One of the major decisions many postdocs struggle with at some point in their career is whether to continue to pursue their current career track and aim for a permanent academic position, or whether to cut their losses and get out before they are pushed out. Whilst it is relatively easy to secure a first or second postdoctoral position – since it is usually highly relevant to previous PhD research – moving from a junior to a more senior ranking post is harder, and becoming more so as funding cuts start to bite.
Unlike the academia of 20 – 30 years ago, the working culture is much tougher and more competitive nowadays what with journal impact factors, personal H-factors, pressures on funding and the rise of new global research competitors. Whilst the number of professorships and lectureships may not have diminished, there are far more PhD studentships and postdoctoral research positions available, and permanent departmental technician posts have all but disappeared in many universities. As a ‘second-best’ scenario, many postdocs would consider a permanent faculty research/technical post so that they can realise a more balanced and stable working life. However, although recent national policies have improved the rights of contract research staff in many countries, it is still the case that postdocs are funded on ‘soft’ external money, while institutional technical and research positions are funded internally by the institution itself (which may not have the budget or the will to create such posts). On a personal level, postdocs would need to be willing to change their research focus to adapt to the requirements of the department which, understandably, many are not prepared to do.
What do postdocs themselves think? There’s been an interesting recent discussion on one of the LinkedIn groups I subscribe to “PhDs outside Academia” asking the question “Why do you want to leave academia?” Here is a snapshot of some of the replies:
“Some leave academia because they realise that they actually don’t like research / teaching / work-life balance; some leave for the money and some leave due to pragmatic reasons. In my case, I love research and am good at it, I love teaching one on one, I love the interaction with others. However, my research track record while good, is not outstanding. To get a grant funded position requires “outstanding”. I might be able to work in someone else’s lab. But that opportunity hasn’t arisen – and a government job has. The job I am going to pays twice as much as academia and acknowledges my previous 25 years of clinical experience, which academia doesn’t. I hope to keep my research going in the spare time…”
“Among the many reasons I left Academia is the lack of a clear career path: I don’t want to move from temp job to temp job, aka postdoc, in the hope I’ll get a professorship in my 40s— it’s too much of a gamble and the risk is not hedged at all.”
“What really gets me is the mobility requirement… It is often the case that – if you fail to secure a grant to continue at the institution you are based at (which you often do considering the fierce competition) – you have to relocate to another town (or country!) to work on a project within your field of expertise. At some point you just don’t want to move any more…”
“To be successful in academia and get your own lab, you need to be in the top 1% of all the scientists out there. Unfortunately I am in the 99% group that try hard, publish some things but will never fly with the elite … I really enjoy supplying technical support to the students in the lab, experimental design, equipment management and general lab management. So I will be looking at the Industry side of things where I can do these kinds of roles, but these positions don’t come up too often in Australia. When you have a family it is more difficult to be flexible and travel to where the work is available too.
“It seems to be consensus that reaching that work/life balance in academia is increasingly difficult with all the pressure of performance and limited funding.”
“I recently took a job in industry because I was faced with the decision of moving to a foreign country without my spouse (for a 5 year staff position at a prestigious research institute). After 4 years as a post-doc, I had decided not to apply for more temporary jobs, especially after having received a fellowship where most other positions might find me overqualified/too expensive. The current 6+ year temp job situation is not what I realized the field was like when I started grad school and I needed more stability, which I think an industry job will offer.”Many of these replies are from postdocs who cite mobility and work/life balance as the key reasons for choosing to leave academia. Many consider industry to be a favourable alternative because the relative security and stability are more suited to those who have settled down in their lives or who want a more structured supportive career. Searls (2009) sets out 10 rules for choosing between academia and industry and briefly mentions other alternative careers postdocs could consider (although there are many more – see a previous blog). He cites factors such as timing, career ambitions, personality and desires as influencing this decision and ends philosophically saying that career choice is not irrevocable. If you are a postdoc who is currently going through this dilemma it is well worth seeking support to discuss your options and weigh up your circumstances so you can make informed decisions about your short- and long-term prospects. Many situations in life call for some kind of compromise and, during the course of your career, you will need to decide where and when compromises need to be made with regard to personal and work life balance.
Since a landmark birthday two weeks ago, I’ve been considering time and how strange an entity/ dimension it is. We all say it seems to speed up as we get older. When you’re 4 years old, one year is one quarter of your life. Multiply that up by 10 and one year becomes a much smaller proportion of your existence. Then, before you can say tempus fugit, you’ve reached another landmark birthday and you’re looking back on the past 10 years wondering where that time has gone. Time is a precious commodity – like money it can be spent but, unlike money, it cannot be saved. You can spend less of it and you can definitely waste it, but you can’t save it. I say this as someone who has probably wasted more time than I have spent wisely (although that does include lots of time spent having fun), so I know how easy it is to take it for granted. Sorry if this sounds like a mid-life crisis by the way – if you read on you’ll see there is a point to this blog 🙂
One of the biggest frustrations in my work is when researchers/ students sign up for a workshop I’m running and then don’t turn up citing the excuse that they are too busy and don’t have time to attend. Equally, I hear many researchers saying they don’t have time and are too stretched to do any extra-research activities such as attending conferences, getting involved in outreach events, going along to internal seminars or clubs, etc. Is this really the case I ask myself? Or is it simply bad time management. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the two: too much to do so lab work is prioritised over everything else. Publishable results and papers are important for a future career in research, but they are “not the only fruit”. If early-career researchers don’t make the effort to develop their careers through networking, communicating more widely and generally paying attention to their personal career development they may not be spending their time as wisely as they could be. Extra-curricular out-of-hours projects can be as important, sometimes even more so, than the core of the PhD or postdoc job requirements.
Today is the release date of my book “Career planning for research bioscientists” which, being an ancillary project to my paid job, took me three years to write. During that time, I substituted beach holidays for writing retreats, disappeared at weekends, and even gave up two Christmases. My motivation was tested to the limit as I struggled to take my leisure time a lot more seriously, rationing it between writing the book and time spent with friends and family, keeping fit and even basic needs such as eating and sleeping. I’m sure anyone who’s written up a PhD thesis can relate to some of this! Now that my book is being published and I can see the fruits of my labour, I’m glad I dedicated so much time to writing it. The sense of achievement is immense, as well as the feeling that it’s going to be a useful resource for bioscientists. In fact, I had an early book launch two weeks ago on my landmark birthday as I thought, having put in so much hard work, a fun celebration with my much-neglected friends and family would act as the perfect antidote (and, of course, the launch cake was a convenient diversion to the birthday cake with its furnace of candles – thanks to baking queen, Catherine Kitching, pictured far left below).
My closing point to this ‘timely’ blog is that once time has passed there’s no getting it back – I realised this a bit late when I had to ask my publisher to extend my deadline by a year, having not taken time seriously during 2009 and wasting much of it doing ‘other things’. Luckily they agreed. No such luxuries exist for the 3-year PhD or fixed-term research contract, so think about time and use it carefully. Consider what you want to achieve by the end of your contract in order to secure your position for the next career transition – and if you’ve signed up for a workshop make sure you attend – most universities offer training sessions on time management and self-motivation so this might be a good starting point!
Anyway, better dash, can’t spend any more time on my blog …. Got to get on with some real work!