Monthly Archives: November 2013

What’s the point of a postdoc?

Recent statistics supplied by the Royal Society (see Figure opposite) show that nearly 50% of PhD graduates in the UK choose to go down the postdoc career route, even if it is only for a few years, before opting to transfer into industry or other sectors (this figure is likely to be similar in most countries, but please correct me if you think I’m wrong about this). ‘Postdoc-ing’ in the short-term can be a great experience and really boost expertise and skills, not to mention providing lots of opportunities to travel and collaborate with interesting people. Those who continue further and secure fellowships followed by the much-coveted tenured position benefit from the opportunity to pursue a research topic they love, relative autonomy, as well as working in a stimulating environment.
However, recent career interviews and informal conversations I’ve had with long-serving postdoctoral researchers show another less positive side to the postdoctoral ‘coin’. Usually it is when a researcher is faced with the prospect of having to give up on a long hoped-for academic research career. This may be due to any number of reasons, but primarily it’s because they have not managed to secure independence and publish enough ‘quality’ research papers to compete for a tenured or group leadership post.  Words such as ‘failure’, ‘second-rate’ and  ‘wasted years’ come up frequently, accompanied by a sense of dejection and even depression. Many postdocs who come to see me for advice have been employed on temporary academic research contracts for eight years or more, and have become increasingly aware of their vulnerability and impending loss of income as funding starts to dry up. This is usually due to higher salaries associated with senior postdocs preventing progression, or the ability of a group leader to justify to funders continuing to employ someone at a higher grade. In this event, some postdocs opt to take a pay cut with a new contract so that they may remain on a project and extend their employment a few more years. The latter decision is usually influenced by personal circumstances, especially for those (usually women) with young families, who are willing to make the compromise to their career in favour of a stable location.
Those of you who work in a university or research institution may know older researchers in their department who are in such a position, or you may be one yourself. Far from trying to pigeonhole those in this position, and fully acknowledging each person’s individual circumstances, I would like to share some thoughts from my perspective as a careers professional, whose aim is to help and guide researchers in their career decisions.
First, I think it’s important that you are aware that only 0.45% of science PhD graduates achieve a full professorship (see Figure). This means that your supervisor and/or mentor are in a miniscule minority of people who have ‘made it’. Even those who achieved a permanent academic position represent less than 10% of those who initially embarked on a postdoctoral career path. This means that around 90% of postdocs eventually leave academia. I don’t need to tell you that this is pretty significant! The figures are worse than in the past – say, 30 years ago – when your supervisor may have been a young postdoc. However, it seems to me that this is not due to a decreased number of tenured academic posts, rather it’s a burgeoning postdoctoral community. You see, there was a time (before the 1990s) when science departments were full of technicians, who were the backbone of the institution, providing stability and continuity to research programmes. Over the years, these posts drastically diminished, whilst postdoctoral research posts increased almost as dramatically. The difference is, of course, that far from being funded relatively permanently and securely by the university, they are short-term and rely on external insecure ‘soft’ money. On top of this, the metrics of publishing impact (which, believe it or not, also did not exist before the 1990s) introduced huge pressures on academics to keep writing papers derived from quality data, notably produced from experiments conducted by postdocs and PhD students in their research group. Thus, the pressures are felt keenly by early career researchers who have their own careers to consider and who know they too will be measured by their publishing impact.
So, you can see that many research policies generally conspire against the majority of contract researchers ever achieving a permanent academic position. And even those who do make their way to the top of the academic tree find themselves with unending pressures to publish, secure funding, build and maintain an international reputation, teach, administrate, employ, manage and so on. So perhaps, on reflection, long-serving postdocs will see that the words ‘failure’, ‘second-rate’, ‘wasted years’ do not apply to them, and even the prospect of an ‘alternative career’ ought to be viewed more positively as a ‘new career’.  
Hopefully, knowledge of the statistics and realistic facts about the academic research career culture will also instil a level of confidence into those who feel a sense of failure or of letting others, and even themselves, down by leaving academia. You are certainly not alone amongst your peers! And there are other careers where this happens, e.g. the majority of sports professionals and military personnel will need to start a new career at around 40; lawyers and architects who don’t achieve a partnership in their firm will probably have to leave at a similar age. Although a daunting prospect, rather than looking at your exit in a negative light, it could be seen as a new beginning. You can consider a range of options depending on factors such as your skills, interests and personal situation. The sooner you take a proactive approach to your career the better equipped you’ll be to face this challenge. Many research staff associations have been set up in universities and research institutions to help support postdocs with their careers and even personal issues, as well as organising networking activities.
You may not feel very talented and valued inside your department, however everything is relative and on the ‘outside’ you will be seen by employers as a highly skilled, motivated and intelligent professional with much to offer a variety of sectors and organisations. A positive attitude coupled with the confidence to promote yourself relevantly and enthusiastically to new employers should help you to move on to a different career path, where you have new opportunities to realise a successful career and even to make it to the ‘top’!