September 2012

Readers talk back



Alice in Wonderland illustration


You are old, Doctor Williams,
The postdoc said,
And your hair has become very white,
And yet you incessantly trouble your head.
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

In my youth, Doctor Williams
Replied to his chum,
I used to get grants without pain,
But now that I’m perfectly sure I’ll get none,
Why, I write them again and again.

*A poem composed between grant applications by George Stark while channeling his inner Lewis Carroll.



Below is a selection of what readers are saying about recent and past coverage in ASBMB Today. All letters and comments are edited for grammar, clarity, length and style. Have something to say? E-mail or comment online.

Balancing act (August 2012)
The scientific community as a whole — men and women — needs to have this issue brought to the forefront of discussion. Don’t even get me started on the lack of jobs, generally poor salary and benefit structure, and pressure to get funded and publish four to five peer-reviewed manuscripts a year in addition to having to have a real come-to-Jesus moment when … deciding whether or not you can afford to have a child, much less take time to raise one. Over the past five years as a postdoc, almost everyone I know, including myself, is just clawing our way to get the hell out of science — whether it be academia, industry or government — with the general consensus being that the pressure and lack of opportunities in this economic climate are simply not worth it anymore. “Disenchantment” is the best word to describe it.

The lack of paid postpartum leave is appalling, especially when sick/vacation time is as limited as it is during student/postdoc years. I had one child while a postdoc and a second as a staff scientist. I’ve had to realize that no matter what I do, I’m going to feel guilty about shortchanging some aspect of life. Move past it — that isn’t productive and won’t help you toward your goal — or so I tell myself daily! For me, the biggest factor in success is having an understanding and incredibly helpful partner, especially as he is the one who usually gets shortchanged first. I’d also point out that issues affecting men/dads and women/moms overlap but are divergent — an obvious example is access to pumping facilities. I also suspect that moms harbor more guilt at being away from their children, but perhaps that is just my perception.
Christina B. in Oklahoma

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS! I am not a biologist, but this was passed to me by a colleague. Very nearly all of the challenges I have faced since becoming a parent as a postdoc have been addressed here. I would like to echo other comments in that I am nearly certain I will leave academia, but I am also nearly certain I will return later in my career as a more experienced, confident and laid-back professional. Two facets of parenthood not included here are the aspects of unexpected pregnancy and early termination of pregnancy. These also present unique challenges. In sum, I would suggest to others that developing a close-knit, diverse network of scientist-parent and parent supporters is paramount to success in both of these roles.

An “honorable” career in academia vs. an “alternative” career in the private sector (August 2012)
I just obtained my (bachelor’s) in biotechnology this year (from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). I am currently working in the business development department in a small biotech company. I simply would like to thank you for your article written in ASBMB: That’s exactly what I have found during these four years studying in a public institution. Your article made me feel I was not alone. In fact, I would say that around 80 percent (if not more) of the content given by the university was closely related to what we could classify as basic research. One had to go beyond university to learn about the biopharmaceutical sector itself, preclinical and clinical development, marketing, management, or biobusiness. Also, I had never thought that some of the obstacles I have found when trying to understand biotechnology as a whole at university were also present in the USA.
Gerard Caelles

Good outcomes (August 2012)
Well said. Only by placing highly qualified scientists in educational settings can we hope to shift the dominant view toward one that accepts rational explanations and values logic and problem solving. The journey of a scientist is long and varied — and worth every sacrifice and detour. Mentors who supported me, encouraging me to explore different paths, are the reason I’m where I am today. I’m incredibly fortunate to be combining my loves of research, teaching and science outreach/communication as a new assistant professor at Reed College. Even if mentors start out clueless, the examples (in this article) illustrate that they don’t have to stay that way. Thanks for sharing!
Kara Cerveny

Thanks, but we need more (August 2012)
The article by Benjamin Corb has a number of statements that are misleading or erroneous. The most egregious is the phrase “today’s trainees are sold promises that their hard work in the lab will pay off with tenure-track positions in academia.” This is an unwarranted allegation. The statement incorrectly portrays the faculty in our profession. The Ph.D. never promised a specific type of employment. The Ph.D. aims to develop critical thinking and analytical skills, experimental design, communication of science, creation of new knowledge and problem solving. These are the tools/fundamentals that are essential for a variety of employment opportunities. There are many ongoing initiatives today at universities and professional organizations, such as the ASBMB and (the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), that address the variety of career pathways for Ph.D. scientists. It is unfortunate that the strides being made now and the opportunities that we see for the future are not fully recognized and applauded.
Judith Bond

I am overjoyed to see this topic being discussed at this level. While I agree with Judith Bond that the Ph.D. does not promise a specific type of employment, there is a clear expectation in most departments that most students will pursue academic careers. Given the results of this study (by the National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director’s Biomedical Workforce Working Group), perhaps the first step is to stop referring to nonacademic positions as “alternative” careers for Ph.D. scientists. Fundamental changes to training programs will not happen until there is a cultural shift in the attitude toward nonacademic career paths.
Julie Montgomery

Get rid of the postdoc position entirely. Ph.D. scientists should be treated and paid like real professionals. Instead, six years of training and you are still considered a trainee and given a modest stipend because you are “in training” as a postdoc. And to really hammer home your lowly status, you’ll get less benefits than all the other staff. It is exploitive and part of a slave-labor culture that hurts science long term.

This article raises a number of important and complex issues that deserve further discussion. One of these is highlighted by the comment by Judith Bond. The key issue is the relationship between what trainees are “sold” compared with what they perceive. Many individuals enter graduate school with the anticipation that they will pursue academic careers, because that is the only career path that they have been exposed to in any depth. Furthermore, some components of academia have (intentionally or otherwise) placed academic careers on a higher plane than other careers, as noted by Martin Rosenberg in his essay in this issue. Dr. Bond is correct that many institutions and organizations have taken steps to provide trainees with clear perspectives on the wide range of career options that are potentially available to individuals with Ph.D. training in biomedical fields. It is important that such efforts continue and reach earlier into the training period. To Julie Montgomery: See the accompanying essay by Jon Lorsch on this issue. I agree completely that acknowledging that there is a range of successful career outcomes, academic and nonacademic, for biomedical Ph.D.s is an important step. We tried to raise this issue in the Training Strategic Plan that I was involved in at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and we need to reinforce this point, both with faculty and with trainees.
Jeremy Berg

As a Ph.D. graduate in molecular biology, I very much understand the challenges that face graduate students. While I fully believe the training is valuable and your training is much more than the technical skills, businesses want more than your academic training. They want real-world experiences. Currently, I am a scientific recruiter, and I daily work with businesses to connect them to the right talent. I am constantly told that Ph.D.s can’t do this job because they have no experience, they want too much money, they aren’t good team players, they are “weird,” they don’t know how to work on a fast timetable. While these (statements) are untrue, graduate students need more outside-of-lab time to develop their unique talents (both technical and nonbench skills), understand the market and figure out how they can sell their individual skills/value to the private sector.
Idella Yamben

Five years of giving rural students second chances (December 2011)
I am truly grateful to have had such a great experience through the Aspirnaut program. This experience helped me get through the challenges I was facing by giving me a place to look forward to going every day. It was my oasis, and I loved every bit of it. I had fantastic mentors, and I was surrounded by great people who wanted to help me and watch me achieve. I am truly grateful to this program for giving me the boost I needed to continue on and giving me something to hold on to and remember … I learned so much and fell in love with biology all over again. Thank you once again for this amazing experience.
Jessica Dix 

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