Want to Keep Your Job and Get a PhD in the Trump Era? Unionize!!!!!!

Posted in BioBusiness, BioEducation, BioJobBuzz, Career Advice

It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump is anti-union and his recent cabinet pick for Secretary of Labor is clearly not a friend of working people.  Put simply, Trump is on the side of big business and employers. And if he and his billionaire friends can squeeze more work out of employees for lesser pay, then he and his administration gladly propose legislation to accomplish those goals. Also, don’t be shocked when Trump cuts the budgets of federal agencies that offer research grants, fellowships and teaching assistantships to American colleges and Universities.

It’s no secret that graduate students and postdocs are overworked and underpaid and long term career prospects continue to dwindle.  Further, during the course of my career advising graduate students and postdocs about job opportunities, I have heard too many horror stories about PIs who refuse to let their students or postdoc do anything outside of their laboratories to enhance careers or job opportunities.

While the public and private union movement is dying in the US, unions still offer exploited workers to negotiate their fates, working conditions, pay and benefits with employers.  Sadly, we in the academic community have been taught to be anti-union because of the high costs associated with union labor. Ironically, that is the point….why  should graduate students and postdocs not be fairly compensated for the long hours that they work?  Sure, you can say that graduate students will get a degree and postdocs need the experience to get a job but, while a degree and a postdoc in the past meant a good paying job in the end, no such guarantees exist today.  Basically, you are on your own!

Last week, graduate students at Columbia University overwhelmingly voted to unionize. According to a newspaper article in the NY Times:

The union will be the first to represent graduate students since the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that students who work as teaching and research assistants have a federal right to unionize.


The vote to unionize was 1,602 to 623, according to the United Automobile Workers, which will now represent some 3,500 Columbia graduate students.

While the vote to unionize will undoubtedly upsets PIs, Deans and University Presidents, it is in the best career interests and lifestyles of graduate students and research assistants. For example, unions typically negotiate the salaries for 40 hour work weeks. We all know that postdocs and graduate students work more than 40 hours weekly. Therefore, any time over 40 hours ought to be overtime pay, or to avoid overtime hourly pay, base salaries have to be set a certain levels (according to Federal salary guidelines ) which are substantially more than what graduate students and postdocs are currently paid. Also, unions negotiate with employers about vacation times, benefits (health and life insurance,401K plans etc) and establish guidelines that protect employees from being abused by employers and create rules that guide whether or not an employee can be fired “for cause” (not simply because your employer does not like you).

As I previously mentioned, research budgets and public unions will likely be under constant attack during the Trump regime.  Because of this, it is time that everyone begins to think about ways in which they can protect their jobs and keep their career aspirations alive. I know it won’t be easy but as someone once said “desperate times require desperate measures” (or something like that).

Until next time….

Good Luck and Good Unionizing!!!!!!

Changing and Revitalizing Graduate Education in the Life Sciences

Posted in Career Advice

Over the past several years, I have publicly called for fundamental changes in graduate education and training for life scientists. To that end, I was delighted to read an OP-ED piece in today’s New York Times entitled “End Universities as We Know It” written by Professor Mark C. Taylor, Chairperson of the religion department at Columbia University. 

In his post, Professor Taylor recommended several fundamental and systemic changes that ought to improve the likelihood that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows find jobs at the end of their graduate education. While some of Dr. Taylor’s ideas are novel and innovative, two in particular; 1) expanding the range of career opportunities for graduate students and postdocs and 2) abolishing tenure and mandatory retirement; are ones that I have suggested many times in the past few years. Rather than paraphrase, I decided to repost what Dr Taylor said about these two very important, seminal issues.

Expand the range of professional options for graduate students

Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure

Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

For many years now, I have been struggling with the moral and ethical obligations of graduate education. Recently, I came to the conclusion that it is our role as educators to selflessly impart knowledge and training to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows so that they can pursue the careers (and lives) that many have trained for a decade or more. I think Professor Taylor’s view of the role of an educator says it best: “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.” This is the attitude that must be by academicians if America wants to remain competitive in the life sciences.

Until next time….

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!


This Week In Virology (TWiV) Rocks!!!!!!

Posted in BioJobBuzz

Vincent Racaniello, Professor of Microbiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and co-founder of BioCrowd ,has created a weekly series called This Week In Virology (TWiV). Each week Professors  Racaniello and Dickson Despommier (another Columbia virologist) discuss the latest developments and public health concerns for a variety of viral diseases.

The weekly discussions are packaged as podcasts, posted on TWiV and Science Podcasters.org and can be downloaded from iTunes. Dr. Racaniello eventually wants to offer TWiV in a vcast format and use it to inform the public and teach students about viral diseases.

So far, Vincent and Dick have created nine TWIV podcasts. Some of viruses that they have discussed include: HIV, Polio, Lassa fever, Rabies, West Nile Virus and even video game viruses. The podcasts are interesting, informative and a good way to learn something about virology—something that may liven up your daily commute!

Until next time,

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting