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01 May 2014 @ 02:50 pm
The Plight of the Lowly Postdoc  
I read stuff like this and wonder if my situation is just highly discipline dependent, or I'm somehow oblivious to all the pressure. It's unlikely to be department dependent since I've worked as a postdoc in three high-ranking CS departments now.

The comments on the article suggest that it describes a situation that is particularly acute in lab-based science but I tend to be suspicious of comments below the line (not here, obviously, where you are all lovely, intelligent and rational people (fingers crossed that that is not a "summon troll" spell)).

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/114617.html.
philmophlegm: Freddie the Libertarian Trollphilmophlegm on May 1st, 2014 02:02 pm (UTC)
Using my troll userpic...

The stuff about having to be available to answer emails at all times of the day and night - not just academia. In my old job, there were definitely people I worked with who felt they had to do this. And there were also people doing the exact same job who didn't. Like you they're probably "oblivious to the pressure".

I saw little evidence that being one of the ones who slept next to his smartphone got you further on in your career. This no doubt varies. However, some people are just more willing to say 'No, sorry' to unreasonable bosses.

louisedennislouisedennis on May 1st, 2014 02:13 pm (UTC)
I wonder if it's even unreasonable bosses. I mean I've had emails from my boss at 5am but only because he happened to be up and was thinking of it. He almost certainly wasn't expecting a reply or expecting me to jump to doing something.

I've also had emails at unreasonable times where people were expecting actions but I'm fairly sure they've all contained phrases like "emergency" and "I'm terribly sorry" and "do you think you can find the time" and I've felt that people appreciated the fact that the time got put in. I've never felt in a situation where it was "work the weekend or never work again in this field".

I wonder if some people find it hard to distinguish between "urgent and important" and "boss can't sleep and is handling his email backlog".
philmophlegm: Applecrossphilmophlegm on May 1st, 2014 02:15 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes and yes.
wellinghallwellinghall on May 1st, 2014 03:32 pm (UTC)
... and with this.
wellinghallwellinghall on May 1st, 2014 03:31 pm (UTC)
Just to say that I agree with this ...
parrot_knightparrot_knight on May 1st, 2014 06:37 pm (UTC)
Agreeing too; while there is pressure there I don't think the author (or the Guardian editor) is articulating quite what the problem is or where the pressure they feel comes from.
louisedennislouisedennis on May 2nd, 2014 03:40 pm (UTC)
It's also important to be aware that most careers involve a certain amount of pressure, though they vary in how it manifests. It can become a problem when it is eating unreasonably into someone's private life - which I believe is the case with tenure track in the US, and certainly was the case for junior doctors over here - but I certainly don't feel it is the case on for any postdoc post I've held.
Kargicq: Neuromancerkargicq on May 1st, 2014 07:13 pm (UTC)
Yup, not my experience either. Don't get me wrong, the short-term contracts and lack of job security are definitely real, but the "deal with this issue in the next hour at 10pm or never work in this field again", not come across that. -N.
louisedennislouisedennis on May 1st, 2014 08:50 pm (UTC)
I can't disagree about the short-term contracts either, but there are, in my opinion, a lot of pluses to outweigh the job insecurity minus.
Kargicqkargicq on May 1st, 2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
This however is real:
Get a 2 year fellowship, take 6 months of statutory mat leave, turn it into an 18 month fellowship. That is *technically* mat leave I guess, but not effectively. And then they wonder why fewer women reach the top in science!
louisedennislouisedennis on May 1st, 2014 08:53 pm (UTC)
Yes this is real. I was lucky to be a lecturer when G was born.

I also had a colleague who had no end of difficultly supporting a PhD student of his who had a baby. I think, in the end, her husband gave up his PhD in order that the family could be supported while she finished hers, but the whole thing was stressful and unsatisfactory for all concerned and my colleague was very angry about it on their behalf.
a_cubeda_cubed on May 3rd, 2014 02:17 am (UTC)
This varies immensely. I had a PhD student from Sri Lanka when I was still in Reading. She was on a University overseas studentship. She became pregnant half way through her PhD and received identical maternity leave arrangements to permanent staff with regards to her stipend (paid at the usual percentage rate for staff for thesame length of time) and the time duringwhich she suspended her course. This was based on equity with EPSRC studentship rules - they decided that the university scholarships shuold have the same rules as the research council ones.
louisedennislouisedennis on May 5th, 2014 10:01 am (UTC)
I'm fairly sure the student in question was EPSRC funded, but thinking back the issue may have been related to breast-feeding arrangements and the time that would need to be taken off in order to comply with WHO guidelines. Certainly a few years later when a different colleague had children the Informatics department was strikingly supportive of enabling her to breast-feed at work and that may have been the up-shot of the difficulties encountered by this PhD student.
a_cubeda_cubed on May 3rd, 2014 02:23 am (UTC)
I think it's as much dependent on PI as on discipline. I know a young resercher whohad a terrible time at a Russell Group uni in a particular interdisciplinary research centre (but she and the PI were from computing) and she left well before the end of the contract due to his appalling approach to the workplace. This included the expectation, expressed months in advance, that they would all be working 12-14 hour days in the last week before the CHI conference deadline (I think it was CHI, perhaps WebSci). The PI was a 70+ hour week worker and expected his researchers tobe doing the same while also being abrasive and insulting ratherthan helpful and supportive.
Luckily, she's found a job in an academic-related research centre, and is doing well, though I worry that she's going to find it difficult both internally and externally if shewants to move back into the main stream of academia. Her new place, working on quite similar things, not only does not expect silly hours, but has an anti-long-hours culture. The head of the group makes sure people are taking holiday when they say they're taking holiday, and tells them off gently for answering ordinary work emails when they should be off.
louisedennislouisedennis on May 5th, 2014 10:05 am (UTC)
The more I think about this the more I think it must be PI related. With a good PI a lot of the downsides of being a postdoc are basically negligible, but with a bad PI they become a total trap and I can think of at least one strong researcher who left academia entirely because of a PI who appeared to consider themselves to be in competition with their own postdocs.

My mother and I were discussing only this weekend the importance of patronage in both academia (and in medicine where she worked) and noting, in particular, how most of the successful women in both areas were lucky to have had a good patron/mentor at a critical moment. It almost certainly applies to men too, but since the statistics show that women are less likely to get mentoring than men the effect is probably amplified in their cases.