postdocs -- ask your mentor

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at cco.caltech.edu
Thu Aug 14 15:30:02 EST 1997


In article <Pine.SUN.3.95L.970814124056.23852A-100000 at ciao.cc.columbia.edu>,
Judith Gibber  <jrg43 at columbia.edu> wrote:
>
>I'm right behind you on that.  It's awful that the scientific enterprise
>is in such a state that people are compelled to spend years as low-paid
>postdocs because there are too few jobs available.  I just think that some
>historical perspective on how the situation developed would be useful,
>and might help direct efforts to try to remedy it.

I think this is a good point; I know this thread has gotten me started
re-examining what I think/thought a postdoc was for, and where I got those
ideas.  

In graduate school, which was for me the late 80's and early to mid 90's,
I absorbed the idea that there was this ideal that you were working
towards, which was to "be an independent scientist" and/or to "discover
something."  The sooner you could do that the better.  I was told that
coursework wasn't very important, but that "good graduate students spend
12 hours a day in lab."  Another student was told to "get into the lab 
and discover something!"

I remember being gleefully told, several times during my coursework and
training, about a particular graduate student (whose name had by then
acquired mythical proportions at my institution) whose PhD thesis had
been so spectacular that he had achieved this "independent scientist"
status (followed by a good job offer) while still a graduate student.
Another example held up to me for emulation was an MD/PhD student who had
gotten a job at UCSF in the middle of his PhD, again because of some very
exciting discovery he had made, and just "hadn't bothered" to finish the
clinical part of his MD because he "didn't need it anymore."  These people
are now established, respected professors in their 40's, meaning that this
situation was possible 10-15 years ago, and while I was in graduate school,
I sort of assumed it was still and always possible.  When no one offered
me a job in the middle of my PhD, I just assumed it was because I wasn't
smart enough and didn't work hard enough, and my work wasn't exciting
enough.

I was also told that to get a job now, what was required was an "independent
substantial body of work," and it didn't really matter where you did that.
If your PhD project didn't work out, then your postdoc was a second chance
(and your second postdoc was a third chance, etc.) at achieving the status
of "independent scientist who has discovered something."  

So, I realize that what I absorbed in graduate school was an attitude that
time spent, coursework completed, degrees earned, number of postdocs done,
etc. etc. was all basically irrelevant to getting a job.  All that
mattered was somehow, someway, becoming an independent scientist who
had discovered something exciting, and you just had to be dedicated or crazy
enough to just keep plugging away at it--for 3 years or 3 decades--as many
(or as few) postdocs as it took until either it happened or your money
ran out.

I hope I don't have to add that I think this is NOT a good attitude for
graduate students to absorb, and I don't think it leads to a happy or
well-balanced outlook on life.

Karen



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