Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Other Side

September first is approaching. For many of us postdocs this is the time for a move and for a new beginning, new places, new faces. Here at Perimeter Institute, the new postdocs have already started to arrive.

Those of you who are not working in the field know the names of maybe a handful of the top postdocs in that are out there. But folks, there are thousands of us who you've never taken notice of. And those who I've met have all one thing in common: they are dedicated to their The Other Side of Green Grasswork. The reason I'd think is fairly simple. If you don't care about the field enough, you can get a better paid job with a better contract elsewhere. I don't know anybody holding a PhD in theoretical physics who ended up being unemployed*, nobody who had a serious problem finding a position outside academia.

However, I spend a lot of time on this blog telling you how great this job is, but today I want to mention the other side, where the grass is not all that green (see figure to the right). Besides the obvious fact that not everybody likes to move around and leave behind friends and family, there is the issue how you get treated at work. And over the years I have heard a lot of very nasty stories about supervisors. See, the most common conversation starter at a conference is "Who are you working with?"... "And how is he?". Gossip gets passed around because it's relevant for us to know - preferably before we accept an offer.

Here at PI, we don't have supervisors and I am perfectly happy with my position, so the following doesn't actually apply to my current job. But here is, for all the postdocs that are presently busy packing moving boxes, a note to the supervisors:

1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The most common complaint about supervisors is lacking respect. If you've hired that postdoc for his scientific expertise, then how about you listen to what he has to say and don't ignore his opinion?
A very typical example that I have heard in too many versions, and from almost all areas, is the supervisor with the supposedly great idea who wants the postdoc to do a time-consuming calculation, but doesn't even take the time to explain the context, or doesn't want to hear any feedback. Yes that's a cliché, but that doesn't make it less annoying. Of course you have a great idea that will change the world! That's what everybody thinks.
Also, don't shove and push around your postdocs, don't expect us to do duties that staff should be doing (like sending/typing letters, taking care of travel arrangements, or making coffee.) Don't outsource your problems, and use us to take care of that journalist, to answer the crackpot's inquiries, or to handle administrative issues on your behalf. And please don't blame us for other people's mistakes including your own.
It all comes down to the obvious line: treat others like you want to be treated yourself. You don't get respect if you don't earn it. What you get instead is gossip.

2. Acknowledgement

If your postdocs gives your lectures while you're travelling, writes your referee reports that have been due a month ago, arranges seminars, organizes conferences you insisted to hold, or takes care of that graduate student who's been sitting in front of your office for several hours a small 'Thank you' would be appropriate every now and then.
More generally, we postdocs don't run on dark energy that we get out of the vacuum. We want to know whether our work is actually good for something, and appreciate some motivation. We can't improve if we don't know how well we are doing, and need some feedback, preferably in a timely and meaningful manner - both when things are going well and when improvements are needed. Ignorance is much more annoying than constructive criticism.

3. Guidance

Your postdoc relies on your experience. When it comes to proposals, applications, publishing, maybe giving an important talk, financial or general career questions your advise is needed. Your postdoc relies on you to introduce him to people who might be important for a project, expects you to point out relevant conferences that he might not be aware of, relies on you to mention related work that has been done possibly before he was even born. In most cases the default is to respect your intuition. Look - we know you have a headstart, but don't abuse our trust.
All of that however does only work if you actually provide this experience.

4. Integrity

Like it or not, you're a role model. Try to be fair and honest, reliable, available and approachable. Just believe me we are not wasting your time on purpose, and wouldn't bother you unnecessarily. Don't postpone and cancel appointments repeatedly, or proclaim you are too busy with more important tasks - you are not the only one who has other things to do, and I don't care whether you've been nominated for the Nobel prize. Being constantly busy doesn't prove you're important but that you can't cope with your schedule and, worse, aren't even able to improve your time management.
If your postdoc mentions a deadline, try to meet it, it was probably not her idea. A friend of mine worked 24/7 doing a calculation, the numerics, the write-up for a project which was under time pressure - yet the almost finished paper laid on his supervisor's desk for three months before he got as much as an 'okay' as reaction. What kind of a behavior is that? Another friend was running into financial trouble, yet was unable to schedule a meeting or even a phone call to explain the issue, and I know more than one postdoc who has explained (only half jokingly) that the best occasion to talk to his supervisor is when they both happen to be on the same conference.

5. Humanity

We don't expect you to be perfect, but in return try to realize we are only human. Don't expect your postdoc to work on weekends or late at night just because you do so, she might indeed have a life on her own. Don't even think about raising an eyebrow if he leaves 'already' at 7pm, or works 'only' 60 hours per week. Don't expect him to miraculously recover your lost password, have a backup of revision # 3.8 which you accidentally deleted, or find the bug in a 100,000 lines code over night. Instead, think for a moment where you'd be without him.
The easiest way to a good working environment is communication. I mean, one that goes both ways. You might find out your postdoc is actually worth the time talking to. Let's hope you find out before he leaves.

PS: Luckily, there are also many good supervisors around, and I'd like thank all of them for their time and efforts.

While browsing I found a summary of a small survey regarding the question 'What makes a good supervisor', from '99 by Mary Opperman at Cornell. You find the results here, it's very similar to what I've summarized above.

* With one exception who ended up in a sanatorium.


  1. Dear Bee,

    thank you so much for this post. I totally agree on all points, but would have ordered them 14325.

  2. Having been in industry for, uh, 25 years, I believe that the most important thing about your job is who you report to.

    Socially, humans are a pack animal with a tenedency towards hierarchical structure. This means that we have an inborn tendency to worship our leaders. To make your underlings despise you requires a considerable amount of abuse. On the other hand, it takes very little effort to keep them very happy. And they'll be loyal for life.

  3. I have been an academic for 20 years, and have never supervised a postdoc [due to peculiar local circumstances], but I have observed many other professors who have. Put yourself in their shoes. 1. Nobody has ideas all the time; there are, for most people, lengthy periods when no ideas come, or ideas come that can't be made to work. But few indeed are the people who can admit this to a young hotshot postdoc. I suspect that a lot of time-wasting activities get foisted onto postdocs so that the latter won't realize that the boss has nothing to suggest to them. 2. Professors forget things, and there are probably large gaps in their education. They fear that you will come to ask them to explain something that they just don't understand, *especially* things that they have said in their papers without really understanding them themselves. [Shocked? Don't be. Happens all the time.] In short, the prof, unless he is a lunatic egomaniac [these do exist] probably feels very threatened by his postdocs, and would not take them on unless he were forced [by peer pressure] to do so. Basically the whole postdoc system stinks, and should be done away with. Postdocs are just young assistant professors on half pay and with no prosect of tenure.

  4. Hi Prof. Anonymous:

    I guess my problem is I put myself into other people's shoes too often. Thing is, if somebody doesn't know what to do with a postdoc, why on earth don't they just leave them alone to begin with, and just don't assign them to supervisors? Most postdocs are in their early 30ies, have 10+ years of experience in the field, and are perfectly able to have their own research program. Just that this potential independence is hindered by the current system. I totally agree with you that the postdoc system stinks.

    Despite this I think a healthy relation between people with various levels of experience (postdoc/senior researcher) can be beneficial for both sides. Also, I can do without a supervisor but it's not everybody's thing. One way or the other, fact is, in most places there is de facto the postdoc/supervisor structure, so if it's unavoidable I think one should try to make the best out of it.

    I guess the bottomline is that supervising, as teaching, as being supervised, just isn't for everybody. So maybe the organization of task assignments should be somewhat more flexible there. I agree with you that here (as in many other cases) the important factor is peer pressure (show around the postdocs you've produced).

    the prof, unless he is a lunatic egomaniac [these do exist] probably feels very threatened by his postdocs

    I like that interpretation :-)



  5. A lot of postdoc attitudes. Now how about some prof attitudes. Put yourself in their shoes. What do you expect from postdocs, especially those hotshot with attitudes. If you say results, fine. If you say great results, that can be a bit threatening.
    So what the whole point of the postdoc system? If you say "to produce the kind of results which the prof likes and which he/she can claim a large proportion of the credit", then you are being smart. In short, replace your entire argument with the above single phrase. This is how a postdoc becomes a faculty.
    - From a retired prof

  6. Hi Dark-Matter,

    I am very reluctant to summarizing what makes a 'good' postdoc since I'd guess my notion of 'good' isn't common sense. If I mess up my so-called career that's my thing, but I don't want to give bad advises to other people. Besides this, I'd say I'm not a 'good' postdoc myself ;-)

    If you say "to produce the kind of results which the prof likes and which he/she can claim a large proportion of the credit", then you are being smart. In short, replace your entire argument with the above single phrase. This is how a postdoc becomes a faculty.

    It implies a selection process ("which the prof likes") that I don't think is optimal. It's not the kind of 'smartness' that I want to be promoted faculty. Some more thoughts on the present selection process in academia here. Best,


  7. "It implies a selection process ("which the prof likes") that I don't think is optimal. It's not the kind of 'smartness' that I want to be promoted faculty."

    Indeed your attitude is OK. But you'd better produce great results. Because, if you are there NOT to assist the prof but mainly to assist yourself, why should the prof hire you? It's not your money you know. If you're faculty, who have worked hard for that budget or grant and now under pressure to produce for that grant, would you hire someone like yourself full of 'optimal idealism'?

  8. Thanks. I understand what you're saying. There isn't much I can comment about it except that I'm aware of that tension.

    If you're faculty, who have worked hard for that budget or grant and now under pressure to produce for that grant, would you hire someone like yourself full of 'optimal idealism'?

    My 'optimal idealism' is optimistic enough to believe things can be changed. And if I can do something to improve the situation, then I'll try. That's what I expect of others as well. It really upsets me if people say 'that's just the way things are', shrug shoulders and try to fit into a system that so obviously has drawbacks. In this case the problem is 'pressure to produce under that grant' in a possibly tight timeframe. It's just not how things work optimally in this field of science.


  9. Hey, maybe I need to hire me a postdoc! ;-)

  10. It's not your money either Mr. smarty-dark-matter-pants.

    What's dark-matter anyway? Please enlighten me.

    I'm not sure what a postdoc is, but I'm all for them. I seem to be having some trouble with my post.

  11. Hi Taxpayer:

    Postdoc = Postdoctoral Reseacher

    Some infor on Dark Matter

    I want to remind you that I don't tolerate anonymously made insults, your comment is borderline.



  12. Bee - good answer. Keep chucking. Postdoc shouldn't let supervisor get away with everything but yet able to strike an appropriate balance by being assertive within reason and you're doing that.

    Taxpayer - Correction, as faculty it IS my money. The taxpayer give money to the government who and grants it to a specified faculty of a specific institution based on the deliverables of the grant submission. The portion assigned to the faculty is for him/her to spend with full authority granted. One of the implied goals of faculty is to evaluate if a postdoc is able, in future, to become a competent manager of people and money.

  13. Dear Bee,

    Your post is very useful but I would like to take a chance to ask you to write about another problem. Another post that would be very useful would be about how to get hired, be a postdoc job, a tenure track, etc., mainly when you live abroad and has to cross the sea to work.
    I am an undergraduate student finishing my physics studies in Brazil. I pretend to go to graduate course. The main concern we have here is how to get a job after we finish the graduate course. Here all universities are public and we depend of money from the govern for a department to open a position. And what happens, as the govern is poor and makes very few investments in science, is that almost never there is a position opened.

  14. Hi João,

    Thanks for your comment. I can understand your problem, but as I've indicated above I am very reluctant to distribute advises "about how to get hired, be a postdoc job, a tenure track, etc.,". For one, because I don't feel qualified (and I'm not tenured btw). But even these 'smart' advises that have been passed on to me, I don't want to distribute, because they contain exactly what I like the least about the field.

    There are just some few general remarks that I want to make: 1) If you want to leave Brazil, Europe might be easier than North America to start with. 2) Leave as early as possible. If you are dreaming of a position in the states a PhD obtained there is a definite advantage 3) Travel. Travel. Travel a lot. Go and meet people.

    But the most important point is that you really love what you are doing. If you loose your motivation, there is nothing that can outbalance it. No matter where you are or how high you get paid. Best,


  15. Wow... where did all of this come from? Watching postdoc/prof relations while being a grad student, being a postdoc in two different places and now hired three postdocs myself -- I have never seen postdocs being disrespected or "used" in ways other than as junior colleagues (making coffee ??? -- you know, my advisor at JHU used to make coffee for me (and I try to do the same for my postdocs on occasions))...

    I never thought that people find it appropriate to ask your postdoc to teach your class -- it is not why the postdoc is hired...



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