Thursday, March 08, 2007

Temporary Display - contd.

Yesterday's post caused some very interesting comments, one of which I want to promote to a guest post. Not just because I'm as lazy as busy, but because Jörg has raised some important points.

Jörg Ruppert is a German physicist presently working at the physics department of McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada (since Sept. 2006). This job is his second postdoctoral appointment. He has worked at the physics department of Duke University, NC, USA, for two years after graduating from J.W. Goethe-University, Frankfurt, Germany. His research interests are the QCD phase diagram and related to that phenomena occurring in hot and dense nuclear matter produced in heavy-ion collisions at RHIC and CERN. In his spare time he enjoys discovering the wonders of Montreal.

Yesterday, Bee send me a link to the article by M. Lang in Nature. The title (and the subtitle) of the article sounded interesting ("Temporary display: If you look on short-term employment as a way of window shopping, you could get a bargain"). And I am sure one could have written a nice one page essay about it, the actual article fell short of my expectations.

What the author actually did in the first column was contrasting "German" and "American" points of view on temporarily employment. This was followed by his point of view on the advantages of temporal employment for employee and employer in science.

Since the text was published in Nature under the category "inside track from academia and industry" and therefore has been made part of the discussion in a scientific environment, I feel that I have to respond critically to the article as it stands. While I have no problem with the fact that the author (or in general somebody) has a different view on the issue than I have, I would have a problem if the text remained unresponded. That's why I think that it is a good idea that Bee made it an issue in her blog.

I confess I did not have time to do a lot of research about the author and the circumstances in which the text was written. I also confess that I am one of those who are on "Temporary display" and that therefore my opinion might be subjective and perhaps as biased as the author's one (although biased in a different way I hope).

I also decided against analyzing every part and the total of the text in great detail. I just wanted to let you know what came to my mind while reading it:

I think M. Lang misses the point in the German vs. American discussion of temporary employment in scientific research. While the German job market has always been more regulated (in the sense of unions and legal protection of employees) than the American and while Germans (on average) might tend to emphasize job security when considering the benefits of a job more than Americans, this difference in attitudes is not addressing the main issue for people employed in short-term (say <~5 years) research jobs (in many research fields). I actually think this part of his discussion is misdirecting the whole punchline in which the issue should be seen. Obviously job security is a question in research as in any job, but the specific character of research jobs as opposed to many other jobs might make it even more important in research 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 (or long term) positions. People working on long term position can develop research fields on long term perspectives. People working on short term positions can't do that as effectively.

  • Short term jobs are also enforced by funding agencies: senior scientist get grants for a certain period and have to reapply, they can't offer long term jobs to their (former) postdocs unless a research or faculty position is opened by their university/research institution.

  • If one wants to see the system of postdoc employment from its best aspects, it might be seen as a setup which wants to help young scientists to work with experts in their research field at other places than where they made their PHDs or where they will eventually get a senior science position. It can be interpreted in the sense of "years of travel" where you gain additional experience after having finished your PHD.

Every single postdoc appointment has 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. While this can be thrilling and keeps you in an active state of the mind, this also takes considerable time, energy and financial resources. 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 in order to gain experience and improve your prospects on the long-term appointment job market) during the postdoc years your commitments towards your job away from friends and family. Many people decide to do that also outside of academia -- but it is a decision and for those among us who value close social bonds to loved ones a tough one. In this context I wonder why the author fails to acknowledge that "family values" might be one of the strongest American traditions (stronger than in Europe at least) and that it is actually difficult to move one's partner over the planet -- especially if he or she wants to develop a reasonable career by him-/herself.

For most of us choosing this path also means making not the most reasonable possible choice (judging only on economic grounds): a postdoc position in fundamental research almost never pays off in dollars and cents (even if you get a long term job). Measured financially most of us could seek much more lucrative job options (also in the long term), I guess. In that sense the discussion of the scientist job market in a reduced economical language might in the end prove counterproductive: if we are only economically justifying our choices then a science career definitively is not the best one after all.

That is not to say we shouldn't pursue a scientific career, but people discussing this career path should have in mind that most folks that have chosen to work there don't have money on their highest priority list - which is not to say that a decent salary is necessary to attract good people to science and science careers.

So what's the rational reasoning for making a postdoc experience (and not opting against it and pursuing another career) to my opinion?

  • You love research.

  • You want to learn from/ do research with leading scientists in your
    field and go to where they have long term jobs (which also provides scientific networking later on etc.)

  • You want to eventually get on a tenure track position towards a "senior researcher" with a long term perspective. (As an Ass. professor in the North American system one is on probation for a long term job -- Nobody I know who is German and knows that system doesn't want to have the assistant professor tenure track system copied into the German University system)

  • If the long term perspective is gone (meaning the firm believe that your short term appointment can 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 have the full level of publicity in the scientific community. Then it gets tough, even tough to motivate oneself further albeit most people love their research. It is especially hard to keep a positive perspective if you know of other researchers in your field that just fail to get a job because their subject is not on the peak of (temporarily and changing) public awareness of the scientific community -- not because they won't do great research or have a vast knowledge and competence.

  • I also think that short term appointments increase the publication pressure (which can mean more quantity than quality in research output) and the pressure to do short term projects. Furthermore looking for a job every one or two year can make the competition fierce. Again: one should value competition in research (in he sense of providing independent checks and keeping the people focused and on the frontier of research), but I think collaboration in science is equally important. The present system favors competition often over collaboration -- probably copying the free economic market system.
    Science should have a different quality than economic life. While competition is the most important principle in order to provide different competing choices of products for the costumer, science should still seek the unique answers meaning truth and advancement of knowledge -- as its ultimate goal -- and should value collaboration equally high.

To my understanding the prospect of long term appointment can motivate short term appointment (and make it justifiable even if one thinks somewhat in an economic perspective).

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

Exactly, nobody argues against a research institute putting somebody on temporary 'probation' to test if the person fits in. In addition nobody says that if people stop doing research or do inappropriate things at their workplace that they should be protected by unreasonable laws or regulations from being fired even if they are on long term position.

All what I argue is that a long sequence of short term positions with a fading perspective of long term jobs in research can drive researchers/postdocs and even worse the quality of their research down: may they be from North America or Europe...

TAGS: , ,


  1. a 'blend of flexible job markets and social security'. yes. that's what we need. We don't have it, but we have a name for it!


    (source Merkel: Europe needs "good jobs")

    How shell I call that?


  2. In the private sector, positions, titles, job functions and organizations change constantly to adapt to new economic reality. Even government jobs change often nowadays. In academia, we have postdoc and faculty for hundreds of years. No wonder things are not right. Who created postdoc employments in the first place? The faculty. Only they can initiate a change. As Lee said in TTWP, faculty can't pass the buck because they have the system and the money all locked up, and they are the managers.

    I have talked to dozens of faculty members and I want to report something they will NEVER say publically: they see no problem with the postdoc/tenure system and don't want to change a system that they have all locked up to benefit themselves. When a company have this kind system in the private sector, people quit, often go to work for the competition in the case of highly qualified people. Dissatisfied postdocs can either get a real job in the private sector, or make courageous proposals to change the academic system because such proposals are very unlike to come from faculty or academic/research directors.

    Consider forming professional associations. Form alliances, gain support from the public, and play politics right. Postdocs need to come up with concrete proposals for a new system. Like many entrenched systems, it is very difficult. But it is doable because, in the end, we are talking public money being sent to the faculty for them to invest.

  3. Another issue that I didn't see mentioned by the Nature article, or by anyone else (perhaps because the truth is well-known), is that the contract positions often have few or no benefits in the U.S. No health insurance, no payment into a pension system. In Germany, after I earned my PhD there and became a postdoc, my work contract forced benefits: health insurance and payment into a pension system. I had health insurance as a PhD student too, but nothing else. The postdoc German contract was firm. I needed to get health insurance because I couldn't get my German visa to work without it. In fact for two months in 2001 the two were blocked- each (the visa and health insurance) requiring the other with the impasse being solved by a slightly different wording of my contract, after which I could get my health insurance, take proof of that to the Auslaenderamt, and then receive my visa. Since the health insurance was about 500 euros per month out of my own pocket, the insurance was not a small thing. I wanted the insurance, however (see below) and didn't mind, but my salary afterwards was not too much more than my PhD student salary.

    Some Americans might point fingers at that and say: "See? It's so much more flexible here..", but that flexibility has a large health cost.

    While I was working (more than 15 years) for astronomers on their grants (i.e. temporary contracts), I often didn't have health insurance. The reason was that I needed the flexibility because I was going to school at the same time (my B.S. Physics and M.S. Physics degrees were earned 'on the side' while working), and there were some weeks that I could only work 20 or 30 hours. In the U.S. it is usually the case that businesses (in my case, software companies that won contracts to NASA to give the astronomers programming services) don't offer benefits for less than fulltime employees.

    The large health cost in my case was a work-related injury ("repetitive strain") in 1994. For two months after that injury I could not use a keyboard at all. After I quit my job and treated my healing as a fulltime effort for the next two years (avoiding the surgeons who only wanted to cut tendons), then my injury more-or-less healed and my hand strength came back 80% and I can use computers again (but only very carefully; that is, frequent breaks, expensive ergonomic equipment, etc.)

    Now during the time of my injury, I had no health insurance. I also didn't have a job! (heh, that's when I decided to try to be a consultant :-) ) However I used the one support that I could find, which was that California has a worker's compensation insurance system to cover injuries incurred while on the job. That helped to cover about half of my medical bills. Can you imagine if my injury was not work-related? The medical costs would have devastated my finances for the rest of my life. So that, instead of coming out of those years $25,000 in debt, it would have been double or triple that cost.

    This folks, is the health costs of those temporary science contracts.

  4. lol Bee
    Sarcarony would probably be closer.

    Read your previous post and comments, thought I'd keep shut and listen (or rather read)
    but since you've extended intoday two I thought I'd chip in my tupence worth.

    Everyone keeps telling us we live in a market economy - so what was the cost & profit of uinvading Iraq?

    Everyone keeps relling us we live in a market economy, so expect Renault Logons (from Hungary) to hit the market at £5,000 or around 8000 euros - oops what about state subsidised french built Renault Lagunas. Any chance of cheap BMWs any time soon from Eastern Europe.

    But this was not the topic.
    The Topic is funding for research and the disadvantages of short term funding or temporary employment.

    It is easy for a medical doctor to make plans on his career a guaranteed income of £100,000 a year (at today's wages) that's earning potential of £4 million 40 years - and he doesn't have to introduce any innovations, he can carry on mutilating or killing people just like they were fifty years ago.

    Wouldn't it be nice if all post docs in whatever field, specialty or subject could aspire to the same

    We could send patients to the Moon or Titan - cheaper than we can offer treatment, surgery or drug therapy on Earth.

    It is a matter of will, what States (governments) Education and Academia prioritise, sponsor or subsidise.
    If heart surgery, cancer tratment and hip replacement are the darlings of the modern age, you can bet it will be made available to you (at great cost to the state) even if you don't need it.

    Of course in a competittion for funds, governments instead of writing blank cheques - get people to compete for scraps or crumbs.

    How were the fist autobahns and VWs built - other than by a government that said Just DO IT - long before Nike tried to patent the phrase.

    How were the highways and hoover damn or NASA developed in the US - other than by a government that said Just DO IT, never mind the cost. And how was the US Military Might built but with government funding - and the post-war embargo on Japan & Germany - who funneled their research resources and skills into more 'civilian' enterprises.

    China has great potential, except of course the best Chinese are still being syphoned off or allured by the promise of riches in the EU.

    But any government whether the EU, China or India which invests in Research will reap the reward. And too much competition for funds just creates winners and losers, it is not necessarily conducive to better sport.

    So, don't fall into the trap of competing for funds, but seek more funds to enable this and that and the other project to create research opportunities on everything from biosphere research to marine cultivation (I don't mean just fish farms) to space exploration.

    However the one place that neede a severe shake up is the Medical Profession and Medical Research. If there is any measure to their succes it should be whether a country and its people are healthier, the quality of health and the quality of life.
    Not how many ill diseased and crippled people we can keep alive with expensive drugs and surgery.
    Godd business for the Medical Professions and Pharmaceutical industry.
    Save lives with one hand and nuke them with another, is the American Way! - Both profitable businesses it seems, but only because they are funded and subsidised by The State

  5. Hi Bee and Joerg,

    thanks so much for your great blogs and comments.

    There is something I would like to add to the discussion. I think the comparison between industry and science is like comparing apples to pears.

    First of all, moving from one postdoc position to the next is almost all the time connected to moving to another city or even another country. I am sure the same is true for some of the fixed term contract workers in industry. But very often for them, there is the option of getting another job with another company in the same area, or even another fixed term contract with the same company - something you will rarely find in science. So being a postdoc, when starting a new position you KNOW that you'll have to move again (usually) in two years. With a job in industry you usually can hope for another contract in the same area.

    Second,(this point has been talked about earlier), the jobs in industry are usually focused on a specific goal that has to be achieved. People get hired to do a very specific job. Science on the other hand has a much less specific goal. The goal in science is to make progress in understanding how the universe works and it is anything but straight forward how scientists are going to solve this one or at least part of it. So for industry it's possible to write down, let's say a 2 year plan what has to be done. Scientist are also forced to do this to get funding, especially in the US. However, most of the people working in science know that that is NOT the way science works.

    Science is not industry. Oversimplified: the one tries to maximise knowledge, the other tries to maximise profit. So from this point of view: why would you assume that something that (maybe) works for industry also work for science?

  6. Yet another weakness in the editorial is its assumption that post-doc positions are as interchangeable as industry contract positions, which of course they are not.

    Now aside from the criticism of the editorial I would like to introduce two questions that I think would be helpful to debate:

    1. Is the current system a net hindrance or help to the individual careers of scientists?
    2. Is the current system a net hindrance or help to all of science?

    There are many priorities the current system tries to balance, like providing the stability to pursue difficult problems that require large commitments of time, with the need to remain flexible enough to change when dead ends are approached. What are the successes of the current system? What are its failures?

  7. One idea that is part of a collection of ideas presented recently to improve NASA is to lengthen grant terms to 4 or 5 years to be the norm. I think that is a great idea to provide more stability to the postdoc life.

    I must say that the chaotic, 2 year revolving-door postdoc life was heartbreaking for me to watch, in my previous, relatively 'stable' (I wasn't physically moving every two years) position as a scientific programmer for astronomers.

    It was so heartbreaking to say goodbye too often and watch the personal lives of my friends torn apart, that I vowed that I would not do that kind of 'personal damage' to my own personal life. That held, for a while. But half a decade later the science was too compelling and I did that 'personal damage' too. I still think that one of the largest costs to people's lives in science is the personal cost.

  8. No doubt postdoc laments their 2-3 year revolving temp job. These are temp job because postdoc are students, graduated students yes but nevertheless treated by their immediate superiors, the faculty, as students. Sorry but temp positions have no benefits - a reality of the entire economy. Not much benefits will result by analyzing this in the larger academic/industry context. This is an issue between the faculty and the 'students' they hired.

    PhDs who join the private/government sector will see a different picture. There are no 'postdoc' positions - with the possible exception of medical doctor internship (and they wisely don't call that postdoc!). In these sectors, there are all kinds of junior to intermediate permanent positions before one goes to the senior managerial rank, and to directorship. Positions such as junior/senior member of technical or research staff, scientist I/II/III are common. Why not replace postdoc with something like these. A permanent-staff non-tenure career path along side with that of traditional professorships.

  9. Some good ideas...

    ...but who is going to foot the bill for all these non-tenured permanent positions? How will this fit into the current structure of funding science?

  10. Thanks so much for your interesting contributions! It is probably obviously that I think a lot about this topic - I had planned on writing a longer post for some while, and I will take your feedback into account.

    Aaron... but who is going to foot the bill for all these non-tenured permanent positions? How will this fit into the current structure of funding science?

    For one, theoretical physicist are not very expensive, it wouldn't actually be much of a funding necessary if you compare to funding that goes into experiment or defense. Second, changing short-term positions into long-term positions doesn't necessarily mean an increase in cost, it just means longer commitment. Third, fundamental research and its value for the society is underrated. An excellent example how to improve the embedding into the non-academic world is PI with its strong public outreach program - which is embraced by the audience. Our research DOES influence the society that we live in, the culture, the way we think about the universe. But people want to know where their tax money goes. Neglect of public outreach over decades makes it now difficult for us to justify our existence without promising a final output in purchasable items.

    The 'structure' of science itself doesn't need to change. Science lives from argument, from confronting ideas of our minds with natures ways - as it has always been the case. We just need to realize that we might be setting the wrong priorities when it comes to supporting researchers, and that our current strategies to chose promising candidates might not be the best way towards progress. Overally seen, the research itself is very healthy. Things just go wrong when it comes to feedback through financial support. The longer this is the case, the more difficult it will be to adjust.



  11. Sorry but temp positions have no benefits - a reality of the entire economy.

    Dear Anonymous, dear Amara,

    I can relate to your objections to postdoc life. A fried of mine once called postdocs 'The Homeless People' and I think he has a point there. However, I have to say, temping has undoubtedly the advantage that one gets around and meets people, sees places, gets to know various points of view. I have been opposed to making a postdoc from the beginning on, but looking back I have to say that it can be beneficial for a certain amount of time.

    However, the point here is the same as mentioned above: temping isn't something that can possibly work for more than a couple of years. It distorts and disrupts your life, your relationships, and doesn't allow for sufficient peace and silence to work out more involved projects. I've been job-jumping for more than ten years now. I've had jobs for 12 months, 9 months, even as bad as 5 months. Temporarily, I've been completely without funding. My current contract will terminate 2009 and on my renormalized scale I consider this a long-term position. What comes after this, I don't know.

    I am sure that the circumstances of our jobs drive many out of the field that could have made significant contributions. I am sure that the circumstances make many who stay unhappy. This is unnecessary, makes research work inefficiently, and I hope that we will be able to better the situation for the next generations.



  12. anonymous: It's not true that "temping has no benefits".

    In European postdoc positions, benefits are the norm. Moreover, those benefits can be moved with you when you move from EU country to EU country.

    In the U.S. it not the norm for temps to have benefits, but the sciences might do better than businesses in that respect. The key question to ask is at what level of work do benefits kick in? (50%?, 75%?) NRC offers to postdocs benefits being ZP-III pay scale and technically U.S. Government employees and (some? many?) research institutes running on grants have policies that permit that too. My Planetary Science Institute offers health insurance and other benefits for those who can only work half-time, which is boon for the women researchers with babies and families. (Note: Women at PSI are 33% of PIs/Co-Is and bring in 45% of the funding!)

    btw: Bee: my Italian group is my tenth astronomy group I've worked in since 1982, they are also near the top of my most difficult experiences (lack of money, broken infrastructure), almost all of the rest cluster at the other end of my work spectrum near "great experiences". I agree with everything else you said too. One reason why the current system has been going on for so long is that scientists are a mild-mannered bunch and are passionate about their work. They are prone to self-abuse to pursue those passions too, being willing to absorb the most degrading conditions. Nowhere have I seen it as strongly as in the country where I'm now working; it's completely off-scale.

  13. I can relate to all this far too well, since i've only just recently secured a fellowship.

    I'd love for all the things you say to occur, but the reality is quite stark.

    There is an order of magnitude more people searching for jobs in these fields, than there are positions and crucially money available to support them.

    Thus demand far outstrips supply and all these sorts of concessions become common place as departments attempt to maximize their output (eg it pays to have slave labor postdocs). Indeed the reason we often don't have better pay/health/longterm prospects etc is precisely b/c the department is splitting up their allocation for yet another postdoc.

    If you want a better work environment or more employment prospects, the only solution is to ask for more funding globally, only then will things be less strained. Alternatively you can advocate abandoning job security for some tenured proffessors and thus free up a lot of money for more postdocs (that actually seems to be happening more and more incidentally, as departments have noticed strong declines in productivity rates once tenure is achieved)

    Either way you need to consider that all these niceties are in competition with one another, and given limited budgets, they can't all coexist happily. However, I should say the situation in the US is about a factor of two better than anywhere else in the world (at least relative to Europe).


  14. Theres another thing thats a pretty painful truism.

    If tommorow we executed 30% of the least productive/cited theorists in physics, what would happen to progress in theoretical physics?

    I think we can safely say, 'not much'. Already the Arxiv is littered with papers that I think wouldn't pass 30 seconds of careful scrutiny, indeed finding a legit and carefully made paper is quite a chore these days.

    What does that say about those of us who aren't the Ed Wittens of the world. Well, we can still contribute certainly, but I think our place in this world is and probably should be very tenous until further value is displayed.

  15. Frau Hossenfelder,

    How exactly would you convince the general public (and very skeptical taxpayers) that fundamental research is a long term benefit to society?

  16. Anonymous,

    in my opinion it is fine to argue about how much should reasonably be spent on big science projects such as large collider machines. But there can be no doubt on long term benefits at the first place.

    You may have heard the story of the WWW from CERN, or of Faraday and the newborn/taxes concerning electricity...

    Less anecdotal than Faraday, take the example of Heinrich Hertz and the discovery of radio waves. These experiments were conducted out of the purely academic wish to understand which theory of electrodynamics is the correct one. As a side effect, Hertz discovered the photoelectric effect, which is, more than 120 years later, the standard technique to take photos.

    For another, more recent example, take Fowler-Nordheim tunneling. The 1928 paper of Fowler and Nordheim provided an expanation of some strange observations in the emission of electrons from surfaces, using the newly dicovered laws of quantum mechanics. Apple has just annonced a new generation of notebooks without hard drives - the flash memory chips used in these computers make clever use of Fowler-Nordheim tunneling to store and release electrons, which store bits of information.

    If you prefer standard hard drives, keep in mind that miniaturization is made possible by findings such as Giant Magnetoresistance, which come out of fundamental research in condensed matter physics.

    Just a few examples...

  17. Stefan,

    As much as I agree with everything you have listed, I'm not the person who needs convincing. You're preaching to the choir. ;-)

    The problem seems to be convincing the unwashed masses and uneducated majority, that fundamental research is a good thing for society. These would be the folks who would are more interested in partying and drinking beer + liquor all day, as well as the folks who see any government spending as "evil".

  18. Anonymous said:

    "unwashed masses and uneducated majority, that fundamental research is a good thing for society. These would be the folks who would are more interested in partying and drinking beer + liquor all day, as well as the folks who see any government spending as "evil"."

    Oooh, I hope that was more a joke than a serious comment. It's not the "masses" that are your 'enemies'. And certainly most of the masses are not mindless drunks who hate the government and science. Sorry, I just find such ideas extremely offensive and conceited, and when those lowly masses hear such things it definitely does not help the scientists' cause. ;-)

  19. Thank you, Rae Ann, I was going to say the same thing.

  20. Dear Rae Ann, Amara,

    thanks for your comment...


    I'm not the person who needs convincing.

    Ah, that's fine then... I guess the folks who see any government spending as "evil" are a species endemic to the US, so I better should say nothing about them since I have never lived in the US, but I doubt that they may be reached by any reasonable arguments ;-).

    I completely agree with Rae Ann and Amara that conceit is not a heplful attitude. Now, there are probably people who are more interested in "sports and beer" than in science, but I doubt that they are hostile to science, or don't see that it may be useful for something.

    Anti-science attitude, in my experience, is more prevalent among some groups of otherwise quite educated people. With them, I would hope, more explanations and the mentinong of "science inside" for all the things and gadgets we use every day may be helpful.

  21. the folks who see any government spending as "evil" ...

    America isn't the only place where folks like this exist and have political power. Margaret Thatcher was very hostile towards government funding of anything during the 1980's, and destroyed British science significantly in those days.,,1671429,00.html

    Collapses in science funding can happen anywhere for all kinds of reasons. In Russia shortly after the Soviet Union ended, science funding was completely decimated for many years. The SSC was cancelled in America, despite heavy lobbying by physics Nobel Laureates.

  22. Hi Aaron,

    1. Is the current system a net hindrance or help to the individual careers of scientists?

    Depends on what you mean with 'career'. Was includes that word for you?



  23. Mostly intellectual career, but also financial.

    I guess my big concern is, as you've mentioned, the precarious position post-docs and graduate students live in. I have both seen and heard of abuse of post-docs and graduate students.

    For example there is an electrophysiology lab in California that has a particular notorious reputation for being a factory, employing a large number of post-docs as little more than shift workers. Not exactly fulfilling the obligation to mentor.

    Permanent or temporary, neither seems to address the protection of post-doc and graduate student rights. And there are some special rights commensurate with the dedication of those positions; rights concerning ones intellectual development, like the right to have access to your scientific peers, the right to quality mentorship, the right to access information. I've certainly seen situations where those rights have been tampered with.

    I seem to have drifted dangerously of topic

  24. Aaron: Here in Italy there's another level of conditions under which graduate students and postdocs work: 'gratis' (for free). The lack of resources, support, and filtering mechanisms have been in place for so many years (decades) that those young people who have not left are often willing to do science for free (usually their families supports them). It's perfectly acceptable in this culture. I call it an 'off scale passion to do science under the most demeaning conditions', but it might better to label this as Italy's science renornmalization.

  25. Hi Aaron,

    I seem to have drifted dangerously of topic

    You haven't drifted off at all. I totally agree that post-doc's rights are crucial for the freedom of research. I too have witnessed many cases where pressure was put on graduate students and post-docs - in my opinion in this regard the situation in the US is much better than in Europe. Not only do the people know better what the actual rights/status of postdocs and grads are, they also know that it will have consequences in case of violation. That is still not sufficient to erase the problem, but at least one is aware of it.

    But this is only the 'visible' part of the iceberg. Even below this direct violation of post-doc's rights, there remains the problem that most post-docs are financially as well as professionally bound to work on their supervisor's ideas. In many cases, that is what they are hired for. Though this is a good procedure in many cases, it leaves no room for those who have already gathered sufficient experience to work on their own projects. The balance between both is currently strongly in favor for people who can be neatly classified and hired to contribute in an already present research field.



  26. Hi

    This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and needs to be appreciated by everyone


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