Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Scientist's Life

We have such a strange way of training scientists.   First, we get an undergraduate degree, of course, we pay for it and understand that it is a privilege to work in someone's lab.  Then we make the choice to work as a technician (paid+benefits) or go to graduate school, again "paid", but no benefits.  Graduate school takes anywhere from three to eight years to complete.  The programs are not equivalent from school to school or even from department to department.  Thus, recently hooded PhDs are diverse in their understanding of how to approach a scientific question.  Probably--this is OK.

What becomes a challenge is that the next step is even more variable.  The post-doctoral training!!  This can be 3 years or even a lifetime.  There are far too many variables at this step.  Some can be controlled by the individual post-doc.  But there is too much that cannot, such as how the university views their obligation to the post-doc.  Typically, universities allow the principle investigator (PI) decide how to train the post-doc. Some decide that the post-doc is cheap labor, some decide that training the post-doc is an opportunity to advance scientific thought.

I have been in the post-doctoral training stage for 5+ years and I now realize that the process is not quite right.  If only I could be in charge!  Basically, I feel that the University should be fiscally responsible for all steps--whether technician, graduate student, post-doc or PI.  There is too much power at the PI level.  Sure, the PI brings in the NIH money (or other funding opportunities).  I do think that this is important to the process.  But the PI should not have so much power over the rest.  Post-docs should have equal opportunity to apply for funding independent of the PI.  Technicians should have better opportunity to move from lab to lab, perhaps by being an employee of the department rather than the PI.  There are so many abusive PI's because they do not seem to have to answer to the University, as long as they bring in funding.

I have been thinking about this whole process, because I want to move on to the next level.  I wonder if I really have enough time to make the changes that should be made.  Probably, I need to start being more vocal to the people around me about a "better" or more equitable  way of performing science.  Perhaps, a few of my ideas will be transferred to the next generation of scientists.