in the lab per week to make sure that I have at least a 4 hour block of “progress” on projects.

I don’t have personal experiences with NIH, only what I’ve read on blogs. I think it’s a disgrace to keep people in limbo like that.

I have to both agree and disagree with you.

Disagreement first: I got a tenure track position straight out of grad school. PhD 4.5 yrs, about 15 papers from PhD. I received two young investigator awards during my tenure track, one of them CAREER on my first try. However, my first CAREER try came in July after my 1st year, which I spent writing many, many proposals with collaborators, none of which were funded. My point is that your failure so far is actually pretty common, because it takes a while to develop the grant writing chops. It takes a while to understand what fundable ideas look like, how much preliminary work is needed, how to package it, etc. You just have to keep at it, keep writing, keep resubmitting, and before you know it you will be a federally funded PI! I don’t think my lack of postdoc influenced the funding decisions in my case.

However, I agree with you that postdocs are very useful. In fact, I wish I had done a postdoc. The reason I wish I had done a postdoc is because I wish I had the time to just be a scientist for a little while longer and work on my craft, while someone else worries about the money. Sometime on the tenure track, I transitioned into more of a managerial role, writing grants and editing papers. I regret the deterioration of my technical skills and the lack of time to do work on my own; a postdoc is supposed to be the best time — you are competent and a master of your craft, but someone else is the sugardaddy. But no need to cry over spilled milk, especially because in reality was never really an option for me, primarily because hub and I were so terribly broke after raising a kid on student stipends that the only way out was a real job; also, because I really don’t like having people tell me what to do (hate having a boss; one reason why I can never work in industry).

I fear I’m in that world of “not sciency enough for NSF” and “too fundamental for corporate research”. It’s a shitty place to be right now, especially with the DOD cuts.

Since my wife was already working a real job during my PhD work, money wasn’t too much of a motivator. Rather, I specifically went for a PhD knowing that I wanted a get a faculty position afterwards. I still ended up applying for postdocs but when you get a TT offer, it’s really hard to turn down.

“I fear I’m in that world of “not sciency enough for NSF” and “too fundamental for corporate research”.”

This actually sounds remarkably like what I do. I presume you apply to the ENG directorate? If you want, we could chat offline more…

Hang in there. I’m close to submitting my tenure packet and was hired at a top engineering department without a postdoc. The first couple years were rough; start-up was steadily running out, lots (20+) of grant rejections. Got the CAREER on my third try. Got two additional very large grants immediately after. My advice: volunteer to sit on review panels. Nothing helps to improve grant writing than getting some experience on the other side. Many agencies will use reviewers who have not yet secured funding. The other important change was that I finally had a few pubs out from my independent laboratory. Those two things seemed to make all the difference.

Good luck on your tenure package. Let us know how it goes.

Your advice is similar to what I’ve heard. I did sit on a panel this past fall, which was helpful, although I think at least two of my proposals were better than the top ranked proposal from the panel.

I’m in the process of getting the last of my equipment needed and training my graduate students to start ratcheting up the pub machine.

I’m in Ontario, Canada. The equivalent of YIAs is the Early Researcher Award (http://www.mri.gov.on.ca/english/programs/era/program.asp). And, lo and behold, one of the eligibility requirements is “No more than 10 years from having completed their first Doctor of Philosophy.” This would prevent the worst abuses such as the case of Candidate #1.

The fact that the funding agencies have already thought of such things is easy to take for granted here in Canada. I never even noticed this issue until I read your post, although presumably if I had taken a position in the US, I would have learned the hard way.

Have you been debriefed by the program managers? Sometimes they can be helpful, but even if they are not, by talking calmly and respectfully with them you can build a personal relationship which can help you when you are on the funding line.

Assuming the science is excellent, you also need to seriously polish the surrounding (bio sketch/post doc mentoring/broader impacts/facilities, /budget/budget justification/management plan/table of contents, etc. A senior faculty member or someone from the research office can help with this. It is important that reviewers find everything they expect immediately, without having to prospect for it

Hi Gears,

So you didn’t get a grant. If you are just out of school, as you pointed out, the competition may be stiff, even against other young investigators with more experience. At least you’re not competing against department heads like you would be otherwise.

The fact is, those next 12 years are going to go by no matter whether you are doing a postdoc now, or forging your own path in your TT position. Then you will be the one with 16+ years experience. Make sure that those next 12 years count. If you are not great at writing grants, and are not great at politics, then you need to find a mentor. If you think you can benefit from the resources and guidance of someone who’s working on something great, you can do that now just as well as if you were doing a post-doc, assuming there’s someone at your institution you can learn from. If not, you may want to reconsider if staying will be great for your career.

Write a grant or two with someone who *is* great at writing grants. You probably already did this in grad school, but if you have an opportunity to write one with a master, it’s a special learning experience. It’s a different skill set, and you should go in prepared to be humbled.

You are where you are. *Nobody* can bestow you with experience–you have to live and do stuff to get it. If opportunity is water, then a postdoc may be bottled water (packaged and branded), and your way may be like drinking from the river, but it’s all water. You have 12 years less experience than the other guy. You will likely have all that in 12 years. Make them count.

Dave

Dave:
“If opportunity is water, then a postdoc may be bottled water (packaged and branded), and your way may be like drinking from the river, but it’s all water. ”

The difference is that bottled water is generally safe…drinking from the river can give you diarrhea 🙂

Im currently doing a postdoc and although I love it, I would gladly give it up for a taste of river water 🙂

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