Saturday, April 24, 2010

Schrodinger's Postdoc

I've been following, but not contributing to, the discussion on twitter and sb (and elsewhere) about the question of postdoc salaries and taxation. And also the larger scienceblogosphere* PI-vs-postdoc chatter/discussion/war(?)

Obviously I have no firsthand experience in this matter but my completely unfounded opinion (a blog is a wonderful venue to express opinions for which one has no evidence or experience) is that one serious issue is not the actual monetary compensation postdocs get, or even whether it's taxable income or not, but the fact that at many (most? mine, anyway) institutions, they are classified neither as students nor as employees, which means that not only do they not get the benefits that employees are entitled to, they also don't have access to the services and support set up for students. Things like counseling services, housing and legal advice, occupational health and safety as well as general health services, etc. And many of them don't even have a contract covering their employment.

Most of this stuff doesn't matter most of the time, and changing it probably wouldn't have an impact on the general postdoc disgruntlement that exists, but I'm more worried about what happens to postdocs when things go wrong: when they get hurt, or sexually harassed, or otherwise need support. Many postdocs are non-natives to this country and don't have knowledge of or access to governmental services.

I wouldn't go so far as to call a postdoc "indentured servitude", but it definitely sucks. Overworked and underpaid, yes, but I think that the really crappy part postdocs is that they are undervalued. The PI can and should have an impact on this (in the form of having a contract and just generally not being a dick) but there also needs to be institutional recognition of postdocs as employees.

Science has changed significantly in many ways. One of them is that postdocs are now commonplace rather than rare. The fact that institutions on the whole have failed to adapt to this change is resulting in a general inequality and some of the "horror stories" we hear about.

I have more to say on the issue of whether there are Too Many grad students/postdocs, but I haven't sorted out just what that is yet.

* hey, shouldn't that be 'blogome'? Bwahahaha. Don't worry, I wouldn't do that to you. Except I did.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

4 months in

At the end of April, I'll have been with my permalab (and a grad student proper, as I see it) for 4 months. I know that's not much (I can hear you senior PhDs/postdocs snickering) but a lot has happened (not all of which I've blogged), and I thought I'd do a rundown:

 - I formed a supervisory committee, eventually managed to get them all in a room, and had my first (successful enough, despite one major and a few minor brainfarts) meeting
- Two lab members left (on good terms) and one made the decision to leave, causing a flurry of gossip and other talk
- One lab member returned from leave and several new arrivals are coming soon
- I took a class and learned a lot
- I wrote two reports and gave 4ish presentations
- I went to a meeting with some labmates and it blew my mind (post to come) and my boss wants me to attend another one in the fall
- I've listened to a bunch of seminars and journal club presentations and talked them over with labmates, and I think I'm getting better at looking at results critically. Got a long way to go though
- I've gone from knowing the names of maybe 2-3 people in the (~sub)field to knowing many of the big and not-so-big names, their affiliations, and what they've published recently. I think. Still lots to learn, though
- Our institute got a very shiny new piece of equipment that's sent several projects in the lab (including mine) into overdrive
- I've made a lot of progress in my research (I think it's enough? I wish I knew) and have plans that should give me results (even just negative ones) by the end of the summer
- I went from being hugely intimidated in my dealings with my boss and senior labmates to being more confident that I do know what I'm doing and what the expectations are. Still a little intimidated, though, although I've stopped being concerned that I've had it too easy
- I've worked harder than I ever have before, but I'm getting enough sleep, mostly eating right, and taking time off to socialize, do some new/fun things, and just relax on my own. Getting more comfortable with the fact that juggling this is always going to be a struggle and I will probably never completely banish the I-should-be-working guilt, but that it's important and I can make it work. Hopefully it will be enough.

And, most importantly, I've been pretty happy. Bring on summer!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On lab meeting

Next week, It's my turn (finally!) to present at lab meeting. Several people in the lab don't know what I'm actually spending my time on, although a few have some idea. Since it's too early for me to have anything I would qualify as a "result", I'll be able to get some good mileage out of background stuff (especially since my project falls under one of the new directions the lab is expanding into...rather rapidly)

However, there is a milestone I want to get finished so I can present it. Due to circumstances outside my control, I haven't been able to perform that part of the experiment yet, but I think I might be able to get to it this week. It takes a couple of days so it might be down to the wire, but I'm going to try to get it done anyway. If not, I'll still have a presentation. I'm going to try and get as many of the slides together ahead of time as I can, and if I can add a couple of hot-off-the-gel scans (does that even make sense?) I will.

One of the senior people in the lab storyboards  his presentations on paper before making the slides. I tried that the last time I had to do one, and it seemed to work out well, but I'm not sure that it wasn't because at the time I was stuck without a computer and had no choice, so I'm going to give it a shot again. I thought a bit about how many slides (approx) I wanted to devote to each section, then sketched out what should be on them. It helped me figure out what figures I needed to make and how it was going to flow ahead of time. Does anyone else do this?

Lab meeting presentations in my lab tend to be more formally organized. By this I mean less of the technical nitty-gritty here-are-the-problems-I-faced and more of the shiny-powerpoint-everything-worked. It's not quite so cut and dry, and there are exceptions, but this seems to be the trend. Although I could wish for more of the former, I think there's probably a good reason for it: my lab is one of those that is held together by the study of a common biological problem, rather than a technique (although we do favor certain techniques and have at least one bread and butter assay.) Because the approaches people are using are pretty disparate (to the extent that I would even label our research "interdisciplinary" *gag*) I know if I get too far into the technical details, approximately ~1/3 of the eyes in the room are going to start to glaze over (if they haven't already...)

I'm not very good at talking to an audience. I just suck. I know it's all in my head, because I think I know what makes a good (or bad) presentation, I just have a hard time pulling it off. And it's horrendously obvious how nervous I am, too. Hoping that over time, more practice (I'm getting lots) will help. My PI knows this is one of the things I have to work on, and offered to go over my talk with me beforehand (which is totally abnormal for a lab meeting) which I am choosing to take as evidence that he is not, in fact, a cold-hearted bastard only interested in publications.