June 16, 2006

The Three Worst Places to Be a Postdoc

I do not think any short essay I have written has ever received as much response from scientists as this one for The Scientist. The basis for it was the annual list that everyone in science reads before choosing where to go after they finish their PhD, the "Best Places to Postdoc" ranking in The Scientist. A small bit of the essay is below, followed by a link to the complete piece
: ... we allow our students to choose graduate programs based on location, then we push newly minted PhDs to apply for programs based entirely on raw indices of scientific productivity instead of paying attention to what their peers think. Small wonder that so many choose variants of my bottom three institutions, the McGee list of "Worst Places to Be a Postdoc":

1. Acknowledgement University-In some of this school's labs, you will find a large number of unpoliced junior faculty who believe that they need publications more than you. In others, senior faculty - who judge the productivity of those junior faculty, and whose huge grants brought prestige to the lab - are eager to disabuse you of the silly notion that their own authorship has anything whatever to do with writing. You will begin to wonder whether you should find a place on your CV for the thank-yous for all the articles on which you weren't identified.

2. The Allalone Institute-Here, the cubes are big, the hoods vent properly, the equipment is state of the art, and the lunchroom is spacious. Computers access all the resources you need, and if you break your arm there is insurance. Your principal investigator is around every couple of days, and if you ask she will answer anything you want to know about science, your career, or what and where to publish. The rest of the time, you are a monk. There is no one to talk with, nothing to do, and you find yourself curiously drawn to cupid.com during working hours. You wonder whether after you finish you will be able to explain your invisible friends to prospective employers.

3. Printnot University-Your dissertation was brilliant, so you have been welcomed into one of the most prolific labs in the world, where a dozen equally thoughtful and productive fellows all work alongside you in a cross between a think tank, a lab, and a bank. A bank? Yes, because virtually nothing you write in this lab can be published without the permission of the sponsors, who make a part of virtually everything you do possible with their intensely financed and highly protected intellectual property. You prepare yourself for a great career, just as long as it is spent working alongside the people who guided and funded your postdoctoral work...

The remainder of the piece is about the incredible problems that precipitate the bad decisions people make about where to do science training. I have received literally 50 letters from people who have horror stories about their own post-doctoral tortures, so I know now that this is just the tip of the iceberg - but it just proves how intensely important it is for students to pay attention to the impressions that previous post-docs have of the lives they lead as post-docs in any given lab under consideration. The wrong post-doc will ruin your life, or at least your career, more in science than in other areas. And that we have done nothing whatever to fix this problem is worse yet.

If you want to read the complete article it is here.

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