A decent target is an average of one first/last author paper a year. Two one year and zero the next isn't a problem, but one every five years certainly is. This doesn't even get into the 'careerism' of picking safe but dependable projects; anyone making reasonable choices about what to investigate and how to go about it can hit that kind of rate. It takes a lot of work, but that's very much the state of the field.
This guy isn't a PI.
He's not leading a research group, nor does it seem like he's all that interested in doing so. It sounds like he's interested in performing research in someone's lab, a staff scientist.
There's nothing wrong that; it would be quite nice if there were more long-term career opportunities for people like this. They tend to be the people that develop the highest skill in actually performing experiments. They are useful, not just for their own productivity, but for the expertise and continuity they can bring to a lab. They are incredibly valuable for graduate student mentorship. They occupy a wonderful space that is otherwise vacant due to the demands placed on other lab members.
Generally only larger labs can afford such positions, and the competition of cheap post-doc labor means that many are stuck in eternal post-docs where they are underpaid, underappreciated, and given inappropriate expectations.
I feel so sad that the scientific industry is set up such that guys like this can plod on two decades or more past the point they should have realized they weren’t on a tenure trajectory. Now he’s 40-something and has to start over in something else (data science?), probably with very little saved for retirement and possibly having missed out or significantly delayed other aspects of life (marriage, kids, house). Why didn’t anybody tell this guy to start his career in private industry 15 years ago? Every PI in every lab he touched should have seen this coming.
People are surprisingly willing to let you accidentally pour your life in to something that only marginally benefits them, that's why you have to be ever-vigilant against the many opportunities you'll have to do that. Some people are prone to slipping into the mentality of the ideal feudal peasant: "life is bad here, but the lord of the estate isn't going to grant me any freedom, so I'm just going to focus on making the best of it." A mentality like that would be great for someone who had no freedom, and indeed it would make the best of an immutable bad situation, but I see a lot of people slip in to it even when they do actually have the ability to jump to a different life track. Scientists are especially prone to this because they're pre-selected for high levels of tenacity and low levels of impulsiveness.
If you want to pursue the academic career, you need to focus on that from the start of your PhD. And you really need to be on some position on a track towards full professor after one or at most two PostDocs.
I'm quite confused by the timeline here, though. A PostDoc is usually something around 2 years, maybe 3. Four PostDocs in 23 years is unusual, and indicates positions that are closer to something like a staff scientists usually done by people with permanent positions.
The logistical stuff is difficult as a postdoc. A traditional wedding is fairly expensive and time-consuming to plan, and many postdocs are cash and time poor. People often like to have the ceremony near family—-isn’t the bride’s hometown traditional?—-but people move, often very far, to find good positions. Traveling back and forth is also tricky if you have experimental time points or lab animals to take care of, as we did.
More psychologically, being a postdoc is a weird transitional state. I felt odd promising life-long commitment and support to one person, while not knowing if my own job was still going to support me next year. (I was on one-year renewable contracts).
Finally, we were a little concerned that being married could make things more difficult for my wife. Although they shouldn’t, a surprising number of profs are reluctant to take on a postdoc who might be ‘distracted’ with a spouse or kids. Furthermore, if you have a kid as a professor, you often get an extension in the tenure clock, help with daycare, etc. As a postdoc, you can maybe get a little more time on these time-limited fellowships, but that’s about it.
We eventually did get married though (and it’s been great) but waiting was not totally irrational.
No, 12 years of post-doc with 5 first authors: “after working in several postdoctoral positions over the course of 12 years, I started applying for tenure-track and other permanent positions. At this point, I had 19 peer-reviewed publications, including 5 as first author”
> Why didn’t anybody tell this guy to start his career in private industry 15 years ago?
He did start trying that no later than 11 years before you seem to think, since at the same 12 years point referenced is when “[i]n the next 3 years, I sent out more than 100 applications to academic institutions, to the private sector and to government agencies (predominantly in the United States, where I was living at the time).” [emphasis added]
But as I indicate in a direct response I don't think any of that really matters either
A primary purpose of an academic researcher is to contribute to the field via research, largely measured by accepted publications where they are the first (did most of the work and writing) or last (group leader/principal investigator) author.
And this, fellows, is how you end up with the reproducibility crisis. Incentives are just all messed up.
> I am not advocating the reckless publication of unverified data, or recommending being so careful that you end up publishing nothing — but there is a difference between being reckless and shooting yourself in the foot.
To me, the author is looking back and now realizes that he may have been too cautious in that he was running too many experiments to publish one result and that there is a spectrum of caution and that he may have missed the sweet spot. As others have pointed out ~19 papers (and only 5 first author) over 23 years seems to be a low publication rate, which I think the author is reflecting on.
I agree that the incentives are messed up and these upside down incentives are a driving force behind the reproducibility crisis, but I wouldn't take this quote from the author and say it is an illustration of the reproducibility crisis.
Low compared to what? Compared to the expectations set by his fellow scientists in a field shaped by the norms and incentives in question.
There's a circularity here (and in the earlier comment by Obi_Juan_Kenobi): apparently this guy's real problem was his own low productivity, which we know because he published less than his colleagues and competitors -- therefore his case can't tell us anything about the warped incentive structure that favours publication maximization over intellectual integrity.
This is why I don't read his self-reflection as necessarily being an illustration of the type of mindset that leads to the reproducibility crisis. It sounds like a reasonable scientist reflecting on things he might have reasonably done better with the benefit of hindsight. No where do I read the implication that he is lamenting his choice to not do shoddy/quick science for the sake of securing a tenure track position.
Moreover this is self reflection so a lot the things he is reflecting on are speculative in that he thinks they might have helped him find a tenured position, but he can't be sure. He even has this disclaimer at the beginning of his piece:
> I’m not claiming to know the formula for how to get tenured (if I had that, I would have used it for myself). Instead, I would like to offer the advice I’ve gathered.
That way lies madness.
If a scientist runs a couple experiments and find something truly remarkable, the guy who rushes to publish is going to win out over the guy that says “this needs another year of work before it’s perfect”.
Looking at the peers who made it and didn't (including ones that were slightly less deficient), I realized it's because you need to have one of those PIs go to bat for you. It was something as a leader I did for my underlings (I arranged for both of my interns to have one-on-one lunches with a Nobel laureate and a his buddy that didn't get to win a prize in spite of inventing site directed mutagenesis - an experience that I haven't even had myself). As soon as I realized that my high profile bosses had checked out and would never go to bat for me or anyone really (still love them though) I got out of dodge.
Anyways, that my advice for anyone who wants a tenure track position. 1) Table stakes are a top tier postdoc (ideally a top tier grad school too). 2) Table stakes are 1-1.5 (ideally 2) publications a year. If you don't have these it will be VERY hard. Don't feel guilty for giving up, don't let anyone trick you into thinking it will be easy. Most most most importantly, work for someone in grad school or postdoc who will network for you.
I'm in the tech sector now, and have performed well enough that my CEO seems to think of me as a performant employee, so we'll see where that goes. Maybe I'll get really rich and pay for my own science. (doubtful, but at least I get paid well enough to not worry about my future).
Big pharma is cutting R&D left and right, and there aren't enough small companies to provide jobs for all these scientists. There are very few tenure-track positions available, so a career in academia isn't really an option either. Compare this to CS where by the sounds of it there are far more open positions than qualified candidates (not my field, but i hear this all the time)
If you are a smart software engineer who just wants to write good code and have good work / life balance, you can make low to mid six figures at a big company. If you are a smart biologist who just wants to do good science and have a good work / life balance....you don't really have many options. You can be an eternal postdoc, but the work life balance isn't that great, and you're making $40-60K, even in your 30s
1) As postdocs get more experienced, their pay usually goes up.
2) As mentioned in the article, it's possible to "age out" of a lot of fellowships, which have limits like "5 years since your last degree" requirements.
Which means the burden then falls on the PI of the lab to support them as essentially a staff scientist.
If I pay a postdoc $60,000 a year, at 10% pay lines (which is not unreasonable for the NIH), I have to write about $600,000 in grants in expectation to be able to afford them. That's a lot of work, and unless they are significantly better than a new postdoc, potentially not worth it. They're also not a good speculative investment - they're not going to go on to be a PI of their own lab, which has benefits for their PI down the line.
There is often also an assumption that more senior people will also bring on money, either completely by themselves or by enabling more projects. The (completely idiotic, IMHO) 2 or 5-year cutoffs on some fellowships makes this somewhat more difficult.
I also think experience is weirdly undervalued in academia. I would bet that, in many fields, three random students at $25k/ea are not appreciably better than one highly skilled staff scientist at $75k, especially if the lab actually paid full freight for the students instead of having them subsidized by training grants and time-limited fellowships. This is tricky to study though....
But I would be inclined to hire the students. There are more funding opportunities for them (NSF prioritizes students and departments fund TAs) and I’m expected to graduate students. In my field (CS), research staff and postdocs disappear too quickly anyway.
1) A brand new postdoc costs $48,432 on the NIH scale in 2018. This author of this article costs $59,736. Their benefits are also about $3800 more. It's not that fast.
2) I agree that experience is undervalued - and said staff scientist will almost certainly out produce them. But the burden often falls in different areas - I'm evaluated based on mentoring students for example, not staff scientists. Training grants exist. Etc. A senior staff scientist is always full freight born by the lab (barring like, really nice retention/recruitment packages).
But I think the real problem is the author isn't some sort of rockstar senior staff scientist (I've known some). Their productivity just isn't there enough to assume that they're 15 grand better than trying a new draw from the postdoc pool.
Self-direction is essential.
My experience of getting a tenure-track position is that you’ve got to be the right person in the right place at the right time. My academic record is patchier than the OP’s, but it is offset my several years at fairly senior level in industry, which my university values happens to value. And I entered the picture just at the right moment.
Academia is kind of a pyramid scheme and there is a huge mismatch between the number of graduates and academic jobs. Moreover, universities are turning increasingly to adjunct faculty rather than adding tenure track positions.
Fortunately in the sciences and engineering you can work in industry or government labs; it's a lot harder for people in the humanities and social sciences.
I know scientists with PhDs from top-5 universities doing postdocs in highly regarded labs who have only seen a handful of job postings in their 15 years in academia. Many scientists focus solely on the tenure track, and only reconsider after a few years in a postdoc shows them how hard it is
Why would you wait 12 years after your terminal degree to START applying for permanent jobs?
Author would surely have been well served by leaving science sooner. As another commenter noted, his output wasn't impressive, and it should have been obvious he would never be hired as an independent researcher. But that can be psychologically difficult for a 40-year-old whose project of becoming an independent scientist started when he was literally a teenager.
"My take-away from the careers aspect of the book is that if you (1) love competition, (2) have a huge appetite for risk, (3) don’t mind working long hours for a minimum of 27 years until getting that first grant, and (4) are mostly indifferent to money, pursuing a physics PhD and an academic job might be a reasonable plan. You’ll get to work with a lot of smart people, for sure, but, as the book notes, quite of few of them may be planning to stab you in the back when it comes time to assign credit for a Nobel-worthy discovery. It is not like most other fields of human endeavor where there is room for everyone to excel in his or her own way."
Publications/year depends on field. In parts of biology, you just need one every 3 years to be fine. The journal matters too. Even one every 4, if it's in Nature, Science etc., and you'd secure a job. And field: Even papers not in Nature if they're in a hot field would be enough. And PI: even papers with a famous PI, without being a hit field or high impact, might be ok.
In this case the author appears to be a biochemist without any high impact publications or from any famous labs. So yeah, no dice. (source: just Google him)
That being said, this format is weird because it’s a numbered list of advice that is difficult to know how valuable it is for landing tenure. When I re-read it as life coping advice or how to research well, it helps. But phrased as tips for tenure I don’t find it very helpful. Although I’m not interested in tenure and not in that world, so I may not appreciate some of the content. I am really interested in organizational innovation, culture change management, translation, and research and think this is helpful.
Obtaining funding is a function of your existing publication record, network (read: relationships with program directors), but also your ability to sell new ideas particularly as a member of an interdisciplinary team. You can be the best in your area but if you don’t offer synergy with a dept’s other PIs it’s probably a no go.
> Of course, “be lucky” is not a very useful piece of advice. But some of their advice might help you to recognize and take advantage of your luck.
Many years ago I was told the new-age aphorism “luck happens to those who let it” and at least this unfortunate writer was able to see this.
My wife and I used to quote the statement to each other quite a bit as it happens. It helped make us seemingly more lucky than most.