I remember when I got the letter from the University of Washington accepting me into their PhD program in Neuroscience. I was bursting with excitement and joy, my friends and I celebrated in that tiny little dorm room with a cheap bottle of champagne and those red plastic Solo cups. I was just about to finish a degree in psychology and that letter was a passport to an awesome future.
Or so I thought. After six gruelling years of grad school living like a hermit, to earn a nice piece of card stock, I finished and the world was my oyster. I was a postdoc! No more tests, no more insanely long committee meetings that I had to cater myself, just experiment, data, publish, repeat from here on out.
Or so I thought. My first postdoc job after four years of undergrad plus another six years of grad school earned me… (wait for it) …
$19,000 a year.
That’s right. In 1997, when I received the highest degree awarded by a University, my starting salary was less than $10/hr. Not quite twice the minimum wage ($5.15/hr). Given the number of hours of work I put in each week, I may in fact have earned more flipping burgers.
Don’t get me wrong, life as a postdoc is better than life as a grad student. The job you always wanted, a scientist, does in fact mean experiment, data analysis, publish, repeat. What they didn’t mention when you were sifting through all those grad program brochures in your dorm room, however, is that postdocdom lasts only about 6 years before you reach your sell-by date. After six years, the Professors looking at your application are beginning to ask questions like: “Why doesn’t s/he have a job already?” They also forgot to tell you about things like your h-index, a number that represents your academic value to a University based on a combination of: number of publications, the ranks of the journals they’re published in, and the number of citations each paper receives.
What you didn’t realise when you signed up to become a scientist is that Universities look at you like an asset. Much like insurance companies are rated by their actuaries, Universities compete each year to be named one of the top 500 in the world. Your h-index weighs into that ranking which is indirectly tied to University income from undergraduate student enrolments. This is BIG money, worth a University President’s attention. If your h-index drags down the ranking and loses students, he or she is unlikely to be happy about employing you. So, while you may have discovered something of enormous importance during your training, like most artists, you are a nobody unless everyone else agrees. And of course, while your discovery may be neato-keen in your field, it probably got bumped off the Science or Nature publication docket because someone discovered a new cure for cancer that week. So, it will take even longer for your important discovery to become generally known, many citations will be missed and your h-index will continue to languish.
Assuming for a moment that you chose your postdoctoral advisors wisely and did the requisite hobnobbing at conferences, you may in fact land a job anyway on your ‘promise’ as a staff member. Now is when you realise that the job description of professor is not the same as scientist. In fact, a wise friend of mine once reminded me: “Lest you be too impressed with the title Professor, remember that is what they call the piano player in a whorehouse.”
As a new assistant professor (or a lecturer in the British system), you still have the same responsibilities as you did when you were a postdoc: experiment, data analysis, publish, repeat. Except now, you ALSO have the responsibilities of: grant writing, grant management, lab management, OH&S management, ethics applications, professional networking, guest lectures, conference presentations, course coordination, lecture preparation, lecturing, practical lab preparation, grading tests, marking essays, training the TAs, pastoral care, grad student recruitment, countless departmental and university wide committees, and office hours. Oh, and if you waited to have kids, you now have to handle all that and projectile vomiting too.
Congratulations my friend, you landed the job you always wanted. You are a manager.
Stay tuned! It’s not the end of the world…
And sorry about the formatting, I’m undergoing another metamorphosis that will help me sort it out soon.