Simple math for the special snowflakes

Feb 07 2013 Published by under Careers, Life

Normally I leave it to Prof-like Substance to pull on the meatpants and dispel some of the myths held by disgruntledocs. And he has yet again.

And I usually try not to get too up in the face with my posts....

But then I was reading Postdocalypse Now and the various comments over there, and well, the sense of entitlement is so thick you could stir it with a stick.

There are no entitlements in academia. Never have been. No one is guaranteed a TT position, let alone an interview. No one is guaranteed funding. No one is guaranteed tenure. Tenured profs aren't even guaranteed an office and lab space.

So here's some simple math some of the disgruntledocs just don't seem able to grasp. Perhaps those of you coming up the ranks behind them can.

Simple Math I:
You're not that special. Think it through. The traditional path to a TT position is grad school followed by a postdoc or two. So if your PI has trained one grad student and one postdoc, they've essentially trained their replacement. Every additional student and postdoc is competition. For you. Direct competition. They've likely been trained on the same systems and methods. There's only so much room out there for people studying bunny hopping using electromagnoanisotropicoptophysioluminescence.

Simple Math II:
Yes, there are typically up to 300, maybe more, applications for each TT position at research intensive institutions (at least in the biomedical fields). But, as pointed out by Spiny Norman, you're not competing against all 300+. Around 70% aren't really that competitive (not you though, right? Yeah, right.) and likely won't be landing a TT position at an R1. On top of that, the remaining ~30% are applying to multiple, hopefully many, positions. So your odds are better than you might think. IF you're truly competitive.

Simple Math III:
Again, as pointed out by Spiny Norman, and discussed multiple times by DrugMonkey, CNS publications are not your ticket to a TT position. They help, for sure. But productivity and originality are the keys. Multiple first authorships. MULTIPLE. Preferably multiple as a postdoc. Not one or two.

Simple Math IV:
You're not that special part deux. Pedigree is a guarantee of little. Yes, having graduated from Fanycpants U, gone to grad school at Superfancypants U, and postdocced at Ultrasuperfancypants U gives you a little leg up. And, as Spiny* once again made clear, having trained in a well known lab that is also known for providing great training** is important. BUT, if you don't take full advantage of that, and every other opportunity you can get your hands on, you've screwed yourself (see Simple Math III above and V below).

Simple Math V:
Funding helps a lot. Our dean currently strongly encourages us to only consider applicants with funding (K99, R01 etc.). You can argue whether or not that's the best strategy (I don't think it is), but it is what it is. So you need to be applying. Early and often. Current funding rates at the NIH are somewhere below 20%. That does not mean >80% of applicants are unfunded. It means >80% of applications are not funded. Want to up the odds? Have multiple applications on multiple projects.*** As a postdoc that means convincing your PI to let you. If they won't, you need a new PI.

Simple Math VI:
The system needs an overhaul for sure. From grad student training through to PI's (which one way or another seems to be in the works). But even if we got rid of all the deadwood tomorrow, that won't up your odds of landing a TT position much, if at all. The economy still sucks. Funding rates are low. Many institutions are having a hard time making ends meet (BBRI anyone?). A deadwood prof fired is money saved. A new TT hire might have a lower salary and benefits cost, but requires a massive start up package. Many places are likely to decide to save the money instead of making that investment.

Are the odds stacked against you? Sure. But it's always been that way and likely always will. Having your dreams shattered sucks. But despite what you might think, no one has promised you a TT position. Or funding. At least try to open your eyes to the reality around you.

* Who should have a blog.
** The two are not necessarily synonymous.
*** As should all PI's of course.

27 responses so far

  • miko says:

    "The system needs an overhaul for sure. "

    Right. A statement which on its own or in combination with pointing out any detailed aspect of this system that requires overhauling, when made by a "disgruntledoc," is sufficient to elicit this kind of tirade about a sense of entitlement that I have never experienced myself or observed in any postdoc I know.

  • jipkin says:

    "But it's always been that way and likely always will."

    This is a bit too facile - shit can stay the same qualitatively but vary quantitatively. The truthy thinking of these times is that it's way harder now to go from PhD - TT than it was.

    So when the "odds are against [us]" now just as they always have been, that doesn't mean they haven't gotten steeper. And steeper odds mean louder complaining.

    (Frankly, the lack of pure data on PhD dropout rates, time to TT, even number of TT positions and number of postdocs makes measuring those odds difficult to begin with. Would love to see some real numbers of this stuff in the US).

    • odyssey says:

      What truthy thinking are you referring to?

      • jipkin says:

        the general sense that it's harder to go from a PhD to TT... that's what I hear in my conversations with my other PhD students and postdocs. That's the sentiment that everyone on the postdocalypse is echoing. It's only "truthy" because I have yet to see really good data on it, but I would be very surprised if it weren't true. Does anyone really think that jobs in academia (particularly for biomed PhDs) have stayed at the same acquisition difficulty that they were in the '70s?

        • odyssey says:

          I heard the same sentiment when I was looking for a job >15 years ago. Is the transition to TT harder now? I honestly don't know. The number of applications per position has remained pretty steady for the last 15 odd years in my experience, but that's anecdotal of course.

          • Dennis Eckmeier says:

            When my PhD adviser was invited to become professor, these were pretty easy to get (1970s Germany) because they had just opened several newly built universities.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    The problem is that many postdocs feel to be forced to apply for TT PI positions, because they want to stay in academic research and/or teaching with secured expectations for the future, although they do actually not necessarily want to become a PI (group leader).

    If institutions would HIRE lecturers and research scientists full time, there would not be 300+ applications for leadership positions.

    Masses of postdocs apply for few leadership positions, because it is the ONLY option for people who love to be in academia. The bad odds to actually get these jobs make postdocs panic (all of them). It's natural, I am one of them.

    • odyssey says:

      This is not about the total numbers per se, it's about those who have little grasp of the realities. Yes, panic/depression about the odds is natural. As is complaining. A sense of entitlement? Not so much.

  • Goose says:

    Is it just me, or is "Simple Math II" incomplete?

  • NatC says:

    But...but... you forgot the "special snowflake" co-efficient!!

  • Dave says:

    Post-docs with R01s. Awesome. Great advice.

    To be fair I have never met a post-doc who feels entitled to anything. Just because they may be upset on blogs/twitter etc does not mean they feel a sense of entitlement. We are of course disappointed with the way things are going and we youngsters get upset and emotional as we face reality in terms of our own future. Its tough to hit your mid-30s or 40s and realize you have ultimately failed in something that you have dedicated half of your life to, but it's all fucking fun and games for those in their ivory towers isn't it?

    It has not always been this way. That's just complete and utter bollox. Take a look at NIH success rates in the last 20 years if you really insist on this argument. When before a single R01 was enough for tenure, now in some places you need two. Ten years ago you didn't need an R01 or a K99 for a TT job. Now, according to you, this is essential. Things are not the same and they are getting worse.

    • Odyssey says:

      Try reading the whole statement in context Dave. Here, I'll even copy and paste it for you:

      Are the odds stacked against you? Sure. But it's always been that way and likely always will.

      My contention is that the odds are and have been against the applicants. Nowhere in there did I say they were the same odds. In fact, if you read the comments above you'll see I stated quite clearly that I don't know if the transition to TT is harder now.

      Oh, and the requirement for K99's or something similar? That only exists because those awards now exist. And yes, there are postdoc applicants with R01's.

      • Shridhar Jayanthi says:

        Internal applicants or external applicants that are co-PI? In this second case, can they bring in the R01 with them? (It's legit curiosity, I really don't know).

  • Dave says:

    Semantics Odyssey. You are backtracking.

    Not many places allow non-faculty to submit R01 applications, period. I'm absolutely amazed that this would be a criteria for TT interviews. Never heard such nonsense. Good luck with that.

    • odyssey says:

      No luck needed. We have an ongoing search and have had no difficulty getting applicants with funding. Including some with R01's. Hence my assertion that funding helps ("essential" was your word, not mine).

  • cackleofrad says:

    Interesting comment @Dave--every department in an R1 that I am familiar with allows 'non-faculty' to submit federal grants. Generally post-docs or trailing spouses will apply for and receive a 'Research Associate' position at the department level so that they can apply for NIH and NSF grants. It's a very smart scheme at the university level -- these are generally capable people that may or may not be funded by the university, have not had start-up to outfit a lab, and are 'freebie' indirect generators should they be awarded said grant. Quite common I'm afraid.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I've heard of non-faculty getting R01s, too. They're not 2nd year post-docs, mind you (at least in biomed fields), but usually either a senior level pd or an instructor/research scientist level person. I don't see a lot of incentive for any uni not to "allow" any of its scientists not to apply for funding--why not get the indirects without having to cough up a startup package?

  • Dave says:

    To be clear, I meant that no post-doc with a "post-doc" title can apply for an R01, at least not at my place. Almost always you will need an "independent" position already - call it instructor/research associate/research scientist whatever. Now whether you class these guys as "faculty" is another matter.

    I know because I am in one of those positions and it is very difficult, as some of you have eluded to, and the schools have nothing to lose. There is no start up, no equipment, no people. Grants are required but the more time you spend in the office the less data you get. It's a difficult balancing act and if Odyssey et al are hiring these types on the TT then it WILL work out very well for them because it is like a TT dry run without the same resources.

    My surprise was related to his use of the term "post-doc". Whether us junior soft-money guys are faculty or not is an interesting question. Officially I am, but day to day I'm just a post-doc with expectations to bring in money. If I apply for TT jobs, I'm guessing I will be viewed as a post-doc.

    • odyssey says:

      You're quite right that "postdoc" is a misnomer for people in the various instructor/research associate/research scientist etc. positions. I should have been more careful about categorizing. And yes, typically postdocs get moved into those positions so they can apply for R01-level funding.

      • physioprof says:

        Study sections tend to savage RPGs that such "faculty" submit.

        • odyssey says:

          Sounds like postdocs are best chasing K-awards then.

          • Dave says:

            Yep, chasing the Ks!

            CPP: I'm guessing independence/institutional commitment are the main issues when these "faculty" submit R01s? If the research plan is outstanding, can one ever over-come this in your experience? Last-author papers count much?

        • drugmonkey says:

          While study sections do "tend" to hammer these folks, some of them do win funding. The benefits if you succeed are high. Even if you fail, you've taken a few shots at the grant thing before the TT clock starts ticking.

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