Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Part 4: The Postdoc's Tale

Previously: Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

August 12, 2014. Still Bangalore.


One of Prick's old postdocs contacted me immediately after I began this story, three weeks ago. He worked for him for two years, and offered to write a guest post on his experiences. This is what he sent me. I publish it only reluctantly. Disgruntled postdocs are notoriously unreliable, and from his final paragraphs it's clear that he's deranged.

The Postdoc's Tale:

Dr. Rival told you that Prick rejected his paper and stole the idea and wrote it up himself. That's not the whole story.

I was Prick's postdoc, and I'm the one who solved the big problem. Prick didn't do a thing, unless you count coming in every day and going berzerk and demanding results.

Right from the start, I was the one who understood that problem, not him. I knew I could solve it. Then I could get a job somewhere else. That was why I worked so hard. And man, I worked hard. Everyone did at that place. It was one of the top U.S. universities, not like whatever English dump you work at. Everyone was in the office until past midnight, and on weekends. All the time. Everyone was driven, and I was driven even more.

There was me and one other guy working for Prick. We had both been there almost a year. He gave everyone one-year contracts, and renewed them only if you got him results. He gave us both the same problem to work on, and said that next year he'd re-hire whoever solved it.

It was miserable. There was only one person in that place who could have made my job bearable, and that was the other postdoc -- but we were in competition. We talked plenty, and shared anything we worked out, but only because we wanted to make sure we knew what the other one was doing. If either of us knew we were on the right track, we'd have shut up fast. He was about the only friend I had, and I spent every waking moment trying to screw him over.

It was August. Our contracts ended in only three weeks. Seriously. We had no other jobs lined up. We had no papers written. We had nothing. We were both just desperate to do something to get Prick to renew our contracts. And we knew that he'd fire both of us without a moment's hesitation.

Then Rival's paper showed up. Prick read it, but he didn't understand it. He thought it was crap. He gave it to us. It was a good paper. Prick had no idea. But it wasn't like the answer was just sitting there, like it was just Equation 10, and we could copy it out and we were done. Rival hadn't solved the problem yet, he'd only done bits of it. He talked like he knew what to do next, but everyone says that, don't they?

Those were horrible sleepless nights. A lot of coffee. A lot of arguing at the blackboard. Falling asleep on the sofa in the grad-student kitchen.

Then I worked it out. It was obvious. It's always obvious once you've got it. It was so obvious I couldn't believe the other guy didn't see it as well. But he didn't, and I worked out the details and wrote it up as quick as I could. He guessed I was on to the answer, and it drove him nuts, but I didn't say a thing. What else could I do? I took it to Prick, and my contract was renewed. The other guy was out.

Of course, Prick had plenty of money. He had already hired someone else to replace the other guy -- New Postdoc turned up before Old Postdoc even finished packing up his desk.

Even though I knew Prick was a complete asshole, I expected some gratitude. But you know what deal he made with me? He extended my contract on the condition that the first paper had only his name on it. Then we would write a second, longer, more complete paper, and on that one I would be first author. And can you believe it, I was so desperate and so exhausted and so crazy, that I agreed? I'd just solved a major fucking problem, and my name wasn't even on the paper!

At the time I was so screwed up that I thought it was Ok. I half killed myself writing that second paper, which was a goddamn masterpiece, and I thought I was lucky, like it was a real privilege, that he let my name go first on it. And he didn't have a single idea.

No, that's not true. He had loads of ideas. Every day he had a new idea. And every one of them was wrong. I wasted half of my time arguing with Prick to convince him that his latest brainwave was a steaming pile of shit. So his contribution to that paper was negative -- every other scientist in the world did more for that paper than him, just by staying out of my hair!

In the end it was too much. I was burnt out. I got an offer from a hot-shot software start-up, and I left.

I could have made it. I was better than most of the other people who got faculty jobs. People like you. I could wipe the floor with you gravitational-wave clowns. Just a bunch of quantum gravity rejects and python scripters who think you get a Nobel prize for writing down Bayes' theorem. Or do you think you're a numerical relativist? Is that what you are? Jesus! A numerical relativist is just someone who doesn't know numerics, and doesn't know relativity.

And I read that thing you wrote about academia. It's a lie. That start-up company I joined, they went bust a year later. No millions for me. And no millions for any of the other good people I know who gave the finger to academia. Maybe it makes you feel better, in some perverse way, to point out some guy who made it on Wall Street, but what about the rest of us? To start Google or Apple, you're smart enough to drop out before you even finish your undergraduate degree. If you quit in grad school, or right after your PhD, maybe you can do Ok. But after six years going crazy as a postdoc? By that time you're so fucked up that academia is the only place for you. To anyone else you're useless. But, you know, thanks for thinking of us.

I'm glad to hear that Prick is getting what's coming to him. Now someone just has to come after the rest of you.


  1. It was Wheeler, wasn't it?

  2. The disturbing Acknowledgements of this recent paper reminded me of The Postdoc's Tale:


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