Postdocalypse now

February 03, 2013

In high school I started fantasizing about my future life as a professor. This fantasy deepened throughout my charmed apprenticeship, which culminated in a prestigious independent postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton. But my fantasy fizzled last month after it became clear that a two-year search for an assistant professorship at a Research I university was not going to bear fruit. Facing a 1 in 300 chance (or worse) in an applicant pool of near equals, the odds were ever in my disfavor.

 

I could place my fantasy on life support as a second postdoc or claw my way into a tenure-track position through an adjunct appointment, but in my case these moves would be a step back. I just spent the last five years managing a $1M budget and a two-person lab while also teaching, and published two papers on novel insights into how antidepressants actually work. At age 33, with plans to start a family, and a desire for – gasp! – life/work balance, entering the equivalent of a professional holding pattern offers little appeal or dignity.

 

So how the hell did I not foresee this outcome? Like so many of my contemporaries, I’ve been a contestant in the Tenure Games since I was a teenage summer research intern, plenty of time to see the writing on the wall. Most PhDs don’t become professors. But I was in denial. At each transition in my academic career I watched people drop off, and the refrain in my head was “I’ll be different.”

 

For a time that was true until one day it wasn’t.

 

To be fair to myself and to the scores of other rejected postdocs, the Tenure Games were not of our making. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget doubled from $15B to $30B in the late 90s and early 00s:

 

 

People and projects followed in droves, but the capacity to absorb trainees into stable academic careers didn’t increase proportionally, resulting a predictable glut of postdocs that was exacerbated by the Great Recession.

 

I was loath to admit all of this publicly till now, partly out of insecurity and partly out of academic self-preservation. The latter is no longer a concern. Engaging the online scientific community on Twitter has helped me overcome my insecurity, because it provided concrete evidence for the first time in my training that I wasn’t alone.

 

If you’re like me, there’s no reason to be ashamed. Almost every single assistant professor I know has admitted that it was dumb luck, idiosyncratic departmental tastes or plain old academic tribalism that landed them their job, because they all had impressive CVs, stellar recommendations and solid proposals.

 

So what’s next? As the shell shock begins to wear off and more and more thwarted postdocs emerge from their bunkers, I hope we can take comfort and inspiration from each other by sharing our journeys. Younger trainees can benefit from our peer-to-peer mentorship. And practically speaking, we can start to mobilize and brainstorm new ways to do the science we love outside of traditional academic (or even industry) settings.

Related Posts

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Postdocalypse later
We are all n=1 now
  • http://twitter.com/CjBayesian Likelihood T. Prior

    Hear, hear! Do you know of any sources that have compiled the production of PhDs vs the supply of tenure track positions over time?

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks for commenting! I did some searching for stats, found a bunch of links. If there’s a crowdsourced compilation of stats, I’d love to see it.

  • http://twitter.com/weitergen Tobias Maier

    Thanks for the article, Ethan. I can relate. I dropped out after a five year post-doc and a good year of searching for an independent position last June. Haven’t regretted this step for a single day.

    • http://twitter.com/_inundata Karthik Ram

      What did you end up doing?

      • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

        yes, I’m curious to know, too. (It’s due diligence for my plan B).

        • http://twitter.com/weitergen Tobias Maier

          I became self employed and started implementing a couple of ideas I have had for a while. (recentlyapp.com and openconsortium.eu). Still not sure if and how they will keep me afloat, but then again, academic science proved that it won’t do that either. Being self employed is certainly more fun than being a postdoc.

          • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

            agreed. good luck with your free agency. we are all independent scientists now!

  • http://twitter.com/CraftBeerCoach Joe Callender

    You have seen the light my friend. There is a new paradigm to what it means to be soundly educated and “successfully employed.” The signs are everywhere and people need to wake up and stiffen the spine and get to work on themselves. It took me until 44 to face it.

    College has become finishing school for high school. School did absolutely nothing for discovering the truth of who I am now, all of which I learned through studying myself. It did try to show me how to be like everyone else. Grammar school, high school, college, work, societal messages…all there to herd you through with as little resistance (read your dreams, needs and passions) from you as possible. Yes, I drank the cool-aid too.

    So companies now complain that colleges are not properly preparing the workers that they will in turn not empower and eventually let go anyway…and the wheels on the bus go…That is a vicious cycle I refuse to participate in any longer. Forget the bus, I’ll walk.

    I’ve been walking for the past year. You should see what I’ve seen.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks for sharing, Joe!

    • David Perlman

      What have you seen?

  • Jason Flowers

    Thanks as well! I found this post via twitter, and it helps to hear others stories. I am pretty close to the ending my search for an academic position. While I have only done 1.5 years of post-doc so far, my life/family goals and age are pushing me to find other career avenues. I wish you luck in whatever you future endeavors are.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      you are welcome, Jason. good luck to you, too! will you experiment with free agency?

      • Jason

        I have an engineering degree, so I will likely go after an industry job for “some” stability. Since most of my work is computational, I might try to do some science on the side. We shall see.

  • Amanda Damewood

    Ethan this is really refreshing to read. I am glad to know this sort of problem isn’t limited to the humanities. Not that it helps, but it makes me feel better to commiserate with a degree of interdisciplinarity.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks, Amanda! I was at Science Online 2013 last week and I was floored (though I shouldn’t have been) to hear that peers in the humanities and social sciences are also unwitting contestants in the Tenure Games.

  • Collin Burton

    This is why I went for a professional Science Masters. Not going the PhD track was one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made.

  • Travelingeneticist

    Great post, Ethan. The Tenure Games are impacting an entire generation of scientists–from the lack of suitable number of positions to tenure denial in droves. Applications and tenure packets that would be successful 5 years ago are no longer competitive. Science is changing, and big, transformative science is embraced by young faculty, but derided by older colleagues. I was just denied tenure from a Research I institute. I wish I had listened to my gut 6 years ago and left academics then, but I thought I could make it, even with an unsatisfactory start up. I took advantage of as much as possible during my 6 years as a TT faculty member, and I learned a TON! As I figure out my next move, it saddens me that so many bright, capable people are leaving science. When I was a grad student, the entire world wanted to train here. The US is no longer the Science Mecca. Where will the US be globally in the next 10 years?

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      great point. Asia and the Middle East are investing in research. I wish every dollar spent on a drone were spent on research instead. but the NIH system is broken, along with Academia and Pharma. I’d want to see serious Open Science reforms before NIH were allowed to spend more taxpayer money. ~30 new incremental FDA drug approvals a year is not worth the tens and hundreds of thousands of frustrated PhDs who could be creating the next big things in health and disease.

  • Badr Albanna

    Thanks for sharing this piece. You give voice to the feelings that so many of us have, but are reluctant to voice because somehow we feel that identifying a structural weakness is an indication that you will be one of those who will not “make the cut.” As someone who is about to finish my PhD in a scientific discipline I am often churning over potential Plan Bs and am attracted to the sort of “independent scientist” approach that some of the previous commenters have alluded to, but I think it is safe to say that this approach will not compensate for the number of scientists who cannot find positions in academia despite wanting them (or a more balanced version of them).

    I’d like to take this opportunity to respond to your call for other experiences at the end of your post: My partner is also a scientist on a post-doc and we are barely managing as it is – let alone if I were to be out of an income while starting a new venture. We also wonder how we will manage if we continue on the treadmill of postdocs, adjuncts, *even if* it eventually culminates in a tenured professorship.

    I am curious if you or anyone reading this knows anything about the extent to which scientists or academics in general can only pursue their career because they have a partner or family that can make up for some of the pay, time, and stability deficiencies that go along with an academic life. In other words, to what extent does science already rely heavily on “subsidies” from other professions in the form of others who make a better income or have the ability to contribute more to child-care, etc? I suspect the answer is “quite a bit” and that same may be said of other professions (teaching at any level comes to mind).

    On a larger scale, I think these problems are important because they have a large effect *who* gets to do science and – I think it is uncontroversial to say – what types of science gets done. I would also like to see conversations about new models for supporting science, but I think we should not limit ourselves to envisioning solutions outside the current system, but should think about how the current system should change in order to accommodate a more equitable system for those engaging in scientific work and those who want to. At the very least, in considering new models we should be careful that we do not recreate a type of scientific system where only the “gentleman scientist” (unfortunately the gender implied here is deliberate) can afford to participate in the scientific enterprise.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      I’d be more than over than moon if Academia reformed itself. I would have liked to have tried to reform from within if they would have let me in. But now that’s behind and Academia’s going to have to evolve without my direct action.

  • http://twitter.com/RaoulMiller Raoul Miller

    Great post – I dropped out of the academic rat race a dozen years ago. And while I’m happy I did my PhD and all that work at research and teaching, I’m also happy that I pulled the plug when I did and moved into the private sector – software architecture for me.
    As you say, the tenure model is currently broken, has been for decades, and shows no sign of getting fixed. I’m happy for that tiny minority who do get those crumbs of tenure-track positions, but all of us who were part of this need to help out those still holding out that false hope of a “traditional” career progression.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      couldn’t agree more with you, Raoul.

  • Jason Rihel

    Hi Ethan–

    As a recent lander of my own lab, I can tell you that your 1) Dumb luck and 2) department tastes are 100% correct. Anyone who thinks that their publication record and CV are bullet-proof tickets to multiple job offers should seriously re-evaluate. One of the biggest eye-openers was when I was invited to one of those “Interview all the candidates at once” symposiums. I watched talk after talk of people that I would hire over myself. That isn’t so surprising– we’ve all seen stellar colleagues at meetings, etc. But the evening bonding session with the other candidates at the local bar was where reality really hit. Those two talks that blew everyone away, sure-fire awesomeness? Nope– they didn’t have tons of interviews,either. Even worse was realizing that the guy and gal that just blew you and the whole Department away don’t even have overlapping interview schedules, despite applying to all the same places! Because for every one of them, there are many more just as good. When I did get to peel back the numbers, I quickly turned away– 300-400 applicants. Maybe 5 get interviews.

    Now that I am on the other side of that process, I see even more how arbitrary it is– just for postdoc positions I get many more good applicants than I can even interview, and I’m a relative nobody, so I can’t imagine the numbers of great applicants to famous or more senior labs.

    We have become like the movie industry, a lottery without even the big payoff at the end.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks for chiming in, Jason, and congrats on getting a job! where did you wind up?

    • http://spinynorman.tumblr.com Spiny Norman

      FWIW 300-400 applicants for a TT slot has been the norm for at least 15 years. That has not changed, and it is not a number that serious applicants need to worry about. This is because — even now — the vast majority (probably 70%) of the applicants for a given position are not competitive (that was true even 15+ years ago).

      What has changed is that the top 30-50 applicants (roughly the top 15%) for a good TT position are, as a group, a lot more competitive than they were even 5-6 years ago. It is no longer easy or obvious to decide who should be put on a short list; there are just too many really strong candidates.

      Edited to add: we may be unusual in this respect but I have found that our emphasis on glamour journal publications is decreasing. That is because we are placing even more emphasis than in the past on applicants who we view as initiating new and unique lines of research. We think these applicants will have better long-term survival odds than applicants in areas that (even if glamourous) are already highly competitive. If there’s a C/N/S paper that’s great. But it is very far from essential, and we have made several offers (some successful, some not) to people who have not had a paper in a glam journal.

      • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

        You’re right in that the top 10% of applicants, i.e., the credible candidates, has more accolades (3 Nature papers vs 1 Nature paper) and therefore it’s much harder to make the interview cut. Would you agree that the top 10% come from the top 10% mega labs, either in size or reputation? Although I had a super postdoc, I didn’t feel I was as competitive as postdocs coming from well-known and well-funded HHMI labs.

        • http://spinynorman.tumblr.com Spiny Norman

          “Would you agree that the top 10% come from the top 10% mega labs, either in size or reputation?”

          I’d agree that a large fraction of our the top 10-20% come from labs that ahve reputations as good training environments. Many of the PI’s are HHMI or NAS members, or have held MERIT awards. In general I advise trainees to work with someone well known to potential employers as either a grad student or a postdoc. If you come from a newer or quieter lab and yet you still kick ass, we take that as a good sign. But spending time in at least one international-class group indicates exposure to real ambition, and that can be good and useful.

          For reference, I’m in an internationally-recognized program within a top-ten R1 medical school.

  • AlmostAPhd

    Great Post! I am just finishing my PhD (in the next couple months) and while I decided last year that I would finish, but not pursue academia, it’s amazing how much guilt I feel, being surrounded by people who still have such dreams, about planning my escape from the ivory tower. It is precisely for the reason that I keep seeing people ahead of me hit a wall after their post-doc, people who I consider better scientists than I, that I plan to get out. It is somewhat comforting to hear that there are so many others in this situation, though it is depressing.

    I think that academia may be slowly starting to change. Just last year, my University held its first ever ‘Beyond the PhD’ symposium to discuss options outside of academia, and it was very helpful. It’s only a little change though, and I’m sort of dreading the end of the year lunch where the Dept chair says where all the graduates are going, and I think I may be the only one completely bailing on anything considered ‘traditional’ for my field.

    • http://www.facebook.com/srn247 Seth Nickerson

      You need to follow your dreams and no one elses. Times are changing and fast; this is not your grandpa’s academia anymore.

  • TTdreamer

    I am lucky enough to have landed a tenure-track position in a top 10 medical school very recently. As with most things in life, it involved a lot of luck, in addition to a lot of hard work. I am especially lucky that I had a great mentor who gave me not only fantastic research projects, but also sage advice on packaging my application. There’s certainly no recipe for success, but I would say that there’s a pattern. Most new hires in the biomedical fields have most of the following: 1) first author paper(s) in C/N/S journals; 2) advisors who are either very famous or rising stars; 3) funding (e.g. K99/R00); 4) personality that will make a good colleague and collaborator; and 5) perhaps most importantly, unique technique or subject of research in an area that is not saturated and will remain fundable and publishable in the next 5-10 years. In asking for a position, we are really asking for a lot: $1-2m in start-up funds with lab space to do whatever we want. Hiring committees are looking to maximize their chance of return on their investment (in the form of overhead costs). Politics and biases are certainly involved. But the same politics and biases are likely to be there as well in funding and publication decisions, and thus are used by the committees to judge someone’s chance of success. I am sorry to hear that things have not worked out for you so far (the season is far from over). Best of luck in your future endeavors.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      Thanks for the feedback, and congrats on the job. Now you just need to get a R01. Piece of cake, though. ;)

      Although I already demonstrated that I could manage a $1M budget as an independent fellow at Princeton, search committees I applied to didn’t know what to make of it. Most super postdoc programs are feeders for the affiliated department. That’s how it works (for the most part) for the various fellows programs in Boston (e.g., Whitehead Fellow, Junior Fellow, Rowland Fellow), San Fran (UCSF Fellows), etc. But that was explicitly NOT the policy at Princeton, though I wouldn’t have wanted a TT job at Princeton.

      I was an unknown quantity forging a new path experimentally with my evolutionary pharmacology approach. And I hadn’t demonstrated the ability to get NIH grants because my non-TT super postdoc didn’t encourage it. Compared to traditional postdocs, especially those from big HHMI labs, I was at a distinct disadvantage.

      I’ll be blogging more on the pros vs cons of the super postdoc position at Princeton soon.

  • Björn Brembs

    You’re dead on, Ethan: most people think it’ll be different for them and it won’t happen to them, but it will happen to most people. It’s a silly system that long has converted its ability to pick the most suited (if it ever existed) into a lottery. I have applied to over 120 TT jobs over the course of about 6 years as an independent researcher scraping together various funds from different sources, to pass the German tenure equivalent (habilitation) in 2009 – a test that comes without a position, just the permission to apply for tenured positions. Out of the many positions I applied to, I got one offer which I took and started last October.
    I was willing to go into the professional holding pattern at pretty much the same age as you and it paid off. Working absurd hours in the lab, teaching, networking, traveling etc., of course. No way with a family, not even close. I was very lucky to make great inroads into my specialty (which few people besides me are interested in) and publish some ‘high-impact’ papers and that’s what did it.

    Working my ass off and then some luck, in other words. It’s been a crap shoot. Can’t blame anyone for not wanting to go through this hellish nightmare.

  • LJStewartTweet

    Ethan. Postdocalypse. Now that’s a new word that I won’t forget. At the end of the Apocalypse Now movie, the young hell bent soldier kills the old leader gone crazy. Makes me think you are up to something ! In that regard…. definately change is needed, and with communication tools today, like this blog…well you get the point.
    What’s confusing to me is that we have Bill Gates talking about opening up H1B visas for scientists to fill unfilled jobs in STEM in the private sector, and yet there are alot of highly trained chemists, molecular biologists, programmers and others as postdocs already here in the US with no jobs?. Just doesn’t add up and is very confusing ??
    Keep thinking and blogging. Opportunity abounds for the coniving mind !
    Best wishes.

  • http://twitter.com/bakermind Bakermind

    Most everything people and we have talked about for TT appointments is true. Getting grant money, having a “fit” with a particular hiring institution, and knowing the unspoken particulars of the process are all key.

    My postdocalypse story starts with having stayed in an unsuccessful postdoc for WAAAYY too long. Not having self confidence and not standing up for the things I needed were my big mistakes. I went through an interesting process regarding NIH K99 and R21 submissions, and was trying to finish up all projects when the PI announced his retirement and put all postdocs on the job market simultaneously. None of us got a TT appointment. Two went on to new postdocs, one went to biotech, and three of us became research faculty.

    For some, Research Faculty can be a lab-within-a-lab setup that can offer decent pay, independence, and supervision of staff. This is enough for some people, however, some of these positions don’t offer those perks, nor do they always offer long term security. My position has steady funding from multiple PIs, and I have the ability to submit NIH grants as a PI with the approval of the appropriate committee at the institution. It is not the perfect situation, as my independence is somewhat restricted and much of my previous expertise does not have a function in my new setting (yet). However, I am employed conducting science at an acceptable salary– a fate that may not be the bill of goods we were originally sold but is better than what many in America are experiencing.

  • http://twitter.com/pseudoknot pseudoknot

    I’d like to see graduate programs offer courses on a business/entrepreneurship/biotech track – this way trainees would be encouraged to produce their own position.

    • http://twitter.com/bakermind Bakermind

      At my grad institution, there was a Biotech Interest Group that brought together management, law, and PhD students to do pro bono consulting for businesses. Good experience. I’ve seen many bright people kind of create their own positions in academia and industry, but there isn’t much of a how-to book for that. Looking at these free agent scientists is inspiring!

  • http://twitter.com/caseybergman Casey Bergman

    Important and poignant post. While I very gratefully escaped the #postdocalypse (most likely simply by being a few years older and seeking refuge in the UK), as you know I share many of your views on the current state of affairs. I thought I would post links here for your readers to the “macro” worldview that I (http://caseybergman.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/the-logistics-of-scientific-growth-in-the-21st-century/) and Samuel Arbesman (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/01/the-fate-of-young-scientists/) have written about recently to help put some of these issues into context.

    Basically, what Arbesman and I argue is that what you (and many others of your academic cohort) are experiencing is the result of changes in long-term growth trends in science that are more or less outside your control, changes that were predicted by a historian of science named Derek de Solla Price over 50 years ago. While Arbesman argues that “the worry about young scientists is unfounded…[because] changing trends in grant recipients are just as we would expect, given the changing demographic”, I disagree. You have every right to be upset, since I think scientists are still recruited into most fields thinking that opportunities are increasing exponentially as they did for the last few hundred years. Moreover, I think most senior scientist are equally out touch with the current reality, and (un)intentionally captilatise on these hopes, much to the detriment of many young scientists. So I think it’s very important that the “reality check” message that you are promoting gets spread far and wide, to avoid the underutilisation of training and human capital that we are witnessing in science today.

  • George Calder-Potts

    Why not found new research institutes? if the funding is there, perhaps the postdocs should band together and make new research institutes, preferably not in america (too many unis there) and soak up the talent garnering more funding? This would be a supply and demand answer…

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      That thought has crossed me mind..

      But I’d want to stay in the US.

      • compubacter

        I have seen something similar here: http://biocurious.org/
        I think seeking funding from inbred (peer review) government sources would lead to poor facility scores at the least. Private funding is an interesting idea.

    • Anthea

      Mmmm interesting idea. The idea of founding new research institutes is a good one and it would be a supply and demand answer.

    • bill_foster

      Where would the capital come from? Seems like there would have to be some investors on board to create the facilities. But I think it is a great idea and I would propose to in a sense, create biomedical ‘hacker spaces’ where where people from multiple fields would be able to connect and collaborate. Another similar model could be something like TechShop (they are like a gym but for inventors/creators/innovators, they have pretty much everything to create anything from CNC machines and plasma cutters to laser cutters to sewing machings and electronics equipment) where the equipment is available for use by any member.

  • Ash

    Ethan, I know you don’t want to leave the country but have you looked at the MRC? They emphasize ideas and originality of research more than any other metric.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      I haven’t looked specifically but I just got off the phone with a colleague here in the US who mentioned something similar. 2013 promises to be the year of openness and change.

  • 2nd year prof

    Were you allowed to apply for federal funding during your fellowship? I ask because from a cursory look at your CV, it seems like even though this fellowship was very prestigious, in skipping a more traditional (i.e., mentored) post-doc, you lost out on opportunities to prove yourself in ways that search committees care about most. I recently sat on a search committee, and even at my lowly non top-10 institution, we would not shortlist someone without a history of funding. I understand that your fellowship came with $1M, so perhaps the impetus to spend time applying was low, but showing that you can successfully secure NIH/NSF $$ is critical to the TT race.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      I wasn’t discouraged and I wasn’t encouraged. So left to my own devices, I spent the cool $1M that was handed to me. In retrospect, I agree that this put me at a disadvantage compared to traditional postdocs. I’ll have more to say on my super postdoc in a post on my blog soon..

  • Anthea

    Great post, Ethan! Yes, totally agree with you about the Tenure Games problem for the humanities. That’s where I was but I got out fast! It hadn’t helped that my own work was considered unconventional and ‘too challenging’. My problem was that my research was refuting the accepted party line. Oh well…I’m now in the private sector where challenging the status quo is the norm. Academia, or my colleagues and contemporaries, just didn’t like if you challenged the accepted norm.

    Anyhow, two things that I’d like to say. I don’t understand why prominent members of the Tech Sector including Bill Gates as mentioned above are lobbying Congress to pass legislation to open up visa for foreigners – nothing is wrong with them inherently (There was even an interview with a lobbyist on Bloomberg TV today) but surely there are tons of people who already here in the
    US who are smart and highly trained that could work in this sector? Why aren’t these people being employed if they’ve already been trained? It doesn’t make much sense or it is that the tech sector doesn’t want to pay people enough for
    their work/people can’t afford to live in Silicon Valley due to its high living costs and that people aren’t being paid enough to make it worth living in this part of the country? Hello…things doesn’t add up as someone else has already pointed out here about Bill Gates ‘talking about opening up H1B visas for scientists to fill unfilled jobs in STEM in the private sector. People are already here and trained?? What do more people need to come? But there’s lots of unemployed with PhDs and who have tons of training. …there’s a lack of logic here.

    Secondly…what’s with the unpleasantness that ensues from those who are still in academia and have TT jobs towards their ex-grad school colleagues? I’m considered a failure, a ‘loser’ as I’m apparently a person who’s not valid, not worthy to even been talked to as I didn’t manage to get an elusive TT job. Ouch don’t they realize that they’re just given academia a bad name by their
    appalling behavior? Jeez people. Grow up, stop being children. They may have won the Tenure Games but that doesn’t give them a ticket to be nasty inhumane individuals! But maybe their behavior stems from that fact that the resources available to them are just diminishing so they’re in reality suffering from the rats-in-the-barrel syndrome.

    FYI: this website has just been set up as a place for resources for those considering leaving the academic world: http://howtoleaveacademia.com/

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! You’re the second person to bring up the visa question. I’m not sure how to set national policy but I agree that there is a glut of homegrown post-PhDs whose talents are not being efficiently deployed.

      I sympathize with your experience. I haven’t been met with explicit hostility or condescension from peers still in Academia. But who knows how people are judged behind closed doors. That said, I wouldn’t worry to much about what academics think about those who exit Academia. They have their own problems securing funding..

      • Anthea

        Thank you for the reply. Yes, it doesn’t make sense to get more people into the country who are highly qualified when there’s a glut of highly qualified people. I’m left wondering whether its because the potential employers really just want to be able to pay those who come on these visas much lower salaries, fewer benefits if any, etc. So, what’s catch?

        Yes, I agree with you that it’s not worth worrying out what one’s peers think who are still in Academia since as you say, who knows what goes on behind closed doors. The tragedy for them is, that I have access to more cash whilst I’m doing research and publishing articles in journals.

        • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

          I haven’t studied the visa issue. If China is really spending 10x the NIH budget on basic research, then I’m surprised that so many foreigners are still flocking the US, which can’t even pass a budget, let alone flood money into basic research.

          • Alain Toussaint

            Should I learn chinese and go work there?

            Alain

        • Lukasz

          Actually, in a number of proposed bills, the bioscience graduates are specifically excluded from the various STEM visa programs, e.g. http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/09/stem-visa-reform-bills-would-exc.html
          I’m not sure about the current projects, they’re not as fleshed out, but likely they’ll include similar provisions.

        • Bioeticprion

          Great post and comments!

          I stayed in the US for 5 years under a J1 visa. After that I had to change to a H1b visa (this is the typical pattern for an European postdoc). With this change I was getting the same salary but my boss started to struggle to pay the cost of my contract. Besides, my wife lost the US Working Authorization due to that visa change. Too many difficulties, so we came back to Europe.
          Unfortunately, the postdocalypse situation is no different here, but at least my wife can support me economically.

    • Daniel Thorek

      The reason why tech companies (particularly software) are pursuing additional H1Bs has nothing to do with supply or demand. It is truly a means to save money. Image – you hire an American with a PhD in computer programming and you have to incentivize them to work hard and, critically, stay at your company rather than dash off to a competitor. On the other hand – you can hire an equally talented foreigner who has half of the benefits, the incentive is to be in the country and by visa requirements CANNOT leave your employ. It is an atrocious affront to patriotic decency, but then again Bill Gates didn’t make billions by being a nice human.

  • http://www.facebook.com/xavier.revelo.7 Xavier Revelo

    Great Post! I think the real problem is the “over-production” of PhDs in the biological sciences. There are just too many PhDs pursuing an academic career relative to open tenure track positions. There is something fundamentally wrong with this system. Is it time for PI’s to consider having less graduate students and postdocs (at least those oriented towards the academic path)? The thing is that PhDs and especially postdocs are highly qualified and relatively “cheap” source of labor. How to find the balance between productivity for the lab and career advancement for us trainees?

    • Anonymous

      Many PI’s do consider this. For a several years now I have kept my lab fairly small and been very selective about postdocs and students I take because I find it depressing to have terrific young scientists in my lab with such difficult job prospects ahead. However, be aware that this general strategy may not be a very useful strategy for social engineering because NIH dollars will follow the big labs that take lots of students and postdocs and publish lots of papers.

  • Physioprof

    Your postdoctoral pubs are crap compared to grad school. This put you at a huge disadvantage to those who stepped up their game.

    • Jen C

      That’s not too uncommon, since post-docs can end up being assigned RA-type data analysis tasks on data they don’t ‘own’, whereas their dissertation work is all theirs to write up as 1st author. My approach so far in my post-doc has been to milk extra papers out of my doctoral data on evenings and weekends and the occasional ‘working from home’ day. It works if you had a great PhD supervisor. As for work-life balance, forget it. This takes being a weirdo who’s over-the-top obsessed with a need to know how living things work.

  • msMito

    Your best paper from your postdoc was published in Genetics…it seems credible that’s why you cant get a TT job. Multiple C/N/S is standard nowadays. Just sayin’.

  • k

    Yes, yes, getting a tenure track position is hard and there is some luck in terms of departmental fit, but nowhere do you mentioned that producing the 4 papers listed on your CV with 5 years and $1 million is simply not enough productivity. $1 million is a decent R1 startup package, in my scientific area at least, and you get 5 years before tenure, but 4 papers wouldn’t get you tenure at an R1 institution. Heck, some of my colleagues at a small school have had similar records with $70,000 and a full teaching load working with only undergraduates. Your postdoc sounds like a trial run as an assistant professor that didn’t work out. Why would another school give you another $1 million?

    • bible scholar

      Ethan might benefit from looking up the “Parable of the talents.” If you were given a big grant already, and did not use it to get more funding, then why would a faculty think that you would do any different at their school? “To those whom much is given, much is asked…”

  • http://www.broadjam.com/khayx khayx

    Thank you so much for writing down what most of us are, in fact, experiencing. It’s time for change, but how are we going to accomplish it?

  • Sean

    A postdoctoral position should only be considered if you absolutely cannot find a real job in industry. If you do the math it is almost a statistical certainty that you will not be getting an academic job regardless of publication record or school pedigree. The number of positions are way too low in proportion to the number of PhDs. You have to understand that the reason you think the way you do is because you have been in academia for, well, your entire life. Of course the schools will try and convince you that publication records are important (publish or perish) because publications are what keep universities in business. This has absolutely zero contribution to YOUR future…only theirs. A post-doc is cheap (very cheap) labour for universities to grow from. Once you are finally forced to get into the real world…and trust me, it’s coming…you will see that publications mean absolutely nothing. Besides, we all know that publications have more to do with lucky breaks and getting in win “already prolific” research groups than any great scientific discovery. If you are currently doing a PhD I strongly suggest you find a way to bring math and computers into your research because this will be your BIGGEST transferable skill. Science itself is becoming Data Science…if you’re in Biology or Chemistry you should focus at least half of your efforts on computational biology/chemistry as this is by far the most relevant skill set one can have. Mathematical modelling and computer programming are the most sought after jobs on the market and this is where PhDs are currently being mopped up. Being able to synthesize something in the lab won’t get you very far but if you can model the reaction using molecular simulations these skills are becoming the hottest trend in industry.