Since starting in my current position, I have worked closely with one particular postdoc, helping her to prepare an RO1 based on her work. While I was gone on vacation these past several days, she finally completed a crucial experiment. You know, the obvious experiment that all the reviewers will demand. The one that you demand, to know whether or not this project is really viable. The big-time experiment that will make or break your entire hypothesis.
She got awesome, beautiful data. She didn’t tell me until I wandered by her desk this afternoon… but it is gorgeous. Has the boss seen this? I demanded. Boss has indeed seen it, and was so excited that he took it to our new institute director (and that is an entirely separate and probably unbloggable topic—the major reorganization at our institute). Big Pharma Collaborator/Representative apparently also stopped by the lab while I was on vacation, saw the data, and got super excited. I’m excited and I’m just a bystander in this all. The postdoc has the wary demeanor I recognize, the I’m-not-going-to-jinx-this-so-I’ll-just-play-it-real-cool demeanor. In her place, I would think that I’d be jumping out of my frigging skin (maybe she did, when she first saw her results in private).
It’s not the same as being the first person in the world to see the data, the first person to understand something new about our universe. But peering over someone else’s shoulders will do for me. And I don’t envy having to do mouse work at all.
Today I had an interesting chat with the staff science editor at our institute. S.E. is the editor for our entire institute, working with any lab who requests his services. I work for only one laboratory. S.E. edits other people’s words, but I actually do a lot of de novo writing and very substantive editing (to the point where the line between editing and writing becomes very blurred).
S.E. was involved in my hiring, and today I asked him something I’ve been long curious about. What were the backgrounds of the other candidates who interviewed for my job?
I should note that I applied for this position with naïve confidence. Our institute is not a well-known one, and it is located in flyover country. I know that our location makes recruitment of American Ph.Ds. difficult. The faculty are all great (heck, people will accept faculty jobs wherever they can get them, right?). But there are very very few American postdocs here. The few that are here all have family ties of some kind to the area.
So I figured the job posting I applied to probably wouldn’t get many qualified American Ph.D.s The job description did not formally require a Ph.D., although the degree was described as useful. I applied with inward swagger, thinking: I have a Ph.D. from a prestigious program and a postdoc from Big Research U! Who could possible be my competition?
Well, today S.E. told me who my competitors were. Folks, it is a brutal world out there (like you didn’t already know that).
The job wasn’t nationally advertised, but yeah, there were other Ph.D.s applying for this position. Ph.Ds with postdoctoral experience. The other leading candidate was a faculty member from a teaching-oriented school several hours away. I was floored that a faculty member would apply for such an editing job. Apparently, the hiring committee was also surprised, and concerned about how committed this faculty member really was to the position (hence my hiring).
Then S.E. told me about other positions he’d hired for. S.E. is a long-time editor; he’s worked at a number of places, including Big Pharma, and in different fields. He told me that once he was hiring for an assistant editor and got flooded with 50 applications from people with advanced degrees. It was incredible, S.E. recalled. Most people had Ph.Ds., and it was a position that did not require a Ph.D. One person had a J.D. (I didn’t get that at all, S.E. told me. He was a lawyer—why wasn’t he out making good money as a lawyer? Maybe he hated being a lawyer? I offered).
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Even before this latest economic downturn, there was a desperate postdoc glut and plenty of trained scientists looking for a way out. I am luckier than I thought. And the job market—even in “alternative” fields—is more brutal than I had believed.