Saturday, March 30, 2013

Post-docs and individual exploitation

There's a wonderful interview in this week's Science Careers of Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist and policy expert at the University of Washington. The interview is about careers in computer science, especially at the PhD level. I encourage you to read it if you are in or considering entering any STEM field. I think it is foretelling of a very important trend in both science and career fields.

One particular response that stood out in the interview addressed a question concerning the numbers of individuals presently earning PhD's in computer science. The end of his reply to this question was
I do think we need to be cautious. We need to avoid the overproduction—and, honestly, exploitation—that characterizes other fields. Hopefully we'll be smart enough to learn from their behavior.

What's interesting is that Lazowska has identified the overproduction of PhD's in some STEM fields with exploitation. I believe he's claiming that other fields use the competition for limited faculty and industrial positions to obtain cheap labor, such as in the form of the post-doctoral position.

In other words, the culture of a particular field may dictate that one must perform multiple post-docs as the way to get a faculty position. However, this is just exploitation in disguise: promise someone a faculty position, but only if they work for you and for lousy pay and benefits.

One important thing to do if you are a PhD student is to realize this attitude early. I'm not saying that you shouldn't try for a faculty position if you really want one, but realize that the motives behind the establishment known as a post-doc position may well be more than just to help you gain experience.

I for one am currently applying to post-doc positions, since they are a good fit for me. Ultimately, it comes down to critically thinking about the best position for yourself and what would make you happiest.