Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The postdoctoral labor market in chemistry: opaque?

OneSleepyNerd asks some good questions on Twitter:
I've heard professors complain that they don't get good postdoc applications. I wonder what would happen if they offered more money? 
Lots of synthetic postdocs, but some profs, even in good dpts, can't get applicants.
University of Minnesota professor Chris Cramer observed in reply:
Skeptical. NRC offers HUGE salary, and I've heard sponsors complain of poor applicant pools. $ not primary factor for most. 
& I guess I'd argue that they should compare their reputations against competitors. Its a buyers' market for the "best" PhDs.
I assume that people do not make their decisions based on postdoc salaries, but based on things like the field they wish to study, the reputation of the adviser, the likelihood of the adviser to help them get to where they they want to go (career-wise), geography, their personal 2-body problem, etc. Most of these issues are a balance of quality of life and long-term monetary issues -- increasing someone's pay for 2 years (or so) just is not a enough of a lever to make a difference, I would think. (Of course, graduate students seem to occasionally choose schools based on the stipend, so maybe they do -- who knows?)

[I should note here that I took an industrial postdoc with a large pharma, so my experience was much more like an industrial position than anything else, except that the HR person told me what my salary would be. It was an advertised opening, even. (I love you, back of C&EN.) It was a relatively desirable geographical area, my wife wouldn't have trouble with her career, it was pretty much a done deal. It was nice.]

The postdoctoral fellowship labor market in chemistry seems to be a fairly opaque market on all sides. Students and their advisers don't really know when they're going to graduate and may be loathe to even broach the subject (I know I was a little nervous about it, and I considered my relationship with my PI to be better than average.) Not everyone wants to do a postdoc, and I suspect that given the option, most would not. Salaries aren't really discussed (they're all crummy!) and it is not commonly known who has an opening and who does not. (Professor Cramer noted that he's never advertised, yet gets multiple applications a week.) While the "rumor mill" probably has a fairly decent bead on what is going on, it's not exactly the height of transparency.

I wonder if there's room for someone (ACS, whomever) to facilitate a smoother process of applying for postdoctoral fellowships and for younger professors to get attention?

Readers, what do you think? 

24 comments:

  1. While a grad student I hired a number of post docs for my PI. The thing that always perplexed me is that he never actually advertised. He emailed his friends and asked them for direct references. As a result we never had more than 5 applicants for any position and only ever interviewed 1 or 2 for each.

    When I was getting ready to graduate he never did anything to help me find a job, nor did he ever do anything to help any of the other grad students or post docs find jobs outside his lab. Kind of irritated me. However I've noticed that none of the profs in our department are all that keen on doing formal introductions of their grads or post docs at meetings or anything like that. As a result my experience was that I was completely on my own in making my own networking opportunities. Yes, it's a good skill to have and practice, but it would have been nice for my PI to assist in helping me find that first job.

    I have seen post-doc jobs advertised on PhD.com, Indeed, and various professional society boards. But I never got a reply from any of the ones I applied to.

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    1. Prof. Cramer on your situation: http://pollux.chem.umn.edu/ProfResp_130320.html

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    2. Thank you, Prof. Cramer! I am extremely pleased that an academic has such an attitude toward his students.

      In graduate school, I barely got time with my advisor for my project, much less my job hunt. I know that there were pieces of other graduate students' and postdocs' proposals (for faculty jobs) that were looked over by my advisor and taken out because they were considered "future directions" for the group's work. Most of the time, there was a little grumbling, but this attitude was accepted as "OK".

      I really wish that schools hiring new faculty would force them (and perhaps old faculty) through some sort of management training. Creating interesting and useful experiments is the easy part of my job. Managing people, particularly those that might feel "trapped", is hard.

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    3. That attitude (the original comment) really comes into question for me when we have situations like the "researcher should provide a will for his group" discussion earlier. The notion that research is a big apprenticeship with the advisor holding his students' hands all along? So outdated that you might as well expect the work to be done with a mortar & pestle. Especially with big big-name groups, the advisor contact is minimal at best according to all reports I've heard. The idea that unhappy students can't switch groups without holding back their graduation for years, or that students of an MIA PI can't get on without him, doesn't square with the evident lack of input these advisors are actually giving their students.

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    4. Anon from above here. Dr Cramer, thanks for replying. Your attitude is one I've seen from a number of up-and-comers I now work with and it's refreshing after spending my grad years in the old boys network.

      bad wolf, it comes down to the concept of mentorship. Are PIs actually advisors and mentors or do they just hold a lab space and write the checks for assistantships? According to tenure and promotion committees (I have served on several) mentorship is expected. The mark of a good mentor is a graduate who has a successful career. That first job after grad school sets the stage for that student's career.

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  2. How do you feel about compulsory advertising? While I'm not yet looking for post-doc positions, I imagine it would be quite frustrating to apply for jobs where the PI has already decided on the hire.

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  3. There is a forum for profs to post openings: http://www.organiclinks.net/

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  4. A lot of people have written to say that professors get a fair number of unsolicited postdoc applications throughout the year. So either most of these postdoc applications are not "good", or the professors who claim they don't get good postdoc applicants are very picky about whom they consider to be a "good applicant"... or most likely, the truth lies somewhere in between.

    That being said, a good postdoc can really help an assistant professor startup a lab, and conversely, postdocs can learn a lot from an assistant professor during this period. But, with this shaky economy, a grad student's best bet might be to postdoc for a well-established professor with connections. Would offering a bigger stipend or some financial security convince some grad students to take a chance with a new professor?

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    1. I'm a professor of inorganic chemistry. I'm not a big name but I'd say that I get about 3-5 unsolicited postdoc applications per week. Most of them are unfortunately pretty lousy, and I can see how this can ruin the reputation of the pool as a whole.

      Many of the worst ones have obviously been spammed to who knows how many people. The worst applicants give me the impression that they have no idea who I am (e.g. not mentioning what aspects of my research program interest them, citing a background in materials when my group focuses on homogeneous catalysis). Even better, often they'll screw up my name ("Dear Dr. Firstname") and/or gender. If you can't be bothered to research your potential advisor, that is pretty indicative that you are a BAD applicant.

      That said, there are definitely strong candidates in the pool, and anyone who says that they can't find an acceptable postdoc either isn't looking carefully enough or has extraordinarily demanding standards. Given the lack of funding and the surplus of applicants, Prof. Cramer is definitely correct in saying that this is a buyer's market.

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  5. Writing dissertation now. Know about 10 others in similar fields (synth, med chem, nat prod synth) and most would take just about any post doc at this point, regardless of pay, locale, rep of PI. I guess we are in not good pool???

    Compulsory ads are the devil, but we have done them twice in my lab to hire post docs that my PI hired from connections he had. It happens. Generally a good sign of one seems to be a VERY short window to apply, like min mandated by the university (3 -10 days).

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  6. Cramer with the smack down just now.

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  7. This is an interesting topic.

    For the very best PhD candidates looking for post-doc positions, it isn't too difficult since they stand out (due to prior group/publication records/etc). But the excellent laboratory bench chemist, that had the bad fortune to be on a project that didn't pan out and/or worked for a professor that doesn't publish much, has a harder time standing out of the crowd to obtain a post doc position. The original position that "...professors complain that they don't get good postdoc applications." can be seen as an inability to separate the good applicant with a poor publication record from a poor applicant.

    This can be where faculty networking can find positions since the PI bears some professional responsibility in placing former students. And my advice to students (for organic students here), go to the meetings like National Organic Symposium or, if you have a good project to present, try for a Gordon Research Conference where you have an opportunity to meet the faculty (but don't cluster with other students and ignore your meet and greet possibilities).


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    1. The advisor's letter is absolutely key in such situations. Everyone's seen enough good scientists get stuck in tough projects to understand that a lack of immediate publications does not necessarily equate to a lack of talent.

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  8. Postdoc jobs aren't posted because they're filled the same way faculty jobs are - through the old boy network!

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    1. I got mine by emailing the professor, but he was part of a larger group that knew the faculty from my training grant. He did mention when he offered that he wanted to hear soon, or he would have to make an announcement. In my time as a post-doc, three new postdocs have arrived; no official announcements were ever made.

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  9. While I agree that most people don't, and shouldn't, base postdoc decisions on salary, I'm just curious what range Cramer is talking about when he says "HUGE salary"? I know people who have bypassed doing a postdoc and gone straight into industry. They usually have several reasons, but I think quality of life, which often has a salary component, played into the decision.

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  10. I would like to mention that I get about one or two unsolicited inquiries about postdoc positions in my lab each semester and I am a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution (with no chemistry grad students whatsoever). While it's not unheard of for a professor at a high level, undergrad-only school to take in a research-only postdoc (I had an offer for just such a position) it is very rare. And for a non-tenured professor like me, nigh impossible.

    Yet, I sent out dozens of unsolicited inquiries of the same sort (hopefully more well informed) to get my postdoc. I received responses ranging from being totally ignored (completely understandable), to curt negative responses (one email contained the word "no" as the entirety of the body... and I didn't even ask a questions), to interview offers.

    The most interesting responses were detailed, apologetic denials (mainly due to the poor economy), often containing suggestions of other people to email who might have positions. These came from both very well known names in the field and not so well known PIs, but all were greatly appreciated by me.

    It's these kinds of interactions with PIs that have me in total agreement with Chris Cramer as linked above. If a PI won't even help the professional development of his or her own students (let alone give unsolicited advice to some random job seeker who emailed him or her) that person is failing at their job.

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  11. I kind of assumed most postdocs would not be advertised and about a year before I was done with the PhD I was reading some blogs on this stuff. It was either at Female Science Professor or Drugmonkey where someone said you need to make a list of ten top picks for your postdoc and take it to your PI and discuss it with them. I did that... kind of unhelpful since he just said "It's a good list. Good luck. Will give you a good reference letter!", but at least it gave him the heads up that I'm preparing to apply for a job.

    It wasn't much of a problem for me as I only wrote to my number one and he accepted me without an interview. But it wasn't a problem since I had enough first author glamour mags articles and it was the same field (I really love my field, although now I'm doing something different). Other people in the group had problems though. Some people who were friends of the boss, or even the boss' former postdoc adviser, wouldn't answer the email of the applicant, which is a really dick move. Then the famous labs would all say: "only if you have funding. Good luck applying for it."

    Basically, you have to start early with looking for a postdoc and definitely talk to your adviser a year before you think you will graduate. I think a lot of these problems are self-generated by students afraid of their adviser. If you want to do a practice talk for a conference or a faculty position, ask the group to sit in on it and the chances are very good that they will say yes. Don't expect people to hold your hand the entire time and ask you if you need help with something every single week. People are very busy and many are not mind readers. I've seen a couple postdocs so afraid here, that they 'forgot' to tell the adviser with whom they had a meeting every week, that their contract was finishing. And these were good scientists with good results. One literally waited until the last week and said 'Oh by the way, my contract is over next week, so I might not be able to run these experiments you wanted me to do...' Definitely the adviser wasn't very happy. The guy has 10 postdocs and travels all over the world. He just forgot that the contract was only for two years. In that case he immediately extended it to five years, but it's a stupid strategy for getting employment.

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  12. The pay is really good for an NRC postdoc. In my experience, it was at the paygrade of an entry-level Ph.D.--around $70k. (You get federal health benefits as well, so you can finally get your teeth fixed after neglecting them in grad school.)

    Beware of NRC post docs in the D.C. area, however. The cost of living is very high, and the traffic is demonstrably the worst in the nation. The people are also a bit...different. (JFK described the local culture as having the charm of the North and the efficiency of the South.) As other have said, pay isn't everything.

    However, the real problem with the NRC postdoc program is that it's only well known to those who know it. Before I applied, I'd never heard of it nor knew anyone who did one. It's actually quite prestigious. Unfortunately, there's no budget for publicity, and the web site for the program is government-issue atrocious. With an NRC postdoc now on my CV, I now have to explain to hiring managers and HR people what the program is. Compare that to a post doc with Prof. Bigshot, who everyone knows. Again, pay isn't everything.

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    1. Yeah, there were lots of people at work who complained about the traffic. I told them time and time again, to ditch the car, and use the extra money saved on gas, repairs, lease, insurance and whatnot, and pay an extra two hundred bucks to get an apartment close to a metro station. All the major universities and the NIH are connected to the metro. Plus, you save a lot in terms of your sanity lost to hours of road rage while sitting in traffic. The metro runs very late and starts very early and is generally frequent.

      The best part is if you come home early and feel like wasting time, an hour before a basketball or a hockey game, you can decide to go to the game and be there half an hour later after walking out the door, to buy tickets from the scalpers. In terms of culture, you clearly weren't looking properly because as an international and a large city, DC has everything you want.

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    2. Thanks for the DC boosterism. It's a bit off track, but anyway, my points still stand. It is an expensive part of the country, car or no car, and certainly not everyone's cup of tea. And a postdoc there may not open the doors a postdoc with a well-know professor might. Again, money is not everything.

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  13. My prof used to complain about the standards of his postdocs. And I agree - some were terrible. But he never formally advertised, and always took the first person who applied. So..... go figure.

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  14. Let me just add that the NRC postdoc has one other attractive feature beyond salary: sometimes it hardens into a permanent positions in the research lab, and if you like the place, that's a great way in. Two of my former students are now very happily employed by that route. Anything I can do to make students better aware of NRC! A really viable and interesting option for many fields.

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  15. When I was at a university, the postdoc pools were pretty lousy. Always thought it was because of salary (uni wouldn't let us pay more than about 30K)

    Now I'm at a federal lab and the postdoc pools are still lousy even though the salary is pretty decent (mandatory from the agency--postdocs must come in at GS-11 which starts at 57K a year--based on the cost of living here that's the equivalent of ~100K a year in Boston) However that's probably the reason we have lousy pools since it is deep in flyover country and most domestic grad students can't deal with leaving a major city behind for a couple years. Too bad, since we have no problem placing post docs into academic positions afterward. On the other hand I still get plenty of inquiries from the foreign grad students about post docs; there's just absolutely no chance I can hire them.

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