The scientist-in-training (archived from LabSpaces)

Dec 05 2010 Published by under academia

originally posted 19 Sept 2010

FSP had an interesting post last week about dodging a postdoctoral bullet. Dr. Becca noticed this post in relation to her search for a new postdoc, but what caught my attention was how the comments spun away from what seemed to be the main point of FSP's post and into a discussion about how postdocs are compensated. The reason this I was struck by this is that IRL I have had this same conversation at least 3 times in the past two weeks. Weird!

Fully obvious disclosure: I was once a graduate student and also spent the last several years as a postdoc.

I have never understood folks that complain about how graduate students and/or postdocs have it so bad. Now, before anyone starts hyperventilating, I recognize that there are situations in which people are truly taken advantage of-but these are not the norm, IME. I also recognize that there are times when doing science SUCKS and there are scientists that are douche-bags. I am not talking about any of these situations.

Instead, I'm referring to the folks that complain about the whole system of training scientists in academia. People that are upset that graduate students and postdocs make so little money, that there are way more postdocs than TT jobs, etc. I don't buy it. The main issue I have with this view is that it is often based on an underlying assumption that being a grad student or postdoc is a "job". I disagree.

Let me start with the grad student. Just because you are paid to be a graduate student does not erase the fact that you are, in fact, a student. Someone is paying your tuition and benefits and training you to be a scientist. AND they are paying YOU a stipend on top of all of that! By the time you finish your degree, someone will have forked out at least 300K on your behalf. Postdocs are also trainees, even if they are not tuition-paying students. And again, someone has raised the cash to pay for you to do research and have a stipend. What really gets me, though, is that these are voluntary positions. No one forces you to go to graduate school or get a postdoc. And, if you are an incoming graduate student all I can say is...WTF? Are you complaining because you think that is what everyone expects? Because if you really feel this way I can not understand why you decided to go to graduate school. There are other career paths that may be more appropriate for you.

Now, are there some PIs that could/should be better mentors? No doubt. Are there more graduate students and postdocs than TT positions? Yes! Not all folks that want a TT job land one. Just like not all chefs get to run the kitchen at a fancy restaurant. I don't think that science is a unique industry in this
respect.

I am not trying to claim that the system is a panacea. But, grad students and postdocs are adults. Be proactive and get what you need out of your time as a scientist-in-training. If you are not getting the mentoring that you need then do something about it. Something more than just complaining.

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