We've been interviewing a shitload of postdocs as we staff up the new place. All these fresh-faced young thirty-somethings come in and give a talk, all of them trying their damndest to escape one postdoc or another for a real science job. Sometimes you can smell the desperation during their talks. Many of them come from the National Institutes of Health, which isn't exactly the best place to live. After we've loosened their lips with a few beers, all of them have horror stories about Baltimore. It got me thinking. In pursuit of academic glory, especially at the graduate and postdoctoral level, people are often remiss in realizing that they also have to live in the place they choose to study. In any list-style post, there would be much more foreplay, but I'm going to cut right to the list of great labs in shitty places. Hey, at least it's not one of those clickbait lists where you have to click to see the next one. I ain't that sophisticated.
(10) Harvard/MIT - When I was in graduate school, it seemed like every person wanted to go to some prestigious institute to do a postdoc. All these people flood in, have their dreams crushed for various reasons and then trickle out to wherever dreams go to die (Rutgers?). It's so depressing. Also, because it's such a hot market, so many of the labs are run-down shitholes (the actual labs, I mean; they're terrible; the Taliban scientists who make ricin in caves work in better conditions than some of these people). Outside of the working conditions, there's the surrounding countryside. I like Boston, but only for about 3-4 days. That's when the crushing expensiveness of the area starts to really wear on you.
(9) UCSF - Crushing, crushing cost of living. Also, really hostile homeless people. Although this is outside the topic, no one outside of science knows that UCSF is a great place to get a degree, so you get no name recognition outside of academia.
(8) Case Western Reserve University - Cleveland, Ohio should be enough. If it's not, the assholes who work there should be enough. Case is one of those schools that desperately wants to be prestigious, but will never be by dint of their unfortunate location. People who went there will tell you how great it is with this desperate glint in their eye, the same way someone from a shitty country has a little flag hanging from their rear view mirror). Sorry, dude - it's the B Team and everyone knows it. Also - if worst name was a major factor, Case would be running away with the win.
(7) Columbia - See my entry on Harvard/MIT, with the addition of a campus in a crappier part of town. If you've ever ridden the M60 bus to LaGuardia, you know where the campus is - uptown in a kinda sketchy neighborhood. I've got a buddy who's now a prof there; he told me that all the faculty lives in subsidized housing because it's the only way you can afford anything. Rockefeller was also close to being on this list for the same reason.
(6) UPenn - Perhaps this should be a little lower on the list, but it should definitely be included. Penn is the Ivy League school everyone forgets about. The campus screams 'Meh' at you. Plus: Philadelphia, what can you say? I've heard that some PIs ask applicants, "are you willing to live in Philadelphia?"
(5) CalTech - Like many other academia sweatshops, Cal Tech is overrun with Chinese postdocs who are willing to work for nothing. I know a girl (who had no business staying in science after her PhD was finished) who went to CalTech for a postdoc. The advisor flat-out told her that he could only pay her what he paid his fleet of Chinese science drones: $29K a year. In Pasadena. This was in 2005 dollars, but still. In Pasadena. Amazingly, she took the deal, thinking that the number of Science, Nature and Cell papers she would produce would make the sacrifice pay off. Last I heard, she was sharing a damp one-bedroom basement apartment with a Chinese girl who cooked and ate almost exclusively mushrooms that may or may not have been harvested from the premises (her words). Number of S/N/C papers produced: 0. Total number of papers produced: 0.
(4) The University of Chicago - Anyone thinking of going there, just take the standard advice and stay out of the south side of Chicago. The school motto is, "Where Fun Comes to Die". Having worked here for three awful years, I've told enough stories about this wretched place to not take additional potshots here. Ah, fuck it, maybe just one: You know how everyone who went to Ohio State always says "THE Ohio State University" and looks smug while everyone else thinks that being the king of Ohio is like being the tallest midget in the circus? U of C is THE Ohio State of academics. Instead of regular departments, they have "committees" filled with pretentious douches who study the most arcane biological problems. Of course you're the leader in XXX process, you're the only one willing to study it. The whole place is full of little fiefdoms of people who've drank the Kool-Aid and will not shut up about how firefly testicular formation is secondarily regulated by beta-catenin impact on non-Bayesian polycomb gene expression. Parties are a lot of fun.
(3) UC Davis - Crushingly hot summer weather. It's not San Fran, but it's still brutally expensive because it's the state capital. It's an ugly campus and a depressing place. You're surrounded by people who don't want to be there but have to, all of whom wish they were able to make it in the Bay Area. Bonus points for the surprisingly hick surrounding population.
(2) Yale - A strong contender for number one. New Haven, Connecticut is a massive shithole. It is known. I dated a girl who got a master's in organic chemistry there. She told me a story of a guy who was walking down the street and a couple of hood rats dropped a window unit on his head for fun. Also - and I can't back this up - there are only maybe three attractive people in New Haven at any given time.
(1) The NIH/Johns Hopkins - Baltimore and surrounds. This sprawling, surprisingly well-funded cancer of institutions combines the surprising combination of being expensive, terrible traffic, shitty weather, and several terrible cities. It's like living in the middle of The Wire with science thrown in. For the NIH, you've got the government's heavy, slow ordering process, lots of paperwork, and the ability to retain people who cannot succeed anywhere else. The NIH's Bayview campus looks like aliens plucked a nondescript research center and dropped it into the middle of the ghetto. I did a postdoc interview there and was done with the place by the time I finished parking my car. I think of the entire place as a black hole that people fall into and are somehow trapped, unable to escape.
While my opinions may be biased, they're not uninformed - I've set foot on every terrible campus in this list. Honorable mention: several places in Texas.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.