Tuesday, November 6, 2007


As mentioned in Monday's post, I had originally planned to talk about TV today, however, something else will take it's place. The post today was inspired by an innocent question from an avid (avid should most likely be replaced with "obligated", but I like the idea of having avid readers... I find avid more amusing) reader of this blog. It is most likely true, that the non academic researcher is unaware of the general rules that academic researcher are expected to adhere to. I am willing to pass this information on to the general public in an effort so that people of my ilk will be recognized for their "diligent" work.

In academic research science there is an interesting quandary, which I will present here. As a short introduction, I will provide a few quick definitions to make things easier. In academic research there are several classes of individuals, all of which abide by a slightly different set rules and regulations.

Bosses - Also referred to as P.I.'s (principal investigator), the boss is the lead scientist that provide the funding for all of the "underlings" and serve as the mentor in the "group". The boss oversees the work done by the "group" and writes the grants used for acquiring funding. The boss also writes or at least rewrites the work presented for publication. An established boss, does no actual lab work and may not even know how most work is accomplished.

Group - Contains all the "underlings" and the boss. The typical group size is generally comprised of one boss and 3-6 "underlings".

Underlings - The workers that do all of the laboratory research and a considerable amount of the academic writing, with the exception of the grant proposal(s). All work is overseen by (and harshly criticized), by the boss. The "underlings" are made up of (in descending order in the food chain): Post docs, grad students, undergrads. Some groups may have alternative members, such as the "lab tech" that can fall above or below the post doc position depending on the degree that they have received (i.e. if lab tech has a master's degree, the post doc outranks the tech, but a tech with a PhD, could rank equal to, above or below the post doc position depending on how long they have been in the group). Other positions can be present in this category depending on the amount/difficulty of the work being performed within the group.

Post docs - (My current rank) Should be the most productive members of the group. They have already received their PhD, but are, generally, shortly out of school and still accustomed to the graduate student life - i.e. they are grad students that don't have classes, but are expected to work long hours. Post docs are paid in a similar manner to graduate students with one exception - grad students receive a stipend and their tuition is paid to the school by the boss, while post docs, basically, have the same base salary, but the tuition money is paid to them. Realistically, the boss is receiving a highly trained graduate student, without having to pay any more out of pocket than having a first year graduate student. Generally, post docs are considered to be extremely underpaid and are, more or less, in a state of indentured servitude, paying their dues until they get a real job. Generally, post docs stay for 1-3 years then move on to another post doc, or begin an actual career as a boss in another institution if they have a good enough publication record.

Graduate students - Working to receive a PhD. Grad students are generally doing work that the boss assigns for the first couple of years, then are allowed to expand (under tight supervision) during their final years. Grad students, like post docs, are generally overworked and underpaid. The length of term for grad students is generally 3-7 years depending on the degree they entered with (those coming in with a Master's degree could leave in as few as three years, but could take longer, those coming in with Bachelor's degrees will take 5-7 years to finish depending on motivation and indispensability - the better the student, the longer the boss will want to keep the student).

Undergrads - The bottom rung of the ladder. Typically, the undergrad does what the others in the group tell them to do... and do that poorly. Undergrads take a fair amount of time to train and tend to leave almost immediately after becoming useful. Depending on the amount of training, the undergrad can do anything from washing dishes, to providing basic prep work for other graduate students/post docs in the "group", or have their own independent project. Those with independent projects typically go on to graduate school sometimes in the same labs they worked in as undergrads. Those that leave and get real jobs are considered smarter than their peers, even though they will leave with a, technically, lower degree (i.e. they got out while they still could)

The question that was eluded to earlier is:
"Can I take a vacation?"

The answer:
The theoretical answer - yes, I receive what are referred to as "vacation days", as well as "sick days" and something called "personal days". The general public receives vacation days, while academic subordinates or, underlings, receive "vacation days". Vacation days and "vacation days" however, differ in one regard, which will be explained in the next section.

The actual answer - not really, if things were going smoothly, then an underling could (potentially) get away for a few days, but things are not, so... no. Realistically, things are never truly going smoothly for anyone... ever. So, underlings can never justify a true vacation. This the explanation of "vacation days" versus vacation days. Yes, underlings receive the "days" but they aren't really allowed to use them. The exception, of course, is for the bosses, who can take and use their vacation whenever they please. During this time, the underlings are expected to work even harder in their absence. This, of course, does not happen.


kilax said...

I think a lot of workers are "overworked and underpaid" and a lot are also worthless (no the word you used, but the impression I got) like the undergrads. Maybe the bigger percentage is "worthless."

Anyway, are you going to stick it out until you are a "boss"?

Gina said...

I had the same question as Kilax running in my head while reading this. When do you get to play boss? Do you atleast get paid out for your unused "vacation days"?

kilax said...

P.S. You better be around for Christmas! We are going to be there from the 22nd to the early morning 26th... I will be sad if we don't get to see you (i.e. I will be bored). Star Wars lego Marathon!!!

Andrew Skaff said...

kilax/Gina - I have no plans to be a boss in academia. The idea is that I pay my dues here, then move to industry. More on this in today's post.

Gina - I believe that I will be compensated for my "vacation days", but until it happens, I consider it to be all theoretical.

kilax - There are many worthless people at all levels, even bosses in academia, this concept is universal. About Christmas - Where would I go? My family will be in KC. Why would I leave?

kilax said...

I meant you better not be in the office. ;)