"A Pyramid Scheme"
September 16, 2014 6:17 AM   Subscribe

 
For lack of any more eloquent response:

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posted by The Michael The at 6:34 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


...a wide array of phenomena lumped together under the rubric of the “commercialization of science”, the “commodification of research”, and the “marketplace of ideas” are both figuratively and literally Ponzi schemes.
posted by sneebler at 6:48 AM on September 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


I was a physics grad student two decades ago, when the end of the Cold War meant the demise of federal physics research funding. I had no idea what was to be done about that crisis then, and neither did the faculty, who were quick to point out that training N>>1 PhDs for the one slot that they would leave when they retire was already unsustainable. Departments were then tightening their belts by letting faculty lines be lost to attrition, making things worse, and in response my graduate department instituted a mandatory "alternative careers in physics" seminar that featured a steady parade of speakers who had left physics for Wall Street. It did little good for anyone. I myself took a long-term (8 yrs!) postdoctoral stint to wedge my training into the life sciences (out of passion, I would say, not need or greed, though I'd be a fool to think that excitement about a field isn't influenced by its funding). Meanwhile, the funding crisis has made the same field changes that I have, and I still have no idea what is to be done for the grads & postdocs that I now have the pleasure to mentor (and upon whom I must depend).

Well, time to get back to this grant! Here, BTW, are the paylines for R01s (the main NIH research grants that biomed faculty apply for). The National Cancer Institute -- the flushest of the NIH Institutes -- is currently funding only the top 9% of proposals.
posted by Westringia F. at 7:16 AM on September 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


Looking in from the outside, it seems like biomedical research has succumbed to the rainmaker syndrome, the cult of the salesman. It's the person who's best at selling the work of a lab to funding bodies who becomes the preeminent figure, the most richly rewarded in prestige and pay.

The same thing has happened with lawyers under completely different funding conditions, which makes me think it's part of a larger cultural shift, rather than something specific to biomed or the structure of funding.
posted by clawsoon at 7:37 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


NIH annual funding is $30.1 billion. That's a lot of money. If only there were some way to find additional dollars...

2011 DOD Budget $664.84 billion

any way,

The United States currently pays around $20 billion per year to farmers in direct subsidies as "farm income stabilization"

any way,

Alan Peters and Peter Fisher have estimated that state and local governments provide $40–50 billion annually in economic development incentives.

any way at all.

The Secular Coalition for America estimates that stringent enforcement of 501(c)(3) could generate up to $16.75 billion in additional annual revenue - almost enough to fund NASA for a year. Less conservative estimates, including an academic paper that pondered the fiscal implications of taxing all churches like for-profit corporations, put that number at $71 billion - enough to send a Mars Rover into space almost every two weeks.

Sorry nerds, no science for you. There's just no change to spare.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:45 AM on September 16, 2014 [19 favorites]


What I don't get is the paradox of the sheer number of brilliant minds that are just sitting idly in the US. Like any given liquor brewer, corner store owner, or barista could secretly be a scientific genius who just gave up on their dreams. I know these aren't technically idle hands (and people excel in a variety of settings), but it doesn't sound like any of those jobs were an academic's first choice. There just has to be a better way to harness all this brainpower...

It's no surprise that some of the most powerful influences on American society don't necessarily value intellectualism and general scientific discovery/progress (that doesn't benefit their company directly). And I can't help wondering what society would look like if it were actually influenced by intellectualism. All these companies that earn billions (with a 'B') daily and nobody can kick a few million (with an 'M') into the sciences?

I've been making the joke (and entertaining the idea) that the only way to get more grant funding is to have all these idle, genius hands suddenly go into politics and force more funding into the sciences from the top down. Considering how smart and well-connected so many of these people are, running for local office might not be so out of the question for some. But it all comes back to this tragically self-sacrificing passion some individuals have for scientific research.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


Just before I would have had to register for quals I thought about the life ahead of me in terms of post docs and waiting for some old prof to retire so I could start the tenure climb.

9-5 work in industry with hobby science as and when I wanted to sounded much more appealing, so I mastered out.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:53 AM on September 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


I have made mention of it on Metafilter before, but as I finished up my Bachelor's in Physics, an examination of the lives of the graduate students and the professors in the department was more than a little appalling. It wasn't just the threadbare clothing and the breakdown-prone vehicles, but the way some of them were working extra jobs to made ends meet, their continual scrabbling for grants, the jockeying for a limited number of positions, and so forth which I found incredibly off-putting.

Maybe I could have cut it, and maybe I couldn't (probably the latter), but overall I got the impression that the game was not worth the candle.

It wasn't long after this that I noticed the beginning of the epic brain drain which is computing. My gut suggests that there's a lot of people who might have been scientists who instead spend time trying to explain to people why they can't just have that widget they want on the website now.

Overall, I have a dreadful sense that a bunch of people who could have been thrusting the sciences forward by decades have instead spent the last two facilitating synergistic collaboration practices as decided by B-school marketdroids high on their own adrenaline.
posted by adipocere at 8:02 AM on September 16, 2014 [10 favorites]


The phrase "in training" appears to mean "highly trained individuals who have additional training, if not a life of required professional training, ahead."
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:03 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


adipocere: It wasn't long after this that I noticed the beginning of the epic brain drain which is computing.

I'm told by biomed researchers - and the job boards attest to this - that the biggest demand in biomed research right now is for computer programmers. You'll make less than peanuts working in a wet lab, but there's decent salary and work conditions to be had writing image recognition algorithms for high-throughput screening or designing a [worm/dicty/fly]base.org genome explorer website.
posted by clawsoon at 8:12 AM on September 16, 2014


This has been known among new biomed grad students for years. You talk to current grad students and the most lofty academic aspirations are perhaps a teaching position at a small liberal arts college. Nobody genuinely believes they'll get that big lab at a premier research institution. During the grad school interview process for biochem/biophysics programs I talked with other candidates about their career goals. Everyone said "I'd like to work in academia but blah blah blah so industry." And really the preamble was solely for the interview process--all of us knew there was little-to-no chance we were getting academic positions, but you have to say that's your plan because that's what interviewers want to hear. Though the younger professors interviewing us acknowledged the impossibility.
posted by schroedinger at 8:29 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


"In training", fuck that phrase. "Not able to do the same experiment over and over, continually producing results for publications and must instead be continuously self-teaching or scrounging what time can be found from colleagues for training on instrumentation required to push the project forward" more like.

Is that part of the disconnect? That its considered 'training' or 'schooling' and not actively working long, long days for three (yay, masters degrees!) to six or seven (we salute you, doctorate grads) years? That somehow the real years work performed is meaningless to an employer because, hey, you got a piece of paper that counts as a line on your resume. X years experience at position XYZ is a line on the resume too.

Sometimes I think that if I listed the masters degree thesis with those years of work listed separately as 'research assistant' there would be a lot more consideration.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:31 AM on September 16, 2014


Also--one thing they don't mention is unless you're going into consulting or have some amazing grad research and connections the postdoc is mandatory even for industry.
posted by schroedinger at 8:38 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ha HA! None of this trainee BS. I'll have you know I'm a PROFESSIONAL underling.

(I'll go properly RTFA now)
posted by maryr at 8:39 AM on September 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


This has been known among new biomed grad students for years. You talk to current grad students and the most lofty academic aspirations are perhaps a teaching position at a small liberal arts college. Nobody genuinely believes they'll get that big lab at a premier research institution.
I failed out of grad school but my friends are doing fine as profs at small schools. My physicist friend is part of a huge detector collaboration. My social scientist friend is getting tons of kids into grad school because they get papers with their names on them (no grad students/postdocs means the prof works directly with undergrads). It's not easy, but it is doable. Not everyone can work at a Research One institution but there are thousands of positions at liberal arts schools, community colleges etc.
posted by Octaviuz at 8:39 AM on September 16, 2014


I was under the impression that community colleges and small liberal arts schools were increasingly relying on adjunct positions.
posted by maryr at 8:47 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


I would comment on this but I have a grant deadline tomorrow.
posted by grouse at 8:49 AM on September 16, 2014 [11 favorites]


Not everyone can work at a Research One institution but there are thousands of positions at liberal arts schools, community colleges etc.

... where?
posted by The Michael The at 9:01 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Not everyone can work at a Research One institution but there are thousands of positions at liberal arts schools, community colleges etc.
... where?


As adjuncts.
posted by jeather at 9:18 AM on September 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


> My gut suggests that there's a lot of people who might have been scientists who instead spend time trying to explain to people why they can't just have that widget they want on the website now.

This describes my partner to a tee, and much of our social circle as well. I think your gut is right, adipocere, and it's depressing as hell.

> I'm told by biomed researchers - and the job boards attest to this - that the biggest demand in biomed research right now is for computer programmers.

The trouble is that not all of these jobs are actually good software engineering or scientific computing jobs. A great many of them are Pet Bioinformatician positions, in which one is the lone CS-y/math-y person in a lab full of bench biologists. People in those positions tend to become the go-to person for everything from sysadminery to $t$-tests, and are isolated from the rest of the computational biology field (impeding their ability to exchange CS/math/stats ideas and get their own work noticed). Coupled with the low pay and soft money [meaning one's job is only good as long as the PI keeps getting grants to fund it], they can be pretty lousy jobs, and I tend to advise against them unless there's a very good indication that there's room for growth (a meaty problem, a critical mass of quantitative/computational folks, &c).
posted by Westringia F. at 9:19 AM on September 16, 2014 [9 favorites]


The trouble is that not all of these jobs are actually good software engineering or scientific computing jobs. A great many of them are Pet Bioinformatician positions,

The problem is that jobs in academia are not well designed for anyone other than PIs. There was a former MeFi user who had multiple AskMes about his career woes all because he was a talented programmer working in various academic labs wondering why his career wasn't going anywhere. All labs have room for are:

The PI
The grad students
The postdocs
The lab manager/technician

The grad students and postdocs are supposed to be trainee positions there until they learn what they need for anothe job, and the technician will forever be the PI's lackey.

I hate to say it, but the research university could use a bit more corporatization here: instead of everyone being a minion of the PI, there need to be staff positions where the workers are allowed to have more control over their professional destiny and growth. Most postdocs should be converted to a pool of internal staff researchers who work on different projects assuming the PIs work is desireable enough for there to be demand from them. Biostatisticians should be run out of a group that does work by contract for various PIs and have their careers overseen by a senior biostatistician/programmer.

There just has to be a better way to harness all this brainpower...

The really sad thing is that there doesn't seem to be, at least in terms of work people are willing to pay for. There are only a few very difficult problems people are willing to pay money for. There is fierce competition for the jobs to solve those problems. The rest have to end up in jobs where they solve comparatively more mediocre problems that exist only because people are willing to pay for them. Added to this is the fact that we can always import more low paid postdocs from abroad, so the skills learned at the lab bench are easily replaceable.

But this has always been the way of the world. We don't have many more geniuses than we did before. It was just that traditionally, almost all of them were farmers in small isolated villages.
posted by deanc at 9:44 AM on September 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm pretty sure my wife would be thrilled to go back to post-docing if it meant she didn't have to do admin and teaching or attend department meetings.
posted by srboisvert at 9:49 AM on September 16, 2014


What I don't get is the paradox of the sheer number of brilliant minds that are just sitting idly in the US. Like any given liquor brewer, corner store owner, or barista could secretly be a scientific genius who just gave up on their dreams. I know these aren't technically idle hands (and people excel in a variety of settings), but it doesn't sound like any of those jobs were an academic's first choice. There just has to be a better way to harness all this brainpower...

Yes, just replace the system of student loans with a system of student grants instead.
posted by jonp72 at 9:55 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I think that if I listed the masters degree thesis with those years of work listed separately as 'research assistant' there would be a lot more consideration.

Not for nothing but yes, definitely do this (if you're applying outside academia, which I assume you are because a resume is not really used inside academia). Break out your job functions and your supervising undergrads and like if you were coding things up in what languages or whatever else you did. I actually listed it as "graduate student researcher" I believe. It was a job, list it as one! It's been on my resume since I left grad school and, well, I've gotten jobs so something worked.
posted by brainmouse at 10:16 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


"But we've grown so dependent on this relatively cheap, seemingly inexhaustible supply of young scientists who do great work," Micoli says. "From the standpoint of dollars and cents, they're a great investment."
Cf adjuncts.
posted by doctornemo at 10:23 AM on September 16, 2014


I hate to say it, but the research university could use a bit more corporatization here: instead of everyone being a minion of the PI, there need to be staff positions where the workers are allowed to have more control over their professional destiny and growth.

This is sheer fantasy.

Here is one of many, many posts over the last couple of years from In The Pipeline detailing the loss of multiple tens of thousands of research jobs from the pharmaceutical industry alone:
Amgen Cuts Hard

Amgen cuts over 2,500 jobs. Amgen completely shuts down its big facilities in Washington state and Colorado. Amgen's stock goes up nearly 7% in one day, adding about five (corrected late-night mistake) billion dollars in market cap. And there you have it. That's the industry. ...
And the worst of it is, pharmaceuticals continue to be very profitable!
posted by jamjam at 10:25 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


We're discussing the most highly trained employees in the world, but postdocs were never "training" positions any more than any other university faculty positions. In fact, American postdocs are usually given the title assistant professor, like most pre-tenure faculty.

What purpose did postdocs ever serve? Academia has staggeringly high variance between its most and least productive members of the profession. Academics are also subject to pointless administrative drudge work created by the needlessly increasingly army of pointless bureaucrats. We created postdoctoral positions, ala research assistant professor, so that a young scientists who is assured of a permanent faculty post and let them spend time with extremely productive peers while avoiding administrative drudge work.

There is no longer any assurance of a permanent faculty post for anyone, so the fundamental idea behind the postdoc has broken down, if anything a postdoc simply makes you less employable at lower tier universities that do zero research. Worse, there are many institutions outside the U.S. that treat the postdoc as a long interview where you demonstrate your happiness doing administrative drudge work voluntarily. And the U.S. was spared this only because the common language meant nobody should ever get tenure where they did a postdoc, which creates different problems.

Is there a solution? Absolutely. We squander not only our government budget but corporate budgets as well, mostly on relatively useless admin work, as well as our military, farm subsidies, etc. We could avoid creating so much pointless work and instead spend more on academic research, grants for startups, etc. or really anything that might make the world a better place.

There might not even be a cap on the percentage of the population employed in science, engineering, etc. or otherwise improving the world because intelligence is seemingly not genetic.

There is of course a tight link between STEM's gender issues and the perpetual temporary employment created by postdoc positions.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:47 AM on September 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


In fact, American postdocs are usually given the title assistant professor, like most pre-tenure faculty.

What? No, they aren't.
posted by maryr at 11:07 AM on September 16, 2014 [7 favorites]



The trouble is that not all of these jobs are actually good software engineering or scientific computing jobs. A great many of them are Pet Bioinformatician positions, in which one is the lone CS-y/math-y person in a lab full of bench biologists. People in those positions tend to become the go-to person for everything from sysadminery to $t$-tests, and are isolated from the rest of the computational biology field (impeding their ability to exchange CS/math/stats ideas and get their own work noticed). Coupled with the low pay and soft money [meaning one's job is only good as long as the PI keeps getting grants to fund it], they can be pretty lousy jobs, and I tend to advise against them unless there's a very good indication that there's room for growth (a meaty problem, a critical mass of quantitative/computational folks, &c).

Oh, we had a Pet Bioinformatician! Well, a couple of Pet Protein Modelers at least. They were asked to model proteins for our very-poorly-conserved protein domains of interest and predict where we can attach them to our based-on-similar-protein-crystal-structure enzymes. Then the senior scientists complained when out of 15 guesses and only two are promising.

The sad thing about Pet Bioinformaticians is they don't last very long. Our first one got sick from lack of protein modeling and the second one got sick from and overdose of database management. We finally replaced him with a programmer who has no bio background and was hired solely to do database design & management as well as server maintenence and basic programming. How did we come to hire her? Management finally learned that what we needed was not a pet (calling the position a postdoc) but an actual working animal (straight up programmer). One of our former employees basically does modeling for us on a contract basis.
posted by maryr at 11:12 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's a screwed up situation and I know way too many young people who are stuck in it. Seriously, doing great life science research may be a goal when you're 22 and just out of college... but when you're 32 and making 50K with no benefits and with no prospect of advancement, it looks like a pretty damn raw deal. And it's very hard to get out of that cycle, industry people just don't understand that sort of resume. If I knew any bright 22-year-olds with great grades, I'd tell them to stay far, far away from academia.
posted by miyabo at 11:14 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seriously, doing great life science research may be a goal when you're 22 and just out of college... but when you're 32 and making 50K with no benefits and with no prospect of advancement, it looks like a pretty damn raw deal

Throw in some shitty benefits and it's really not so bad. (Of course, I didn't spend 6 years in grad school and I didn't expect any career advancement, so at least I knew this is what I was getting into.)
posted by maryr at 11:23 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


"But increasingly these low-paying temporary jobs can stretch on for years."

My fun story here was working (in the early/mid 2000s) as a contractor for NIH on an epidemiological database during and after graduate school. The database was intended to untangle the etiology of a very particular, aggressive kind of breast cancer--one with a 5 year survival rate that was essentially zero--by collecting tissue samples from the tumors women donated for molecular and genetic analysis, pairing those with environmental exposure surveys, and looking for clues that popped out of the static between those variables.

I was struck early on by how... bullshitty the work was. The PI really didn't take seriously that the approach would ever find any legitimate causal links, but he was fine with grad students running it and generating papers out of it. And grants. Oh he really liked it for generating grant money. In fact, the only times I can ever recall talking to him one-on-one were related to grant applications. His preferred work was in the animal lab, xenografting cultured tumors into rats and, again, crunching out papers and grant applications.

After years of this work, I had an epiphany moment. It really was on a specific day, hour, minute--the veil lifted, and I realized, oh my gosh, we're very literally pumping out garbage with little or no upper level scrutiny just to keep the garbage-pumping machine in operation. This was in 2006, and by 2007 I had transitioned out of the laboratory and into policy.

Those experiences had sharply informed my policy work since. I wish this larger discussion would take this unholy proposition more seriously than it does--I'm glad we're having this talk (thanks, NPR), but I'm ready for it to expand its focus to include a more stark critique of the research output itself, its quality, its applications (or lack thereof), its tendency to be duplicating existing data, its absence of legitimate review, and so on.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:30 AM on September 16, 2014 [8 favorites]


The National Cancer Institute -- the flushest of the NIH Institutes -- is currently funding only the top 9% of proposals.

And my division of the National Science Foundation is down to 5%.

Seriously, we put in weeks of our lives into a kick-ass proposal, it gets reviews which are "Excellent", "Very Good", and no critiques whatsoever, and a letter that says "We regret to inform you that ..." - that's more than a little frustrating.

On the other side of the table, we've had Ha-Ha-joking-not-really discussions about shredding 50% of the proposals at random, just to ease the burden on (volunteer, unpaid, busy) reviewers. It's demoralizing to review an excellent proposal, give it great marks, and know that it won't get funded anyway. And it sucks to know that your colleagues are looking at your proposal in exactly the same way.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:38 AM on September 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


jeffburdges: not being able to pinpoint the genes which are involved in intelligence doesn't mean that intelligence is not genetic, it just means that they are difficult to find - probably because it involves a large number of common genetic variants which each have a small effect and you will only find those in a huge study.
posted by penguinliz at 11:42 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


American postdocs in mathematics are afaik always given the title assistant professor, maryr, but yeah they actually teach, maybe non-teaching faculty don't get that title.

There is likely so much environmental influence intwined with the minuscule genetic influences that "intelligence is not genetic" holds more water than anything else, penguinliz. Ain't my field but I'd expect that, for intelligence, It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion, meaning it's knowing how to use what you've got, cognitive habits, etc.

Intelligence isn't the greatest predictor of success in the sciences either. At minimum, my PhD year saw many top students abandon academia, while those who experienced difficulties took permanent faculty gigs at non-research institutions, which still means they'll publish more over their lifetime.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:56 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


> American postdocs are usually given the title assistant professor, like most pre-tenure faculty.

This isn't true. It's certainly not universally usual, and it's not even generally usual.

In some fields -- mathematics, applied math, and (at some institutions) CS or theoretical physics -- postdoctoral teaching positions have the title of VAP: Visiting Assistant Professor. However, these are NOT "assistant professors" -- the "visiting" is a crucial modifier of the title, in that it distinguishes postdocs from tenure-track junior faculty ("assistant professor" with no modifier) and non-tenure-track research faculty ("research assistant professor") and is meant to denote the temporary nature of the postdoc gig. In the lab sciences (bio, chem, physics), you almost never see VAPs, and when you do, they almost always refer to a teaching-oriented postdoc at a college rather than a research postdoc (a bit like adjunct positions). Usually, science postdocs are given the title "research associate" or "research fellow" or "postdoctoral research assistant" &c. In general, with the exception of VAPs, the STEM * Asst Prof jobs require completion of a postdoc -- they're meant to be the next step up.

(Of course, there are situations in which ostensibly tenure-track assistant professor positions are de facto postdocs, but that's a completely different matter.)

> What purpose did postdocs ever serve?

I don't think postdocs are totally useless. My own was very useful: I got to transition my work into an area that I find incredibly compelling. That's not something I could have done if I'd gone straight from my PhD into the rat-race that is the current tenure-track system. (In fact, I'd argue that the root of the problem is the way universities have evolved, such that tenure track faculty need to be immediately productive in getting grants with very little safety net; there's no room in a system like that to be intellectually adventurous, so all that exploration needs to happen when you're a postdoc.) And because I had a PI who basically left me to my own devices, I had practice being independent before the stakes were raised. It was, in many ways, exactly the type of advanced training that a postdoc is meant to be.

But it was also unusual. I definitely agree that postdocs are getting unnecessarily protracted, and that in many cases they are NOT serving their stated purpose. The NIH's 2012 Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report [PDF] says so as well:
... it is evident that the postdoctoral period has become a holding pattern for many young researchers. Although a postdoctoral fellow is considered a trainee, in many laboratories fellows receive little additional preparation for their future careers, even for those in academic research. For example few postdoctoral fellows receive instruction in grant writing, laboratory and personnel management, and teaching, all skills that are necessary for a successful academic career.
[...]
The decline in growth of academic positions has led to longer postdoctoral periods, in which fellows hope to generate more papers in order to be competitive for positions. This system leaves trainees in subordinate positions at a time when they are expected to be highly productive as independent investigators.
[...]
[T]he working group concluded that the postdoctoral experience should include structured career development, and incentives should be provided by NIH to move postdoctoral fellows to more permanent positions as soon as possible. The working group recognizes that after a reasonable period of training – ideally three years – there is diminished value for the trainee in staying in a subordinate position.
and goes on to make specific recommendations [p36], which include increasing postdoc-specific training grants while decreasing postdoctoral support available in research project grants (R01/R21s). It's not a bad idea. But with R01 success rates below 10% and blanket 10-20% budget reductions for funded grants, there's already precious little room for re-prioritizing funds.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:05 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


American postdocs in mathematics are afaik always given the title assistant professor, maryr, but yeah they actually teach, maybe non-teaching faculty don't get that title.

A quick spot check of math departments indicates that this is not the case. Every one I checked (Berkeley, Harvard, Penn, Rutgers, UT Austin) has postdocs titled as such, both on the websites and on their CVs. UT seems to give the teaching postdocs an additional title, but it's either instructor or lecturer, never "something-Professor".
posted by The Michael The at 12:07 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Oh he really liked it for generating grant money.

Well, of course-- labs run on grant money, and grant money is scarce. This results in successful scientists being essentially ones who are good min-maxers: those who are GREAT at churning out successful grants: figuring out what will get funded and writing grants for that, hitting all of the points that grant reviewers are looking for. This is, unfortunately, not a good way to find research, which depends on sending lots of money to ideas that are "interesting" and seeing what happens.

That said... much of the world is like this: being successful is less about the "sexy stuff" associated with the field and more about optimizing on a few key "boring" tasks.
posted by deanc at 12:43 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Most postdocs should be converted to a pool of internal staff researchers who work on different projects assuming the PIs work is desireable enough for there to be demand from them. Biostatisticians should be run out of a group that does work by contract for various PIs and have their careers overseen by a senior biostatistician/programmer.

The vast majority of post-doc positions are paid out of a PI's own grants. The reason PIs employ post-docs (outside of tradition) is because they are hella cheaper than employing staff scientists. Some PIs DO have research staff positions, but those are generally in labs big enough to be able to afford them. I worked at a lab in a manager/research assistant position, and my current lab has a few staff scientists on board. But smaller labs with less grants can't afford it.
posted by schroedinger at 12:43 PM on September 16, 2014


We're discussing the most highly trained employees in the world,

Let's not get get too precious here. They're not even the smartest employees in the world. It's good to have a field and excel in it, but there is plenty of practical research happening in private industry by people who, if nothing else, knew to get the hell out of academia.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:45 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's true many institutions distinguish math postdocs from junior tenure-track faculty, Westringia F., but many either attach a donor's name or simply call them assistant professor and clarify the non-tenure-track either in the title or elsewhere. Also, there are subtle reasons to avoid the title "visiting" for younger people, but that's another story.

In fact, "visiting" appears only around half as often as "assistant" in mathjobs.org's listings for non-tenure track and postdoctoral positions. Please note the institutions do not correctly classify their jobs as being postdocs on mathjobs.org. Arguably the postdocs list covers more grant funded positions without teaching, while university funded postdocs are split between the two lists. We're slightly early in the hiring season too though.

In particular, Rutgers has three postdoctoral positions listed, two of which fit my description, while Berkley hasn't listed anything yet but recently filled a postdoc called the Charles B. Morley Jr Assistant Professor, so your list fails, The Michael The. Now Harvard and Austin listed postdocs and postdocs, and Penn is doing something even stranger.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:55 PM on September 16, 2014


What I don't get is the paradox of the sheer number of brilliant minds that are just sitting idly in the US. Like any given liquor brewer, corner store owner, or barista could secretly be a scientific genius who just gave up on their dreams. I know these aren't technically idle hands (and people excel in a variety of settings), but it doesn't sound like any of those jobs were an academic's first choice. There just has to be a better way to harness all this brainpower...

not to say that I was ever brilliant, but I have a PhD in mathematics. I do yard work, repairs, simple electrical, plumbing (but strictly under the table), painting, carpentry, and can explain differential geometry to you.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:05 PM on September 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


Uuuugh. I'm just starting my second post-doc and have A LOT of thoughts about this issue. But I don't want my thoughts out there possibly affecting my job opportunities.

It's just sad when you start wondering what your soul would actually sell for. But that's what happens when you're in a field where 'industry' jobs are code for oil and gas.
posted by hydrobatidae at 4:19 PM on September 16, 2014


It's just sad when you start wondering what your soul would actually sell for.

Here's the problem with a lot of academia: "selling your soul " is code for entering a career where you are paid a relatively good salary in exchange for hard work where you are respected as a valued professional, while the "ideal" is to beg to be an overworked, underpaid lackey for someone else in the hopes of getting a chance at one of the very few available tenure track positions that offers the possibility of tenure or being fired in 7 years.

Not only is this the "sick system" we have been warned about, but the language inside the academy is designed to keep people inside it.
posted by deanc at 4:47 PM on September 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


We've moved from

American postdocs are usually given the title assistant professor, like most pre-tenure faculty. (the strong jeffburdges conjecture)

to

American postdocs in mathematics are afaik always given the title assistant professor (the weak jeffburdges conjecture, underline added for emphasis)

to three individual cases among a sea of counterexamples.
posted by grouse at 5:33 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I understand what you're saying deanc, but I actually think oil and gas companies would take advantage of my credentials to do things I don't agree with. Maybe not my soul, but my degrees.
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:45 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]




"selling your soul " is code for entering a career where you are paid a relatively good salary in exchange for hard work where you are respected as a valued professional

It is almost impossible to develop any kind of coherent values system that allows for the idea of "selling your soul."

Either your work is valuable and you get paid accordingly, or its not and you don't.

If you take a huge pay cut to work on something, you're basically just making a large annual donation to your employer. I can't imagine why that would be superior to a large disinterested millionaire doing the same thing.
posted by miyabo at 9:13 PM on September 16, 2014


What purpose did postdocs ever serve?

One actually legitimate purpose is to give younger scientists the opportunity to train under multiple people, so that they get exposed to multiple techniques and ways of doing science, and don't end up as clones of their PI (which often means competing with them).
posted by en forme de poire at 9:24 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


I worry about my friend on her second postdoc.

The funny thing is that as a hippie-dippie liberal arts-type major, I was guaranteed to be a loser, but SCIENCE was where it was at (or engineering, or computing). Now they're only slightly less better than us hippies?

Seriously, what industry is doing well any more?
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:42 PM on September 16, 2014


What I don't get is the paradox of the sheer number of brilliant minds that are just sitting idly in the US. Like any given liquor brewer, corner store owner, or barista could secretly be a scientific genius who just gave up on their dreams. I know these aren't technically idle hands (and people excel in a variety of settings), but it doesn't sound like any of those jobs were an academic's first choice. There just has to be a better way to harness all this brainpower...

They're not needed, or more specifically, nobody can afford them.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:43 PM on September 16, 2014


Having an excess of trainees within biomedicine is not such a big problem if there is an industry to absorb them. As jamjam mentioned, though, the pharma industry is actually in the middle of a frenzy of mergers, acquisitions, and associated layoffs, because a lot of their most profitable drugs are going off-patent without a lot of promising new candidates coming through the pipeline and they are panicking. I think this is absolutely related to the stagnation of the federal funding of basic biomedical science, which was referred to as "unprecedented" when we discussed it previously on Metafilter, in March of 2008.

Pharma already takes on insane amounts of risk compared to other industries: 95% of drugs fail (and these are already carefully vetted candidates!), with the total cost per single successful drug estimated at between 1 and 5 billion dollars. They are just not likely to take on very much responsibility for basic biomedical research any time soon -- which, although it has the greatest transformative potential, is even more risky and unpredictable. This is why pharma has historically depended so heavily on academic biomedical research for leads. But you can't do applied or translational research if there's nothing to apply or translate.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:25 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Either your work is valuable and you get paid accordingly, or its not and you don't.

Say what? Valuable to whom? Paid by whom? Accordingly = what?
posted by carping demon at 11:49 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


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