postdocs -- ask your mentor

Bart Janssen bjanssen at
Sat Aug 16 13:34:53 EST 1997

C. Boake wrote:

> In article <33F34859.1064FDEE at>, Bart Janssen
> <bjanssen at> wrote:
> >Remember also that for Linus Pauling and Jim Watson there
> > was no question that they would have jobs when they returned "home".
> >
> > All that means is that the post-doc is a completely different job
> from
> > what it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago.  Has the change been for the
> > good?????
> >
> > cheers
> > Bart
> At the risk of being pedantic, I'd like to point out that Watson was a
> postdoc nearly 50 years ago, not 30 years ago.
> <good stuff snipped>

Thanks Chris for the correction, it's sometimes a bit scary how quickly
time passes :).  You make very good points about the viability of PhD
population control.  There is one other very good reason why population
control won't come into effect any time soon and that was pointed out by
Kimberley.  Namely, grad students are cheap labour.  For many labs there
is a diliberate effort to have a larger number of grad students doing
research rather than employing post-docs.  The minus in that situation
is that grad students need more supervision (at least initially), but at
half the salary and no benefits there are many PIs who choose that
option.  This situation is in sharp contrast to medicine and law where
graduate students are purely a liability to the lecturers, there is no
significant benefit to a lecturer to have more students, hence it is
easy to convince the powers that be to limit intake.

There is another side to this problem (thanks to David for coming up
with numbers) with somewhere between 10 and 20 000 post-docs in bio, an
increase in salary from 20k to 40k  will cost the country roughly 400
million.  Now personally I don't think that is a huge sum of money.  But
the key question is should the country invest more money in science, and
in particular for this discussion should the country attract more and
better scientists by increasing salaries.  Many people including most
scientists seem to subscribe to the idea that the present number of
scientists is OK and no we don't need many more.  However, I personally
don't think we have enough good people in science.

This discussion goes off thread pretty quickly but fundementally I
believe that a large investment in science is good for society at all
levels, historically that has been proven again and again.  The question
is what percentage of the workforce should be employed in scientific
research?  The major problem is not convincing other scientists
(usually).  Most scientists will agree that research (in particular pure
research) has a huge pay off in the long term (examples are just too
numerous; the internet, PCR, antibody assays, plant genetics.......).
But what has been ignored, is that the general public has almost no
perception of just how valuable scientific research is in their daily
lives.  To be honest I don't think TV is a particularly good medium for
disseminating that awareness.  I think the very best way of
desseminating the idea that science is good, is word of mouth.  The
problem with that is that very few scientists take the time to explain
their work and more importantly the value of their work to lay people
(including their own parents!!!).  I've seen many people say they are
tired of their family saying "when are they going to get a real job",
but have they really explained their work and it's potential value.

My own tactic is to talk to every taxi driver I can :).  But also I
never let anyone anywhere get away with a misapprehension about
science.  I don't know whether it makes a damn bit of difference.  But I
do know that without support/pressure from the public then politicians
will never change funding levels.

whoops too long again


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