postdocs -- ask your mentor

aloisia schmid a-schmi at
Sat Aug 16 13:56:59 EST 1997

In article <cboake-1608971225480001 at>, cboake at (C.
Boake) wrote:

> Now we are in a stage with relatively few college-age students, and less
> need for large faculties.  But was anyone thinking about that for the past
> 15 or 20 years?  If so, it was nobody with any influence.  So we have been
> training a huge excess of scientists without considering that at the very
> best, each current faculty member needs to train only one replacement in a
> lifetime.  (In ecological terms, academia is k-selected, and everyone has
> been acting as though it is r-selected.)  Furthermore, the cost of
> research and education has increased dramatically but the available
> research funding has remained flat or dropped in constant dollars.
> Mary Clutter, who heads Biology at NSF, is certainly aware of the
> overproduction of PhDs and thinks it is a mistake.  However, universities
> gain prestige by the number of MS and PhD degrees that they award, and
> they are not likely to encourage faculty to run more modest labs (or to
> hire technicians instead of students).  Here in Tennessee, our campus is
> partially funded by the state according to a formula that includes how
> many graduate students are enrolled here.  I don't know how many other
> states operate in the same way, but I doubt that we are alone in being
> pressed to keep large numbers of graduate students on hand. 
> Consequently, although some advisors are short-sighted and see having a
> big lab as a sign of personal worth, many are quite aware of the
> difficulties of the current system.  But overall I think the system needs
> to be changed, because overtraining is institutionalized and not merely
> the result of a few academic personalities.
> Chris Boake
> Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
> University of Tennessee at Knoxville

I know that people have been aware of this, but what this requires is telling a 
PI that he is supposed to be successful by doing the work him/herself. 
They are supposed to get grants and also keep publishing in an era when
papers incorporate HUGE volumes of data---stuff that even only 5,6,7 years
ago would have filled three or four papers.  In situs used to be a big
deal;  wild type expression data was a paper by itself.  Now it's almost
an afterthought.  The point being that the ever-growing monster that is
science in the US has gotten to a point where it allows only those parts
of itself with really big and successful metabolisms to survive.  So if
you tell a PI---"Be careful, do not train too many people!  It is unfair
to THEM."    Aren't you then saying, "But nevertheless we expect great
things from you personally.  We expect you to do this amazing research on
your own."  I have never seen a lab in which the lion's share of the work
was done by technicians, and that managed to be very competitive.  There
just aren't enough hours in a tech's day to make that a viable alternative
to hands that have twice as much time to get the job done. 

So are we saying it is time to go back to the PACE of the days when we
chased butterflies?  Has the PACE we've arrived at made a more responsible
training rate impossible?  If so, how do you institute changes that affect
these kinds of things?  

One thing that I have been amazed by is the change in European science.  I
used to think they had the right idea.  I had always heard those legends
thatin Europe, they have coffee breaks together and they work ten hour
days, and have week-ends off.  That they looks at their careers as being
jobs, not obsessions.  But when you talk to people in European labs now,
boy have things CHANGED!  They now work as compulsively as American
scientists do.  

So has the competition from American counterparts driven them to change
their healthy perspectives on life?  

And when you think about it---with the exception maybe of MDs, is there
ANY other profession that requires the man hours scientific research

I think it would be great if there were funding agencies that rewarding
high productivity and good output, but also gave euqal measure to how
happy and well-adjusted and emotionally satisfied the members of the lab
were.  I wonder if we made it lucrative to be more relaxed, woudl that be
enough to over-ride an inner competitive drive?


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