The Three Worst Places to Be a Postdoc

When choosing postgraduate training, senior faculty aren't always the best mentors

Glenn McGee
May 31, 2006

Anyone who has chosen a graduate program remembers the trouble distinguishing the trees from the forest during that process. There are so many permutations of programs, so many options, so many rules. So students focus instead on what they can relate to: Life outside of school. "I can't live in Houston, it's so hot." "I only want to live on the East Coast."

The 30% who finish their PhDs emerge these days to find that there are still more, and more complicated, choices - among them whether and where to do a postdoc. Those who elect to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship look to Best Places to Work for Postdocs, the annual survey of thousands of postdocs by The Scientist (see the March issue).

They find some top places, with great resources by any scientific metric. It's no surprise that competition for fellowships in the best funded, most productive places is heated. Or is it? I wonder, given what we've learned from the annual survey in The Scientist - Why is competition for fellowships equally intense in prestigious programs whose postdocs were less happy and for the institutions where they're happiest?

The answer has to do with a basic moral failing in science training: the failure to mentor. First, we allow our students to choose graduate programs based on location, then we push newly minted PhDs to apply for programs based entirely on raw indices of scientific productivity instead of paying attention to what their peers think. Small wonder that so many choose variants of my bottom three institutions, the McGee list of "Worst Places to Be a Postdoc":

1. Acknowledgement University-In some of this school's labs, you will find a large number of unpoliced junior faculty who believe that they need publications more than you. In others, senior faculty - who judge the productivity of those junior faculty, and whose huge grants brought prestige to the lab - are eager to disabuse you of the silly notion that their own authorship has anything whatever to do with writing. You will begin to wonder whether you should find a place on your CV for the thank-yous for all the articles on which you weren't identified.

2. The Allalone Institute-Here, the cubes are big, the hoods vent properly, the equipment is state of the art, and the lunchroom is spacious. Computers access all the resources you need, and if you break your arm there is insurance. Your principal investigator is around every couple of days, and if you ask she will answer anything you want to know about science, your career, or what and where to publish. The rest of the time, you are a monk. There is no one to talk with, nothing to do, and you find yourself curiously drawn to during working hours. You wonder whether after you finish you will be able to explain your invisible friends to prospective employers.

3. Printnot University-Your dissertation was brilliant, so you have been welcomed into one of the most prolific labs in the world, where a dozen equally thoughtful and productive fellows all work alongside you in a cross between a think tank, a lab, and a bank. A bank? Yes, because virtually nothing you write in this lab can be published without the permission of the sponsors, who make a part of virtually everything you do possible with their intensely financed and highly protected intellectual property. You prepare yourself for a great career, just as long as it is spent working alongside the people who guided and funded your postdoctoral work.

Postdoctoral training is improving, and it returns more to trainees with every passing day. But at a time when it's difficult to discern the really good opportunities from the really flashy forms of servitude, and at a time when salaries for postdocs are in the doldrums, it's more important than ever to make sure that the great lab with all the stem cell opportunities isn't run by Hwang Woo-suk. That's where postdoctoral fellows themselves tell the best tale. The Best Places to Work just might actually be the best places to work. The ethical mentor will press students to take seriously the advice of their peers about the environments where good scientists are birthed, rather than letting their hatred of a Houston, love of a Hwang, or desire to please a mentor lead them astray.

Glenn McGee is the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, where he holds the John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics.