Postdocs

E. Wijsman wijsman at u.washington.edu
Thu Aug 14 12:34:09 EST 1997


I think Peg has summarized the reason we do postdocs beautifully.  I have
gotten a LOT of mileage out of my postdoc years (1981-1984).  What I was
learning was exactly what Peg described, plus I will add that I got a good
dose of thinking about long-term planning and politics, both of which I
don't think I could truly have absorbed as a grad student in quite the
same way.  I found that there was an enormous amount to learn about how to
do science (not just how to solve a particular scientific problem), plus I
got a chance to gain more breadth, which I don't think I could have done
without those protected research years.

And as Judith Gibber pointed out, the postdoc is NOT a recent phenomenon. 
What is recent is the more uniform label associated with those years, and
possibly the average length spent on postdoctoral training.  I think ALL
the *well-known*, older scientists that I knew as a graduate student spent
a number of years in interim positions before landing "real" positions. 
They were the post-world-war-II generation, and instead of getting to
devote all their time to research, they usually also had a hefty teaching
load.  They also got paid a pittance.  My father "postdoc-ed" in the late
1950's - I think his salary was about $150/mo as an "instructor". It is
really just that small generation from the mid-60's to early 70's that
didn't do postdocs when the universities substantially expanded.  Of
course, some of those are the advisors of the current grad students, which
may explain part of the disappointment the students are feeling.

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On 14 Aug 1997 matkisso at opal.tufts.edu wrote:

> The attitudes towards post-doctoral positions displayed in this thread strike
> me as ... narrow-minded?  That's a kinder word than what first popped into my
> mind.  Some people dismiss the training aspect of a post-doc, others reduce the
> time to mere resume padding and networking.  I'm interested by the prevailing
> notion that a shiny new Ph. D. qualifies you to run an independent laboratory.
> 
> The _only_ thing I agree with is the outdated $19K salaries for NRSA 
> fellowships.
> 
> Although I'm only starting the fifth year of my Ph. D., I've been in labs for
> over 10 years.  I've seen a state school, a smaller private institution, and
> the World's Greatest University from the inside.  I've seen post-docs who
> stayed in the same field (same molecule!), switched fields (immuno->neuro), 
> switched techniques (patch clamp->molecuar), changed disciplines (physics->
> neuro), left for law firms, got turned into faculty, you _name_ it.
> 
> Here's what I think:
> 
> Current biomedical science operates pretty much on the apprenticeship model.  A
> grad student is an apprentice, learning the basics of how to handle the tools,
> think through a problem, get the work done.  A post-doc is a journeyman,
> skilled at the basics, but needing to learn how to interact with the patrons
> (funding agencies), sell the wares (write papers, give talks), and supervise
> the apprentices.  A (insert rank) professor (or senior scientist for industry)
> is a master, prepared to handle all the duties of keeping the shop running,
> including paying the rent and the salaries, and coming up with new designs.
> 
> I have never seen anyone truly prepared to run a lab fresh out of grad school. 
> _Yes_, you're a skilled worker.  _Yes_, you can tough it out through adversity. 
> _Yes_ you have proven your potential.  However, you have likely see only one
> style of science, one type of departmental politics, one way of handling those
> pesky interpersonal lab dynamics. 
>   
> The prevailing sentiment I see is that no one cares too much what you did for
> your Ph. D.  They expect your post-doc to be the measure of your worth.
> Perseverance alone can get you a Ph. D.  The growing independence in the post-
> doctoral years is more a test of how you'll be on your own.
> 
> A Ph. D. is a union card.  Sure you get trained in how to work in a lab and
> carry out research, but I learned that as a technician.  What I'm learning in
> my graduate training is a depth of thought I never had as a tech.  What I would
> hope to learn as a post-doc is a breadth of approach I will not learn in a
> single lab.
> 
> But this is me, and my 0.02.  I'll go put on my asbestos underwear, now, and
> await your flames.
> 
> Peg.  
> 
> 
> 
> 




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