Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Temporary Display?

"SCENE: A pavement café in a bustling European capital. A forlorn German scientist stares into her coffee. An American friend arrives and sits down.

American: Hey, what's up? You're looking pretty stressed."

That's what I just read an article in the recent Nature issue (Volume 446 Number 7131 p108) by Martin Lang, titled The inside track from academia and industry: Temporary display. The author description says 'Martin Lang is recruitment consultant for Kelly Scientific Resources in Cologne, Germany.'

Essentially, the article elaborates on the allegedly typical German wish for permanent positions (German: [...] But I'd still rather have the stability of a permanent position. I want to stay put until I retire.) In contrast to the allegedly typical American flexibility (American: To be honest, those days are over. It just doesn't happen any more. If the choice is between staying unemployed and trying something different, why not give temping a try? ).

Of course I feel personally offended by that, because I have heard similar arguments for academia, very naively transferred from industry. Martin Lang essentially argues that temporary positions are becoming more common because the job market has changed 'There is no point mourning a job market that has been undergoing dramatic change for several years.' and that we should get used to it 'Both employers and employees are constantly reacting to changes caused by globalization, new technology and shifting scientific and political fortunes. Temporary employment is one reaction to these changes. It is accepted in most sectors as a way to keep staffing levels responsive to fluctuating needs.' And he realizes:

'But to PhD scientists in some parts of the world, the idea of temporary employment can [...] elicit a negative response.'

Now that's really surprising. Well, I can't say very much about industry (actually I can, but would you trust me on that?), so let me stick to academia. The first important point is hidden in the sentence 'So if you're not tied down with family and financial commitments, why not make use of your freedom to exploit the temporary job market?' -- the obvious question is what happens to those who are 'tied down with family'?

Among postdocs the additional problems with this view are:

a) There are just projects you would never start on a short-term employment. And good things take time. If you want your postdocs to do good work, give them a sensible contract.

b) Jumping from one temporary employment to the next is okay for some while. The problem is the absence of long-term positions where you can land. Temping does only work temporarily. It's nothing you want to do for the rest of your life. And being the typical German, I find the spareness of future options genuinely depressing.

c) A long-term contract doesn't mean you are stuck with the people, but you trust in them. That pays off. (It means also you obviously avoid life-time positions, like Professors in Germany, who can't be fired, no matter what.)

d) For the industry, temporary contracts are in many cases just a test run for a possible long-term employment ('For companies that are cautious about bringing in high-level staff permanently, it gives them an opportunity to see the scientists in action, before they make a more long-term commitment.') Where is this option for postdocs?

SCENE: A pavement café in a bustling American capital. A forlorn American scientist stares into his coffee. A German friend arrives and sits down.

German: "Good advice: Never read the 'The-way-I-see-it' column on Starbucks cups. It will most likely spoil your day."



And that's Nemo.



See also the follow-up post: Temporary Display - contd.


TAGS: , ,

23 comments:

Aaron said...

Regardless of the arguments the author is attempting to make, he by far chose the wrong voice for his audience.

Also, you can tell by what Mr. Lang doesn't write about that he has never personally experienced the perils of the contract job market.

Where is the advice on negotiating contracts? Asking for and saving enough money to see through periods of unemployment? How to tell if your position is going south? When is it appropriate to start looking for the next contract? And the biggest problem: contracting is great for people who are skilled at self marketing, but for the more timid of us (including myself) getting out their and selling yourself is a daunting task.

All in all, the editorial fills a necessary gap in the literature.

Anonymous said...

we won't rub it in your nose if you change your mind ;))

Bee said...

Hi Aaron,

you can tell by what Mr. Lang doesn't write about that he has never personally experienced the perils of the contract job market.

Might be he had to keep it short?

But yes, it seems to me the article is a (fairly poor) justification to avoid commitments to employees. The argument that 'times have changed' and the marketplace demands this kind of flexibility is not only wrong, it is also very short sighted.

Yes, times have changed and - in research as well as in the lab - new techniques are adapted frequently. The consequence to draw from that is that education has to be flexible, not the employment. Changing people too frequently is a huge waste of time, since no matter what you do, you have to get accustomed to a new job, place, people.

Also, there's a limit to how far men can change, no matter what the marketplace demands. That's why we need politics to balance the extremes of capitalism. The apparent difference that I see between Germans and Americans (on the average, restrictions apply, etc) is that Americans seem to more strongly believe that whatever 'the marketplace' demands is what leads to progress and if there's gap between what is and what is required, they are willing to change. Germans focus on the difference between what is and what is required, and than mourn about what is required. I don't think either of both is leading us anywhere. Maybe it's a good thing I live in Canada :-)

Hi Anonymous...

I change my mind a million times each day, but should I ever praise Starbuck's The-Way-I-see-it column, feel free to rub it in my nose.

Best,

B.

Aaron said...

I also found it infuriating that Mr. Lang did not even acknowledge that the contract market is how most researchers have been working for all of their careers. Aside from faculty members, the rest of us involved in research bounce from one trust appointment to another. Principal Investigators do what they can to ensure stable employment for their staff, but eventually every grant ends. I can't think of anything closer to the free-market system than grant competitions, and we have been doing that for over a century (for better or worse).

Bee said...

Hi Aaron,

The problem is that researchers on non-permanent positions, esp. postdocs, have almost no voice in the society. Most people I know outside academia have no idea what a postdoc is to begin with. But besides this, constant job-jumping just makes it notoriously hard to fight for better job-conditions. This bothers me because I think it is definitely not to the advantage of science to put such pressure on researchers. On the contrary, I think many of the problems that we are facing today is due to that pressure. Like, there is a ridiculous kind of competition going on that's got nothing to do with scientific quality, but with sheer advertising, connections, political and social skills. I'm not saying these are unimportant points for a scientist, but their importance has grown beyond the point what's advantageous for science.

Best,

B.

CarlBrannen said...

If we take a poll of [anyjob], we will find that their efficiency would be improved if they had (a) tenure, (b) higher wages, (c) jobs for their relatives, and (d) less working hours. This is not a surprise.

What is a surprise is that you see academics talking about these kinds of issues when their motivations are so clear. What would you say if the politicians were demanding tenure? Jobs for their relatives? Fewer working hours?

Let's use the word "sinecure" instead of "tenure". When academics want matching sinecures so that two spouses can live near each other, let us call that "nepotism". And when they demand high wages so their children can go to the same institutions they attended, we will call that "hereditary privilege".

Bee said...

Hi Carl,

regarding poll, wouldn't that crucially depend on who you ask, the employees or their employers? And shouldn't there be a sensible middle way?

I also don't quite get your analogy to politicians. There are positions into which you have to be elected, obviously these can't be made tenured, it would be against their very purpose. Having an education in politics doesn't mean you have to be in such a job. There are other positions that aren't even bound to the party that you belong to, and these are jobs like every other job. Of course these should underlie the same criteria. But I know e.g. in Germany most of these jobs are in public service, very well paid, and very secure (have no idea how that is in the USA).

Does pointing out that things are also bad elsewhere make it better?

What I tried to say is that in my opinion the situation for 'young' scientific researchers is not very well balanced, and it would be to everybodies advantage if the points a)-d) were taken in to account, instead of repeating arguments adapted from the industry (even more so if they are as weak even in this case like these of Mr. Lang.)

Best,

B.

Arun said...

"I change my mind a million times each day"

Bee Zitterbewegung?

---

The premise of the modern market is that people are perfectly interchangeable (e.g., as in "why can't you write software in three shifts?"). So, e.g., a company can have American employees today, replace them by Brazilian ones tomorrow, and Indian ones on the day after, in its infinitely fast response to the marketplace, with zero ill-effects. The ramp-up time to learn what one needs to know to do a job is assumed to be zero, and managers are very disappointed when that doesn't turn out to be the case.

Anonymous said...

The private sector in North America has gone through gut-wrenching changes that was started by the deep recession of 1989-1992. Today, almost every job is a de facto contract job. So-called "permanent" positions can be eliminated at will with no legal protection. There is zero loyalty in both parties. Jobs get shipped around the world in split seconds in the name of maximum profitability. Everybody is 'on you own'. Learn new skills every year or 'die'. You academic degrees is a minor consideration, nothing more than an entrance fee. You ability to make money, the almighty buck, trumps everything. You are hero this quarter and so much overhead the next.

With this in mind, do postdocs still want to complain the challenges of getting tenure?

Rae Ann said...

Anonymous mentions some interesting points, and I can relate because I was coming out of college (undergrad) in 1990 when the job market was such that it didn't matter what kind of degree you had, you just had to take whatever job you could find.

My peers were the first group of people who were pushed to go to college for "job security" and "better salary" and all those other golden promises, but when we came out none of that was to be found. It sucked, and it was very depressing.

Also, for those who did actually go on to graduate school, the prospects were often even worse when looking for a job. Imagine how disillusioned one became when she put all that expense, time, and effort into getting a doctorate but had no job options when finished. This happened to one of my good friends. She had her PhD by the time she was 25, but when she tried to find a job there were none.

The temporary/contract options weren't even available back then. I kind of hate to say it, but the concept of tenure is pretty old-fashioned and might have outlived its usefulness in the current would economy. Not that I think that's a good thing, but that's just how it seems to be.

Rae Ann said...

sorry, "world economy"

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous,

Everybody is 'on you own'. [...] With this in mind, do postdocs still want to complain the challenges of getting tenure?

I understand your comment. But do you really expect me to say: if everybody else's life sucks then postdocs should suffer as well? I can only repeat what I said above:

Does pointing out that things are also bad elsewhere make it better?

Besides this, I'm sorry to hear how tough the 'private sector in North America' is, but you know what: If it's a democracy then you should be able to change it. You are responsible for the political and social environment that you work in, and it's completely obvious that it doesn't have to be this way.

Hi Arun,

a company can have American employees today, replace them by Brazilian ones tomorrow, and Indian ones on the day after, in its infinitely

Yes, they can. But is this always a good decision? My problem is the following. A company that claims it needs to be flexible in such extremes with hiring and firing people doesn't trust in itself. They are afraid next year nobody is going to buy whatever-they-produce. Instead of working on stabilizing their sales volume they try to minimize losses. The first would be to everybodyes advantage, the latter is to the advantage of the management only.

Bee Zitterbewegung?

:-) Kind of. I hope there's some direction underneath the random motion. But sometimes I'm not so sure.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi RaeAnn,

That is really a sad story.

I kind of hate to say it, but the concept of tenure is pretty old-fashioned and might have outlived its usefulness in the current would economy. Not that I think that's a good thing, but that's just how it seems to be.

:-) Did you read what I wrote in the comment above:

The apparent difference that I see between Germans and Americans (on the average, restrictions apply, etc) is that Americans seem to more strongly believe that whatever 'the marketplace' demands is what leads to progress and if there's gap between what is and what is required, they are willing to change. Germans focus on the difference between what is and what is required, and than mourn about what is required.

I don't care at all if a concept is old fashioned or not. Whether something outlives its usefulness isn't dictated by some anonymous world economy. What makes you think it has 'outlived its usefulness' if you nevertheless think that it is 'not a good thing'? The question is not whether tenure is provided by companies, but whether it would be an advantage to have it - an advantage not for the profit of the company, but in the most naive sense for the happiness of the population. See, we believe in the free marketplace because we believe it's the easiest way to increase happiness among us. It doesn't in all cases. If it doesn't you have politics to correct it. The profit of a company isn't in all cases equal to increased happiness.

Anyway, as I have written in earlier posts, I definitely think that our society has undergone dramatic changes that we have to take into account in scientific research. And many problems we face today in this field stem from not realizing that global changes have to reflect in our society as well.

But as I've argued above, snipping long-term contracts into smaller and smaller pieces isn't going to lead to progress. The most important point is that research isn't something you can turn on and off like burger flipping. It does hardly matter where I flip the burger, and who's flipping the burger next to me, and if I flip the burger next week elsewhere. But it matters a lot if you try to get into constructive work with colleagues whether you have to start over again every 6-12 months. Its the ambitious long-term projects that drop off the desk in this circumstances. And these are exactly the ones that are missing. Surprise?

Best,

B.

Joerg said...

Hey Bee,

one of the things that upset me about the article is that is was indeed published in Nature under the "inside track from academia and industry".

I don't have a problem with the fact that the issue is discussed from a biased perspective, but I have a problem with it if it remains unresponded.

Let me point some issues out that came to my attention (I don't have the time to do a lot of research about the author etc. and analysing the text in great detail, but some things are obvious without deep analysis):

I think M. Lang misses the point in the German vs. American discussion.

While the German job market has always been more regulated (in the sense of unions and legal employee protection) than the American one and while Germans (on average) might tend to emphasize job security when considering the benefits of a job more than Americans,
this differences in attitudes is NOT addressing the main issue for people employed in research jobs (in many research fields).
I actually think this part of his discussion is misdirecting.

Obviously job security IS a question in research as in any job,
but the specifics in research might make it even more important in that field in the long run:

--Long term projects in fundamental research afford a longer term perspective. That is one reason why (at least (!)) senior scientist should have tenured positions. That helps to develop research fields on long term perspectives (important in fundamental science).

--The postdoc system, if one wants to interpret it from its best side,
wants to help young scientists
to work with experts in their research field at other places than were they made their PHD or will eventually get a senior science position. It can be interpreted in the sense of "years of travel" where you gain experience.
Obviously the single appointments have to be long enough to allow the person (and his/her collaborators) to substantially profit from his/her stay at every single place.


--Switching between short-term employments means moving and adjusting to new places and people, this takes time, energy and money. One is tempted to point out that even postdocs are not research machines, but human beings with human needs. What does it mean not to be "tied down with family and financial commitments" and friends?
It simple means that you shift (because you decide to) during the postdoc years your commitments towards your job away from friends and family. Many people decide to do that outside of academia -- but it is a decsision and for those among us who value close social bonds to loved ones a tough one.

In this context I wonder why the other fails to acknowledge that "family values" might be one of the strongest American traditions (stronger than in Europe at least).

-- For most of us chosing this path also means making econmically not the most reasonable possible choice: a postdoc position in fundamental research almost never pays off in dollars and cents (even if you get a long term job). We can seek much more lucrative job options (also in the long term) measured financially, I guess.
In that sense the economical treatment of science and scientist might in the end prove counterproductive: if we are only economically justifying our choices than a science career definitively is not be the best one after all.

--Whats the rational reason for making a postdoc experience in term of employment options then?

-you love research
-you want to learn/research
with leading people in your
field and go to where they
are (which also provides
scientific
networking later on etc.)
-you want to eventually get on a
tenure track position (which
will in the US system also
be on probation and nobody
complains about that in germany, everybody wants to have the assistant professor tenure track copied (!)) towards a
"senior researcher" with a long
term perspective

--If the last perspective is gone (meaning the believe that your short term appointment will turn eventually in a long term appointment), than it gets a much tougher journey.
And that is the real problem in many fields especially if you have not been clever enough to chose the research topics and places (and last but not least supervisors for thesis/postdoc) that don't have the full level of publicity in the scientific community. Then it gets tough, even tough to motivate oneself further,
especially if you know of many other great researchers in your field that just fail to get a job because your subject is not on the peak of publicity right now -- not because they won't do great research and have a fast knowledge and competence.

So to my understanding the prospect of long term appointment CAN motivate short term appointment (and make it justifiable even if one things ONLY in an economic perspective).

The author acknolwedges this simple fact also indirecly: "it gives them an opportunity to see the scientist in action, before they make a long-term commitment",

Exactly, nobody argues against "probation", but short term with
a fading perspective of long term, that is what drives postdocs down:
may they be from North America or Europe . . .

Andreas said...

Hi Bee,

I hope there's some direction underneath the random motion. But sometimes I'm not so sure.

Now, do you still wonder why I specialized in stochastics?

;)

Bee said...

The good thing about stochastics is that it is useful, was ever useful, and will ever be useful. The not so good thing about stochastics is that the amount of what one can learn using it is limited, since it only tells you how to deal with a lack of information. I.e. it tells you how to deal with my random motion, but I will remain a mystery.

I might change my mind about that ;-)

Andreas said...

I.e. it tells you how to deal with my random motion, but I will remain a mystery.

Well, you are a woman...

Aaron said...

Quiet the nerve that got struck.

Let's get down to the brass tax - money. The analogy that post-doc-ing is equivalent to private sector contracting is completely hollow from a financial perspective. Private sector contract pay is exceedingly higher than the hand to mouth salaries that most post-docs collect. This is because private sector contracts have built into them two important financial assumptions:

1. Flexibility means paying someone enough that they can save to cover for periods of unemployment (e.g. maxed out RSP contributions).
2. Flexibility means paying someone enough that if moving is required, than the spouse can be supported regardless of whether the spouse finds employment.

I can't imagine that amount of funding ever showing up in the academic sector. Don't quote me but from my experience a well paid post-doc can earn $40 000/year (CAN) while private sector IT contracts run $80 000-$120 000/year (CAN).

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that in the current post-doc-ing system is the implicit assumption that stable employment lays on the other side of the rainbow. Thus ideas that are first developed during the post-doc-ing phase can come to fruition once stably employed. However this as never been fully true, and is even less true now than it has ever been. Faculty positions rarely out and out support research regardless of its outcome. If a researcher wants to do science a great deal of time is spent on grantsmanship and quantity based publication (as opposed to quality based publication).

Now whether the short term competitive practices of science funding is a hindrance or a benefit to the long term development of science is hard to say. I do know, from personal insight into one of the Canadian Governments major science funding bodies, that some granting agencies do in fact set long term (~10-15 years) objectives in their research priorities which are addressed through short term grant awards (~2-5 years). Furthermore the boards of directories of these agencies are not government bureaucrats but rather are composed of peers in the scientific community, who do happen to have some insight into the direction science is moving.

CarlBrannen said...

Some comments on the academics arguing for higher pay for academics:

"regarding poll, wouldn't that crucially depend on who you ask, the employees or their employers? And shouldn't there be a sensible middle way?"

I've worked in plenty of private sector jobs. When it comes to handing out the perks, managers always hand out the most to the people who are closest to them. At upper levels of management, this means senior management. When a CEO rose up through the sales ranks, this means to the sales groups. Everyone understands their own needs far better than they understand the needs of others. With academia, the pay for academics is decided by academics. Of course they will agree on higher pay.

"It does hardly matter where I flip the burger, and who's flipping the burger next to me, and if I flip the burger next week elsewhere."

This is a kind of insulting statement that can only be made by someone who has not flipped a lot of burgers.

"Its the ambitious long-term projects that drop off the desk in this circumstances. And these are exactly the ones that are missing. Surprise?"

We've had tenure for hundreds of years, yet physics is in trouble. I doubt that handing out tenure to junior researhers is going to help. In order to give a job to one man, academia has to refuse to give a job to another.

Yes it is a problem that long-term projects of great difficulty are not well supported in academia. The solution is not to give another layer of useless management that will decide who will be the next Einstein. The solution is to provide opportunities for people who have been pushed out of academia to continue their research as amateurs. It has become much more difficult for patent clerks to publish work nowadays, and a lot of that is due to acadmica insularity.

"Private sector contract pay is exceedingly higher than the hand to mouth salaries that most post-docs collect."

One could argue that the absence of progress in the foundations of physics has been due to the competent physicists being attracted into industry by the higher paying jobs, but I'm not sure that this is what is being argued here. A universal human (and bovine) trait is to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

The average burger flipping job pays about $16K per year in the US. A watiressing job pays about $11K plus tips. Work as a security guard is around $14K per year. Postdocs at U. Cal. earn about $35K per year. This may be less than industry, but it isn't less by much.

Bee said...

Hi Carl,

I apologize for the insulting burger flipper comparison. No, I haven't flipped many burgers, worse, I'm vegetarian and don't even eat burgers. What I meant to say with this sentence was that it depends on the job whether or not temporary positions allow the employee to work with maximal efficiency. Jobs that can easily be transferred to other people or locations can profit from short term contracts, but this is not the case for all jobs.

We've had tenure for hundreds of years, yet physics is in trouble. I doubt that handing out tenure to junior researhers is going to help.

But it hasn't been in trouble for hundreds years. If you believe it is in trouble, then this trouble only came across in the last decades. So. What has changed to our disadvantage? To begin with, we could discuss what 'junior researcher' means. Most postdocs I know are in their thirties. They have their own ideas, they are reliable, they are hard working, and know their job. They have been in the field for at least a decade. Yet, for those who want to, it is notoriously hard to work on their own projects for all of the reasons mentioned above: they are on short-term positions, have to work fast, and most often on projects they haven't even chosen themselves. Or they drop out.

This is definitly not optimal if you consider that the human brain has its prime time in the mid to late twenties (sad but true). What I say is, we should trust better in these not-so-really-junior researchers.

A universal human (and bovine) trait is to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

I can easily imagine one million scenarios in which postdocs would be in even worse positions. (And please note, I am not complaining about my own job, which is almost perfect I'd say). All I'm saying is: the situation is not optimal. And there are ways to improve scientific research, suggestions to which I have given above or in my earlier posts

Science and Democracy
Science and Democracy II

I agree with your remark that another layer of useless management isn't going to help. I sympathize a lot with Joergs attidute (see todays post) that we should simply support and keep people who have proven to be useful. The question is then of course how do you find out who's useful. And again, what is the time scale for that?

Best,

B.

Lumo said...

That's Nemo? ;-) We had a "Duo Nemo" at the elementary school, with Robert Nekl. It was an acronym Nekl-Motl.

CarlBrannen said...

"But it hasn't been in trouble for hundreds years. If you believe it is in trouble, then this trouble only came across in the last decades. So. What has changed to our disadvantage?"

In fact, I don't really think physics is in trouble. The vast majority of physicists are doing nothing outside the paradigm defined in 1925, but that is not anything new.

Previous advances in physics have required many years to flower. This is no exception. People who want to rewrite physics completely should expect to do it without a lot of support from those whose careers are based on the old physics. It is sociologically impossible for a meritocracy to support a revolution.

If you want to see advances in physics, you need only wait, no money from society needs to be spent. And this gets us back to the problem we were discussing, that is, how should the money be spent?

It's clear that academics think that more money should be spent on academics. This is not a surprise. Medical people think that more money should be spent on medicine. Legal people think that more money should be spent on lawyers. Ranchers think that more money should be spent on cattle.

Academia can't ask for 6-year post doc positions with pay "comparable to industry" without giving something else up. The current situation is that every postdoc job gets boatloads of applicants. An argument that the number of jobs should be reduced and the pay (and job security) proportionately increased implies that post doc jobs will become even harder to get.

This might be a better position for society, but I doubt it. The reason I left physics was not because the pay was too low. I still do not care much about that. I left because it was obvious that I would, at best, spend years and years fighting for positions, or I would end up working as an experimentalist. Faced with that choice, I went into industry. Raising pay for post docs and decreasing the number of positions would simply have made my decision (which was easy) that much easier.

And not being in academia hasn't hurt my ability to work on physics. To me the central problem of QM is the recursion problem. That is, given free quantum states, how does one combine them together into a bound state that can then be used again as a free state. I've solved this problem and am busily applying it to the baryons.

Not having to worry about tenure makes it that much easier to pursue long tasks like this. There was a time when physics was advanced by rich men with time on their hands. Before recently, it was not possible to advance physics outside academia because of the communication advantages of the university environment. With the advance of the internet, this is no longer the case.

Bee said...

Hi Lubos,

see also: They found Nemo :-)

Hi Carl,

In fact, I don't really think physics is in trouble.

Neither do I... I was just replying to your sentence We've had tenure for hundreds of years, yet physics is in trouble..

No, I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with physics, and I don't think there's reason to be concerned because progress isn't apparent right now. In this regard, you might also want to read S. Weinberg's opinion piece in the March issue of Physics Today, which is really great.

However, I do think that the organization of scientific research hasn't yet been successfully adjusted to the 21st century, and that neglect of our community's increasing complexity results in bad management, and a waste of time, money and effort. That is what concerns me. The question of appropriate time scales for research projects to prove useful is one of these points. In a certain sense I'd say that (at least on this side of the Atlantic ocean) we don't know which way to go, but we are going there really fast. Best,

B.