The "postdoc terminal"

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The "postdoc terminal"

Postby Ana » Tue Nov 17, 2015 4:56 pm

I just came across a video in YouTube by Dr Keith Yamamoto from UCSF where he talks about how the path from graduate student to postdoc to assistant professor has changed over the years and how it looks now.

Here is the LINK

He introduces the concept of postdoc positions today not as a bridge from PhD to professor but as a "terminal" from which careers can be launched in multiple directions. Dr Yamamoto also comments on how the PIs that are training postdocs are biased to grant higher value to the career choice that they themselves had chosen, over other alternatives.

He goes on to comment on the implications of not only this training bias but also the excess of postdocs and trainees in general navigating this system. I won't give you more spoilers on this fantastic (and short!) video. I will instead recommend you all to watch it.

If there is one quote that I will keep from Dr Yamamoto it is that as postdocs fear about their career possibilities and decide to do longer and multiple postdocs, "the postdoc terminal threatens to become the terminal postdoc".

Go watch that video,

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Re: The "postdoc terminal"

Postby Dave Jensen » Wed Nov 18, 2015 2:06 pm

Hi Ana,

Thanks for suggesting that video. I loved it. Very classy production, and Dr. Yamamoto's ideas were intriguing.

The problem I see with considering the PhD position as a terminal from which you can launch a variety of directions is that you'll need to convince the PI's who are training these young people that they shouldn't "push" for the straight, academic research career as they always have in the past. You'll need an enlightened faculty -- people who won't suggest to their students that industry careers (or communication, law, business etc careers) are somehow of lower status than the independent PhD investigator who would need to take the postdoc track. In very subtle ways, advisors could make their PhD students feel that all options are of lower stature than the "pure" approach.

Yes, the idea has huge merit. But it would need to have people supporting it who recognize the wide variety of career options for the science PhD and who would not subtly "push" their people towards the postdoc/academic career. Because what happens then is that the glut still ends up at the end of that cycle, sitting in postdoctoral positions.


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Re: The "postdoc terminal"

Postby Dave Walker » Wed Nov 18, 2015 6:19 pm

Ana, you find the best videos! Very thoughtful -- thanks for sharing this one :) And the whole suite of iBiology videos are very compelling, too: how to choose a PI, what is the perfect lab size, the history of science funding, etc!

Having recently departed from the "PhD hub" and avoiding that "postdoc terminal," I fully support this idea -- PhD students are in general thinking about their careers when they choose a PI and are in a position to spend time to learn about careers. Postdocs, at least in my experience, are very busy producing and can get easily drawn in to a world of demanding work. I can't recall how many postdocs, some on their second or third rounds, say that they will only now start learning about careers. This board has its fare share of this, I know.

Most interestingly, Dr. Yamamoto has the most confidence in the graduate students than in the postdocs or professors. Postdocs are more likely to be stuck in the system and jaded by its stigma. He says "the students will right size and right focus the training community." I think we would do well to empower students to get on the right career path before they become stuck in a postdoc by default.

To Dave's point: yes, there is no doubt that tenured PIs are the best advocates to change the system completely. However, I think Dr. Yamamoto's suggestion is a powerful one: that the students have in fact a power of their own, that they can take charge of their career and have the social ability to tell their PI what they want to do. With enough advance networking and skill development, I believe a PhD student can enter any career save for academia without going through a postdoc. The trick, I think, is to convince students that they are masters of their own fate when it feels like professors control their every move.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: The "postdoc terminal"

Postby Dick Woodward » Thu Nov 19, 2015 9:27 am

Dave W.:

I don't totally agree with your comment that graduate students are thinking about their careers when they choose a PI, or even a graduate school. I chose my PI with help from an undergraduate mentor because I wanted to expand my use of a specific methodology into a new field - but when I got there, I always thought that I would do the "professor track" - we see how well that worked out! With that, I was unusual among my peers, most of whom entered graduate school not knowing exactly what they wanted to study for their thesis, and basically choosing a PI as a result of a series of lab rotations. Now I grant you that the environment has changed since I was a graduate student, but from my contacts with current students, I still believe that many of them enter graduate school not knowing where they want their career to go - they start to learn more about the options while in grad school.

Dave J. is correct that it will require an enlightened faculty to make the concept of the "PhD hub" work. However, this "enlightenment" can be counterproductive for the PI. Unless the system has changed radically, tenure and promotion committees look not only at publications but also (especially in the case of promotion from associate to full professor) at your success in training more academics. I'm not certain how a professor's academic career would be enhanced by the number of their PhDs who became patent lawyers, business people or the like.

I do know that at some institutions, graduate students and post-docs have, of their own accord, started programs to learn about other career opportunities. This should be encouraged by the faculty - especially the senior faculty who have the least to lose. Unfortunately, these are often the same faculty members that grew up with the PhD to Post-doc to professor mentality.

It is a slow evolution, but it is occurring - which is one reason why this forum is important.

Ana - thanks for posting the provocative video and starting this thread!

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