A certain someone has taken it upon himself to lampoon certain types of solicitations issued by a lab head for postdocs and occasionally for graduate students, when they appear on Twitter. The triggering material included in such solicitations are terms such as “independent”, “energetic”, “brilliant”, “highly motivated”, “creative” and the like. Sometimes the trigger for this certain someone is merely a comment that the applicant should be experienced in some particular scientific technique. Seemingly inoffensive and very traditional, right? I mean, every lab head wants the lab to be as successful as possible and that means that they want good rather than bad employees.


Whoops. But we’re talking about trainees, right? Graduate students and postdoctoral trainees.

They are supposed to be getting something from the lab, not the other way around. Correct? So this over emphasis on how the PI only wants to hire the most talented, rather than the most needy, individuals pulls back the curtain to reveal the seamy truth.

“Trainees” in biomedical science are in large part the workforce. Which is obtained for less money due to the “training” misdirection.


This is one that set me off recently, thanks to our beloved aforementioned trollerpants. Chit chat amongst the Professor class that they “need” a postdoc now. Or general announcements that they will be soon looking to “hire a graduate student” in their new appointment, whee! but…”need”.

And of course coupling this to the above focus on the very best, most motivated, well trained, energetic self-starting individuals?

The notion of actually competing for the best of the available postdocs raises an ugly head.

You will be entirely unsurprised that I couple all of this to my views on labor in academic research labs and, in particular, the way we go along deluding ourselves that we are not part of any sort of labor market. I couple this to my thinking about ways to make academic careers slightly less hellish on the factors which are usually rubbing points.

Thinking more about the labor aspects of what is now academic “training” lets us think, I believe, more creatively about making things better for all of us.

No, it does not magically invent more Professor jobs. It does not restore State level commitment of funds to public Universities and thereby relieve the pressure for extramural funds. It does not make the NIH budget double overnight and therefore reduce pressure for the grant seekers.

But creating stable, long term job categories for those who are now some thin rebranding of “postdoc” could advance us. Creating stable career jobs to do the pure work part of the graduate student job could advance us.

Yes, this means we will “train” fewer graduate students and replace that labor with technicians. Who will be more or less expected to journey through their career as a career. Benefits. Increasing salaries with experience and longevity.

It’s gonna cost.

That brings me around to grant review. It always comes back to grant review.

One of the reasons NIH put the modular budget in place is to get reviewers to stop with the ticky tack over costs. Costs that vary all across the country from place to place. Costs that a certain species of reviewer just could not get through their head would vary. Costs that a certain species of reviewer delighted in using to spike a grant because those outrageous cage costs at Big U were higher than they were paying at their LessBig U.

And salary.

A certain species of reviewer is very concerned about salaries paid, if they can just get their beady little eyes on the information. A related species is very concerned about how many individuals are being paid off the grant, if they can just get their eyes on that information.

It is very hard to get their eyes on contributions by graduate students or postdocs who are on a fellowship or Program paid stipend. It is inevitably that they get their eyes on technician salaries when looking at an itemized budget.

I have recently received a grant review comment that clearly I was paying my technical staff too much, coupled with an obviously grudging admission that the person had long experience as a technician.

I have related more than once on these pages that over time I have generally relied more on tech labor than on the “trainee” scam. This, as our second President of the USA John Adams famously remarked about his refusal to use enslaved labor, costs me. It costs my grants and therefore I get less productivity per dollar compared with someone who is willing to fully exploit cut-rate labor under guise of “trainee” job categories. I do not turn my techs over willy-nilly every several years to reset salaries, either. And the way things work in these here United States, people get paid more over time. Those with more experience get paid more than those with less, even if the lesser experienced person could do the same job.

So when my peers who review my grants say that the merit of my proposal is diminished because I make these labor choices in my lab, and suggest that what I should be doing is exploiting the heck out of labor by using less experienced and cheaper techs…..

I get a little shouty. and bloggy.

For every reviewer who is dumb enough to actually write this in a critique, there are ten that are thinking it. They are taking a less positive cant on my proposal as a consequence. And possibly looking for other ways to express their disapproval.

I myself have occasionally fallen into to the “too many staff for the work described” review space. I’ve done it super rarely, so I think I’m probably on solid ground. The only cases I can recall were really, really egregious. But I need to watch myself, as do you. How often are you thinking that a major grant will receive the supplemental help of undergraduate “interns”? grand students or postdocs on “their own” fellowships? How many times have you questioned the role of a staff scientist when surely a postdoc would do?