Where did the postdocs go? Procrastination as an advantage.
This is the sixth post in a series called Triskelion. The triskelion is an ancient symbol consisting of a triple spiral (or legs) exhibiting rotational symmetry. The triskelion has different meanings across cultures, but all meanings revolve around a rule of 3’s. In this series, I’ll share three things — a paper, a quote, and a thought. I'll post these whenever I can fill up the three branches of the triskelion. I hope you enjoy.
In an op-ed in The Hematologist, Dunbar, et al., describe several causes underlying the shortage of postdoctoral researchers in academic laboratories. Some of the ideas they discuss include a shortage of international students coming to the US for their education, poor postdoctoral pay, and a currently hot market for doctoral scientists in industry.
Full reference: The Perfect Storm: The Workforce Crunch and the Academic Laboratory. Cynthia E. Dunbar, MD, Ross L. Levine, MD, Alisa S. Wolberg, PhD. The Hematologist (2022) 19 (3) https://doi.org/10.1182/hem.V19.3.2022314
Jason Fried posted this in a recent newsletter. It perfectly explains the lead up to my writing deadlines for everything—proposals, papers, this newsletter.
Procrastination is often tagged as a negative.
If you're putting something off until the last minute, it's assumed it's because you don't want to do it, or it's too hard, or you've been avoiding it for some other reason.
Maybe I'm making excuses, but lately I've found procrastination can be aimed to your advantage. Not always, but more than I imagined.
Procrastination has a way of concentrating attention. When it has to be done, and the clock is ticking, it blocks your attention from wandering to other things. There's simply no time, and the penalty for further delay is high.
Concentrated attention, at least for me, helps me do my best work. It's as if attention is a reduced sauce, thickened and viscous, sticking to what I'm working on. Undivided, undiluted, unbroken.
Procrastination helps wedge me into a sustained flow state. "I have to get it done this afternoon" turns into 3 or 4 hours of continuous, focused work. When the deadline is over the horizon, it's too easy to shatter those hours into ineffective slices of attention doled out over days or weeks. But when it's right in front of you, you tuck in, get real, and get it done.
There are obviously occasions where you wish you had more time, or a second take, or another edit, but, more often than not, I find more time talks you out of your best ideas, and slips in too many second guesses. I think I'd rather take something slightly undercooked than overcooked.
One downside of waiting is if others are waiting on you. Procrastination is disrespect if others need what you're making in order to move forward on what they need to make. So be sure to take that all into consideration too. You can't wait until the 11th hour, if it forces everyone else into the 12th.
The shortage of postdoctoral researchers is a complicated issue for both new doctoral graduates and the research faculty that hire and train them. Academia has never been able to compete with industry salaries for new graduates. But the solution is not as straightforward as individual research faculty simply raising postdoctoral salaries. There need to be funds to do that. Funding agencies often cap postdoctoral salaries based on their own guidelines. If researchers budget for more than this amount it’s nearly always cut from the award. Universities also have salary caps for nearly all staff positions, including postdoctoral researchers (and stepped salary ranges for subcategories within each position).
While there may be some faculty that view postdoctoral researchers as “cheap labor,” I and the majority of faculty I interact with regularly, would jump at the opportunity to pay and support postdocs better if the institutional (broadly defined) barriers were not in place.
In addition to the ideas outlined by Dunbar, I’ve heard of other reasons for the potential shortage of postdoctoral researchers in the United States, including:
A reduction in traditional in-person conference-mediated networking opportunities due to the pandemic.
Concerns from international students about their safety in the United States amidst ever-growing gun violence.
Concerns about how Universities treated and valued (i.e. didn’t) individual faculty during the pandemic. (Remember, most would-be postdocs were grad students in the middle of the pandemic where they saw firsthand how their mentors were forced to bear the brunt of carrying out “The University’s mission.” Who would blame them for not pursuing the academic life?)
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