Monday, February 18, 2013

Great Recession? What Great Recession?

UPDATE: Linda Wang e-mails to note that Bruce Roth's response was indeed noted:

Bruce Roth did say this in our interview: “I understand the difficulty. If you can’t get a full-time position, then you may have to settle for a postdoc, but it’s a red flag.”

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The excellent Linda Wang talks to a variety of hiring managers, recruiters and high-powered folks (including Bruce Roth, a co-inventor of Lipitor, an involuntary Pfizer alumnus and a VP of medchem at Genentech), asking them frequently asked questions on jobs and hiring, including this little gem:
Q: If you see a candidate who has done multiple postdocs, what impression does that give you?

Roth: (SEE UPDATE) It’s often a red flag, because nobody wants to do multiple postdocs. The worry is that you’re doing it because you’re unable to get a full-time position. It makes a hiring manager wonder whether you’re not as good as others who are getting those positions. If you stay in a place for a longer period of time, or if you’re able to get a non-tenure-track position as a researcher, in some respects that’s actually better than doing multiple postdocs.
(SEE UPDATE)
Frishberg: You’re talking to somebody who you know is going to have trouble because for industry, you don’t necessarily need the postdoc. And for academic jobs, you probably do, but not five of them. One or two of them is fine, otherwise it looks like you’re unemployable or do not know what you want to do.
I think that it is possible that both these gentlemen answered, "Well, we know that because of the recession, hiring has been slow and so candidates have had to resort to multiple postdocs, blah, blah..." and their answers were cut out for space. Yeah, that's the ticket. You gotta really love Dr. Frishberg's response of industry positions not necessarily needing postdocs -- you gotta be kidding me, right?

Personally, I know that I was biased against doing a 2nd postdoc because of exactly this concern when I was looking for a job in 2008. I had a choice between the job that I took or another postdoc and thought to myself, "I don't want to do another postdoc!" But a lot of people were not fortunate enough to get a job at that time; in that case, another postdoc was/is better than starving.

As I have asserted a number of times, quite often a postdoc is the modern employment equivalent of an "inferior good", i.e. a choice that people make because they do not have better choices.* (Multiple postdocs have got to be an "inferior good.") How often do you hear of people leaving their postdocs as soon as they get an industrial job? That's how you know it's not a choice that people want to make, it's a choice they have to make. I am disappointed with Drs. Roth and Frishberg that they did not acknowledge this in their answer.

Once again, I am impressed at Linda Wang's ability to get people to answer in the most frank manner possible about hiring. As much as I might be irritated by some of these answers, it's important for job candidates to read them and for them to be on the record. Go and read (and stew, if you're like me.)


*I should note that I am stretching the definition of "inferior good" quite a bit, in that inferior goods are purchased items that are purchased less as the purchaser's income increases (like ramen noodles, for example). A postdoc is not a purchase; therefore, it's probably not an inferior good. 


UPDATE: Linda Wang e-mails to note that Bruce Roth's response was indeed noted:

Bruce Roth did say this in our interview: “I understand the difficulty. If you can’t get a full-time position, then you may have to settle for a postdoc, but it’s a red flag.”

23 comments:

  1. I agree with you that a lot of these answers are frustrating, and that the criteria they focus on maybe shouldn't be as important as they are, but I do at least appreciate their honesty about things that are all too often unspoken rules.

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    1. I agree with you, but some statement as to normativity on the part of Drs. Roth and Frishberg would have been nice.

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  2. Can we verify that Roth or Frishberg are near enough to the current situation to understand it though? Yes, Bruce got laid off, but I'm willing to bet he wasn't hanging around too long before nabbing his position at Genentech. Even though I'm sure both of them have hundreds of friends who are letting them know how hard the job market is, they may not have put the rest of the puzzle together that it's also really hard for new grads to avoid doing a postdoc (or two, or more)

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  3. Would the better alternative be to do a longer postdoc fellowship? I keep hearing an average postdoc is 2-3 years, but know several who have been at the same one for 5+ years due to a variety of circumstances.

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  4. I think the last question they ask is pretty telling. Here's how I read it:

    Q:

    Is it possible to do everything right and still not get a job?

    A:

    Brown: You're doing something wrong. Also, be more popular.

    Frishberg: Yeah, but you can live off of hope, right?

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  5. What I get from the people being interviewed is that if we aren't pals with your PhD or dost-doc advisers you can forget getting a job.

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    1. Meant to type post-doc instead of dost-doc. Glad this isn't a resume.

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    2. Yea. Nice to see Roth perpetuating the cronyism and Good Ole' Boys networks that abound in chemistry. Turns out he did take something from Pfizer with him!

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    3. You should've done a trost-doc. Cause that one guy seems to like Barry.

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    4. Excellent play anon7:48.

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    5. " Nice to see Roth perpetuating the cronyism and Good Ole' Boys networks that abound in chemistry."

      Is there any industry to which this does not apply?

      I don't think there are any companies in any industry that are meritocracies. Human nature: if I know you or know someone you know I have more trust (or know to stay away).

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  6. As a third-year Ph.D. student in medicinal chemistry, I’ve been thinking about skipping a postdoc to pursue an M.B.A. with the goal of becoming a chief science officer (CSO) for a small biotech company. Would this increase my stature commensurate with the debt I’d incur?

    Let's skip right over all the rising through the ranks and head right to wanting to be the CSO of a biotech, all while in their 3rd year of graduate school.

    I miss being that young and full of myself...

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    1. They should never have let Reddit ask questions.

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  7. I said this on Twitter, but I'll put it here for posterity: of the 70-odd grad students I've worked with over the last decade, I can only recall 6 who got industrial or pharma jobs straight out with no postdoc. Next-gen employment, I suppose.

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    1. In 20 years in pharma, I've never worked with a medicinal chemist with a PhD in medicinal chemistry.

      If he wants a job in pharma/biotech (assuming there are any), he has to do a post-doc with a heavy, heavy hitting synthetic guy.

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    2. Has anyone asked whether having synthetic jocks in charge has been a benefit or not? I mean, if the industry is in the dumps, it's all well and good to blame the MBAs, but what about hiring all your researchers from some famous synthetic group when those aren't the skills you're supposedly hiring them for, and people with that direct training are available? Why does that still "make sense"?

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  8. Roth and Frishberg should be tried for treason and hanged. They are pulling the same old "blame the victim" card. On the one hand industry wants people trained for every conceivable task, yet it blames them as indecisive if they're over-trained. Makes no sense. Those two are shills for the 1%.

    I'm sure they'll hire a perfectly trained Chinese guy on an H1-B! That's their real motivation.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/02/disposable-workers-why-throwaway-employees-are-bad-policy.html

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  9. There was a piece on NPR this morning about how software engineers can't find jobs either, even though corporations like Microsoft claim they need more H1Bs. It was typical mealy-mouthed NPR babble implicitly taking the side of whoever has the most money, but it sounded awfully familiar...

    http://www.npr.org/2013/02/19/172373123/older-tech-workers-oppose-increasing-h-1b-visas

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  10. I agree multiple postdocs may be a necessity in the current funding and employment climate. What neither person commented on what defines the "multiple postdoc" they are referring to. I regularly get unsolicited applications where a person has a multiple 1-year stints as a postdoc, or is looking for a 2nd postdoc after less than a year. It's very difficult not to see this as a red flag. If you have a product postdoctoral researcher, you make every effort to keep them until they find permanent employment. If they aren't, why renew the contract for the 2nd year? If someone stayed in a postdoc for multiple years, and then moved on, it's a different situation. A PI may only be able to fund a postdoc for 2-3 years if a grant isn't renewed. I'd also look more favorably on someone doing multiple postdocs who clearly is trying to expand their skill set, not just doing the exact same kind of work over and over. Strategically if you're trained as a synthetic chemist and do a postdoc in that, there is minimal training benefit from doing another postdoc in synthesis. If the same candidate goes on to a postdoc doing some biological assays with synthesize drug candidates, it shows a clear plan to develop skills that would be attractive to an employer.

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  11. CJ: As a medicinal chemist from big Pharmaceutical Company, I was let go but like Dr. Bruce Roth (that Lipitor guy from original P and D), I was able to land on my feet! But, he had it good and was able to get a decent job at Genentech, because of his reputation and association with the product in the market. Very few are in that category, and there are many like me and others who struggled to find something meaningful. When I look around and see these eager graduate students trying to finish their PhD (chemistry), it is gut wrenching to know what kind of future awaits them. By the way, I also hear that many who were let go from pharmaceutical companies are also taking post-doctoral position to supplement their income! The medicinal chemist job in many companies (Lilly, Merck) has been eliminated and instead we see opening for post-doctoral position for doing medicinal chemistry. When I see these developments in research, when taken to gather with the fact that manufacturing have been nearly eliminated (watch the program "How it is made" in Science channel), I am not hopeful that the situation is going to get better anytime soon.

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  12. I think it also depends on the field. I am a molecular modeler and I got a job with a pharma company right out of grad school. So did most modelers I know. That's partly just because there aren't those many academic modelers around to do post-docs with.

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  13. You know, in most walks of life, more experience is actually considered a good thing.

    Yeah, really.

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  14. Well, it's official: physical science PhDs are now less employable than Humanities:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/the-phd-bust-americas-awful-market-for-young-scientists-in-7-charts/273339/

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