Postdocs: Be careful what you wish for!

Statistics, surveys and anecdotal evidence tell us that the majority of postdocs aspire to become an academic, even though few will achieve this career goal. Having graduated from a PhD, they have chosen a research career path and many are aiming for a permanent position, in a research institute, but mostly in a university. You may be one such aspiring postdoc, but do you really know what kind of life awaits you as a lecturer or professor? Are you fully aware of how different the life of an academic is, compared with the role of a postdoctoral researcher? Recently, I’ve noticed a few blogs appearing on the subject of being an academic, so I thought I’d share three of them here to illustrate some of the many challenges and varied duties expected of an academic. This way, any postdocs wishing for this career will be going in with their eyes open!

First up, “The many hats of the academic researcher ”, by Andrew D. Hollenbach, which is featured  on the ASBMB site, lists 11 roles he has to play as associate professor, some of which caught him by surprise. Unlike being a postdoc, focusing on research and its associated tasks, as a professor Andrew found out very quickly he had to, amongst other things, be a teacher, a writer, a politician, a performer, a mediator and, sometimes, even a therapist. Duties such as chairing departmental committees and mentoring students can take up a lot of time and, he advises, a supportive department is crucial to help you to manage your workload.

One newly appointed academic once told me, “What with research, teaching, reviewing papers, writing grants, forming and nurturing collaborations, as well as writing papers, my working week is long and includes evenings and weekends”.  I must confess, from my own experience, I find that the best time to get the attention of an academic is to email them at the weekend – you can usually guarantee they’ll be catching up on work, including checking their emails. With few other distractions while they’re away from the institution, you are more likely to get their attention (if their children don’t get there first of course!).

My second example is Jim Smith, a professor at MRC. His advice about how to succeed as a biomedical scientist is recorded by Simon Hazelwood-Smith on the Naturejobs Blog, following his talk at their annual careers expo in London. His account of his academic career focusses on the challenge of finding a niche for your research so that you can establish yourself in a particular research field. It’s not enough to move in the shadows of your previous supervisors, you need to find and own your area of research expertise. He says: “You need to fall in love with your subject and be engrossed by it”. He adds a list of personal qualities and tips on how to succeed as an academic, including learning to take good notes, creating and using networks, and taking control of your career.
Finally, here’s some advice from an academic who made it to the very top of the university career ladder, featured on the Financial Times blog: Professor Nancy Rothwell is the University of Manchester’s first female Vice Chancellor. She talks about the challenges for female scientists, even those without children, including long hours in research labs and international travel. She says the reason why women are in the minority of senior positions can be due to a range of things, including family commitments, a lack of self confidence and a lack of role models.

So there you have it, the harsh reality of the life of an academic. Do you still yearn for it, despite the many challenges and stresses? If so, it could well be the career for you!

Related content: What’s the point of a postdoc?


Leave a Reply