Do I stay or do I go?

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.

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