Thursday, July 01, 2010

Transitions: Sidebar

Say it, sisters.

Science PhD and postdoc training is not all it's cracked up to be:
For the great majority, becoming a scientist now entails a penurious decade or more of graduate school and postdoc positions before joining the multitude vainly vying for the few available faculty-level openings. Earning a doctorate now consumes an average of about seven years. In many fields, up to five more years as a postdoc now constitute... the “terminal de facto credential” required for faculty-level posts... Nearly every faculty member with a research grant... now uses postdocs to do the bench work for the project. Paid out of the grant, these highly skilled employees might earn $40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab. A lucky few will eventually land faculty posts, but even most of those won’t get traditional permanent spots with the potential of tenure protection.
Also known as a Ponzi scheme:
A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent [academic] operation that [pays peanuts and makes people work ridiculous hours] to separate [scientists] from their own [time, blood, sweat, and tears], rather than [returning] any actual profit earned. The Ponzi scheme usually entices new investors by offering returns other investments cannot guarantee... The perpetuation of the returns... requires an ever-increasing flow of [PhD students] to keep the scheme going. The system is destined to collapse because the earnings, if any, are less than the payments to investors.
And it hurts whenever you leave it, anyways, even if you know all this:
I think Science-with-a-capital-S was just a pretty different place when all of the current faculty were coming up through the ranks. There were some reasonable expectations for employment in science when you were done. For current postdocs, it's such a different atmosphere. Not only are there not enough academic jobs to go around, but leaving academia is usually a pretty ego-shattering experience.
(I don't regret leaving. And I'm not distressed about leaving in any way. But I *do* think it's a Ponzi scheme. The number of PhDs and postdocs greatly exceeds the number of faculty openings; most PhDs and postdocs are 'groomed' for academia; someone with an R1 requires >>1 grad student/postdoc. Ponzi scheme.)


  1. Wow...$40,000 for 60 hours a week after going to school for 7 years?

    I was making $45,000 for 40 hours a week with a bachelor's degree in the clinical biotech lab (first forensics, then in medical genetics).

    I think I got the better deal. True, I don't have a Ph.D. after my name, but I also don't have enormous student loan debt either. I do have 12 years of experience which makes (or made at at least) me an expert.

    Do I think it's a Ponzi scheme? Yes, and I do think you are brave for seeing it like it really was and getting the hell out.

    Now, I know that's little consolation to you, knowing you are lonely and up to your eyeballs in mundane domestic affairs, but hey, at least you aren't an indentured servant to an inhuman machine. You have more freedom to choose how to spend your time and the right job will come along.

    Hey...speaking of which, if you are in Wisconsin (like I think you are), are you anywhere near Madison? Promega is a huge international biotech company there.

    Here's a list of current job postings:

    Some years back, I was to nail an interview there, but I chickened out at the last minute, having had a humongous panic attack on the little puddle jumper airplane that effectively nixed my travel heavy career opportunity to head up a training-and-troubleshooting program. Turned out that was the best move for me, as I got hired not too long after that as a supervisor in a small genetics lab at a private university - no travel required.

    Failing that, if you aren't against traveling, what about contacting the companies that supplied your instrumentation at your lab. I know that, while not glamorous, I once considered applying at Applied Biosystems as a field service person for the instrument I knew inside and out - the ABI 3100 Genetic Analyzer. Basically, that would entail servicing a particular region and some amount of traveling (but that was also before I developed a wicked fear of flying).

    And hey...for giggles and shit...apply at clinical university labs if there are any nearby. I basically cold sent my resume for 1 position, and it circulated among the biology department and it just so happened I got hired for the medical genetics lab (and I wasn't even applying for that particular one).

    C'mon...that's what you need to do...go clinical/industrial. can doit!

  2. I was in industry! I think for now I'll stay home- I liked my last job, I just didn't like being torn between work and home. :)


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