Monday, September 23, 2013

Retired industrial scientists as postdocs?

From this week's C&EN, a very interesting letter: 
Some students might enjoy doing postdoctoral work, but the majority would like to find a rewarding career. I worked as a postdoc back in the early 1970s when my salary was $10,000 per year. Compared with that, today’s postdocs are lucky in terms of pay.... 
...I strongly support the idea of hiring retired industrial scientists as postdoctoral researchers in academe. With their years of exposure to industrial problem solving and product development, many retired scientists and engineers could contribute a lot to the research programs of principal investigators at universities. And the presence of a retired industrial scientist in a research group would benefit graduate students. Retired industry scientists could nurture grad students by, for example, holding informal sessions on industrial problem solving, thinking in terms of improving a company’s bottom line, addressing applied research problems, and so on. I am interested in contributing as a postdoc. 
Sitaram Rampalli
Orland Park, Ill.
First, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator, $10,000 between the years of 1970 and 1975 ranges between $41,000 and $60,000 in 2013 dollars. Seems to me to be fairly comparable to modern postdoc salaries, if not higher.

Second, I would love to hear about postdoctoral fellowships and why more older/retired scientists aren't hired into said groups. My answer would probably be that 1) older scientists are typically not interested in the $30-50,000 (with no benefits) that postdocs are offered and that 2) principal investigators aren't interested in dealing with direct reports that are 20 years older than they are. Maybe I'm wrong.

(Honestly, wouldn't an adjunct position be a better fit?)

35 comments:

  1. since when do post-docs not get benefits? they get insurance at least I am pretty sure.

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  2. since when do post-docs not get benefits? they get insurance at least I am pretty sure.

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    1. That's actually a supposition on my part -- maybe postdocs do get health insurance nowadays...

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    2. I got health care for myself but not my family (I'd have to pay the entire premium for anything above individual). No retirement, no vacations aside from holidays that close the university, no sick leave, no maternity leave, no access to university facilities reserved for fee paying students (pools, rec centers, etc). It is fair to say there are no benefits.

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    3. I finished an academic postdoc earlier this year. I got health insurance. I also had retirement (but it was in lieu of social security, so I'm not sure that it should count). I had sick leave both formally through the school and informally arranged with my boss. I had access to things like the gym and parking for a small fee. The postdocs at this school were classified as staff, so we would basically get the same benefits that a new secretary would.

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    4. Anon from earlier here. We didn't have an option to pay for facilities, and we weren't faculty or staff. We were postdocs, a special category invented by HR that had the worst aspects of student/staff/faculty all mashed into a special class of temporary worker. They had the balls to even take money from our checks every month in the name of retirement, but with a 7 year vesting period, ensuring everyone short of a tenured professor would get the shaft when it came time to move on.

      One postdoc worked until she went into labor, and had her paychecks halted before she left the hospital.

      If people only knew the awful situation many postdocs were in, nobody would be asking to sign up unless they felt forced to in order to advance in their career.

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    5. My postdoc was like Anon's at 11:58. I got health insurance and the benefits of any full time staff at the university. I had to pay for parking, but so did the professors. Boss wouldn't have wanted me in lab if I was sick with the flu. It helps to have a reasonable human being for a boss. Pay wasn't close to an industrial job, but not poverty level either.
      Many grants have provisions that postdocs must be within 5 years of their graduation to be payed with the funds (the idea being that the funding is supposed to train inexperienced scientists in a subordinate position in preparation for these scientists to take charge of their own lab.)

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  3. Yeah, tell this retiree to work 70-80 hours a week for two years, see how many days they last.

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  4. I would suspect most 50-60 yr old PI's would not hire 50-60 yr olds for post-docs. Too much risk of them only working a 40 hr week like the PI. That would be a disaster.

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  5. We already have a problem with retirement age scientists who won't retire. Now they want to come back and take away postdoc opportunities? Like they did not screw us enough already? Jeez.

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  6. Every postdoc I've met (including myself) had the threat of deportation or the threat of a poor recommendation hanging over their head. If I had the choice of cashing in a social security check and spending my day fishing I wouldn't have made it past the first week, let alone multiple years. Besides that, could you imagine the ego clash putting a PI in the same lab meeting as this guy? Yikes. ”I've been doing things this way for forty years!”

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  7. We have an older industrial chemist in the lab who is checking out the academic scene. He doesn't have to work the bulk hours of a typical postdoc and I do really admire the way he works, but it's almost not fair how he gets to work vs. a typical grad student/postdoc. If we have a crappy yield, we just have to pound on the reaction harder, set up more reactions, set up reactions in parallel, anything and everything to forcibly push our quantities higher. The industrial chemist is allowed the freedom to find better routes. He can have a candid conversation about the reaction yields, come up with methods that avoid chromatography, shuns anything below a gram in scale. To be honest, it makes me wonder if there were more constructive ways to use our time and our learning potential than forcibly beat reactions to submission to get the target.

    But that's just me ...

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  8. My Ph.D. advisor retired a few years after I graduated and he was considering doing this. There was some money left in one of his grants at the time of his retirement, and he planned to transfer the funds to a new professor's lab to get paid as a postdoc. The two professors involved had collaborated closely in the past, so that may have helped with some of the potential hierarchy issues. I had already graduated, so I have no idea how it worked out.

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  9. What problem is this trying to solve exactly? Bored retired scientists? Retired scientists whose 401(k)'s are in ruins? A "shortage" of new Ph.D.s? Clueless academics who don't know how industry gets things done?

    It's kind of a bizarre letter.

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    1. Not really. We've had a few retired industrial chemists go back to work as pharma contractors simply because they just like doing organic chemistry and solving chemistry problems. If you're an actual employee, you have to worry about a lot of the political stuff, performance evals, SAR and the like. As a contractor you can work on specific problems, scale-ups, reaction optimization, that a lot of project team members don't have time for.

      A retired industrial chemist would bring a very different perspective to an academic lab, lending years of experience at solving problems, shortcuts, practical chemistry experience with a multitude of chemistry and purification methods. Not every problem needs to be solved by simply running 50 reactions or working 90 hours a week. Sometimes the old adage about working smarter instead of harder is true. Having a person who has worked as a chemist for 20-30+ years is a huge resource to tap into.

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    2. So your answer is "bored" with a mix of "clueless academics." Why didn't the letter writer say that if he meant it? Instead, we're left to fill in the blanks ourselves...a Rorschach test to test our preconceptions about our elders.

      Reading the letter again, I still think it's bizarre. It's a self-serving sales pitch that boils down to "You don't want to hire those kids. They're ungrateful for their pay.(Paragraph 1) They don't even get much out of the experience.(Paragraph 2) You want to hire an experienced retiree...like myself!(Paragraph 3)"

      Dr. Rampalli's motives for wanting a postdoc are left a complete mystery despite what we read into his words. Personally, I interpreted them as pitiful and desperate attempt at becoming/remaining relevant. But that's just what I think the ink blot looks like.

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  10. Tell this guy to get real. I second "didn't they screw us enough already?" notion.

    /Lu

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  11. I've seen this before when I was in grad school. It was a special case, they came with their own grant money and they were a foreign academic, not an industrial chemist.

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  12. It's a variation on "kids these days are stupid and have it handed to 'em on a plate", except the handed-on-a-plate assertion is demonstrably untrue. Which, ironically, makes him appear pretty stupid.

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  13. This very much depends on the personalities - the principal investigators and the old guy's. As I see it older guys would be far more sensitive to exploitation, abuse and bureaucratic baloney that is common in academia - and could be far more outspoken about it than, for example, a Chinese postdoc with a visa problem

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  14. This very much depends on the personalities - the principal investigators and the old guy's. As I see it older guys would be far more sensitive to exploitation, abuse and bureaucratic baloney that is common in academia - and could be far more outspoken about it than, for example, a Chinese postdoc with a visa problem

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  15. I'm curious how chemists who worked as long as possible are "screwing" younger chemists. Are industrial chemists who dare to live to the age of 50 supposed to volunteer to be put on ice floes and die?

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    1. The letter writer explicitly suggests retired chemists for postdoc positions. Consider someone with a Ph.D., who worked in industry, and has retired from that job. They had employment in the field when earnings were at their highest and had years over which to save for retirement. Now instead of enjoying that well-earned retirement, they are going to fill an entry-level position. A position which could go to one of the many new graduates who has never had the opportunity for substantial savings, who looks forward to relatively lower lifetime earning, and who faces higher unemployment. It's similar to the double dipping seen in gov't jobs where someone retires to get their pension and then rehired to earn a salary too. These aren't boom times.

      Another problem is when senior scientists retire later than scheduled. As long as they are filling those senior positions, people cannot move up. It creates a backlog.

      I don't mean to imply that these retiree postdocs are deliberately screwing younger scientists. There are plenty of 50+ scientists hurting in this economy too. But overall I think it makes for a bad economic situation and the young are disproportionately hurt.

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    2. And I quote "Like they did not screw us enough already? Jeez."

      I fail to see how "they" (the older chemists who apparently haven't retired early enough for you) are "screwing" you.

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    3. Are industrial chemists who dare to live to the age of 50 supposed to volunteer to be put on ice floes and die?

      Apparently. I've got mine on order.

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    4. And I am curious - since when the retirement age for chemists is 50? You chose to ignore it - but the original comment clearly says "retirement age scientists". Is this your approach to the scientific method?

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    5. 50 was hyperbole (although there are plenty of 50 year old chemists that are being forced into "retirement" anyway), but you continue to avoid answering the question - how is it that chemists who have worked to retirement age are "screwing" younger chemists?

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    6. Past retirement age. You are 70, you had a 40-45 year career. Go home, travel, play with your grandkids, golf, whatever. You earned it.

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    7. Last response, since you seem incapable of reading what you wrote:

      "Like they did not screw us enough already? Jeez."

      You're saying they've "already" screwed you "enough." How have they done so? By not retiring early enough for you? Have you walked through many industrial labs? I assure you, you won't see many 70 year old chemists around. You won't see too many 60 year old ones, either. Remember this exchange in a few years - you'll be ashamed of yourself...

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    8. In pharma well 20 years at this point. Know of 2 chemists in their early 60s, including management. Only knew of one chemist who got close to 70.

      The reason there are fewer jobs has more to do with companies hiring less and moving open positions overseas, not chemists staying longer.

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    9. What, you don't think that baby boomer screwed the pooch?

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    10. a different anonymousSeptember 24, 2013 at 12:26 PM

      It's up-or-out in industry. (Logan's Run comes to mind.)

      But it's the flip-side in academia and government. The average age of the professorate keeps climbing, and double-dipping (as someone above mentioned) keeps a lot of government jobs tied up. It's there where the inter-generational power play is most obvious.

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  16. I googled the author of the letter to C & E News, and he's a retired industrial chemist (or a forced to retire too early) industrial chemist, who is also a consultant. Why he wants a post doc is not clear; perhaps it's just to stay connected to chemistry in some fashion. His comment about post doc pay is unwarrented - I suggest he use something called an 'inflation calculator' before he makes such a comment publically.
    When I was in grad school in the 1980s, there was a retired chemist who had owned his own small business, who spent time in the organic labs in the chemistry department. He did not get paid, and I don't know what hours he kept, or how much he got done. He just enjoyed being in a lab around people.

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  17. I was working next to a retired industrial postdoc during my phd and it was a disaster. He was a danger in the lab, had accidents at least once a weak and moreover, he decided to find a spouse among the young females around. I woke up every day at 5 a.m. to have few quite hours in the morning. Finally, my boss fired him.

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