I'm a molecular biophysicist in a biochemistry department. In a college of medicine. And I'm funded by the NSF. Not too sure my dean likes that... I'm here to blather on about things that interest me and to raise the average age of the bloggers here by at least 1.2567 years. And I'm Australian.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
From the title of this post you're probably thinking that I'm going to write about the glut of postdocs out there.
I have a junior colleague who started his tenure-track position here about a year ago. He's a personable colleague and someone I think could do very well. Since starting here he has landed a prestigious award from a foundation. This isn't a large grant - about $100k direct costs per year for four years - but still a great start.
Here's the thing. I've recently found out he has four postdocs in his lab. None have fellowships. So he's paying all of them out of his foundation grant and start-up funds (which are around the average for someone in the molecular biomedical sciences at a large state school). Even is we assume all four postdocs are fresh out of grad school, and given we pay a minimum of 90% of the current NRSA rate, that's about to $180k a year he's paying out in salaries and benefits.
I should note he runs a lab that does a lot of molecular biology and protein characterization work. This is not cheap stuff to keep going.
At the current rate I think he'll be out of money in at best two years (remember he's already been here a year and spent money setting up the lab etc.).
This is a very high risk approach in my opinion. I am an advocate of the "you have to spend money to bring in money" approach, but given the current economic environment, if my colleague doesn't bring in an R01 soon, he's toast. The university may well not have the funds to keep him going two years from now. And given the long time between grant submission and receiving the money, he needs to be submitting that winning proposal like, well, now.
I fear for his future. What say you, blogmind?
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maybe the plan is spend out the startup... move to another place... get another startup wash rinse repeat.
That's a bit foolish, how many noob PI's can establish multi-project research programs right out of the gate? I could see 1-2 postdocs and they generate some data and grab an RO1 and then expand the lab but this dude is betting it all on black it might come back to bite him in the ass.
I agree, but remember that those crappy grad students end up somewhere, maybe even on in a TT position. Maybe he's just that clueless or overconfident. Has anyone asked him about why he's set things up this way and what his ultimate plan is?
Dude his plan is to take over the world, I mean isn't that all of ours?
He's crazy... But it might work out. I hope he is encouraging all those postdocs to submit NRSA applications and a variety of other postdoc grants from various foundations. How did he manage to get four postdocs right off the bat? I've been looking for a postdoc for a year to come work on a fully funded NIH project, to no avail...
He won't get a job somewhere else without funding.
More than a bit foolish, even for someone aiming for world domination.
I've talked to the chair about it and apparently he has spoken to the guy more than once about it...
I have no idea if these are postdocs worth having...
Wow. Sounds like the guy may have some sort of ego issue if the chair has talked to him about it multiple times to no avail. That's just really odd.
Perhaps it's a case of stubborness then, if he has been spoken to about it? Maybe he realises he is in over his head but feels like he can't rectify the situation now as it would mean laying off a postdoc or facing a reality he doesn't want to face. He might just be burying his head in the sand hoping it all works out. Stupid, because if the inevitable does happen he'll put all four postdocs out of a job, he could be messing with their careers as much as his own. I've had personal experience of being messed around by a PI who doesn't stay on top of their budget and it's not nice.
I would think recruiting 1-2 sharp grad students, as well as a kick-ass tech or two, would be sufficient to do what these postdocs are doing. This sounds like a very bad plan to me...why isn't he listening to the chair?
@Namnezia - I've had several people request postdoc positions with me - which I still find hilarious - so it's not surprising he found some. I could forward their info along to you if you'd like, but I'm not sure they'd be worth having, either.
@Dr.O - I'm not talking about the anonymous postdoc-seeking SPAM "Dear Professor Namnezia I am interested in research in your field, I received my PhD in completely independent field and I am just sending around requests to everyone." I get those all the time. It's hard to actually find a motivated and qualified postdoc unless you run a mega lab.
He's right, my lab has grown to considerable size (n=8) and we had an easy time finding two more postdocs but other smaller labs almost have to beg and plead for decent candidates to come to their lab.
@Namnezia - I was kidding...I'm sure it's hard to find good postdocs, especially as a younger PI. Yet another reason I'd opt for a great tech early on, if I can afford one. I'm actually wondering if these anonymous wankers are the types that he's recruited to his lab.
A good postdoc is worth his or her weight in gold. So if they're good postdocs, maybe he'll be okay. But if he's a new PI, most likely they are not top-tier postdocs, and most likely he is fucked.
Maybe he thinks that he needs to do what he said in his grant AND get all the work done for his next grant(s) so that he is one step ahead. It is high risk, and it won't pay off unless he gets a massive grant to follow it up.
The other issue is that he will probably have limited management skills and is not making life easy for himself by having to manage 4 people from the get-go. I agree with Dr. O. He probably didn't need all 4 to be post-docs, a tech and a student with a postdoc (maybe two) would be a good start.
Good luck to him though!
Dude is paying four postdocs with limited funds, he's already fucked. You just have to make him realize it and make he can hop a train and possibly ride out of Fucktville.
I guess I'm cynicial for some reason today (must be because I'm tired) but are you sure the postdocs are being paid "standard" salaries? Perhaps he's not really spending all that much on postdocs unless your institution has a centralized manner of hiring postdocs?
Or perhaps he's pitting them against each other and the winner gets a salary... hehe..
I guess, I wouldn't only worried about this PI, but also whether the postdocs know what kind of mess they may be in..
I'm also about a year in as an assistant professor. I agree that 4 postdocs is crazy (and like Namnezia wonder how as much as why), but what caught my eye is that the alternatives being suggested in comments (a couple grad students, a tech or two or maybe 1 postdoc) don't add up to much less in salaries than 4 postdocs at my university where graduate students are expensive and training grants stretched thin. This leaves me very curious to hear everyone's thoughts on how long a new PI should be trying to make their start-up funds last. Until tenure if the clock is relatively short (say 6 years)? Maybe 4 years on the assumption that if you haven't secured outside funding by then, you have bigger problems?
The institution here mandates that postdocs are paid a minimum of 90% of the NRSA rate. This is checked into periodically, so it's not possible to get away with lower salaries for more than a couple of months at most.
When I started my TT position I was given two pieces of advice regarding spending start-up funds. One was to hoard it for as long as possible. The other was to try to do as much as possible in as little time as possible. IMO neither piece of advice is correct. Personally I would aim for 3-4 years (we got up for tenure at the start of year six here). And remember that you need people in the lab. There's no point in filling your lab with expensive fancy instruments if you have no one to use them. Keep in mind that it's all very field and institution dependent.
As far as finding postdocs is concerned, anyone can find postdocs if they're willing to lower their standards enough. As far as the comments regarding techs and grad students vs. postdocs are concerned, it all depends on what you can get. Where I am there are good students and we can generally find good techs. Good postdocs are hard to find. So students and techs, even though they don't necessarily cost much less, are the way to go.
The thing about using grad students is that you can often get their salary paid for or supplemented by the department in exchange for teaching duties. At my grad school, we were required to teach a minimum of two semesters, but if your PI was short on funds, you could teach every semester if need be. That meant the PI only had to pick up your salary for the summer.
My grad school PI was fresh off a postdoc, and he accepted three grad students. We didn't have any techs or postdocs. He was able to stretch his start-up money quite a bit.
I have 4 students in my lab right now and no postdocs. I had a hard time finding good postdocs, so I didn't hire any. I had access to some great and lots of good students, so I went with an all-student lab for now. I would rather hire an inexperienced but great student over a mediocre postdoc. After the initial training period (my first 2 were awesome in the lab, so 6 months or so), my students have been very productive. Definitely more productive than a bad postdoc, AND I can trust their data.
On burning startup: I am in year 2 on the TT, and will have burned through most of my startup funds by the end of the year. That said, I will have all 4 of my students paid from outside grants (some short term) next semester, I have all the equipment I need up and running, and I had to burn though some of what I thought I would save due to an issue in a collaborator's lab, which forced me to start making a material a year or two before I planned it. My advice to other new to the TT is to budget for emergencies with your startup funds! This is what saved me when my collaborator could not send me materials as promised.
I just started a group in Germany. His chances of getting any of those postdocs an NRSA is close to 0 because he's got no PD training experience. he could get a senior member to write a letter of support and be a Co-advisor for the PD, but he really has almost not chance.
Over here, postdocs are 2x (full-time) what a gradstudent costs (half-time). Basically 60k€ versus 30k€ (including all benefits). Therefore, I'm going with 4 gradstudents instead of two postdocs because I know that I won't get anyone ambitious because I'm brand new. I'm also trying the tap into teh famous ex-boss route and get him to shuttle some good people my way, but I still don't think that I'll get GREAT (2x€) people.
In any case, I wish him luck and I hope that he pushes a major grant through.
-expat group leader
Personally, I find this thread more revealing about the academic ponzi scheme than anything else. Students who are accepted to just to produce cheap work are more fucked even than the go-for-broke PI.
I'd worry about them.
I think there's a distinction between someone who works for cheap and someone who produces cheap work! I don't think anyone here is advocating just hiring the bottom of the barrel researchers in order to save a few bucks and get a low grade publication. I think every one of us would love to publish in only high caliber journals and roll around in piles of NIH money. Unfortunately, the reality is that neither of those things are easy to come by, especially as a start-up lab!
Sure, but a main reason why there aren't piles of NIH money lying around is intense competition stemming from an oversupply of labour, caused by researchers using students to produce work. Everyone's eyes are locked on the short-term of career advancement. Or hell, even survival. Little thought is given to fact that the short-term myopia is what got them in the pickle in the first place.
The cycle has to be broken somehow.
Not so much. In Germany, I worry about them much less than the PDs. Over here, all of the sales people selling me tips/tubes have PhDs. In fact, any decent job (50k€+) in the sciences requires a PhD.
The PDs are more fucked, because after 12 years of non-professorship you're shown the door in Germany, BY LAW ... no more employment at a university. There are ways to get around this, but nothing like this exists in the states. However, the PD salaries are much better ... ranging from about 41k€ for a newbie to 60k€+ for someone with 10 or so years of experience.
But, let's not turn this into a standard "woe is me" series of posts about the academic Ponzi scheme ... if you don't like it, then get the F out.
Late to the party... I agree with Odyssey's comment that one should aim to spend startup in 2-3 years.
Maybe this PI came from a huge lab and knows no other way labs can be run? He thinks he can become a Big Dood overnight?
Btw, does he have a mentoring committee? It's mandatory at my Uni and really helps. The mentoring committee would have to review his progress periodically and should be alerting him of pitfalls like this.
It looks like he's getting some bad advice or no advice at all. Odyssey, did you talk to him at all? If not, is there a reason for that? I think your concerns are right on the money and you should just lay it out there for him. He'll probably thank you later.
Yes, he came from a big lab. Even so, it takes only fairly basic arithmetic on his part to figure out he'll likely be out of money before he can bring in a big grant...
He doesn't have a formal mentoring committee per se, but there are two tenured faculty (not me) assigned as mentors. I've spoken with one of them and she has spoken to him about this a couple of times. As has the chair. I haven't had a chance, but will throw in my two cents worth when I can.
Agreed that this dude is most likely fucking himself in the asse. Not only because he is spending too fast--a burn rate that would burn the start-up in about 2-3 years without any additional funding is about right--but because unless he is a magical natural at managing the efforts of scientific trainees, there is no way he is gonna be able to handle four post-docs at one time with no prior experience.
Another factor to consider, however, in start-up burn rate is the nature of the institution. If you are at an elite institution, if you burn through your start-up and still need more institutional funds, money will be found if the perception is that you are gonna ultimately reach escape velocity. At lesser institutions, the start-up may really be all you will get to the penny.
What is an average startup package for newbie asst profs?
This is totally field- and institution-dependent. At elite institutions, tenure-track biosciences start-ups begin around $1,000,000. As you go down in institutional stature, start-ups decline, with no lower bound.
CPP is absolutely right about the institution-dependence on start-up and finding additional funds when your start-up is gone. I'm not at an elite institution. My postdoc-happy colleague got a fairly generous start-up package, but once it's gone, that's it.
The answer is clear: He hired four in the clear intention of firing 2-3 of them after, or during, the first year.
That stretches 2 years into 3-4 years.
He's not mad, just evil.
I don't think he's evil. Just over confident in his ability to mentor four postdocs off the bat and to bring in significant $'s.