Should you do another postdoc?

Here is yet another article about the negative effect that having to do 2-3 postdocs before being able to apply for tenure-track positions has on people’s life, which has been widely shared and discussed on my facebook.

I left academia after 2 postdocs only 3 months ago, but already now I feel a greater clarity is coming over me regarding the topic. People are forever questioning themselves whether the postdoc lifestyle is still worth it for them or whether they should leave. I have asked myself the same question for 6 years almost every day.

Now I think the situation is much, much simpler than I thought.

In truth, there are only two reasons why you should not quit your postdoc tomorrow and find another job:

(i) You like living abroad and having to change country every 2-3 years. You think this lifestyle has clear advantages to living in one place.

or

(ii) Your big life goal is to become a professor. If you think about what being a professor is like in real life, which you can easily observe around you, you start smiling. No other job has this appeal for you. Plus you believe this goal is reachable for you.

For most people I know, neither (i) nor (ii) is the case. They don’t really like the postdoc lifestyle and they don’t really want to be professor or they know well that it is unlikely that they will manage to reach this goal.

Invalid reasons to stay in science:

(i) Thinking that jobs outside of science are less interesting, motivating and satisfying. The world is much bigger than academia, and there are so many different jobs and so many different ways of being motivated and satisfied.

(ii) Feeling committment to your PhD advisor and collaborators and ongoing projects. This feeling will never just go away; you have to act despite of it.

(iii) You started as a confused PhD many years ago. Now you know how everything works, you have acquired some status, you are praised. How can you throw this away?
The truth is there are other jobs where you will be successful and gain back status quickly. You will likely be one of the smarter persons in your next job, and people will notice.

(iv) You see that there are people less smart and less dedicated than you who are staying or even getting good positions for whatever reasons and this seems unfair to you. How can you give up the fight? This way of arguing means that you think academia is the only place where you can make worthwhile contributions and where success is possible. What if you can have a much greater impact on people outside of academia?

(v) You look down on people outside of academia. You would find it horribly depressing to leave that elevated position and go mingle with the lowly normal people. I have felt this way, and I am not proud of it.
Weirdly, people in other jobs do not see themselves as placed in the bottom. They do not think about academia as the greatest human endeavour possible. Many academics are extremely proud of their jobs. But to society, many other jobs are at least as important and influential: inventors, writers, journalists, teachers, architects, doctors, engineers, physiotherapists…

(vi) You love your topic of research or resarch itself. I wish this was a valid enough reason to stay, but it isn’t. You have to love yourself and your future happiness too. And just loving what you do does not make up for not having a secure position and not having a stable lifestyle in the long run. Many people are not particularly good in looking out for themselves and caring about themselves as they would care about a friend, and not having this ability is particularly dangerous in a job that is borderline exploitative, like academia.

Nothing changes the fact that is really painful to leave a job that you deeply care about, and it is really tempting wanting to postpone the difficult decision and difficult transition period into the future. I have done it for long and exactly this postponing, that I knew on some level was happening, made me feel depressed, hopeless, and very trapped. I wish I had left earlier.

In the end, I managed to leave only because I half-consciously, half-subconsciously manoevered myself in a position where I had no other choice. I now manage to keep up this decision and not be lured back into science because of several reasons. The most important one is perhaps this:

Being in science favoured some parts I have inside of me, made them grow and flourish. But I have always been aware that there are other parts of me that are hungry for growth and attention, and they have often visited me in my dreams and complained about being mistreated. In my case, this included a part that wants to care for others, a part that would have liked to study literature or psychology, a part that is interested in people and in many things outside of science. I am trying to seem my leaving science as a chance to make this other parts wake up and grow.

And I think this is really the advantage of any big change in life, however painful they might be: it will give room to parts of yourself that you maybe forgot you had, and it will make you a rounder person. Also, it is fantastic to see the options in my life opening up again, even if the loss of status and of investment is sometimes painful. Science is necessarily a very narrow endeavour, where you work hard on a very tiny part of human knowledge, and to be totally honest, I was getting bored, although it took me years to admit it. It is so tempting to plunge into the project instead of thinking about this decision carefully.

I feel sorry for all my friends who will have to leave science too and still do not admit it to themselves, because this kind of denial of the obvious is really bad for one’s health and happiness.

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24 Responses to Should you do another postdoc?

  1. Deciding whether to leave academic research is a difficult decision that is clearly dependent on individual circumstances. I am concerned though that the approach of ‘you should leave unless you have the confidence to believe that you will make it to a professorship’ can start quite an unproductive thought process. The stats clearly show that most of us won’t, so it must take a very self-assured person indeed to have that confidence.

    I didn’t. So, as you are doing now, I’ve spent a couple of years teaching maths in high school before realising that I shouldn’t have let that lack of confidence stop me from trying to take the next step along the path. I’ve described the experience a bit more detail in a blog post, http://www.jobs.ac.uk/blogs/all-things-research/?p=15 I’ve never stopped missing the lab, and am really looking forward to returning to it in the New Year: you’re right that no other job has that appeal.

    I do wonder though whether part of my lack of confidence is connected to the some of the issues surrounding the ‘leaky pipeline’ that you’ve mentioned previously: perhaps the knowledge that fewer women will make it through this stage less me to have little confidence that I could do so, so I dropped out and thereby perpetuated the problem.

    I’m not saying that the time doesn’t come for many postdocs when it is right to move on to pastures new, but for some of us, recognising that the probability of becoming a professor isn’t high, shouldn’t alone be enough to put us off trying. There may well be some unhappy postdocs toiling on in denial but ending up in some other job, where your heart’s never quite in it in the same way, isn’t great for happiness either!

  2. Pinxter says:

    Good for you! Great post. So many of your reasons for seeking fulfillment outside the ivory tower resonated strongly with me. I left academia after my PhD, despite having won a prestigious prize and several professors encouraging me to apply for postdocs/faculty jobs. I have never regretted it. I have had far more impact on the wider world (working for non-profits), and far more fun, than I would have had in the academic rat-race. I have long decided to be amused, rather than irritated, by the superciliousness of (thankfully a minority of) faculty who clearly think that people who choose not to be academics are somehow inferior failures. It just shows how little they know about the world. I wish you every success in your future career — the skills you have learned through your PhD and postdocs will be very useful, often in unexpected ways. Thank you for writing so cogently about some of the drivers for your professional transition.

  3. Think very seriously about entering a second (or third) postdoc. Use the point in time as a major decision point rather than a minor one. What are the reasons for moving to a new postdoc? Why are you contemplating ending your current one (including being kicked out due to funding, contract, etc)? Most of the reasons for looking for a second post doc are usually also arguments to also look at other options. Sometimes they are legitimate or inescapable (retirement or death of professor) but most times they reflect some aspect of your own career path. Non-academic exits are entirely reasonable and in no way a failure (assuming you are using your connections ).

  4. Bill says:

    Ok, you left science because you were bored…so?

  5. drbillyo says:

    Wow, great piece. I have been giving advice similar to this for sometime – though it took me much longer to take my own advice!! A PhD is an awesome qualification that means a great deal in the world outside academia. Years of postdoc experience aren’t really all that valuable though given they can only lead to your boss’s job. If you don’t want your boss’s job (or can’t uproot and move around the world to look for said job), then get out asap and realise the world of opportunity that a PhD will open up to you.

  6. katejeffery says:

    The fact that your no. (vi) reason isn’t your no. (i) reason in your list above is absolutely why academia probably wasn’t right for *you*. I suspect that if someone is looking for reasons to stay in science, it’s indeed probably best they find another career. Science for those who remain is generally something, in my experience, they do because they are internally compelled to, and they find a way to do it even though every practical aspect of the job tries to stop them. They do it in evenings and weekends after having spent all their weekdays teaching and doing admin. They do it in the holidays because it’s more fun than going on holiday.They do it because they really love it.

    I don’t make my students and postdocs work weekends, or indeed any hours they don’t want to, but I’ve noticed that the ones who aren’t coming in on weekends simply because they *want* to be there generally don’t last. Science is a vocation, not a job, and you either love it or you like it a lot (or a bit), and if you don’t love it, you won’t survive the demands of the job. In my opinion.

    • zinemin says:

      It is a common fallacy for professors to think that hard work and dedication and talent is all that it takes to make a career in science. They overlook that positions are so scarce that you also need a lot of luck. And you need a lot of practical things to work out too. I had reason number (vi) at the top of my list for a long time. But everyone cracks at some point.
      Do you really think that those who can keep up this lifestyle of working on evenings and weekends the longest will be the best professors? This seems more a test of constitution than of intelligence or creativity.

      • I second the need for luck here, to get a paper in nature you need a lot of luck as well as skill and effort.

        Some professors actually seem to do little work, I would suggest these are the ones who found out about luck early on.

  7. Thank you for the honest self-accounting and trenchant advice! As you can tell from how much this post is being tweeted and shared, you are not alone. Alas, I don’t see an end to #postdocalyse any time soon. But your courage in coming forward is doing a small part to hasten its demise.

    Points #4 and #6 really resonated with me. I can’t tell you how many people I know — colleagues with whom I collaborated at one point or another, fellow lab mates, etc — who were the ones who got the jobs I applied for in my two-year elite R1 job search. This definitely made the sting of rejection that much more painful, because I couldn’t always be unabashedly happy for them knowing they “took my spot.” And I am one of those people who would boast to non-academic friends and strangers alike that I couldn’t believe they paid me to do what I love..

    I used to cringe at the moniker “recovering academic” because it sounded pretentious and exaggerated. But now that it’s been almost a year since I exited academia, I can see that I exhibited all the classic signs of addiction, with a generous helping of entitlement and wishful thinking.

    Good luck in your next endeavors! And don’t forget that some of us are trying to forge a third way as independent scientists and scientist entrepreneurs. As you rightly point out, there are so many wonderful options to choose from, or create from scratch.

    • zinemin says:

      Ha. Thank you, this is a wonderful comment. I think the addiction metaphor is spot on. I knew in the last two years that academia was bad for me, and my relatives and friends were increasingly puzzled that I was not able to let it go. And I am ashamed to say that it still gives me a kick to look at my citation count now, because it is really not so bad and others with less citations have tenure-track blablabla :)

      • I’ve been describing the “addiction metaphor” to something a bit more like sleepwalking, sometime staying in seems like the easy and natural path (because most researchers are members of the 5% club and have never had a problem progressing until they reach this stage), without facing up to the long term realities of a research career.

    • Yes I want to see more “scientist entrepreneurs” this is only good for us as pot-postdocs and for the economy.

  8. Darren says:

    I won’t talk more widely about academic careers, only about science, since that is what I know something about: You can be a research scientist without being a Professor. I am in the odd position of having supervised two successful PhDs while my own contract was running out — it still is running out. Both my students went to positions at big national labs. They won’t lecture, but they’ll have to run equipment, write code, and fit their own research in around the user programs of the facilities. But the big labs are not quite so badly at the whim of competitive grants, and give great opportunities to do good science. I find a lot of graduates are fixated on academia/university, when there are a lot of other positions that are related but different. As a PhD supervisor I tried to broaden the students’ horizons precisely so they wouldn’t have tunnel vision.

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  10. KaRMe says:

    This is just a matter of how much you like science. I don’t want to be a professor, I don’t want to be abroad. What I really want is research. Maybe you will be a postdoc the rest of your life (maybe 4 or 5 postdocs), but when you like it, you are happy. And doing that you can be thinking about your future and happiness, because that is what makes you happy.
    Some of us decide to stay no matter what, and it’s not because we are believe all those things… we are not afraid of life outside academia, we don’t want to make money (academia is not the place for that, and we know it).
    Of course, this work, this way of life, is not for everyone. Sometimes I ask myself why some people around me started a PhD. Not even how they manage to become PI, just why (for what stupid reason) they started a PhD. And they stay there, albeit they should have quitted years ago.
    It’s ok if you are happier now, but don’t try to convince the rest of us. Probably you should have made that decision years ago. All we start our PhD without knowing how is this world, but after your graduation, maybe you were the one too scared to quit.
    Each time I changed from one lab to another, that time between two jobs… It was when I realized that I would never leave this. I was feeling so bored, and anxious at the same time, missing it so much… I need it to be happy, and I’m not the only one. We won’t give up, we will do one, two or a thousand postdocs, but it is because science what keep us alive, active and happy.

    • This thinking is one of the most toxic point of views in academia and science:

      “Maybe you will be a postdoc the rest of your life (maybe 4 or 5 postdocs), but when you like it, you are happy.”

      What a load of shit! Maybe for someone with an adolescent way of thinking and living. What if you’re married? Have children? Or want to have those things? What if your parents get sick and need you? Or YOU get sick? Grow up already! I’m tired of old ass academics living a life like a careless 22 year old, and then shaking their heads at the rest of us who actually have ADULT RESPONSIBILITIES!! Enough already!

      Science is a vocation, not job. But at the same time science (and therefore all of our global society) will constantly be stifled if it is limited to only those people who live a selfish one-dimensional life. Remember “necessity is the mother of invention” but if our inventors/innovators live a life with minimal needs, well then…society moves forward at a snails pace.

      • zinemin says:

        Thanks a lot for this brilliant response. The weird thing is, I have never met anyone who thinks like the initial commenter and who would be happy to do a thousand postdocs. And I know some extremely talented and dedicated people. But these people also are human beings and are seriously considering quitting after 2-3 postdocs as well, no matter how much they love their work, if they haven’t found a permanent position (and very few of my generation have).
        Oh wait. I HAVE met one happy eternal postdoc. There was this one guy, about 45, on his xth postdoc, no chance of a professorship. He liked the lifestyle of postdoc-ing because the true purpose of his existence was going out, partying, traveling and meeting women. The kind of guy who is dead afraid of ever settling down. Which is fine. But of course he was also not very serious about research and does not write papers that people really care about.
        But I have yet to see someone doing a 4th postdoc and actually being serious about research. In my experience, it is often the more serious & intelligent people who leave, because they are serious both about research and about their own career planning (and about other responsibilities in life).

    • “Maybe you will be a postdoc the rest of your life (maybe 4 or 5 postdocs), but when you like it, you are happy.”

      Be forewarned, very very few researchers are able to maintain an un-gapped 4-5 postdocs. The system is not set up for a post doc career.

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  12. Tired says:

    Thank you very much for this post. We postdocs do stuff in the lab which is very complex and difficult. However, most of us don’t realize that the most difficult thing one could ever do in life, the one that will take you a long time to accomplish, the one that no one has courage to tackle, is to accept defeat. And defeat is there, and it takes guts to suck it up and admit you failed in getting ahead. However, it is a human condition to ignore defeat. Academia (and I’m not using the term “Science” on purpose here) puts us in the right place sooner or later, with more or less justice, because of the quality of your work but also because of other non-sensical things like who are your friends, who was your advisor, what is your advisor willing to do to help you get a job, what do you do for research, and the most non-sensical one, how many papers do you have (not how much quality your papers have). If, after a couple of years, the final sum doesn’t take you into the shortlist of candidates for that tenure-track position you hoped for, you are most likely wasting your time and you are ignoring defeat. Your defeat is right there, you just need to embrace it and accept it, like the author of this post did.

  13. pepecristiano says:

    Postdoc trap, postdoc crap… You get a non-permanent job 2-3 year long in a lab of a guy out of the market funded with government money… that is really spooky, man, because most of your scientific skills that you like postdoc believe are worth to have, are really worthless once you are out of the academia without the supply of government money. So as it is, first of all before getting into a postdoc position I would really find out whether the skills I will get would eventually help me to find a good position out of the academia. If the answer is negative, you shouldnt even try, it is by far better to play in the casino where you will have more chances to get much more money with less effort. I am not kidding, you can destroy your life if you are betting your life to a game where the stack is high against you, ranged between 1:20-1:100, and you dont even know what the rules are (in fact there is a little correlation between publication record -even filtered by impact factor- and final tenure-track success )

    As a matter of an example : I have been postdoc for 3 years in the bioinformatic field. Once the money was over and regardless my excellent publication record, I had to move out and find a job in the real world. Finally, I got a very good position like software engineer 200K a year, working by far much less than postdoc. But it is not only a matter of the money which makes you feel much better, it is also the impact of your job on the real world… your code and designs make the life of millions of people much easier and comfortable and run economies. In the academia the code I wrote was just for the sake of the academic career of one supermacho alpha guy whose real impact on real world was pointless. So for me the way out of the academia was the best thing ive ever made in my life.

    • zinemin says:

      Good for you that things turned out so well.

      “first of all before getting into a postdoc position I would really find out whether the skills I will get would eventually help me to find a good position out of the academia”.– Exactly. This advice should be handed out with every PhD certificate. It would also motivate people to use modern & widely used programming languages in their research, instead of some obscure field-specific software that becomes useless once you leave.

      • Brigitte says:

        Z, I also wished that someone gently handed me the advice to better analyze the research involved in my PhD path… Because now I’m at the end of the line and ask myself everyday what the heck was I thinkin’ when I started this! Because adding the lack of motivation, poor supervision, serious personal problems and foggy perspectives for the future, I’m now stuck, paralyzed and with a blank screen deviously staring at me. Just because my master was fantastic, that could not guarantee a successful PhD. Shame on me!

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