Thursday, June 26, 2008

Scientific fields within Biology: How different but similar...

I am endlessly fascinated by the discussions over at DrugMonkey. The DrugMonkey world to an ecologist is kinda like being an American in England....things are so similar yet so startlingly different. Some of the content over there is very foreign to me - R01s, and other NIH jargon (though the glossary at the site is very helpful, kinda like having a travel phrase book). Other content, while using different words, is very much applicable to navigating the academic world of ecology as well.

There's currently a brouhaha over there over a recent post about how the scientific system works (or does not, depending on your point of view) with regards to training, mentoring, and employing young scientists. Much of background for this discussion has been generated by posts from the post-doc realm (e.g., Young Female Scientist) about everything from the lack of utility of PIs (ecology translation: advisor) to frustration with the job market (translation unnecessary, that one's universal).

In particular, I have found interesting indications that the role of a post-doc is very different in the biomedical/cellular biology world. There's a feeling that their post-docs are in the post-doc phase longer than their ecological counterparts. Calls for retirement benefits for post-docs caught me by surprise in particular. I actually did receive retirement benefits as a post-doc and it was the most useless benefit I received. I wasn't on that post-doc for long and now I have a couple thousand dollars stuck in an state benefit account in a state I have no intention of returning to and I was not a part of long enough for the bit of money to qualify for earning long-term interest in. What a waste. Most post-doc positions in my field last on average 2-3 years, though 1 year postdocs are not all that uncommon. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that our grants are on average 2-3 years long and we cannot guarantee funding for any longer than that. NIH R01's apparently are 5 year grants - perhaps if I knew I was going to be someplace for 5 years I'd want retirement too. Most of my friends have been obtaining jobs after that 2-3 year post-doc, so there's also not this same sense of the post-doc being a long-term career phase that I sense from the biomedical fields....though finding a post-doc in ecology may be more challenging because there are fewer out there (most labs are lucky to have 1).

I don't know if the system is "broken" in the field that many of the DrugMonkey subscribers belong to, I'm not qualified to comment. In ecology, I think our system is not perfect. I've seen good people get shuffled out of the system through no fault of their own. I've seen people whom I would classify as mental midgets get very good jobs instead. However, good people generally seem to manage to find positions that give them toe-holds on the ladder of academia and the DrugMonkey blog seems to generally be giving good advice (relevant across fields) on how to turn your academic toe-hold into something more secure. While the process may not be perfect in ecology, I also think that equating not perfect with broken is also....not perfect.

6 comments:

drdrA said...

Oh, very nice blog. Welcome. I will blogroll you!

River Tam said...

Thanks! I'm finding the blogging world very stimulating!

EcoGeoFemme said...

As a fellow ecologist, I agree completely with this post!

River Tam said...

Hey! Another ecologist! Nice to meet you....is it my imagination or are there not that many of us running around out here?

EcoGeoFemme said...

I haven't found too many, at least not compared with the huge numbers of biomed bloggers.

Candid Engineer said...

The 4-5 year postdoc in the biological sciences baffles me. Good Lord, that's how long it takes to get a Ph.D. In my field (like yours), 2-3 years is the norm, with some 1-years thrown in. If you stay longer than 3 years, people wonder what's wrong with you. The 2-3 year thing always made sense to me though, because I figured I can get the equivalent of 5 years worth of Ph.D. work done in 2-3 years during a postdoc (if not more). A complete project is all I'm after.