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Should you pay undergrads that work in your lab?
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I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

FSP had an interesting post last week about dodging a postdoctoral bullet. Dr. Becca noticed this post in relation to her search for a new postdoc, but what caught my attention was how the comments spun away from what seemed to be the main point of FSP's post and into a discussion about how postdocs are compensated. The reason this I was struck by this is that IRL I have had this same conversation at least 3 times in the past two weeks. Weird!

Fully obvious disclosure: I was once a graduate student and also spent the last several years as a postdoc.

I have never understood folks that complain about how graduate students and/or postdocs have it so bad. Now, before anyone starts hyperventilating, I recognize that there are situations in which people are truly taken advantage of-but these are not the norm, IME. I also recognize that there are times when doing science SUCKS and there are scientists that are douche-bags. I am not talking about any of these situations.

Instead, I'm referring to the folks that complain about the whole system of training scientists in academia. People that are upset that graduate students and postdocs make so little money, that there are way more postdocs than TT jobs, etc. I don't buy it. The main issue I have with this view is that it is often based on an underlying assumption that being a grad student or postdoc is a "job". I disagree.

Let me start with the grad student. Just because you are paid to be a graduate student does not erase the fact that you are, in fact, a student. Someone is paying your tuition and benefits and training you to be a scientist. AND they are paying YOU a stipend on top of all of that! By the time you finish your degree, someone will have forked out at least 300K on your behalf. Postdocs are also trainees, even if they are not tuition-paying students. And again, someone has raised the cash to pay for you to do research and have a stipend. What really gets me, though, is that these are voluntary positions. No one forces you to go to graduate school or get a postdoc. And, if you are an incoming graduate student all I can say is...WTF? Are you complaining because you think that is what everyone expects? Because if you really feel this way I can not understand why you decided to go to graduate school. There are other career paths that may be more appropriate for you.

Now, are there some PIs that could/should be better mentors? No doubt. Are there more graduate students and postdocs than TT positions? Yes! Not all folks that want a TT job land one. Just like not all chefs get to run the kitchen at a fancy restaurant. I don't think that science is a unique industry in this

I am not trying to claim that the system is a panacea. But, grad students and postdocs are adults. Be proactive and get what you need out of your time as a scientist-in-training. If you are not getting the mentoring that you need then do something about it. Something more than just complaining.

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Genomic Repairman
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Well said. I love my work and understand that its not a "real job" and more of a scientific learning experience/apprenticeship. We don't get paid a lot. No shit, our tuition and fess are paid for and when you take that into account with my stipend, I'm doing pretty well. Plus my uni pays for my medical insurance, all I have to do is kick out a small amount for dental. I'm not rich, but I'm not selling serum and semen to make ends meet. I'm what I like to call comfortably broke. I agree with you that your lot in life is largely what you make of it. Granted, external forces and luck don't hurt at all either. Just because one is a trainee does not mean that a PI slot is yours. You have to earn it. Life is a competition, if you can't deal with that just hold your breath for a really long time. And keep going.
Ian D. Mclean

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No one forces you to become a paid employee either. Does not mean it still does not suck. People go for post-docs for the same reason they go for high-skill (and hopefully high-paying) jobs: in the hopes that it will improve their circumstances.

Of course, motivation comes into play here. Let's see what Dan Pinkerton has to say about the science of motivation. Interesting what the implications are for a monetarily compensated task like graduate research, no?
Dr. Girlfriend

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I think the biggest problem is that many postdoc do not really know what they want, and when they do they kind of expect their mentors to be mind readers. I feel many postdocs would be happier in an supervised technician position - they would get a better salary and practical training. Why is a postdoc so popular? If you do not want to teach or lead a research group (in academia or industry), why not get a "proper" job being paid to do supervised research AND gaining experience and learning new skills in industry?

The main complaint from postdocs is that they are being treated like technicians and are not receiving the training and experience necessary to acquire and be successful professors or industry leaders. Postdocs are generally hard working and much cheaper than paying the hourly rate for technician with a PhD. If a postdoc is not allowed to grow and develop into an independent researcher, the salary really is insufficient.

The benefit of the postdoc over a better paid post is the mentored research experience, a potential take-away project, and the opportunity to acquire additional soft skills and teaching experience.

Students on the whole are protected, and their training ensured. The situation for postdocs varies from institution to institution. Students get to take classes and earn a degree, and postdocs get a higher salary. Still the postdoc salary only is not enough. A postdoc is supposed to be a training position, and as such institutions need to ensure that adequate training is offered in lieu of a full salary.

"If you are not getting the mentoring that you need then do something about it. Something more than just complaining." OMG I cannot tell you how sick I am of whiney postdocs! I have tried to help these assholes help themselves, but that is not good enough - they just want someone else to make it all right for them. I hate to say it, but I feel many disgruntled postdocs have only themselves to blame.

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I agree that being a PhD student is exactly that - A STUDENT. But I must disagree when it comes to postdocs. Yes, you are a scientist-in-training but, by definition, being a scientist always involves (or should involve) constant on-the-job training. Even professors. So when do you consider that a scientist has a "proper" job?

In response to another comment, people don't go for 'proper jobs' doing "supervised research", because those jobs are virtually non-existent.

Being a potsdoc is a choice - of sorts. Yes, you have to be pro-active. But you're not a student anymore and shouldn't be treated or considered as one...

biochem belle
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First off, I suspect everyone complains about their job-or training position, as the case may be-to someone. PIs vent about the people working under them, the administration, their own pay, their space, not getting funded or published even though the proposal or manuscript was totes awesome and shoulda been a shoe-in... Everyone has something they can and will bitch about.

Regarding this particular issue, I agree that grad students and postdocs are training positions. I think there are a couple key issues, though, that make people wont to complain about their positions. One is the lack of uniformity and protections. HR doesn't track the hours trainees work or the amount of time they take off-this works to the advantage of some but the detriment of others. No, science isn't a 9 to 5 job, and sometimes it's necessary to put in extra hours for an experiment or grant, but some PIs (just like some trainees) abuse this flexibility. If there's a major problem with the PI that reaches an impasse, then trainees-and postdocs, in particular-often have little recourse that doesn't carry the risk of wrecking their career. Another issue is the length of training-which keeps getting longer and longer, often, it seems with minimal return on investment. In bio sciences, the median time to PhD completion is 8 years. Now you're going to tack on another 7 to 8 yrs of training? Mid-30s and still making less-possibly substantially less-than $50K? And to add insult to injury, friends and family assume that because you have a PhD and are working at Fancy Pants U that you must be rolling in the dough... but I digress.

With that being said, I completely agree that trainees have to take responsibility for their training. And to realize that often you're learning a hell of a lot more than you realize. I'm leaving a crappy postdoc experience this week. Just because my PI failed as a mentor doesn't mean I didn't learn anything. If I walk away without learning something from an experience, then that's my own damn fault for not paying attention.

Washington University School of Medicine
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Prof-like Substance
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Oooh, already taking on the disgruntledocs. Good luck G-Z, hope you're wearing goggles :)
Dr. Girlfriend

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@ Prof-like

I wish more PIs would take on the issue of disgruntled postdocs. Sure many of them behave like whiney babies, but there is a real underlying problem with the postdoc being considered a 'training" position when training is not provided. It happens a lot that postdocs are discouraged from doing anything other bench. It happens a lot that postdocs are not permitted to develop as independent researchers or mentors. Good PIs and their postdocs are not exposed to enough to the plight of the less fortunate postdoc.

I believe that the problem is mostly down to miscommunication - i.e. a PI thinks a postdoc should be one thing (a bench monkey) and the postdoc expects something else (training in PI skills). When these basic expectation never get discussed at an interview it is hardly surprising that everyone gets disappointed.

Some institutions demand mentor-mentee contracts, minimum salaries, and provide postdoctoral offices, as well as training in teaching, mentoring, and lab management. This is not universal. My own postdoc experience was positive, but how much that was down to luck, and how much was my own assertiveness is questionable.

Departments write guidelines for students and PIs regards their expectations and obligations to one another. New PIs are overseen, and their students protected, and their are avenues for students to file complaints. New PIs are rarely offered support when it comes to mentoring a postdoc. The postdoc is at the mercy of his PI, with no one to go to when he is being treated like a technician. There are plenty of PIs who do care about the career-development of their mentees, but until the postdoc is better defined landing one of these is subject to a large amount of luck.

Basically if it is being called "training" the exact nature of this "training" needs to stated along with the salary. Just doing research is not training - a technician just does research, and gets paid a full salary!

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There are plenty of PIs who do care about the career-development of their mentees, but until the postdoc is better defined landing one of these is subject to a large amount of luck.

Dr. G, the NSF has strict guidelnines now. The PI has to submit a one-page career development for any postdoc he/she is planning to fund; it is a required document for all NSF propoposals now, and is evaluated for quality with the rest of the proposal. So there is accountability to the federal funding agency, which is probably the best kind of accountability.

biochem belle
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GMP said: The PI has to submit a one-page career development for any postdoc he/she is planning to fund; it is a required document for all NSF propoposals now, and is evaluated for quality with the rest of the proposal. So there is accountability to the federal funding agency, which is probably the best kind of accountability.

The problem with funding agencies sending down mandates is that they have no way to consistently and broadly evaluate their implementation/adherence. And what is the NSF going to do if, by chance, they actually find out a PI isn't keeping with the plan? I suspect there's not very much they can do-it's the same as with NIH and CoI rules and any other number of things.

The only real shot at accountability, IMO, has to occur at the institutional level with heavy involvement of the departments. But even at the department/institution level, what do you do when a PI steps out of line or doesn't provide the career development support a trainee needs? It seems a mildly-worded admonition is the most that is to come. So trainees are still left taking responsibility for their own career development (which is not all bad, as I've already commented) with a lot left up to trial and error and luck.

Dr. O
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But, grad students and postdocs are adults. Be proactive and get what you need out of your time as a scientist-in-training. If you are not getting the mentoring that you need then do something about it.

I agree with this statement 100%. There is a difference, however, between bringing a bad situation to the forefront and working for a solution (eg, when postdocs don't get maternity leave while their staff/grad student/faculty neighbors do), versus just whining about the situation, and I feel like the former of these sometimes gets lumped in with the latter. There are bad situations out there independent from just not getting paid as much because you're still in training (as noted by BB and a few of the other commenters), and these situations should be discussed. But there are also ways for postdocs to be proactive about these issues instead of sitting back and whining. Personally, I've found working with our postdoc association and serving on university training committees has made me more aware of solutions for my own issues, as well as broadened my training here at MRU.

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There is a difference, however, between bringing a bad situation to the forefront and working for a solution (eg, when postdocs don't get maternity leave while their staff/grad student/faculty neighbors do), versus just whining about the situation, and I feel like the former of these sometimes gets lumped in with the latter.

Amen, Sister!
Dr. Girlfriend

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@ GMP - I think the NSF guides are positive step in the right direction, especially as so many labs receive NSF funding. At our institution this has forced administration to begin collecting data on postdocs. However, "postdoc" is still not recognized by our situation and there is no way to differentiate between postdocs and other non-faculty PhDs (such as techs and facility managers)! NSF guidelines are forcing changes, and without that I do not believe our college would have funded our postdoc associations budget this last year. As it stands, an association founded and run entirely by postdocs is all PIs really have to cite as a campus resource.

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I keep seeing that grad students get their tuition + benefits paid, AND get a guaranteed stipend. Just need to add that is NOT the case in my neck of the woods. Tuition & fees are paid by *me*. I dont have any special benefits paid, only those included in my student fees. My stipend is only guaranteed because of the Dept. I am in, almost all other STEM depts here grad students at my uni are responsible to obtain their own funding/get TA ships/get jobs to cover their "stipend". I should mention Tuition+fees are about 25% of the average stipend, and know many grad students here who have left as they couldnt afford to take on student debt in grad school.
Im guessing at least as far as funding and support go, the USA is a better place to be for Grad students and post-docs than Canada.

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That sucks, Februa. Keep in mind, though, that in Canada, you have pretty decent health coverage supplied by taxes, while in the US, health insurance run $200-500/month for a single person in all the places I've lived (if it is even available for purchase as an individual), unless you opt for catastrophic coverage (which will typically only kick in after ~$5k-10k in out of pocket expenses).

I would never, ever have accepted a spot in grad school that didn't provide minimal health coverage, since I could have found a decent job even without an advanced degree in my field.

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Thanks for all the comments! First of all, I was not trying to say that I think grad students and postdocs are whiney in general. IME, at least, most are pretty happy. I have always been baffled a little by the few that are apparently miserable but then never do anything about it. I agree with the general theme that communication (or lack thereof), especially postdoc to mentor, is a source of much of the unhappiness.

@Ian: I think it is disingenuous to say that being a postdoc is the same as being "forced" to have a job. I would argue that there are other opportunities for the unhappy postdoc. There are many people in situations that don't have other options and must do real work to support themselves and their family. These are not the same.

@biochembelle: Yes! I think it is normal to vent and complain to your friends about your job. I don't think that doing so means you are unhappy in general. I also agree that the time required for grad school+postdoc is getting ridiculous. I know NIH was trying hard to get grad school times down (through pressure with training grants), but I don't know what can happen to try to correct this for the postdoc. I do know that, at least for those interested in the TT, that it can be frowned upon to be a postdoc for too long without explanation. But I don't know how we standardize "too long".

Dr. O: I think it is great when postdocs work to make the system better. My problem is with folks that only want to complain and don't do anything else. I hope that you got your uni to do the right thing with the maternity leave. Maybe the NSF guidelines will make access to postdoc associations more general? That would probably be a good thing. I'm a little ashamed to admit, but I didn't really participate in the postdoc association when I was there. But I was at a place that treated postdocs really well and most of what they did was social and "alternate" career advising.
Ian D. Mclean

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You have misunderstood my argument fundamentally. I argued the motivation of a graduate level scholar seeking a graduate level degree is little different from a office worker seeking a promotion. They are both seeking opportunities greater than what would otherwise be afforded to them.

With an undergraduate science degree, they could get a job that pays the bills from month to month. Therefore, I'm not talking about subsistence living. I'm not implying they are in dire straits and forced into graduate level studies. However, their economic circumstances--whatever they are--are such that they feel the motivation to pursue improvement.

In that sense, they are forced by requirements of their desired role--as a professional scientist--to pursue additional education. They aren't compelled to pursue that desired role, but the consequences for not fulfilling the requirements means settling for less than what you could otherwise have.

At it's root, both the high-skill worker and the post-doc scholar are working to sustain a livelihood. Both are monetarily compensated. Their motivation does not differ only the details of realizing their objectives that is only what concerns them differs. If you want to be a practicing scientist, you have to get the education because without it you will not be respected or listened to by the scientific community; therefore, you are forced to get the education in the same manner by which you are forced to get a job. Without the benefits afforded by the education, you will fail to thrive. Without the benefits afforded by the job, you will fail to eat.

I expect, if that is the case then performance under pressure with an offer of contingent incentive for non-trivial task completion--monetary compensation contingent on doing the work requested of you by the institutions--should theoretically lead to lower performance and lower satisfaction correlating negatively with higher incentive and demands.

Do with that what you will.

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I am a postdoc, which I definitely consider a job. I have a terminal degree! Anyway, my institution caps the duration of a postdoc at three years, and they won't hire a new postdoc who has been out of grad school more than three years. The rationale is that it would be taking advantage of a worker to keep them on in a postdoc position indefinitely.  They believe that if a lab needs a particular person for longer than three years, they should hire her for a permanent position. That's one solution to the ever-expanding training period.

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