Thoughts For a Wednesday…

I think it’s Wednesday. I don’t know. Fucking grants make everything blend together…

I am finding the discussion of postdocs and overtime and salaries and alternative careers tiresome. Here’s why…

1)  I am tired of the supposition that postdocs are underpaid compared to the amount of work that they do. The average medical resident salary is $55,300. When you consider that more than half have >$50,000 in educational debt specifically from medical school, the postdoc salary looks more fair.

2) I am tired of people who throw around the words “most” and “usually” when what this means is “In my limited experience, based on the people I see directly around me.” Looking at one or two samples and saying “everything is broken” relects bias of the worst type. Aren’t there any places where things work?

3) I am also completely exhausted with how out of touch with reality most of these arguments are. For example, someone purported this morning that because the median salary for people with greater than a masters degree is $66K, postdocs should be paid on par. That’s patently ridiculous and magical thinking. A median of the entire population is the wrong number because the median salary is essentially the same as the salary of the person on the next rung of the ladder. Especially when many of us are still getting letters that, despite the improvement in the economy, say “Sorry, but we’re in a budget shortfall and there’s no room for raises (even though your cost of living is going up). We thank you for your understanding and continued commitment to the service of the university’s mission.” Making this argument only reflects your complete ignorance with how economics works.

4) Finally, I am totally exhausted with the exploitation narrative, which only works if there is a universal bad guy who always stands in the way of treating you fairly because it benefits their evil plot. I’ve thought about this whole work hours/salary/overtime shenanigans. I like the idea of work/life balance and have replied to many that I would advocate for a 40 hour work week. That’s not what many of these people want. They want to continue to work however many number of hours they please, complain about being overworked, and get a bigger salary for it. But, see #3.

If a Postdoc Farts into the Wind, Will Their Cries For Overtime Pay Be Heard?

That title makes absolutely no sense, but it made me laugh. Good enough.

Over the last few days, Drugmonkey has been whipping the disgruntledoc-a-tariat into a frothy, foamy lather on his blog. Following Obama’s announcement of new overtime rules for non-exempt employees making less than $50,000 per year. Apparently some postdocs have interpreted this to mean that either a) they’re in for a windfall of overtime pay or b) they’re going to get $50,000 raises. I have not read all of the comments, but they are copious and unto this interpretation I say…

There’s no fucking way either of those things will ever happen because it would be absolutely contrary to economics.  Here are the two postulates for the derivation of our theorem,  here in titled the Why Your Asses Ain’t Getting Paid Theorem or the WYAAGP Theorem

Postulate one:  Being a tenure-track professor is still really, really thoroughly good. Trust me. It is. People still want to be professors deep in their wee, wee hearts. Shitty grant funding isn’t deterring people from trying to follow their dreams.
Postulate two: Professor positions are limited and there is a substantial excess in the number of postdocs for each position.

Bargaining and other such labor tomfoolery only works when you can hold the man by the balls and twist. Postdocs aren’t in such a position. Sure, many places have established postdoc groups and unions, but these groups are frequently populated by a limited number of go-getters and change is slow to be had. Since postdoc positions are temporary (as they should be) and unstable, what incentive do the masses have to fight for change? And what real weapons do they have at their disposal? A strike? That only works when job tasks require quick production and there is no other group that could perform the task.

Furthermore, because of the glut of postdocs and the number of people willing to take on the position in order to get their dream job, there’s no real incentive for management to change practice. I  predict the following course of events…

Postdocs: Hey! Obama says we get overtime pay if we work more than 40 hours a week!
PIs: Ok, then don’t work more than 40 hours.  I’m going to need to see a weekly account of all your time worked. Enjoy your two weeks vacation, just like all the other plebes.  Also, I’m really still impressed by good,hard work when it comes to writing recommendations and things.
Postdocs: Awesome! How fair and generous!  Speaking of recommendations, will you help me with my job search in a year? What do you think the desirable qualifications will be for the positions?
PIs: Since the job of PI didn’t change with Obama’ss new rules, I imagine exactly what they are now. CNS papers and funding, etc. Hope you can get that all done in your “40 hours.”
(some Postdocs): We’d better hang around beyond those 40 hours to make sure that we are highly competitive!
Postdocs: Oh shit!! Some people are working more than 40 hours and doing more! Fuck those guys, but we guess we’d better hang around too!

It’s the exact same thing that pushes professors to work more than 40 hours a week. It’s why I’m writing a grant at 8:30 on a Friday night instead of doing body shots and riding a mechanical bull (Or, you know, whatever the hell I’d be doing. Likely watching Netflix).  There are many mouths at the trough and not enough slop. For postdocs, it’s jobs. For PIs, it’s grants. You can’t effect change through bitching when there’s another mouth behind you ready to step up and take your place.

For postdocs, I fear that it’s going to have to get shitty enough that many more people are going to decide that the (allegedly) shitty postdoc pay and uncertain career path just aren’t worth it, and it’s seeming less likely to get there. They might feel it’s bad, but not bad enough to quit en masse. Much like medical residents who are willing to take shit pay for long hours (given their post-school debt) and the hope of a desirable job (see here), postdocs might be in for the long haul.

Thoughts on Letters of Support…

After some experiments this afternoon I came back to my office and saw this tweet…

I figured it was worth a quick post to note my thoughts. Humility is a hell of a thing, especially if you’re a woman. We are often taught to be humble and not publicize how highly we think of ourselves. That’s the real kiss of death in science.

99.9% of the time I ask for a letter from someone, whether it’s a recommendation or letter of collaboration or whatever, I always provide a draft. I tell the person, “I would appreciate a letter of support for Project/Award X. Because I realize how busy you are, I took the opportunity of writing a draft.”

This makes sure that the person says all of the amazing things I want them to say and that they say everything I need them to say. How much effort are they devoting to the project, how will we interact, why am I their favorite red-headed scientist, etc. I have never had anyone be anything but grateful and I have never gotten a letter back that wasn’t as nice or nicer than what I originally sent. The thing about getting senior is that the more famous you are, the more letters you are asked to write. Busy people appreciate when you do some of their leg work for them. It also makes it less likely someone is going to forget to write or send your letter.

When people ask me to write a letter, especially letters of recommendation for students, I always ask them to provide at least an outline of what they want included in their letter. You just can’t expect people to remember every accomplishment of every person and leaving you letter in someone else’s hands puts you at risk of having the one important thing that makes you an outstanding candidate left out of your letter.


Make yourself relevant.

Heal the NIH, But Not By Chopping Off Its Arm

I don’t often opine about NIH funding because I am usually humbled by how much more thoughtful folks like Datahound and Drugmonkey are when they speak to these issues. But, I’ve been mulling over a recent commentary in Cell from NIH scientist Ronald Germain and I think I have managed to solidify some thoughts worth blathering into the interspace..

Go read the article for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s lengthy, so I’ll wait…

I’ll tell you where the train went off the tracks for me. Dr. Germain, despite evoking his name several times and acknowledging his substantial contributions, did not make his son a coauthor on the article. Knowing Dr. Germain’s son from the interwebz, and his very low threshold for prolific engagement about NIH and academia, I suspect his contributions were underrepresented. It’s doubtful to me that he served merely as the muse for this article and that leads to it being read with two likely unintended airs about it – paternalism and nepotism.

Indeed, many of us like to see people receive credit and take responsibility for their work, even when they’re junior. To not see the younger Germain’s name in the author line makes one wonder, why weren’t his contributions worth authorship? Is it to protect him from having his opinions bite him later? Or, is it because it is the job of only the senior investigator to fix the system? Some might argue that it is the senior investigators that broke the system to begin with and that maybe we should let the younger among us speak their minds…

We also like to believe, even though so many of us know it to be factually untrue, that anyone can make a contribution to curing disease and that it is the idea that is paramount. By not crediting his son for his ideas, the reader leaves with the sense that he is trying to fix the system for his son. This is contrary to our community’s values and makes one skeptical of the proposal, especially given its handling of smaller institutions vs state schools vs private universities.

PS: Even a state school can house a Nobel Laureate.

It’s a shame that authorship didn’t work out differently, but there is also a fundamental flaw in the proposal itself. We continue to try to slice the same sized pie among the same number of people, but using a different knife every time (although some might argue that the number of slices must actually be smaller). It doesn’t acknowledge or address the fact that universities are actively breaking the system by propping up an enormous soft money PhD workforce on the back of government grant funding. Indeed ~50% of PhDs at academic medical centers are supported by grant funding. This has created an exceptionally unstable, but highly skilled workforce that is at the mercy of ebbs and valleys in government spending. It also means that an enormous portion of spending goes to supporting people and not project.

My proposal for reform is this – stop supporting PI and trainees salaries on R01 grants. Salaries have continued to grow, but the R01 budget remains unchanged. This isn’t sustainable.  The institution should support the PI. There are currently numerous mechanisms to support trainees including local TAships and personal and institutional training grants and eliminating their support of R01s will decrease the trainee glut. If the NIH wants to grow the workforce, it can put more money into training awards, but eliminate the support from the R01.

On Leaving Los Angeles…

My mind has turned frequently to the city of my upbringing this week…

Someone comes into my office and eyes the diplomas on my walls. They used to hang inside my house where my children could see them, but I moved them when I moved to the new town. There’s not a natural place to hang them in my new home. Now other peoples’ children see them.

“Where are you from?” they ask, observing the diverse geography reflected on my wall.

“Where are you from?” has always been an uncomfortable question for me.  When you reply that you grew up in Los Angeles, or the geographically adjacent because people have no sense of Orange County vs San Bernadino vs East LA vs  The Valley, peoples’ eye light up. I cast my eyes down. They imagine a land of palm trees, blonde ponytails, bottled water and high school students that get to leave class in the middle of the day to surf. Beautiful, tanned people, long legs, wheat grass smoothies and flashy cars.  A student tells me “I’ve always wanted to spend some time in Cali” and I imagine myself rolling my eyes. No one who is from there has ever called it “Cali.”

I imagine that Los Angeles exists for some people, but it was never mine. I grew up in a different Los Angeles.


It’s the part of the city that I know but that is largely forgotten and mostly inaccessible to strangers. It’s connected, before the inhabited part of the region stops, but it’s an outsider to the rest of the urban sprawl. My Los Angeles is lip liner, dollar meals at Bakers and flannel shirts. It almost always has its electricity turned off, especially in July, and it is suspicious of everyone. My Los Angeles peaks through the blinds whenever someone walks by, and it doesn’t drive a flashy car.  But, it does know how to hide its carcacha from the title loan people. It has mountains that you knew were there, but could never see through the thickness of the air. When it’s just a little chilly and the air is damp, it smells like Chino. Except when  it’s hot and the Santa Anas blow and people feel uneasy, twitchy and vengeful. We don’t drink the water because it smells like death.  My Los Angeles is so close to where most of America’s produce is grown, but you can’t get any of it at the market. It gets sent to the other Los Angeles. You could get a full-sized bag of Chachos for $1 from the man with the helado cart or at the market across from the high school, though. Most of the people I knew then are still within 10 miles of there. You don’t really escape from that Los Angeles. It may be an empire, but its royalty have no money.

The idea of  the sun-tanned and Volt-driving part of Los Angeles feels as foreign as another planet. It’s the same city, but it’s not my home. Those aren’t my people. That city was never available to me to explore.

A friend showed me pictures of a recent trip there and I smiled because I knew of the places in the pictures, but I had never visited them myself. There was no transportation that left my isolated area.  The only question more anxiety-inducing to me than “Where are you from?” is “What should I do when I’m visiting there?” I don’t know. Try not to get jumped while you’re walking home? Get some tacos de lengua? Kick it on the front steps with your friends and drink some Boones?

Go see the Hollywood sign and stop wasting my time, son. You don’t want to know my city.

And then there’s the question of whether I want to go back there. I don’t need to go back. I’m glad to be from there, but I don’t need to spend my time there and I don’t ever need to take my kids there. The other Los Angeles? You might as well ask me if I want to go to Vermont.

Neither was ever my home.