Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What's wrong with postdocs

It's suddenly become clear to me that the problem with postdocs has nothing to do with the terms in which it's usually phrased, such as abuse of/balance of power. The problem is that most postdocs are in the fields which put faculty under the greatest pressures: grant-dependent, high expectations about paper output, few positions, perhaps clinical duties or soft money salary. In the fields which do not have these huge pressures, people can just go off to faculty jobs without the intermediate postdoc.

Faculty may be the nicest people in the world, and some are, but they simply have no time to be the mentors that the training grants envision them to be. Mentorship is not rewarded --- publications and grants are most important, so they become first priorities, and mentorship and education are given what little time is left over.

The postdoc position is, in theory, a great idea: lots of unhampered time to build up a publication list before tenure clock starts, but the time is structured by someone who isn't really thinking about your role or life.

Yesterday I was all ready to accept the one solid postdoc offer that I had, but this morning I decided --- forget the work I'm being paid for! --- to investigate my precise research options.

My only actual interview with the postdoc advisor was a 45 minute breakfast meeting at 7 am. I didn't have an accessible pad of paper, so have no notes of the encounter, but we talked in very vague ways about a range of projects, some relevant to the research center's mission and others which had no apparent connection, almost like free association.

Then I had the 10 minute phone conversation while the potential advisor was in the car. Research topics was a much larger area, so I said we'll have to talk later about it. I asked for times when we could talk later, but he offered to send me instead an email with a list of people to contact about their research projects, if I reminded him. I did, and he sent me a list of five names and email addresses with no explanation. So far, I don't see any connection between their work and my research interests, other than broad outlines.

People say about large research institutions that you have to be proactively persistent, but persistence bleeds very easily into pushy. Talking for 10 minutes to a potential recruit while otherwise occupied seems like a signal that I should leave him alone. I'm sure he didn't mean it that way, but it seems almost unbelievable that he wouldn't even offer another time to talk. Or at least, it would seem unbelievable if this hadn't been my experience throughout my entire education.

A friend of mine who is defending just sent me an email which reminded me of the classical situation. She has a job, and just has to defend and graduate. She had a committee meeting scheduled, for which she had emailed each of her committee members to ask about preferred times. Everyone is assembled, except professor A, who walks past the room. They didn't stop him because they assumed he would be right back. He later said that he didn't know about the meeting and couldn't make it anyhow, although he had been scheduled to the time that he had said he preferred.

Professor B is antsy because it's a waste of his time, which he can't spare, and he hadn't finished reading the thesis that he'd gotten the previous week (now that I'm no longer in this position, it seems obvious that 1 week is too little lead time --- my committee would have never let me schedule a meeting less than 2 weeks in advance of sending a draft --- but they should have given her a guideline.) So now she has to start again with the process of scheduling a time for three professors to meet with her, just to decide on an approximate defense date. Which will then be another process of scheduling. While talking about the meeting with her junior faculty member advisor, she burst into tears, not because she was upset about all the changes discussed at the meeting, which her advisor had thought, but because she realized just how powerless she was to finish. Her ability to start her new job on time depends entirely on people who can't keep appointments or prepare for meetings.

Her story reminds me of a recent phd comic.

The power discrepancy isn't malicious. It's just inevitable from the fact that 100% of a postdoc's life is determined by the least important 3% of someone else's life.

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