Wrap Up: The Princeton News and Related IssuesAugust 2nd, 2007
What follows is my analysis of the issues discussed in “The Floor is Yours” and “The Week in Preview.” I have closed both of those threads and directed visitors wishing to continue the discussion to come here. I think it makes the most sense if I start by reviewing the news and talking about the “professional” issues in play. I’ll conclude with a revoltingly pompous dissertation on ChemBark as a medium for chemical news and a venue for subsequent analysis and discussion.
Allow me to apologize in advance for writing such a long article. I know that most of you have neither the time nor inclination to read lengthy posts, but parsing these ideas into smaller sections would create problems in that the complete picture would be missing.
Princeton’s Hire: Legitimate News, Not “Gossip”
As you know by now, the news to which am I referring is that Princeton University offered a tenure-track faculty position to a graduate student in the chemistry department at Harvard. I stand behind the validity of this information and the other facts presented below. While as a general rule you can count on the accuracy of the information that I post to this site, the same cannot be said for the info that visitors leave in the comments. Read anonymous comments with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The first task that I’m faced with is to defend this story as legitimate news rather than personal gossip. A lot of people improperly label some of the news in our field as “gossip” simply because the stories have aspects that portray people or organizations in a negative light. The real criterion one should use in identifying gossip is not negativity, but relevance. Gossip is news that bears only a loose connection to chemistry or the culture of our field. Gossip often focuses on issues like sexual orientation, romance, personal finance, health, addiction, and criminal history. There is very little or nothing for us to learn, as chemists, from gossip.
The story here is clearly not gossip. The news is of interest to the community not just because it deals with a top department and the subject of getting a job in academia, but because this particular hiring process marked a substantial deviation from the norm. I have stated before and adamantly maintain that it has become increasingly uncommon over the past four decades for grad students to be offered assistant professorships, especially without the expectation of pursuing postdoctoral study. Many commenters have listed examples of professors who did not complete a postdoc (e.g., Evans, Denmark, Whitesides), but these cases only support my argument. The last such hire that comes to mind is Liu in 1999; the rest occurred many moons ago. In my opinion, that qualifies as rare.
At this point, the discussion splits into two subjects: postdocs and hiring practices.
Postdoctoral Study: A Valuable Learning Experience or a Waste of Time?
From my perspective, the most interesting questions raised by this hire deal with the pros, cons, and necessity of pursuing postdoctoral study. As commenter Metastable said:
This interesting string of comments (much more interesting with Professor Reichman’s involvement) brings up a very important question: what is the point of a postdoc? Many scientists (named by Professor Reichman and others above) have had incredibly successful careers without one. And, it certainly is not the norm in many other disciplines (economics is one that rapidly comes to mind).
It seems to be a protracted holding pattern for future scientists, consuming their more creative years. A case could be made that it allows the young scientist to gain experience, but is another 2-3 years working in someone else’s lab really all that valuable? And, is the research environment that much more complicated than 20 years ago, before the postdoc became a “requirement.”
The vast majority of people seeking a career in academia complete a postdoc, and a lot of commenters have left great reasons for doing one. Allow me to review some of them:
1) Expertise — Postdoctoral study is the highest plateau of the education continuum (grades 21-23, or so). During a postdoc, you will pick up a new set of skills and gain experience with a new research problem. A postdoc is a chance to broaden your base of knowledge in preparation for dealing with the world’s ever-growing emphasis on “interdisciplinary” research.
2) Sustained Productivity — Doing a postdoc allows you to demonstrate that you can switch research problems and be productive in a short time span, exactly what you will be expected to do as an assistant professor. In this regard, getting publications out of your postdoc will make you less risky from the standpoint of a university’s trusting you to set up a successful lab of your own.
3) Networking — Working at a new school for a new advisor will hopefully expand your “network” of colleagues. You will gain new contacts in the form of both labmates and professors. You will establish mutually-beneficial intellectual relationships that will last a lifetime. If you’re lucky, some doors may open in terms of finding a job, whether in academia or industry. And as mentioned in the comments, having another letter of recommendation will also help you get hired. Such a letter might be of greater importance to those with graduate advisors who are not well known (or liked) in the community.
4) Exposure to a New Environment — Whenever you change schools, you are exposed to different styles of management, ethical standards, social norms, experimental techniques, safety procedures, and regional cultures. Broadening your horizons will allow you to sample different “ways of doing business” from which you can pick and choose what you think works best when the time comes to set up your own lab.
5) Publications — Doing a postdoc will allow you to build a deeper record of publication. In addition to the papers that you will publish in your new lab, a postdoctoral stint will allow time for your grad school work to make it through the review process. Longer publication lists are definitely a good thing in terms of impressing future employers and securing funding.
6) Buying Time — There’s often not a lot of time left over for writing original proposals when you’re busy trying to write your Ph.D. thesis. Doing a postdoc gives you some time to decompress following the thesis crunch, sink your teeth into a new set of research problems, consult acquaintances on job hunting, and write proposals with renewed intensity.
Of course, these good things come at a cost: spending yet another two or three years in school when you could, in theory, be building your own research program. As Metastable said, these two or three years come in the prime of your life. Furthermore, it’s not guaranteed that you will have a good experience during your postdoc; you are taking a risk whenever you enter a new job.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the consensus opinion of the community is that the good things about doing a postdoc outweigh the bad, because the overwhelming majority of people who wish to enter academia complete a postdoc. Given the recent news, should we question the value this path? Does undertaking postdoctoral training actually enhance the quality of an assistant professor? Are there any worthwhile data that support this claim? If not, why does almost every chemist planning to enter academia do one?
A lot of people make a big deal about exploring new areas as your professional development progresses. Obviously, such a perception did not hinder the candidate in the present case, as she did her undergrad and grad work at the same school for the same advisor. It’s also interesting to note that when referring to his not seeking a postdoctoral position after grad school, George Whitesides told C&EN, “If you have a reasonably good taste about what’s new, then you might as well go it.” (C&EN, 26/3/2007, p. 20). If this is true, then is it the schools or the candidates themselves who are hesitant about bypassing postdoctoral training? Surely we can all agree that doing a postdoc is not a prerequisite for success as an assistant professor.
At the end of the day, I don’t know if we have enough data to answer most of these questions with any degree of satisfaction. Where do we even start? What is the best metric for “success” as an assistant professor? Furthermore, a number of potential confounding factors hinder proper analysis of this issue. For instance, the grad students who are offered assistant professorships are not randomly sampled—they are, presumably, the cream of the crop. I suppose we are forced to base our analysis largely on anecdotal evidence. Feel free to provide some data…
Fellow grad students out there: do you have any classmates who applied for academic jobs straight out of grad school? If so, were these applications targeted to a specific school or did they cast a wider net (the size typical of a postdoctoral candidate going academic)? Professors out there: do you see a lot of applications from grad students? In cases where you do see these applications, did the candidates have contacts at the school or were they especially encouraged to apply, i.e., were they recruited in any way?
The more information the better, but you needn’t use names. They don’t add much to the conversation and they get people riled up.
The Competition for Academic Talent
A second line of discussion that relates to the Princeton story centers on the techniques that departments use when competing for academic talent. Intellectual ability is a precious commodity, and schools want to attract candidates who will build fantastic research programs, win grant money, and increase the prestige of the institution.
In terms of measurable compensation, schools can offer candidates higher salaries, more lab space, more start-up funding, and lighter teaching loads. Each school also has intangible benefits it brings to the table, such as a desirable geographical location, high perception of prestige, friendly/congenial atmosphere, and access to better instrumentation. These are much harder to control—capital improvements can take years, cultural changes in a department can take decades, and geographical changes will almost never occur. Finally, there are also “negative” tools that departments can use, like peer pressure. (Yes, this actually happens.)
At the end of the day, the schools with the most money and prestige usually have the advantage. They can offer the candidates better financial packages, access to better facilities, more talented pools of students, and better brand names. These schools can also go after established superstars. For instance, Harvard is well known for recruiting talented professors from “rival” departments.
We see plenty of analogies in major sports. Successful teams in big markets, like the New York Yankees and Manchester United F.C., are more successful at attracting superstar players because they can offer them more money and historically better chances of contending for championships. Less successful teams in smaller markets find themselves having to scout less established players in hopes that one of them pans out. The upside, of course, is that they spend less money on player contracts.
What are some of the tools that smaller departments use? The first one is timing. Schools with fewer resources typically conduct their interviews and make subsequent offers earlier in the hiring cycle than the more prestigious schools. In doing so, the smaller departments apply pressure to the candidates they have targeted. The hope is that these candidates will accept a position instead of waiting for offers from better schools and risking not getting hired at all. Sometimes, the candidates must decide whether to accept offers before they’ve even finished all of their other interviews.
A second tool that smaller schools can use is what we saw happen in the case of Princeton: you can go after younger talent. Again, we see the same thing in sports. Perennially decent teams with lower positions in the draft will gamble on underclassmen (or even high schoolers) that they probably would have no shot at drafting as college seniors. It is often the case that departments don’t wait for young talent to come to them. Instead, they gather intelligence and invite prospective talent to apply.
The issue of hiring young talent in sports has prompted massive debate. Should academia should consider the same questions? How young is too young? Will young talent develop better in college (a postdoc) or in the pros (as an assistant professor)? Many national governments and leagues (e.g., NBA and EPL) have passed legislation preventing teams from “robbing the cradle,” an action that speaks to the importance of the issue.
So, will we see more early hires? I wouldn’t be surprised. What actually surprises me is that we haven’t already seen more.
The Tangential Details and Related Public Perception
At this point, I believe that I have sufficiently established the legitimacy and importance of the story. It would be remiss of me if I did not address the somewhat provocative tangential details that were raised in the discussion threads. I’m not here to make any judgments or add to either the concern or praise (let’s not forget that there was lots of it) expressed in the comments. I think it is self-evident that, as David Reichman put it, “NO CHEMISTRY DEPARTMENT HIRES SOMEONE BECAUSE THEIR MOTHER IS THE PRESIDENT OF ANOTHER UNIVERSITY OR BECAUSE THEIR PARENTS USED TO BE FACULTY MEMBERS IN A UNRELATED DEPARTMENT.” In the same vein, I’ll reprint part of an excellent comment left by Slapshot:
Evaluating a potential prof candidate solely on the available info (published papers and rumors) is also very silly indeed. The most important thing for a department are the ideas the incoming new person brings to the table — the awesome, new, outside-the-box chemistry the person proposes to do. If someone is eager and ready to the mental work of a prof coming out of grad school — they better get the chance to it before they realize they can take their brains and jump ship to a hedge fund. Talk about bad for science. Seriously, why waste time in a post-doc running more columns and learning how to run a gel or a laser if you don’t need to do that to do your chemistry???
3) The person in question.
I don’t know for sure but have heard from friends at Harvard and Stanford that this person is absolutely stellar scientifically and also that she’s super nice. Really, based on the amazing things I’ve heard I wasn’t surprised to see the link above to the Princeton seminar series page. But… that’s just a seminar. To get an offer you have to have much more than a couple of JACS papers and good talk. You have to be brilliant, see (2).
That said, there is an interesting general point we should explore regarding the importance of “whom you know” in terms of finding jobs. While it won’t be 100% responsible for getting an offer, can having friends or well-connected professors help you get a foot in the door? Do some professors “go to bat” for their students more than others? If so, is that “unfair”? Does it partially erode the perception of meritocracy if everyone is not subjected to the same application process?
It’s no secret that some advisors have better track records in terms of their students finding academic positions at good schools. Why is this? Is it better letters of recommendation, better contacts, more encouragement to apply for academic jobs, better research, better training? Along the same lines, some schools (Harvard is one) seem to disproportionately hire alumni of the school. Is this a coincidence? I don’t know, but again, you can point to a number of possible confounding factors.
Regarding the hiring of female assistant professors, I think we can all agree that the under-representation of female professors in the sciences has schools especially intent on hiring qualified female candidates. This focus was intensified following the professional lynching of Larry Summers, and every issue of C&EN has classified ads that end with something akin to “University of X is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and applications from women and underrepresented minority group members are especially encouraged.” Without delving into a discussion of the merits of affirmative action, we must accept that affirmative action is now endorsed across most of our field. The reality is that it’s both a blessing and a curse, because while more minority candidates will be hired, there will also be more people who think that anytime a minority is hired it’s just because they’re a minority. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if schools make recruiting minority graduate students a key tool in diversifying their faculties, especially in the sciences.
The Experimental Nature of the “Princeton Post”
A few commenters asked why I brought up this specific story if I just wanted to talk about postdocs and hiring practices. Well, this piece of news is what drew my attention to the subject. It is a fact of life that interesting discussions are almost always started by stories in the news. It took 9/11 to direct more attention to terrorism. It took global warming to direct the world’s attention to carbon emissions. It took Christopher Reeve’s accident to direct national attention to spinal cord research. If we speak purely in hypothetical terms without any basis in reality, fewer people are going to care. There is nothing unfair or irresponsible about examining hiring practices in the context of the Princeton news.
A number of commenters also took umbrage at how I approached this story and these issues in a sort of “open thread.” Some of the people who agree that these issues are worthy of discussion and analysis believe that I should have provided more direction to focus the discussion. In hindsight, I am inclined to agree. When I originally wrote this post, I was under the impression that more people were aware of the news. Quite a few people brought it up in discussions around here and word had traveled outside of the department. Most news is reported on ChemBark juxtaposed with my take on the subject. That creates a bias that influences the ensuing discussion. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see what happens when I don’t bias the presentation of information, but allow commenters on “equal footing” with each other to bring out the news and discuss it themselves. I clearly labeled the post as an experiment and asked commenters to be civil and analytical. Obviously, some weren’t.
I’ll regard the experiment as a failed success. It was successful in that it succeeded in sparking a spirited discussion where we were actually discussing important issues. And for the first time, a professor at a top-ten department chose to leave a signed comment. That said, the success was overshadowed by a number of negative aspects, some of which were a direct result of the “experimental” method of presentation. While the news eventually took control of the threads, it took 48 comments to get on track. From that point, there was a mix of interesting comments, vapid comments, insulting comments, and utter garbage. Obviously, not all readers can be trusted to be civil in the comments. I’m learning here and will adapt accordingly. In this regard, I appreciate when people voice their opinions on how to improve this site, even if it is in the form of rude and threatening comments directed at me.
ChemBark as a Chemical News Medium
ChemBark is many things. It is part serious. It is part silly. It is a place people come to read about important issues in our field. It is a place people come to make jokes and have fun. Much like a newspaper has a front page and a comics section, ChemBark has posts that lie on different levels of seriousness. The unifying theme is that they all have something to do with chemistry.
Clearly, bona fide chemistry news falls within the purview of this blog, and the fact that some posts contain original reporting is one of the biggest reasons people come to this site. The “news” at ChemBark extends beyond commentary on research reports into areas like the political, cultural, ethical, and managerial aspects of research in chemistry. When discussing these topics, I steer clear of discussing personal information that is irrelevant or of little relevance to any larger story. I know a lot of you know or want to know about things like chemists’ places of residence, sexual orientation, romantic affairs, and other sensitive personal business. I don’t discuss such information here.
I enjoy writing posts, and part of this enjoyment comes from being able to use the blog to draw attention to issues that I think are interesting and merit discussion. I have limited time to devote to the site, so I generally focus on issues and stories that have been overlooked by the more traditional media. There is no need for me to post on things that are already covered somewhere else. That’s why there aren’t many reviews of research papers here. If you want to read about research, you can open JACS or Angewandte and read the original reports. For coverage of most of the significant events in the world of chemistry, you can crack open your weekly copy of C&EN.
Of course, publications like C&EN and Chemistry World usually limit themselves to stories that portray our field in a positive light. Unfortunately, not all of the aspects of research in chemistry are positive. There will always be matters of scientific misconduct, ethical dilemmas, dirty politics, misappropriated funds, and petty bickering. These sorts of issues are pervasive in our community and we should not feel ashamed to learn about them and discuss them. Part of the job of the media is to serve as a watchdog. Despicable acts like scientific misconduct merit coverage and significant follow-up attention. It is sad that the paper media in our field either don’t share this view or don’t have the time, money, space, or inclination to apply constant pressure and get to the bottom of things. It is ridiculous to think that ChemBark is contributing to a problem or doing more harm than good when we report on a negative or provocative story. No scientist should feel that ignorance is bliss or that discussing interesting news is counterproductive.
ChemBark as a Venue for Analysis and Discussion
It is one thing for me to post news or analysis, but unlike with traditional media, on a blog, all readers have the chance to respond and start a discussion. ChemBark is not just a publication, it’s a community.
As Josh Finkelstein, a senior editor at Nature, said in the latest Nature Chemistry Podcast, “Chemists are generally quite social animals.” The problem is that for many important “hot button” issues, the only places you can find these discussions are around water coolers or over lunch tables—venues that are closed to the public. Why not discuss these issues on a bigger scale? That’s part of what ChemBark is about: being a water cooler for everyone who’s interested in discussing important chemical news. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a big department or a lone alchemist—anyone can participate.
I have accepted the fact that there will be bumps in the road as I try to steer ChemBark to becoming a respectable place for discussion about technical and cultural issues in chemistry. Due to the lack of transparency in our field and the concentration of power in a small elite class, we are fighting a massive activation barrier in reaching that goal. We live under a cloud of fear. Students fear their advisors. Professors fear their colleagues. Authors fear their reviewers. Reviewers fear revenge. People don’t want to run the risk of being honest and upsetting someone because they think it will come back to bite them…and they might be right. Long gone are the days when chemists would intellectually spar over fascinating research with little regard for anything but the truth. Grizzled physical organic chemists still sing songs of the epic battles over nonclassical carbocations (the followers of Winstein vs. the followers of Brown). Although tempers often flared and feelings were often hurt, there is no question that these debates pushed the field to improve its experiments and solve the problem.
But, like I said, those days are gone. Now, if we want our culture to change, the progress will have to be slow and steady. If ChemBark falls too far outside of the current cultural norms, people will just ignore it. I manage ChemBark accordingly. First, I favor depth in coverage as opposed to breadth. Only a small percentage of the posts on ChemBark are “hot button” topics. If I came out with guns blazing against every problem and injustice in the world of chemistry, this site would be viewed as a joke. Second, while I would like for everyone to feel safe in signing their names to their comments, I realize that this is going to take some time. While I comment using my real name, I allow anonymous comments because not granting anonymity would stifle any sort of meaningful discussion. The trade off, of course, is that there’s an element of hypocrisy in how ChemBark seeks to be an “open forum” but allows people to hide behind anonymous screen names. Last, I realize that I’m a lowly graduate student with zero clout or power in our field. The “Paul Bracher” brand name is worth nothing, and correspondingly, offers this blog nothing. The only way that I can build credibility for this site is to manage it responsibly by being fair and addressing issues in a professional manner—especially the controversial ones.
One philosophical stand that I’ve made is to allow nearly complete freedom of speech in the comments. The comments are a big part of this site and we’ve already seen how great comments can be informative and thought provoking. This is exactly the reason that the comments exist. As I agree with Potter Stewart that censorship “is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime,” the only comments I delete are spam and those that stray so recklessly deep into personal ground that the information is both offensive and worthless. I welcome you to identify comments that you think should be deleted.
A consequence of all this leeway is that comments will sometimes venture into areas that hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes, commenters crack hurtful jokes. Sometimes, completely legitimate comments hit a little “too close to home.” I am resigned to the fact that providing an open forum will inevitably mean that “good” people will occasionally be hit with shrapnel, but getting mad at me for these comments is like getting mad at your department’s administration for funding social hours and parties. After all, people come to these events and discuss rumors and crack insulting jokes. At the same time, plenty of people participate in intelligent, thought-provoking conversations. The comments that rub you the wrong way are the price we pay for all of the “good things” that the freedom of commentary brings.
What you should remember is that—ChemBark or no ChemBark—these conversations are still taking place behind closed doors. I personally think the “open” system afforded by blogs is better than the “closed” system that is currently in operation. First, the closed system is unfair to the individuals being discussed because not only can they not defend themselves, they have no idea they are even a subject of discussion. On ChemBark, everyone has access to the same information and can either choose to join the discussion or just observe. The current system affords no such courtesy. Second, the current system is inefficient. With a select few individuals holding these discussions, there are fewer brains actively analyzing what is going on. When you open the discussion to the entire community, everyone can raise points and learn from it.
One aspect of the comments that probably goes overlooked is that I am one of the biggest losers as far as allowing anonymous commenting is concerned. First, I receive the “blame” for many of these anonymous comments because I am the one who provides the open forum. Second, many (most?) anonymous attacks on this blog are leveled at me. Some commenters have attacked me using multiple user names to make it seem that the dissatisfaction is widespread. Third, people comment anonymously to mask perceived conflicts of interest. For instance, by their IP addresses, I know that some of the attacks leveled at me come from friends and colleagues of people discussed in news stories. If you knew that at the time, you would probably reduce the weight of their opinion relative to an unbiased casual observer. Still, I allow the comments to stay and don’t “out” the people who left them. While I don’t dish out anonymous vitriol, I take more of it than anyone.
Getting back to the “hot button” issues discussed on ChemBark, do we have to discuss these topics? The simple answer is “yes.” A lot of Web 2.0 efforts that should enjoy success are initially doomed for failure because they are too restrictive. There is already a resistance in our field, for whatever reason, to embracing Web 2.0 technology. Since we are already attracting a small number of people, it would be stupid to further discourage participation by requiring registration, banning anonymous comments, narrowing the scope to ridiculously specific subsets of our field, or attempting to cater to too many people by barring discussion of interesting but provocative issues.
I think it’s also fair to say that most of the opinions expressed on ChemBark regarding provocative issues are actually representative of more widely-held opinions in our field. For instance, I think the outrage expressed in the blogosphere over the Sames-Sezen situation mirrored that in the world of research. I think it is also clear that views in the blogosphere have shaped, to a degree, some of the stories run in C&EN, Chemistry World, Science, and Nature. Aside from the SSS, opinions expressed in the blogosphere regarding the 2007 Nobel Prize (1 2) were reported in the print edition of Nature. I don’t think the editors would have done this if our views were not representative of a larger population of chemists.
I’d like to think that ChemBark is doing some good things and that it is not simply a “time sink” blog, as one commenter put it. I am pleasantly surprised that the site receives a lot of Google traffic for technical questions, like the general procedure for HATU coupling. There is clearly an audience for technical information in chemical blogspace. I am also encouraged that people refer visitors to ChemBark’s discussions of cultural issues in our field, like the order of authors on papers or how to improve peer review. Where else can you find analyses of these issues that are open and accessible to all who wish to voice their opinion? And as far as humor is concerned, I would hope that people appreciate and enjoy the posts and comments on ChemBark that are made in jest. You guys crack me up, and I thank you for it.
A question that is occasionally raised in comments is whether ChemBark could damage my prospects for a career in chemistry. It is something I have considered at great length, and I have arrived at the unsurprising conclusion that running this blog has the potential to both help and hurt me. ChemBark is a genuine reflection of my personality because I have elected to run the site in as honest and straightforward a manner as possible. I use my real name, strive for 100% factual accuracy, and openly share my personal opinions and the reasons behind them. The downside of sharing all of this information is that some people will be turned off by my personality and opinions. For example, I get the distinct impression that some of you do not appreciate my frankness and willingness to explore politically incorrect questions. I suppose this could hurt my chances of landing a job in some places, but I’d rather miss out on these jobs than be hired and have to pretend that I’m someone I’m not.
On the flip side, there is also the small prospect that this blog could end up helping my career. On the off chance that potential employers stumble across ChemBark, I would hope to come across as reasonably intelligent, creative, logical, and someone who loves chemistry, loves teaching, and cares about the managerial aspects of research (advising, administration, ethics, etc.). It should also be noted that ChemBark and its predecessor have damn good track records of finding interesting stories and getting the facts right. At times, we may have even outclassed the coverage of C&EN, Science, Nature, and the New York Times. The commentary on ChemBark, while opinionated, is kept as clinical as possible. I don’t swear. I don’t launch personal or ad hominem attacks. I take the time to substantiate my opinions with facts and reason, and I provide an open forum for public dissent should anyone wish to disagree. What news medium publishes every single piece of correspondence the editors receive, including attacks against them which are untrue and personally insulting?
I also want to address the concern that my candor could result in the ultimate demise of this site:
I’m kind of annoyed that no one else besides Paul was willing to say anything after this. Are we afraid someone will pull the plug, Trost-style?
Rest assured; there is only one person who can “pull the plug” on this site—me. One of the things I enjoy about ChemBark is that it’s something over which I have complete editorial control. I can ensure that the site addresses issues I feel are important and adheres to the principles I espouse in life because I run everything. In the future, it may become necessary for me to either suspend or terminate my participation on ChemBark. Should that happen, I will give you a full report on the reasons necessitating the action. In the meantime, everyone deserves a hobby, and ChemBark is mine.
In theory, academia exists to enhance our understanding of the world. Critical examination and honesty should take precedence over personal advancement, popularity, pride, and political correctness. We should not fear starting discussions about interesting news, ideas, and theories simply because the scrutiny may stray into areas where people will have their ideas challenged or feelings hurt. Sadly, in the current politicized climate of chemical research, many chemists are resigned to an existence where speaking critically and honestly is limited to the shadows cast by privacy and anonymity. Such a system is shamefully inefficient, and as scientists, we should seek alternatives that allow us to embrace our analytical roots and thoughtfully examine our lives.
Reaching that goal is a big part of what ChemBark is all about. In the meantime, if I don’t get back to acting like I don’t take this blog that seriously, everyone is going to get upset.
- CRH Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 12:31 pm What a terribly long, overly hyped piece of crap. I mean really. Good for the student that got this job. Everyone will know in a few short years whether this hire worked out for Princeton–and the student–or not. But to spend this much time on this subject?!?! Grad school must have really changed in the few short years since I graduated.
- pi* Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 12:35 pm I found a spelling mistake…
- JS Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 12:52 pm One has to ask the question: Jealous much?
- Paul Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 1:06 pm Wow…just like I talked about in the post, comments #1 and #3 came from the same IP address yet the person used two different user names (CRH and JS). Keep the hate coming.
- bacon Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 1:18 pm Good post, Paul. Took me a while to chug through it, but it was a good read.I’m sure a lot of us are jealous. Sure, to some extent I am.
That said, I cannot imagine applying for faculty jobs without my postdoc. No, I didn’t learn any new techniques (after a few years in grad school, seems all the basics for doing synthetic chemistry are well learned), but did get exposed to some pretty sweet chemistry. More importantly, the “protected time” has been invaluable for writing proposals and getting grant money (for both postdoctoral and independent funding via “bridge” grants). Certainly, I feel more “sophisticated” now with things like grant proposals than when I was a grad student. And certainly I had a lot more time to focus on such areas during my postdoc. Not worrying about writing a thesis and graduating helps with the time factor.
Even if given the chance, I would not have forgone my postdoc. The time has been too valuable to me. But yeah, I’m jealous that a graduate student got a job at Princeton right out of school. At the moment, I’m jealous of everyone with a good faculty position.
- Liquidcarbon Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 1:26 pm I’ll try to add.
It seems that the whole system pretty much relies on postdocing, it’s 30% of personnel and 50% of workpower. Probably you just consider this obvious.Not obvious for me, though. I don’t know what the Russian academia relies on. “Enthusiasm” of a few might be the answer.
- Greg Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 1:44 pm Just a practical suggestion: wouldn’t it make discussion a little easier if you broke up the entire “wrap up” into two or more smaller pieces?
Personally, I think that the analogy between hiring practices in major league sports and academia is not all that strong: decisions regarding faculty positions are usually (or at least ideally) heavily governed by the fact that those positions are long-term. I can only congratulate the people who are prophetic and daring enough to hire people like George Whitesides as very young scientists without having served as post-docs and watch them become giants, so to speak, but there simply has to be involved more than a marginally amount of luck. The fact that those appointments are so rare and that a position as post-doc is certainly not going to diminish (quite to the contrary) the chances of becoming a fullblown scientist (i.e. attaining a faculty position) really makes me doubt whether we are going to see significant changes in hiring practices.
- Karl Hungus Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 1:49 pm “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the consensus opinion of the community is that the good things about doing a postdoc outweigh the bad, because the overwhelming majority of people who wish to enter academia complete a postdoc.”That’s because to be considered for an academic job you pretty much have to have a postdoc, not necessarily because people think doing a postdoc will help them as scientists. I think it’s a ripoff that to get a job in academia you have to do 1-2 postdocs, getting paid virtually nothing (considering you have a pH.D. in hard science, are in your thirties [on average] and may already have a family), where you still are in the lab working on the laser, washing glassware, prepping reagents, running columns, etc., when what you really need to be doing is coming up with original research ideas, applying for grants, and building a research group–doing the things that really matter when you’re a professor. No one’s going to give a fuck how well you can run a column when you’re a professor; what they’re going to care about is how innovative your ideas are. I would support a postdoc that is more of an apprenticeship with a succesful academic, where you learn how to write grants, how to teach a class, how to generate ideas, how to review papers, etc. But not more of the same! Who needs that shit!
- Hap Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 1:50 pm Half of me thinks that postdocs are a way for professors to get effective, knowledgeable labor at a significant discount over what they would cost even as assistant profs. – they work long hours and don’t get paid much and depending on the field may not really have much autonomy. On the other hand, it seemed that doing a postdoc for some people would be a better way to prepare for being a professor. Prof. Whitesides, for example, seemed to accord enough independence and responsibility to post-docs that they were like assistant professors in some ways, and that experience probably would not hurt when becoming a professor. In some fields, you can be really brilliant, and if you work hard, that’s enough, but experimental fields require more work than one person can do, and so they require management skills as well as intelligence and hard work to succeed.I read here because there aren’t many places to read about problems with chemistry – as you said above, most of the publications are PR-like in their reluctance to deal with the bad things about what chemists do (and what bad chemists do). It is useful because lots of people and institutions in chemistry are unforthright – some are forthright, but those that are not seem not to derive any negative consequences for being so. You write about these things, and write well enough that people come to read them. Given the choice between random (l)users framing the discussion and you framing it, it doesn’t seem like a real choice which scenario is more likely to turn out well.
- shah Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 2:29 pm awesome post, paul – kudos, and good luck.
- CRH Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 2:44 pm Sorry, the IP address came from a lab computer and after reading your literary vomit, I suggested a co-worker read the piece and they also commented. No matter what is said this hire is not in anyway news worthy. Princeton felt that this person was the best fit for their department and decided to make an offer. End of story. No need for all this cloak-and-dagger crap (News out of Princeton–discuss; Wrap-up coming–I promise; Really, it’s coming). The entire process smacks of jealousy–regardless of whether you admit it or not. Someone got a job without a post-doc–Congrats and Good Luck.Nor should it even spark a debate regarding a post-doc. A post-doc should be determined on an individual basis. Some people are much more mature and job ready than others. Thus, a post-doc truly helps some more than others. However (and sadly), post-docs are, in effect, set up to keep the academic machine going. How many post-docs truly do something novel–or novel from what their Ph.D. work was? Very few. If you are a synthetic organic chemist, more than often you’ll do a post-doc with the same and then go for an academic career.
So, sorry for using the same IP address as another poster; however, it doesn’t detract from the message in these comments–this “news” didn’t warrant this much “coverage” unless there was an underlying issue–jealousy.
- Paul Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 2:51 pm It’s interesting that CRH’s main point is now “jealousy” where it was JS who actually brought it up in the first place. Anyway, thanks to “both” of you for being loyal readers of ChemBark. And look…you even contributed to the discussion. Nice.
- CRH Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:00 pm Sorry, the main point is still this isn’t newsworthy. The only justification would be jealousy. Why else spend this much time on a subject (and the manner in which it was handled). It’s simply about one school finding the right match for their department? But, hey, keep on keeping on. As I stated before, grad school must be much different now.
- Hap Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:17 pm The list of people who have been picked as professors without postdocs can be counted on the fingers of two hands (and if you limit the discussion to the last twenty years, it requires only one hand (Liu and Virgil)), so it’s hard to say accurately either that choosing a faculty candidate in chemistry without a postdoc is not unusual or that doing/not doing a postdoc is an individual decision (considering that
- CRHap Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:22 pm CRH – for someone who doesn’t think this is newsworthy, you are certainly spending a lot of time talking about it…
- Hap Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:25 pm (something dropped my comment, sorry)…(considering that
- Hap Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:32 pm (I’ll try once more without the political snideness – maybe that’ll work.)Since so few candidates are chosen without postdocs from a pool of above average Ph.Ds, it seems that being hired without a postdoc is not an individual decision – it is dictated by the pool of candidates and by the universities hiring, rather than by the candidate’s choice. Why an assistant professor is hired without a postdoc is a reasonable question to ask, or at least a question that lots of people will be asking. It is better to deal with it openly than to pretend that people are asking the question, because there don’t seem to have been too many times when pretending that questions don’t exist has made situations better, and many where it has not.
- 21stCentury Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:36 pm I believe that the most fundamental issue of this hire has been missed. The current tenure system is actively hostile to a woman who both wants a successful academic job AND a family life. For someone fortunate enough to be qualified to get an academic position directly out of graduate school, this opportunity offers a chance to get tenure prior to starting a family. In the present system it difficult to do so until one is 36+ years old.I’m guessing that the person in question also feels that, in a perfect system, doing postdoc would be better. Certainly it is a great experience scientifically. More importantly, it helps one prepare for all the non-scientific aspects of the job (management, politics, etc). But I’m also guessing that her family background helps make up for these aspects.
Princeton’s approach should be applauded as much needed progress.
- bacon Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:48 pm How could this not be news worthy? Is it very, very rare? Yes, it certainly is (especially these days). And that alone makes it worthy of discussion.Being news worthy and worthy of discussion doesn’t imply anything nefarious is going on. It’s something that doesn’t happen a lot and thus is news worthy. It challenges the norms of today’s academic hiring (where in 98% of the cases a post-doc is required). How could this not be news worthy? She could be the second-coming (in terms of chemistry) and just utterly amazing, but this would still be news, only because it doesn’t typically happen.
- excimer Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:51 pm Great post, Paul. I hope you keep posting about controversial subjects in the future.
- milkshake Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 3:53 pm Discussing this high-profile sweet hiring faculty deal before it was finalized is like discussing somebody’s salary – others may turn green with envy or even do things to spoil it. Having highly-opinionated anonymous people commenters making conjectures about somebody personal and professional situation – just as her career is about to take off – must be pretty unpleasant to the people involved – so don’t be surprised about the wrath at Harvard and Princeton, about you for breaking the storry (and soliciting more info on it, in a discussion). One person involved in this story is actually not a nice man at all and could go very far if necessary.About your ambition to be a serious media and so on – first you should be a succesfull chemist, not pissing people at your school is part of that equation so it would have been better for you personally if you stayed out of this story. The story is news-worthy and the career discussion enlightening – but it is not your job to do it, you volunteered for it and you have no institutional cover should the trouble arise for you. Guerilla volunteers get heroically lined up against the wall for nothing, all the time. The passivist have more fun in the long run.
People write blogs and read them for various reasons. I understand you are spending time on Chembark becaus it means a lot to you – but in reality what we do is not very consequential. So take it easy, it is supposed to be a leasure activity – don’t feel *obliged* to write some well-thought off objective assays and so on. And if you write about serious stuff, the simplier the better. Stick to matter-of-fact description, keep it short. Life is a hopeless affair but serious it is not.
- Wavefunction Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 4:23 pm In reality, I think that not just Paul but everybody should take it easy. These are blogs, people. Paul offered a perspective because he thought it was interesting. Maybe he made an unnecessarily big deal about it, maybe not. The point is that a much bigger deal was made of it by all that commenting by people who took it so seriously. Everyone needs to chill out. As Milkshake noted above, we all write blogs for various reasons. We don’t need to take every blog post written by everyone so seriously. Paul wrote a post. Either you like it, or you don’t like it too much and move on to another blog. In any case, it’s best to move on and not linger too much. We are all supposed to be professional chemists, not proffesional chemistry bloggers or blog critics. And we really don’t need to hold up any blogger to some standard and make a big deal about whether we like every post of his or not.
- ZAL Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 4:43 pm Thank you for this excellent (but very time-consuming) post! I was eagerly waiting for it and asking myself why it took so long to write it. Now, I know.
Honestly, I think your “open-thread” experimental post was kind of a mistake (but sorry for my low quality contributions!): the absence of a well-defined topic, coupled with the feeling that there was some kind of “scandal” about to explode in the community (I know this turned out not to be the case, no scandal of sort, but this was sincerely my first and immediate impression) probably let some people think they could start to make serious, or even offensive, allegations without evidence, covered by anonimity, ultimately causing (part of) the blame to be directed towards you. I do believe that you have a sincere committment for transparency, sincerity and equilibrium, as this last post shows: perhaps a brief but comprehensive exosition of the facts, not treated as “gossip”, followed by your personal take on the issue, presented as such (at least I am not so easily influenced by other people’s opinions), would have served better your intentions as host of this blog.
As for the “post-doc or no-post-doc” discussion : I am currently a post-doc, so you may imagine how personally I feel the issue. I am trying to convince myself that the good things in doing a post-doc are over-weighting the bad ones but, as a matter of fact, I am not so sure. I did it mostly to (a) have a recommendation letter more (b) add a couple of papers to my CV (c) know new people and establish more relations (d) have more time to apply for a “real” job. On the other hand, I feel I am not learning that much more since I left grad-school, and time is running fast…
Sorry, my comment is now almost as long as the post! I swear this is the las time I write something of this size!
- eugene Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 4:53 pm Holy crap that is long. Um… I just wanted to say that it is long and run up the comment count. That’s all really.I’ll read over it tonight with a glass of chilled sancerre beside the cold ashes of my enemies on a silver platter. I’m guessing it’ll take an hour or something. I better go do some reactions in the meantime.
- Paul Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 6:06 pm This is a leisure activity. If blogging were my job, I would have felt compelled to post something over the last two weeks. Instead, I was busy and posted nothing. I don’t feel bad about it because I know you guys understand that I have other things to do. And while this post was long, it was written casually in 10-minute chunks. All you guys see is the blog, so I understand how it’s going to shape your opinion of how I spend my time, but ChemBark is never a “priority.”
- IC Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 6:48 pm Why hire someone with a postdoc.
From the point of view of the department making an offer: It is now necessary to invest a very large amount of money for setup funds for starting assistant professors. The amount of money is large even for the super rich schools. It was not the case 30 years ago when there was a significant number of people who got jobs without a postdoc. Hiring back then was more of a gamble but if someone did not succeed, not a lot of money was lost. People with a postdoc have proven that they can succeed in two different areas. Even the very brightest PhD student can use a postdoc to mature. Finally the amount of chemical knowledge has been increasing at an exponential rate.
- Anonymous Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 6:58 pm The question of the necessity of a postdoc in inherently dependent on the individual, her/his graduate background and breadth of experience, and her/his long term career interests. If you did a certain range of things as a grad student and became exceptionally proficient at them (intellectually and in lab), and want to continue doing things closely related for your career, a postdoc would seem less valuable. (Think: did total synthesis for graduate work (with some methodology development along the way) and wants to continue doing synthesis and methodology development with minimal interest in applications; see the comment about just running more columns.) If you had a very broad selection of experiences as a grad student and undergrad, with an exceptionally skilled advisor who challenged you to think deeply and broadly about and answer problems across science, a postdoc would seem less valuable. (Think: Liu, Whitesides; by the way, I think that these individuals and experiences are extremely rare.)On the other hand, if you had a productive graduate career but want to obtain a new set of approaches to problem-solving, new types of problems to think about, and new sets of skills, a postdoc can be incredibly valuable. In my case, I certainly could have written good proposals after grad school and I worked in a pretty broad range of areas as a grad student (and undergrad) and had a broad understanding of the literature. But I am undoubtedly a far better scientist because of my postdoc, which was in a very different area of chemistry, with an advisor with a very different approach to asking questions and selecting and answering problems. I learned different lab and departmental cultures, was exposed to people who challenged me intellectually in different ways (and not coincidentally became friends and later academic colleagues), developed different ways of defining and answering problems, and gained a different set of hands-on experiences that make me very comfortable advising my students in a wide range of areas and allow me to pursue problems that would have had a much steeper learning curve had I not done a postdoc.
(Note: this is not a statement against my graduate advisor; had the roles of my grad and postdoc advisors been reversed, the salutory effects of a postdoc would have been similar.)
In short, I strongly recommend both doing a postdoc and choosing the best broadest possible learning experience to explore diverse interests. Choose something very different from your graduate work; if you chose correctly you will have a considerable learning curve (possibly steep) and as a result you may not publish quite as quickly. If your to-be-postdoctoral advisor sees you as set of hands with a good skill set to match the lab’s needs with minimal training, you probably aren’t choosing the right lab. If you’re doing a postdoc to pad the CV with more papers but working in a similar area, you’re probably not getting as much out of the experience. You want an experience that will truly challenge you – you’ll be a much better scientist in the long term because of it.
One other thought: the tone of the post and the comments is to question the value of the postdoc. The major comment against the postdoc is that it delays your work as an independent scientist. But in my view that comment puts the emphasis in the wrong place, since most chemistry postdocs last about 2 years. In contrast, 5-6 years of grad school is now the norm. Shortening the grad career (but keeping a postdoc) seems a better way to get people working independently sooner. Of course, that brings up an entirely new set of issues.
Finally, great post, Paul!
- eugene Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 7:35 pm “All you guys see is the blog, so I understand how it’s going to shape your opinion of how I spend my time, but ChemBark is never a “priority.””Hey, I’m not accusing you of anything like slacking off. You probably work more than me since you’re up at ungodly hours of the night and are in the lab. I figured it was going to be long since it took you two weeks to write it. I’m just sayin’ stuff. Why would I accuse the author of my daily distraction (I mean favorite chem blog)? That’s too dangareos. What if the blog shuts down because of it? Because loyal readers don’t show enough love and the author gets sad due to that? I have no idea what I would do for five minutes of the day every two waking hours.
Well… I’d probably read another blog instead I guess. I could always start reading Tetrahedron Letters or The Journal of Molecular Catalysis A regularly instead of just checking SciFinder every three months for new stuff in my field that I missed. Dear god. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Scratch that last idea.
- KRP Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 8:14 pm Paul,It is a Master Piece (post) and hearty congratulations. The time you spent will not go futile. There will be lots of people (especially cursed postdocs who are struck with mediocre people) will thank you for your efforts). Please watch your back. I am sure that your contributions will be noticed. This kind of job is not everybody’s task. So be proud of what you have done. When ever you choose a path of this kind there will definitely issues that would hurt you, but be glad that you did it.
- eugene Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 8:17 pm Okay, I read the post. It was pretty good. I also read the comments and realized #25 was not directed at just me.I will now and go read the Journal of Molecular Catalysis A as punishment. Then I will repeatedly bang my head against the wall because of it. (hopefully they won’t have another paper that doesn’t have any TONs and yields in it anywhere)…
- Herman Blume Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 8:33 pm #18 has a good point. The PhD should be 4 years and a 1 year postdoc? I am all for tightening up the PhD and postdocing. I greatly enjoyed reading the open discussion, it evolved and devolved (very organic). I do not wish the postdoc on anybody, it seems to have very little to no relevance to an academic position. Although, it was very valuable, painful but valuable.
- Propter Doc Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 8:44 pm Commenting here scares me when you have commenters like # 1 and 3.I think parts of this post are a fantastic discussion of hiring practices and the postdoctoral condition. Thanks for writing so clearly on these issues.
I’m glad that the system exists in such a way that the standard process can be circumvented to get talented people where they can do most good – as PIs,not postdoctoral butt monkeys. But I do agree with those commenters above that a postdoc is a great chance to spread your wings and develop as a researcher. Without postdocs I think the failure rate /turnover at tenure time would be greater. When you do PhDs (and perhaps masters degrees first) of 5 or more years you have greater research experience than in those countries where a PhD is 3 years. I feel that as a British PhD, I needed to do a postdoc to develop properly as a researcher, that my 3 years of PhD research prepared me very little for the harsh real world of running a lab. At the end of 3 years postdoc, I’ll have equivalent or greater experience than someone doing a 6 year PhD. I got to change labs in the middle and meet new people so I’m all for the shorter PhD and mandatory postdoc period.
A brief comment on the nature of your coverage of the Princetown thing. I don’t particularly care to view it as too gossipy, too journalistic or whatever. This is your blog and you do what suites you. I’m glad you discussed it because the vast majority of people would remain unaware of such a hiring practice, regardless of whether people view it as good or bad. I think these issues should be discussed somewhere, and it is there that much difference between a comments thread on a blog and gossip around the coffee machine in a graduate common room somewhere? The only difference is that this is your blog, with your name on it and I don’t want to see you run in to trouble over it. Some people have a very hard time accepting the type of freedom of speech that blogging this type of story represents, and sadly some of those people can have enormous influence. You can touch stories that C&EN or Chemistry World cannot, because they can’t get into the politics the way you can. That’s your blessing and curse because some will think you’ve gone too far, and some will think not far enough. Of course, things get out of your control to an extent the minute you allow people to write comments (and I know you can edit if you wish). Bloggers rely on their commenters to show common sense and not use their anonymity as a way to compromise the integrity of the medium. A heavily censored comments section isn’t worth the effort of posting really. You just can’t please everyone and sometimes the harshest critics are not bloggers themselves.
I’m not going to touch the issue of Princetown’s hire as being a good/bad thing for the female equality in science. Gender doesn’t matter in the lab, and the notion of gender driven hiring of any description irritates me greatly.
Anyway, I like that you wrote about this, I think it is a credit to the ideals of blogging. Cheers!
Sorry for the long ramble…
- the dude Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 9:41 pm With all the talk about newsworthy or not, I would like to ask a question: Why did you choose to do it in the style you did. While I agree that it is of interest to the community to hear about someone being hired right out of grad school to a place like Princeton, I wish you would have done a real write up of it. I am left with just the news that someone from Harvard got a position. Is that all the information there is? I know this is not the Washington Post, but a little more “Woodward” style (sorry for the chemistry pun) investigative journalism wouldn’t hurt this story.By putting it up in a sort of “rumor mill” style, I feel a lot of credibility is lost. Why not have a post along the lines of “Harvard Grad Student gets position at Princeton” and then tell us what makes this person special, or being at Harvard yourself, why not ask the person in question to tell you (and through you us) something about the whole process and what made her choose to apply (how many grad students have the guts to do that?)? While the experimental nature of your post may be interesting from a socio-psychological view, it really didn’t help this piece of news. The whole secrecy-cloud departments put over their decisions is bad enough, so an open coverage would have helped. I feel that there was too much hype in this post and too little substantial information.
Or do I have to wait for the official C&EN News coverage for that?
- Mitch Says:
August 2nd, 2007 at 10:54 pm Paul, I think you have a serious case of taking-yourself-to-seriousitis. But, I guess that is an other matter..Mitch
- Mark Peplow Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 7:52 am Paul, you wrote:>>Of course, publications like C&EN and Chemistry World usually limit themselves to stories that portray our field in a positive light. Unfortunately … there will always be matters of scientific misconduct, ethical dilemmas, dirty politics, misappropriated funds, and petty bickering. These sorts of issues are pervasive in our community and we should not feel ashamed to learn about them … it is sad that the paper media in our field either don’t share this view or don’t have the time, money, space, or inclination to apply constant pressure and get to the bottom of things.
Sure, we at Chemistry World don’t do many negative stories – but as you say yourself, ‘Only a small percentage of the posts on ChemBark are “hot button” topics.’ Likewise, only a small percentage of our stories push these buttons.
But over the last year, we’ve given our readers:
A detailed investigation into the fall of Kazuko Matsumoto, IUPAC president-elect, over her misuse of Japanese government funds: http://www.rsc.org/chemistrywo…..telect.asp
The row over ‘big tobacco’ funding for biochemistry research in Germany: http://www.rsc.org/chemistrywo…..icsRow.asp
Damaging ‘greenwashing’ in green chemistry: http://www.rsc.org/chemistrywo…..tgreen.asp
The ongoing bribery and corruption within China’s drug industry
to name but four. Misappropriated funds? Check. Ethical dilemmas? Check. Dirty politics? Check. Petty bickering. Nope. That’s because it’s petty …
- Liberal Chemist Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 8:02 am Wow, I am late to the discussion but really people, pinch off the last log and wipe. We all know the value of these blogs and the importance of having a spectrum of chemical blogs. If they were just catharsis for the blogger he could just disable comments. It is our ability to post comments (and parasitically share the glory due the blogger) that makes a blog something more than bathroom grafitti.I thought the post was great. All of us are here because we are smarter than the average bear. Within our group however there are the brighter lights and if they have a different career trajectory then great for them. I have hired a few post-docs in my time and they ran from the guy who read mystery novels almost continually to a driven guy who presented me with complete publications the week after we got the crystal structures. Neither of them were ready for faculty level work. If you think about the medical system the post-doc is the same as a resident physician (but paid a lot less). Do you want all your faculty to be Doogey Howser?
This blog is on my short list of “check everyday” science sites and I will miss it when the author finally decides he has had enough. I wasn’t going to comment but the comments had turned into some kind of evaluation of this blog and I wanted to register my vote.
- Anonymous Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 11:24 am i’m going to refrain from commenting on ascertations that this is a news site, but will voice my concern that a lot of the underlying arguments–albeit ones meant to provoke discussion–in this post are exactly what keep academic chemistry from moving into the 21st century. just a few examples:1. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the consensus opinion of the community is that the good things about doing a postdoc outweigh the bad, because the overwhelming majority of people who wish to enter academia complete a postdoc.”
several points on this one: the “but we’ve always done it this way so it means it works best” argument doesn’t fly. if everyone had that attitude, whether its running a university or a business, we would never push the boundaries of creativity and innovation. also, this sounds to me a lot like the kind of “if i had to go through it, so should you” argument that medical doctors make when people suggest that the ridiculous hours med students put in should be regulated.
2. “there is an interesting general point we should explore regarding the importance of “whom you know” in terms of finding jobs. While it won’t be 100% responsible for getting an offer, can having friends or well-connected professors help you get a foot in the door? Do some professors “go to bat” for their students more than others?”
Even bringing this up to me rings of inexperience. In the real world (i.e. the world outside of academia), you’ll find that nearly every job you get is somehow helped by who you know and how you’ve networked. And you’ll learn that people won’t “go to bat” for you if they don’t think you’re up to the task– no one benefits from recommending a bad candidate, because they know its going to reflect poorly on them in the end. Of course there are politics in certain situations, but in academia, any candidate is going to have to prove their mettle if they want to get tenure, or they’re out, regardless of who they know.
3. “Without delving into a discussion of the merits of affirmative action, we must accept that affirmative action is now endorsed across most of our field. The reality is that it’s both a blessing and a curse, because while more minority candidates will be hired, there will also be more people who think that anytime a minority is hired it’s just because they’re a minority.”
But don’t you think that by starting up this discussion with what is essentially a case study of a female candidate getting offered a job without a post-doc, that you’re implying that she got hired, in part, BECAUSE she’s a woman? As a woman, I can’t stress enough how challenging the environment continues to be for women and minorities in chemistry departments. There are subtleties there that you just can’t appreciate unless you’ve experienced it first hand. So its hard for me to accept even bringing her gender into the equation, because it only serves to underscore, if not exacerbate an already hostile environment.
I appreciate your effort to generate a lively conversation, but I do think its really important to think about just how sensitive these issues are, and perhaps approach it differently in the future.
- bacon Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 12:27 pm Anonymous said, “As a woman, I can’t stress enough how challenging the environment continues to be for women and minorities in chemistry departments.”Okay, I’m a guy, but could someone explain the “hostile environment” today that women have to work in (in our field)? Honestly, I’m not trying to be a dick, I’m trying to understand.
Everywhere I have been (two top-10 schools), the women are just as plentiful as the men, score equally well on cumes/exams, do equally well in the lab, get equally excellent post-docs, get fellowships just as frequently as men. I’ve not seen (or heard) women in the departments that I was a member of complain of any injustice or claim they were in a hostile environment.
Again, I’m trying to understand, not questioning that hostile environments might exist. I’m just saying I’ve never seen it and my women friends have never mentioned feeling that way.
I guess I don’t see the imbalance or gender inequality in our field. There are certainly fewer women faculty, but how much does that have to do with choice? At the schools I was at, Women who wanted faculty jobs got them with similiar rates (if not better) than their male counterparts. But if women are choosing not to go into academia (which I feel is the issue, rather than them wanting and not getting jobs), does that mean the institutions are to blame?
- Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge – petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Thoughts on the chemical blogosphere Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 12:45 pm […] And conventional journalism. Here’s ChemBark (Paul Bracher). ChemBark focusses on comment, and in one very long thread he explored a recent appointment (hiring) at Princeton. This generated nearly 200 comments and debate including some from senior faculty who wouldn’t normally have entered the blogosphere. I shall not comment on the rights or wrong of the issue (I don’t have strong feelings) nor on the rights or wrongs of the type of debate (bordering on the gossip columns of newspapers of the sort we have lost of in the UK). The main point I want to make is that the whole of the debate has been openly readable and is (I hope) semi-preserved. That means that historians, linguists, rhetoriticians, have a wonderful view of issues in the early C21. Wrap Up: The Princeton News and Related Issues (blogosphere, departmental politics, education, etiquette, scientific culture, ChemBark) What follows is my analysis of the issues discussed in “The Floor is Yours” and “The Week in Preview.” I have closed both of those threads and directed visitors wishing to continue the discussion to come here. I think it makes the most sense if I start by reviewing the news and talking about the “professional” issues in play. I’ll conclude with a revoltingly pompous dissertation on ChemBark as a medium for chemical news and a venue for subsequent analysis and discussion. […]
- Paul Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 12:49 pm Respectfully, Anonymous #37, you’re missing the points.1. If you read this post carefully, you’d understand that I don’t necessarily agree that postdocs are worthwhile in all cases, nor should they necessarily be a requirement for entering academia. However, I believe that the vast majority of the community believes postdocs are a good thing for people wishing to enter academia because almost everyone does one. It would be nonsense if most people believed postdocs were a waste of time yet everyone did one.
2. Great, it looks like you agree with me.
3. Obviously, part of the reason I brought up the hiring of female candidates is to show that there is often a negative public perception when any female candidate is hired and that this is not fair. I called it a “curse”. I absolutely did not imply that this person got hired because she was a female. You have unfairly projected that view on me. And to say that I can’t discuss or appreciate the “sensitive” general issues involved with the hiring of female candidates simply because I am a man is ridiculous. You should encourage men to discuss these issues thoughtfully, not ban us from the discussion.
- Bad Cop Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 12:55 pm PaulEchoing Liberal Chemist, I want to thank you for your efforts with this site. Please continue to cover whatever pleases you, and don’t be shy in talking about subjects that some deem to be gossip. I read this site daily and will miss it when you “pull the plug” – not in the near future, I hope!
- Paul Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 1:05 pm Hi Mark at Chemistry World (#35),Perhaps I was hasty in that judgment. You make some excellent points, and I think CW has more balance than C&EN in terms of “negative stories”. Maybe someone at C&EN will now step forward and prove me wrong.
I guess my main question is whether these are investigative reports (along the lines of the first link you gave) versus news that has “gotten out” and is explored rather superficially. Given all of the resources that a major magazine has, I’d like to see deeper investigate reports along the lines of what you see the press do with the government. I am not talking about “gotcha!” journalism like DateLine NBC’s “To Catch a Predator”, but definitely some 3- to 4-page watchdog articles where you really get to the bottom of what is going on in some the specific stories of things like scientific misconduct, as a NewsWeek or even a Sports Illustrated would do. Perhaps this is just unrealistic considering that even the positive stories and research reports really don’t go that deep either, as they are written for a general science audience. Of course, in this case, we can always turn to the journals for more detailed reports. In the case of the negative stories, there is a lot of journalism that needs to be done to uncover the facts.
- Mark Peplow Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 1:37 pm Paul, agree with you about the need for more investigative journalism, and this conversation now presents an interesting opportunity. With a staff of five journalists and a world to cover, Chemistry World could use your readers’ help. So if you’ve got a story, or think that a particular topic deserves deeper investigation, just let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Anand Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 2:05 pm Paul,First of all, I thank you for your time. It is well spent. I am not sure why every body is only trying to look at you with the prejudices they carry. Why not look at the other part of the heading as well….( and the related news). It saves a lot of lives, and I am sure that this post would be of paramount importance to the future aspirants as to what would it take and what is it like and what is it going to be- especially academic world. You have given a true picture of the field. I am not sure as to how many true mentors are out there who really wanted their postdocs to learn and do well rather than reducing them to be mere ‘’lab technicians’’.
I have few points to make for the postdocs.
Look out for-
a) false promises, pictures and the guidance by mediocre people- be aware that there are only a few good mentors out there who are really interested in you. If you happen to be more productive in the rut, the more time you will be retained in the same. There are cunning people and understandably so in the given system of education, tenure and funding.
b) those who capitalize on the intellectual as well experimental contributions of the postdocs
c) those who tell you that the good publication record will help in getting the job.
As some body pointed out, postdoc thing is most often perceived as a part of the network that the academic world has spun so cleverly. It does have it advantages and disadvantages. It works great for some and is a curse for others. Be your own judge as to go for one or not. Chembark has just given the true picture. Thanks to you, and others who are willing to be watch dogs, and it is cool to note that the faculty at renowned schools are reading the posts which I hope would definitely reduce the bad science, bad things and bad people in the field.
You gave an idea to people to be aware as to what to aim for, what to focus on and how to get out from the traps. I really appreciate your contribution and courage to do what you are doing. I am sure that your contributions will do lot of good to the community as a whole and go long way than the people could see and ramble against.
I liked the way you built this post, and the blog itself for that matter.
You are given with one life- so better live and stand for what you feel is right rather than being reduced to a pony. Yes, grad schools must have changed now, but looks like they have changed for good. The training that is imparted in the school where I am currently is so worse that the grads do not even go through the current literature and the postdocs do not know even to do a literature search on scifinder. Thanks to blogs, at least they will get to know things that are going on in and around their field.
Thanks to your blog and the likes, I just hope that system would become more transparent, and more fool proof. Please do not give a damn to the negative criticism. Keep up the good work.
( I have not seen any blog or any post cooking at this rate. I saw some 5 comments appearing in 5 to 19 minutes that I took for writing this up- just to give a clue that this is really a much needed blog and topic. Bear with typos and grammar.)
- (W)olf… Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 6:02 pm Paul, we all know that you would have liked to be a professor at Princeton, but fate was against you. And, as I said before, this post as this whole blog obviously is your personal psychoanalyis in public. I would not have dared to do it like this, but I admire your Harvard courage, although it led to nothing. Hope at least you will get a position in one of GMW’s companies, in case they have survived the reality and time test…Best,
if possibly Eugene can respond ? at least a little ?
- TWYI Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 6:27 pm Congratulations to the individual involved.On another note, what are everyones views on lectures/assistant prof’s helping out in the lab? Quite inspiring IMO
- Manfred Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 9:53 pm The problem with chemistry is that it keeps its people in a prolonged ‘childhood’ while it indoctrinates the willing with all sorts of mystical mind warping doggerel.Let’s get real. None of you (non-Princetonites)have anything to do with the place and you shouldn’t care a bit about its policies. Yet you do, allowing yourself to believe that in someway you are a part of the conversation, that those folks on the SS Princeton yacht acknowledge you as a welcome part of their world. The whole system is constructed to squeeze a maximum amount of cheap labor out of its people.
It’s pitiful because most chemists want to sincerely improve their lot, but at the same time the system selects for only those who supported the existing system . Tenure is the problem . It is nothing more than a gift handed out to the Children of the same old same olds at Harvard n Yale. I’ve seen way too many lame ass sycophants get tenure while better men and women have fallen by the way-side.
Stop talking about Academia. There should be a blog where only tenured faculty talk to each-other. I very much doubt that newly minted MBA’s or Lawyers are lost in their grad school pasts. Kill tenure and/or unionize and you’ll get change.
Still- that was an impressive, caffeine charged post Paul.
- slanderer Says:
August 3rd, 2007 at 11:34 pm #47. “…chemistry is that it keeps its people in a prolonged ‘childhood’…”Precisely. Perhaps, ‘chemistry’ may better be replaced with ‘accademic environment’.
#44. I fully agree with you, but I doubt many realize it.
Accademic world is surviving because of the ignorance and inexperience of graduates/postdoc (on PI’s real intention). When eventually the ‘childhood’ is over, they feel cheated and then knowingly use the new found wisdom on present graduates/postdocs and the cycle repeates.
- Ugh Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 12:54 am I haven’t read the post or the comments, but DAMN the longest post ever?!
- Anand Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 1:06 am Slanderer- The situation could not have been explained better than your words. Appreciated. But isn’t there an ending, or modification for the existing system so that whole system would be more attractive to others as well. As such the chemicals suck half the life and these leeches suck the other half by the time you are half way of your life. Getting a job even any where between 32-40 years is a night mare – then why the heck the people would go for sciences and that too for sucking ‘chemistry’ as a career. DO NOT KILL PEOPLE.Anand
- Anand Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 1:06 am PEOPLE WAKE UP!
- accurate Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 2:23 am Great post and discussion.
I just wanted to have more information about the pressure that one candidate’s former Professor can put on the evaluation commity or on some influent members of the same commity.
Paul, could you comment on this? I heard stories (gossips) about the hiring of a new assistant professor at a famous school’s Organic Chemistry department.
- Paul Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 4:43 am I have zero information about anything of this sort. I really don’t know how much “pull” an outside professor could have. I think one would have rather little, especially at a famous department. In fact, that’s where I’d expect an outsider to have the *least* pull.
- Chemical Musings (v. 2.0) » Chembark Musings Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 10:36 am […] Paul’s blog, Chembark, happens to be one of blogs I happen to frequent. I don’t really comment there much, but I do enjoy reading it. Recently, Paul wrote a post that was of Herculean proportions, which I freely admit I could not get 100% through. I applaud him for the dedication and tenacity to write something like that. Rather than summarize his post using less sophisticated verbiage, I wanted to opine on two ideas he brought to the front of my gray matter. […]
- sks Says:
August 4th, 2007 at 9:21 pm i would really like the abstract in italics! and where is the Supporting information? Man, was that a looooong post! i got through most of it though.
- eugene Says:
August 5th, 2007 at 11:28 am “i would really like the abstract in italics! and where is the Supporting information?”My suspicion that JACS has ruined the ‘full article’ experience for the younger generation is confirmed! No wonder everyone wants to publish a Communication.
P.S. Wolfie, for the third time, I’m not a tenured faculty member at Harvard.
- KRP Says:
August 5th, 2007 at 12:09 pm Does any body know for sure if the NIH/NSF proposals will be posted to the public openly from next year so that every body will have chance to see what/who is getting funded? I read some where that the research updtaes are going to be posted.
- Anonymous Says:
August 5th, 2007 at 6:34 pm When I was a grad student I had several friends who tried to go straight into academia and they had very little success. In part they just didn’t have the experience to compete with people coming off a successful postdoc with momentum in the lab, experience writing grants, training students, writing papers and on and on. They also had to deal with the persistent mentality of ‘I did a postdoc, why don’t you have to?’Based on my experience I can’t imagine going into academia without a postdoc. I worked independently as a graduate student and did some good work but it wasn’t revolutionary and my advisory was disengaged to the point of struggling to remember my name. As a postdoc everything was quite different and I used the opportunity to try to fill in the large voids in my education. Overall my experience was positive and educational. I learned stuff I should have learned ages ago, wrote grants and papers, corrupted some young students, set up collaborations, and so on. I got to spend several years working exclusively on research without having to worry about classes and exams, teaching, writing grants, and so on. As a faculty member bogged down by responsibility I look back on my postdoc wistfully…
With this student in question, I think that if she can make it happen then good for her. I hope she succeeds. I think that the personal jabs at Paul for covering the situation are obnoxious. Paul, you are doing everything right.
- The Chem Blog » Let’s make something perfectly clear Says:
August 6th, 2007 at 12:02 am […] This may seem like I’m alluding to a recent post on Chembark, but I assure you it isn’t. I (mostly) agree with Paul. It has nothing to do with Paul, regardless. Nevertheless, there is a difference (though a fine line) between gossip and news. People – all people – are susceptible to misinterpretation of a story. The misinterpretation I’m focusing on right now is that Trost pulled the plug on Tenderbutton. This rumor has been propagated, not just by graduate students, but highly placed faculty members at very respectable schools outside of Stanford. How does this happen? […]
- Paul Says:
August 6th, 2007 at 4:19 am From the e-mail: an astute reader reminds us of a more recent example of a professor who did not complete a postdoc.
- bacon Says:
August 6th, 2007 at 11:15 am KRP: Why would the NIH/NSF post the proposals? So there would be rampant idea-theft? I’ve never heard of posting entire proposals, but one has had access (for a long while now) to funded abstracts via CRISP.
- eugene Says:
August 6th, 2007 at 11:41 am “Why would the NIH/NSF post the proposals? So there would be rampant idea-theft?”Well, technically you can get the entire proposal anyways from some Freedom of Information Act. The catch is, they automatically tell your name to the proposal authors so you can’t do it secretly in your darkened office den while laughing maniacally. A much better course of action is to email the person and ask them for their proposal since you ‘want to see an example of a good, funded proposal’ as it will not weird them out. Still, some people will have a hard time emailing certain colleagues with this request I guess.
You can be sure I’ll be reading proposals in my area if they are posted online for free. I don’t think many people will steal ideas, but they will see the general directions and what is interesting and likely to be accepted for publication in the next two years. Maybe they’ll change their research focus a little if they know what’s getting funded (i.e. a particular mode of reactivity that proposal authors say will lead to greatness).
It’s cheating, but it would be foolish to not do it if the entire proposals are online. This will make the whole spiel more complicated but there are good sides, as well as bad sides, to it.
By the way KRP, you can see who is getting funded for what on the NSF site already (I don’t really search NIH) like Bacon said. You can search by institution, research area, or PI and see the amount of money and a short abstract that says absolutely nothing in particular. It’s very convenient.
- bacon Says:
August 6th, 2007 at 12:15 pm CRISP is a great tool when looking for a post-doc advisor. You can tell who has money and when their grant cycles are up.I’d be pretty freaked out if someone asked for a copy of one of my whole NIH proposals and would likely not oblige (unless they were a colleague in my department). You can already get the specific aims online, however, anyone wanting details for how I will complete a Specific Aim is a bit worrysome. I’m sure they could find someone in their own department for an idea of what a “good, funded proposal” looks like.
I would also read proposals if they were online (and would enjoy doing so). But the temptation to “borrow” ideas would be too great. Imagine reading a proposal that identifies a method to solve some problem in your current research and getting that “Ah-ha” moment. That would just present too many potential problems.
Invoking ‘Freedom of Information Act’ is an interesting idea. I wonder if requesting some high-profile faculty’s proposal would cause some tension and any sternly-worded warnings? Alas, that’s nothing I want to mess with…
- KRP Says:
August 6th, 2007 at 9:07 pm Eugene and Bacon: Thank you both for the information. It is highly useful.
- Philiocrates Says:
August 7th, 2007 at 10:45 am An interesting thread……It raises the question: Is there any group of people or profession more introspective and self-obsessed than PhD & Post Doc synthetic organic chemists? Why are we like this? Why are we generally obsessed with questions of status; who is good, who is not good, who went to the most prestigous university etc? Unless we all worked independently on solving a particular problem how can we even compare ourselves?
In my opinion there is a lot of negativity in the field and a lot of unneccessary navel gazing. It must be a by-product of “the academic system” that produces us. Not just a U.S. thing either, a similar culture exists in Europe, particularly the UK.
- Liquidcarbon Says:
August 7th, 2007 at 6:28 pm #65: I think the obsession with status is common everywhere.
- Wolfie Says:
August 17th, 2007 at 2:45 pm Eugene, whatever you are, tenured or not, when I sat across Whitesides (he sat himself there) at this restaurant there in Heidelberg, I understood where Paul’s attitude came from.
- asv Says:
August 17th, 2007 at 7:53 pm On which contacts and networks can a hardworking postdoc count on if there is only his your ass to see from the hood 12h a day, 6 days a week?!
- Wolfie Says:
August 20th, 2007 at 4:55 pm Hi Manfred, you are wrong. I am never part of this conversation, I give my ignorant comments only from outside (you know Feste).Chemistry as an eternal childhood ? yes this is not so wrong (look into your face, Paul’s is less public), ’cause if it works it cannot be wrong
I have nothing to do with Princeton nor Harvard, but I simply don’t like the arrogance that is sometimes brought forward here, and so I am an opposition in principle. And I generally don’t like any SS’s (congratulations).
Now, don’t tell us that you would not like to have tenure…
- Wolfie Says:
August 20th, 2007 at 5:19 pm I forgot a sentence my personal Jungian analyst told me : Science will not help you.
- Rover Says:
August 25th, 2007 at 5:43 pm I’m picking this up pretty late, I’ve only just come across this blog.I saw some where a post saying that Liu was the last person to get hired out of their PhD. I don’t know if that was referring only to organic chemistry, but Mount Sinai School of Medicine hired a chemist as an PI, Willem Mulder, straight out of his PhD – they headhunted him. He already has a pretty long publications list. I don’t know if this is more common in bio/medicine – he is into molecular imaging.
- ihategossip Says:
August 29th, 2007 at 3:30 pm there is too much gossip in the chemical community. people need to stfu and gbtw.
- European Chemist Says:
September 8th, 2007 at 7:48 pm Hi everyone,Getting pretty late to this post, had a lot in my hands with finishing the Ph.D. (finally done with!).
First of all, congrats on covering the story with a neutral view, Paul. Congratulations for sticking to your ideas and positions about things in Chemistry. Maybe we Chemists are indeed obsessed with status, but that’s probably a consequence of the fact that ACADEMIC Chemistry is such a hermetic world.
Face it, when you think about it, we send our best work to editors and referees who hide behind an anonymous cloak. Anonymous reviewers also check and judge our proposals. Most of us commenters in this blog wouldn’t DARE reveal our true identities when posting. We see (conveniently anonymous) referees refuse papers stating things like “the chemistry is pretty good but I don’t really believe it works”. On the other hand, people won’t dream of admitting that the chemical literature may contain irreproducible stuff, but when someone openly admits it and withdraws a number of papers, the blog that covers that story cleanly and thoroughly is accused of all sorts of crimes. People will even consider discussing the matter of hiring a Ph.D. student directly from grad school as “tabu”.
I myself will be going for a Post-Doc very soon, Paul. And although I’ve been through a 5-year Ph.D.+ Master, and had the opportunity to supervise 4 undergrads, write some proposals and have independent research ideas, I personally couldn’t imagine applying for an Academic position without one, for all the “positive” reasons you mentioned. Your post was very enlightening at this stage of my “career” and I’m thankful to you for doing so. Please go on reporting whatever you feel should be reported, in your characteristic and highly stimulating style.
My two cents on the matter: Is what happened uncommon practice? Yes. Is is hard for women and minorities to get to Faculty positions? For the reasons Paul mentioned, it probably is much more subtle than for the dominant groups of society. Should the posting of this issue be a nuisance for the person involved? It might, but unless there was something goind on “behind the table” the said person has nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, she should be proud of indirectly contributing to such a vivid discussion. Last but not least, are we jealous of this woman? I’m not and I think no one should. If you are, that only means you did your post-doc for the wrong reasons. Should this become more common practice in Academia? Hey, if for example someone had offered me a job two or three weeks ago would I still be going for a Post-Doc? That’s a question each one of us might try answering.
Keep up the good work, Paul.
- Brooke Shields Says:
October 20th, 2007 at 3:28 am http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06…..6DOYL.htmlAbigail Doyle and her hubby…….nice family, mom will kick your butt!
- Anon Says:
November 4th, 2007 at 2:21 am I guess she turned Princeton down, or at least wants to get some leverage:http://today.caltech.edu/eas/l…..this_month