Monday, March 20, 2017

A very passionate letter

I'd be remiss if I didn't note this passionate letter from a professor about the "postdoctoral students" vs. "postdoctoral fellow" debate: 
I read with disdain and a shaking head the letter from the editor of the Feb. 27 issue of C&EN. I wish to write in response to your request for feedback. 
Maybe I’m a rare bird, but I viewed every stage within my education as an opportunity, not as an entitlement. In the field of science, as in the trades, one must pay his/her dues and learn as an apprentice before earning journeyman status. For most U.S. postdocs, that means a minimum training period of five years for the Ph.D. and two years as a postdoctoral fellow of an established tenured or tenure-track faculty member. 
As a postdoctoral student, I was happy to earn my < $30,000 salary (mid-2000s), because it represented more than a 50% raise over what I earned as a graduate student at a top-10-ranked chemistry department. Tongue in cheek, I’ll admit that seeing the astronomical salaries U.S. postdocs earn now, I’m a bit jealous. 
Although I could claim to be an expert in one diminutive subfield of chemistry as a Ph.D. graduate, I was still a student, not yet a scholar. This maturation process did not occur the moment my thesis committee shook my hand and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Chamberland.” The work I did as a postdoc, such as mentoring younger students, taking on a leadership role, reviewing manuscripts and grant proposals, and working insane hours were all part of the gig. It was the last training period for the career I had worked toward for 25 years. I understood that. 
Do today’s postdocs expect more? Do they need to be called a scholar too? Who cares. Just put your head down and get to work. If you do something of value, people will recognize you. 
Stephen Chamberland
Orem, Utah

30 comments:

  1. I'm surprised he didn't start calling postdocs "special snowflakes" since that was clearly the phrase he seemed to be looking for

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    1. Right?! My god, the job situation is already miserable and people like him feel like they can tut-tut...

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    2. Considering the likely source, https://www.uvu.edu/profpages/profiles/show/user_id/20207, This could be the case of survivor bias

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    3. Why doesn't he list his own post doc under the education heading on his CV? The combination of self-righteousness and hypocrisy is what gets to me in the letter.

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  2. a bit of academic snobbery, but how he thinks UC-Irvine is a top-10 chemistry department is a bit surprising

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    1. The number of times I've read "I'm from/at/went to a top-10 institution" on a blog/reddit, I think people have come to believe it's a prerequisite to have your opinion heard. Such a statement surely warrants a snobby response. So I'm going to join you in fact checking our hyperbolic friend here. Post doc salary of <30,000 sounds very unusual, I am pretty sure a normal stipend in 2005 was $35,000 give or take a little. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to $46,000 today... Which is more than where we were in 2016 (42,840), and only a little less than what some were raised to this year under Obama's proposal ($47,500). A far cry from an astronomical difference, at any rate.

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  3. Why is my cheap labor complaining? News at 11.

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  4. Look, I like being a postdoc too. I like mentoring students, being more independent in my research directions, reviewing manuscripts and grants, etc. I like the incredible flexibility as well. However whenever older people start complaining about how we are paid too much, I start to cringe. The cost of housing has gone up astronomically, especially in areas where most top universities are like the bay area and Boston, and having a roof over your head is pretty essential. Most of my 50K paycheck goes to rent. As much as I love what I do, I'm not sure I could do it for much less, especially since where I live a basic 1 bedroom apartment goes for ~$2500.

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    1. I would like some hard evidence for post doc stipends in 2005. I sincerely doubt that post doc salaries have greatly increased, if anything they've stagnated in the face of ever increasing costs of living.

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    2. In terms of salaries I would definitely say they have stagnated. When I was a chemistry postdoc in 2013 at Indiana University my annual gross salary was a little under 32K. It was a great research environment but the salary made living difficult, especially with a spouse who was unable to work due to failing health. Definitely had to choose between food a medicine a few times....

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    3. i was a grad student at IU years before that. I was shocked to learn some postdocs were earning only slightly more than I was.

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    4. When I was in grad school (mid-90s), I don't think my post-doc (the post-doc overseeing me) was making a whole lot more than I was.

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  5. Wow, there are so many things wrong with this letter that I don't even know where to start. A few things to consider, in no particular order:

    1) between the mid 2000's and now there has been no small amount of inflation. Even today's "astronomical" 48k was 38 back then.

    2) what is the value of "paying your dues" beyond PhD in chemistry, particularly organic chemistry? You pretty much learn all there is to filling out a substrate scope in your first couple years of graduate work, not much educational value in cranking out the same 40 entry bullshit for PI #2 after 5 years of the same with #1.

    3) "Put your head down and get to work" is probably the worst advice that a postdoc could possibly get. We all pretend that hiring is a meritocracy and that the "good science" creme naturally rises to the top. This is sadly not the case. Hiring is often a backroom deal, and you better make sure that the people making the call know you or at least your advisor. If you just focus on labwork and don't promote your brand you are going to get nothing, since all the seats at the table were offered to the schmoozers.

    Overall a completely backwards letter that might have rung true in the roarin' 80's, but is completely out of touch in today's climate.

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    1. Fair point. Doing worthwhile things does not guarantee you anything. I have seen hiring managers at Chevron say make stupid comments like I went with person A, PhD instead of B, PhD because B seemed like they wanted to go climb higher in the company, or "We just look for people who are kind of shy and seem nice". I have heard faculty search committee claim that the only candidates they got were from schools like MIT, Stanford and Berkeley (can't say I know if the candidates did anything worthwhile but the point is that strong pedigree can be a turn off). I read a grant proposal that didn't propose anything, just summarized old data and said we will do similar things. Other committee members thought it was wonderful. Thank goodness I helped shoot it down. I"m all for working hard, but the gatekeepers must be held accountable.

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  6. "If you do something of value, people will recognize you."

    Good grief! What an ass.

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    1. They did recognize his value at the place where he failed to get tenure.

      2012: "Professor Who Did the Most Promotion of Cancer Awareness", 2011: "Professor Most Passionate About Teaching", 2010: "Professor Most Likely to Crack a Joke in Class"

      It's bad form to kick someone who's down, but this case gets an exception. What. An. Ass.

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    2. Why he even listed those superlatives on his CV is baffling.. And for someone who has taken the mantra of "shut up and get to work" his CV is rather unimpressive

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    3. 1) Has he seen pharma (or just about any other industry) lately? If you do good work, like, say, find an actual drug, you will probably get cashiered to pay for executive bonuses and stock buybacks.

      2) I think he has made his own bubble and doesn't entirely seem to realize that it bears little resemblance to the world his postdocs actually work and live in. Learning new skills should be fun and interesting, but it probably stops being so somewhere before 80 h/week. Having the opportunity to actually work at what you spent so much time and effort learning might be a plus, too. Without that hope, the "learning" part of a postdoc is a rationalization of why you should get paid McDonald's manager wages to help someone else get pubs. There wasn't a whole lot of good reasons to work for someone like Gilman other than the hope that it would get you somewhere afterwards. If it couldn't, well, there were farmers who needed lettuce picked that would pay more and treat you better.

      3) He sounds angry that someone would actually try to puncture his fantasies with facts and stuff. How dare they!

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    4. "And for someone who has taken the mantra of "shut up and get to work" his CV is rather unimpressive"

      Yeah, although I just learned of the existence of the Journal of Visualized experiments from looking at that unimpressive...Wow.

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    5. *that unimpressive CV

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  7. And another thing you layabout shiftless whiners, one does not become a tool who talks about himself in the third person at length on his faculty webpage about such mundane activities as the New York Times crossword puzzle without a great deal of hard work. I have only had sex in the missionary position for 10 years, try that if you want to build character. So as it is in Utah, so shall it be in heaven.

    Stephen Chamberland

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    1. The above is intolerant toward a specific religion.

      Look forward to insults against other religions.

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  8. He refers to his postdoc as a Research Fellowship directly within the Professional Employment section of his CV.

    How someone so low-achieving (places like Utah Valley University should not even exist!) can feel the need to write a letter like this is baffling.

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    1. I don't really have an issue with places like Utah Valley University existing, especially since it is a PUI and not trying to be a research university. Chemistry departments exist at regional public PUIs to educate undergraduate students and that's fine. The type of university he is at does make him an odd messenger for the tough talk, though.

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  9. Well, this has touched quite the nerve. And rightfully so because it's clear Stephen doesn't have a good pulse on what's going on outside his bubble.

    But boy, are the comments here just as bad as his original letter. People call him snobby and hypocritical, then proceed to point out why everything he's achieved is shit and that his pedigree isn't even that impressive. This is the type of internet mob that goes and writes threatening letters to Erick Carreira over a letter that's more than 10 years old for which they have no context.

    Be upset with Stephen. Be compassionate to other chemists who haven't had it as good as him. Don't go calling him a snob and then proceed to take down his accomplishments point by point while you also call him a hypocrite, you fucking hypocrites.

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    1. If you dish asinine comments, you should be able to take them or not look like a total hypocrite.

      There's nothing wrong with the tier of university he is at, that his pub record is only ok, and that he went to a good but not top top tier schools for PhD and postdoc. Just that he shouldn't make comments that are a) incorrect and b) talk the talk about achievement and so on. If he had kept his mouth shut, or been less of an ass, people wouldn't be tearing into him.

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    2. To be fair, no one called the guy a snob. The term was used twice in the thread; one person apologized for the academic snobbery of their comment, and I said that snobbery was warranted by the letter. I didn't take down his accomplishments, but wanted to shine a light on his statement that post docs are paid astronomically higher salaries, which is more than likely false, and also frustrating in light of how pathetically low post doc salaries actually are.

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  10. I think what he perceives as entitlement for postdocs is what postdocs (and other science people) have been told since the beginning of time: study and work hard and you can find useful work to do. The problem is that that no longer seems to be true - it seems to be untrue in lots of parts of the economy, for lots of people (a lot in worse shape than us). When the promises made no longer are true, and yet they keep being made, then why would one expect people not to be frustrated?

    I also wonder if there's not some convenient ignorance here - if you're not aware that the promises aren't true, but keep making them, you get relatively cheap labor, while if you realize that the promises of hope can no longer be made, you either have to accept being a liar or not make them and find other ways to recruit people to work with you, either by money or by expanding opportunities so that the promises might be true. The latter actions are hard, or maybe not possible, and more money appears not to be showing up - hence, guess what happens.

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  11. How entitled! The nerve of postdocs wanting to be able to afford food and a roof over their head. They should be happy with the scraps of the seminar cart.

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  12. Out of touch arrogance.

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