The Lisa Feldman Barrett lab

Each year, Lisa Feldman Barrett sends a fresh crop of newly minted Ph.D.s and postdocs out into the scientific job market. She is a professor of social psychology and neuroscience at Northeastern University in Boston, and like many scientists with large, active research labs, she watches with dismay as some Ph.D.s and postdocs struggle to find a secure job, as she did 2 decades ago. “In some ways the job market has gotten better,” she says, at least for women. The bias against female scientists is far from gone, “but the situation has definitely improved.” At the very least, overt exclusion of women in science is frowned upon. But on the whole, Barrett says, finding a secure job in academia is “much, much harder” than it used to be. When it comes to hiring tenure track researchers, “I’ve seen hiring committees judge candidates by how many Science and Nature papers they’ve published,” she says. “That’s crazy.”

The CVs that these young people are producing are amazing. They look how tenure dossiers used to look.

Barrett didn’t even have to do a postdoc. The ink was still wet on her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Waterloo when, in 1992, she landed a job as an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University. “In my first year I was getting settled, getting projects started, recruiting undergrads,” she says. A year later she had graduate students, and she has been running her research lab ever since.

This article is the first in a series that will investigate career outcomes of alumni from a range of academic labs of various sizes and disciplines from different types of institutions across the country.

Barrett moved to Boston College in 1996. She resisted offers from other universities until 2010, when Northeastern made an offer she couldn’t refuse. “I was poached,” she says. She now holds the title of University Distinguished Professor of Psychology, juggling two research groups—she is also affiliated with the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)—and helping her graduate students and postdocs launch their own careers.

Barrett chalks up most of today’s job market woes to simple supply and demand. “There are just far more Ph.D.s awarded than there are positions in psychology departments.” But there have been some more subtle changes, too, as scientific trends have pushed some types of research up and dragged others down.

Achieving liftoff …

The burgeoning supply of people with and seeking Ph.D.s has raised the bar for entry into a science career. Just getting into a Ph.D. program is becoming much more difficult. Barrett calls this the “trickle down” of pressure. “I know [potential Ph.D. advisers] who now look at what undergrads have published,” she says. “It almost requires them to take time off between undergrad and the Ph.D. to work for a couple of years in a lab.”

The pressure creates a dilemma for Barrett. On the one hand, she wants to see her undergraduate students get into the best labs for their Ph.D.s. “But when you’re focusing on producing, it puts a burden on learning,” she says. “Undergrad is supposed to be a protected time to learn and digest. And we’ve significantly shortened that.” The push to run experiments and generate papers means less time studying and reflecting, she says.

That may be, but some of Barrett’s undergraduate research students appreciated the pressure. “When I first started in the lab, I was a pretty naive college freshman,” says Matt Panichello, who graduated from Northeastern University last year. “I just wanted to get an idea of what a career in science was actually like.” Being thrown into the scientific deep end was “transformative,” he says. He is now a neuroscience Ph.D. student at Princeton University.

The lab has also been a powerful launch pad for Ph.D. students to get postdoc positions. But Barrett is quick to point out that this is the flip side of the supply-demand shift: When she finished her Ph.D. two decades ago, “postdoc fellowships were not as common in psychology compared to the natural sciences.” As the ratio of Ph.D. recipients to tenure-track jobs in psychology departments has ratcheted higher, postdoctoral research positions have become a buffer.

In some ways, scoring a postdoc position is good. It extends your training, and it keeps you on the professional track. At the very least, “I got a job during the aftermath of the recession,” says Kristen Lindquist, who finished her Ph.D. under Barrett’s mentorship at Boston College just as the economy was tanking in 2010. She dove right into a neuroscience postdoc at the Martinos Center  for  Biomedical  Imaging at MGH.

From the safety of the postdoc, Lindquist didn’t waste any time looking for the next step. She started applying immediately for assistant professor positions. The first year, she didn’t even get an interview. So in 2011, with a year of the postdoc under her belt, she expanded her search. She landed an assistant professor position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her husband, Kurt Gray, ended up with an assistant professorship in the same department. “I feel lucky,” Lindquist says.

Compared to most postdocs seeking tenure-track jobs, Lindquist is lucky indeed. Most are stranded as postdocs for 5 or even 10 years before they have a shot at tenure. Meanwhile, these scientists in postdoc limbo are working their tails off, Barrett says. Over the past 3 years, she has been part of an Association for Psychological Science (APS) panel that gives out early career awards to psychology postdocs. “The CVs that these young people are producing are amazing. They look how tenure dossiers used to look.”

Being so productive while wandering from lab to lab takes a toll, Barrett says. “Postdocs on the job market are stressed.”

… and landing safely

One thing is mandatory on a CV for landing a tenure-track job at a top research university, Barrett says. “You have to be an author on a paper in a journal like Science, Nature, or PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences].” Barrett has published her share of papers in these journals, most recently a study of how social information modifies people’s perception of faces in Science in 2011.“I say this with respect, but the correspondence between the quality of science and where it is published is not one-to-one,” Barrett points out. So landing a permanent job in academia can feel arbitrary, like a lottery.

Even a paper in a prestigious journal is no longer a guarantee of a job. Barrett’s coauthor on that 2011 Science paper, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, is in her 6th year as a postdoc at the University of California, Davis. “I started working with Lisa my first year of university and continued with her through my Ph.D.—almost 10 full years,” Bliss-Moreau says. “My original intent for graduate work was to buy myself some time before going to medical school. But I was hooked by science,” she says. “By the end of my time in the lab, my ambition was to have a tenure-track research-heavy professorship.”

In many ways, Bliss-Moreau looks like a perfect candidate. This year, she won a K99 postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health, the first half of the prestigious K99/R00 transition award, and she is pursuing cutting-edge questions at the boundary between disciplines. To tease out the biological and social mechanisms that underlie emotion, she uses a range of theory and experimental methods from social psychology to physiology. Her most recent work relies on imaging of monkeys’ brains.

Some call it interdisciplinary research, “but our buzzword for this is integrative science,” says Alan Kraut, executive director of the APS. He calls Barrett “the poster child” for this cross-cutting approach to research. Bliss-Moreau has followed a similar path.

Combining expertise from multiple disciplines may be cutting edge, says Barrett, but it’s a double-edged sword. “Everyone says they want to hire interdisciplinary people. But when it comes down to it, jobs are usually defined in very traditional ways.” After all, she says, “departments are still run by people whose training was specific to a subdomain of science.” What they really mean when they say they want interdisciplinary researchers, Barrett says, “is that they want traditional researchers doing interdisciplinary work for free.”

For her part, Bliss-Moreau is taking the job market struggle in stride, for now. “I love the work that I do. I love being able to teach and mentor in the laboratory.” Her aim is “to parlay all of my education and training into an academic job. … We’ll see if that happens this year.”

Of course, there’s life beyond academia. And particularly for a field like psychology, which finds application in everything from urban planning to computer design, many researchers are finding their calling in industry.

One of Barrett’s former proteges—Emre Demiralp—is now a researcher at Google in Mountain View, California. Demiralp was on the verge of doing a postdoc with Barrett after she had served as one of his Ph.D. advisers. But then he changed his mind. “I wanted to help make things that have an impact on a large scale,” he says. His work is wide-ranging, from natural-language processing to machine learning. “The data I get to work with is just amazing, and having expertise in psychology has been very important.” Does he miss the university lifestyle? “Well, honestly, the Google campus isn’t much different,” he says.

“One difference is the salary, of course,” Demiralp says. “It wasn’t my motivation in the beginning, but now that I start to think about having a family, I see how useful it is. Being a postdoc is just very hard.” Now more than ever.

Adjunct faculty member makes good

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