Home Science Communication Why no postdoc?

Why no postdoc?

by Eva Amsen

“Oh, you’re in Cambridge now?” someone said, “Are you doing a postdoc there? Congrats!”

No, I’m not.

Someone else, around the same time, asked me: “But if you just finished your PhD, why aren’t you doing a postdoc now?”Why would I? I don’t want to run my own lab.

Why would I? I don’t want to run my own lab.

So many people stream into a postdoc after their PhD, because that’s what’s expected of them – at least in certain fields. But THEN what? Are you going to be a postdoc forever? You might have to be, because the message that your supervisory committee may have imprinted on you – that they are preparing you to run your own lab one day – is not exactly in tune with reality.

As Jenny pointed out earlier this week, there are too many postdocs. There is no way that all these people will have their own lab in the future. Not unless research funding suddenly increases tenfold, and we all know that’s not going to happen… If you get stuck on the idea that this is what you need to do, that you are “being trained to be a PI”, then you are going to feel like a failure when you don’t make it.

And if you are the kind of person who sees every PhD student as a postdoc in the making, and consider me a failure for not wanting to do a postdoc, then let me sit you down and explain my choice.

I did a PhD not because I wanted to be a PI, but because I needed more exposure to research and the scientific community than I got in my masters. I love research, but I prefer it if someone else does it. I hate experiments. I hate growing cells. I hate waiting for things to happen and starting all over again when something doesn’t work. I love when the results are finally in, and everything fits together, and I can relate it to something else and it just all “clicks”. I love talking about science, and reading what other people are doing, and connecting one paper with another. I don’t want to worry about partial digestions or mycoplasm or bands running off the gel. And that’s the kind of crap you worry about on a daily basis when you’re in a lab, and you barely get a chance to step back and see the big picture.

I just don’t like being at the bench. My favourite part of research was giving talks about it. I understand that for most people it’s the other way around. Ironically, the people who make it through years of postdocs so they one day finally qualify to be an assistant professor – a job for which they have to teach – are the same people who much prefer pipettes over PowerPoint. I get upset when I hear someone say that they “have to teach”. Of course you do! That’s your job! If you hate teaching so much, you should have done something else.

I could have done a postdoc, but I wouldn’t really have learned anything useful to me. Yes, it’s more experience in science, but only in a tiny corner of it. I like talking to people, organizing events, getting scientists together. You don’t learn that as a postdoc. If I had done a postdoc, I would only have taken up funding that someone else really wants, and I would be part of the excess of trainees. It would be another several years of being treated like someone whose life is a failure unless they one day run their own lab.

So other people, go ahead: do a postdoc, and then another one or two more. Clone, digest, lyse, wash, split, block, incubate, fix, stain, and count all you need. Tell me when you’re done, and I’ll be appropriately excited about the results, and tell you stories about all the other research projects I heard about that were also really exciting. But I don’t want to be one of the people working on a teeny tiny parts of science and getting stuck on the idea that my research is the be all and end all. I’d like to stand back and read and listen and get a more general idea of what’s going on and who is doing what.

That doesn’t mean I gave up or failed. I found the kind of job I wanted all along, one in which I get to read papers and meet scientists and go to conferences, and I didn’t need to do a postdoc to get it. For me, postdoc was my backup plan (read that post and see how far I’ve come!). I told myself I would take a year after getting my PhD to figure out what I wanted to do. And if I really couldn’t find anything, then I would start applying to postdocs after that year. It would have been my safety net, and I know it is for many people: if you don’t know what you want to do after your PhD, you might as well just do a postdoc and delay the decision. But I did find a job within my own imposed deadline, so I never had to find a postdoc.

I didn’t do a postdoc, not because I failed, but because I didn’t fail.

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39 comments

Henry Gee February 27, 2010 - 1:11 PM

_I love research, but I prefer it if someone else does it. I hate experiments. I hate growing cells. I hate waiting for things to happen and starting all over again when something doesn’t work. I love when the results are finally in, and everything fits together, and I can relate it to something else and it just all “clicks”. I love talking about science, and reading what other people are doing, and connecting one paper with another. I don’t want to worry about partial digestions or mycoplasm or bands running off the gel. And that’s the kind of crap you worry about on a daily basis when you’re in a lab, and you barely get a chance to step back and see the big picture._
And so we say, Amen.

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Sabine Hossenfelder February 27, 2010 - 3:22 PM

The issue with teaching is subtle. I would guess that about half of the people I know who teach (on a university) don’t want to teach. That’s not a good situation. It’s caused simply by lacking diversity in the job, I wrote about that “here.”:http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2008/07/research-and-teaching.html There are too few research-only jobs, rspt too few options to do something else than teaching besides research that is accepted similarly (eg engaging in public outreach).

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Sabine Hossenfelder February 27, 2010 - 3:28 PM

Should have added the suggestion I’m making in the post I linked to is to allow scientists to specialize in something besides research, services either to the public and the community, and acknowledge this service similarly (in particular when it comes to hiring). There are several besides-research tasks that come to mind there: teaching, pubic outreach (as mentioned above), mentoring, administrating (you can already do that now, when you’re involved in Dept. admin you typically have to teach less), refereeing (yes, I’m saying allow researchers to specialize in refereeing and acknowledge this service, it would be a benefit for peer review), etc.

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Benoit Bruneau February 27, 2010 - 3:43 PM

Awesome! Hopefully others will read this and understand.

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Henry Gee February 27, 2010 - 3:43 PM

When I was a graduate student I much preferred teaching undergraduates to doing my own research…

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AJ Cann February 27, 2010 - 3:47 PM

So why didn’t you go into teaching Henry?

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Jennifer Rohn February 27, 2010 - 4:33 PM

Nice post, Eva. I would like to point out, however, that it is possible to do research and also think about/appreciate the big picture. I find both parts, the doing and the bigger picture, very satisfying and synergistic.

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Benoit Bruneau February 27, 2010 - 4:41 PM

I think the bigger picture part is only on aspect, right Eva? I also only enjoyed some parts of the actual bench work, and having been able to make it to running a lab, I enjoy the big picture as well as the nitty gritty results….as performed by others. It is ridiculously difficult to get to a position where one even has the luxury to think about the big picture once in a while, and often one is too immersed in other business to have time to do so; and everything else associated with it is really not for everyone (and sometimes hardly for me either).

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Austin Elliott February 27, 2010 - 5:35 PM

Re Sabine’s point about “role flexibility”, it is also notable that University Faculty people’s views on what they are most about often changes over a career.
Historically most Faculty were hired off their research career thinking _”teaching is something you have to do a bit of, I guess, but I really want to do *research*”._ Since, over time
(i) not everyone is equally successful in research; and
(ii) it can often get a bit same-y on the treadmill of grants, grants, papers, grants etc.
– a significant group of the Faculty have tended to get progressively more involved in teaching, and other stuff, and less focussed on research. I am a living example. While some people in this situation resent the teaching, most enjoy it because passing on some of what they have learnt, or done, over the years is quite satisfying.
The trend in English Univs over the last 30 yrs has thus been to have a lot of teaching done by once-were but probably-now-not-so-active researchers, typically the slightly older Faculty in their 40s and 50s.
More recently, there has been (for various reasons) a tendency to employ younger “teaching specialists” to fill this role; these are typically people who go into a teaching career after a couple of postdoc years. This shift is an interesting one; perhaps if I ever get time I might write a post about it.
Sabine is right that one of the problems in all Faculty jobs is how to build in the flexibility to enable people to do more of the bits they enjoy doing / are good at. The problem in many cases in Universities is that research is overwhelmingly the thing that is recognised and rewarded in promotion systems; other activities are less rewarded, and thus attract less status.

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Maxine Clarke February 27, 2010 - 5:37 PM

Nice post, Eva. I switched careers after doing a postdoc for a couple of years and I haven’t regretted it.
Sabine – I very much agree with you. There are so many great things that researchers can do as well as their actual research, that are so constructive – as Jenny says. I would love researchers to spend more time in high/secondary schools. At the moment, science is taught in such a boring, pedagogical way – what students need to see are the glamorous and fun people who are actually doing science today, and to hear directly from them about what it’s like and what the goals of the researcher are. Scientists who do this should be recognised and rewarded for doing so.

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Maxine Clarke February 27, 2010 - 5:38 PM

PS I skimmed an article in my daily read of the paper the other day in which someone was lamenting because there are more media graduates turned out each year in the UK than there are jobs in the whole media industry.
Let them -eat cake- do some science work experience!

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Alejandro Correa February 27, 2010 - 5:48 PM

I change jobs to be candidates for a post-doctoral degree nor I have repented. I think it’s better to be independent and do things you want.
Sorry I am still trembling with the earthquake in Chile.

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Eva Amsen February 27, 2010 - 6:03 PM

What are you all doing online on Saturday! I was assembling bookcases…
RE: “big picture”. I mean that when you go to a seminar, and someone is talking about something COMPLETELY unrelated to your own work, you are supposed to _at most_ spend the time of the seminar thinking about it (but rather think about your own experiments) and not still be telling people about it the next day. That is “distraction”. I like everyone’s work, and hugely admire great presentations, but felt I always had to connect it to what I was supposed to be doing. You’re always meant to think of your own project as the center of everything. It’s not. I don’t want to be tied to one project and see the world that way.

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Eva Amsen February 27, 2010 - 6:03 PM

Alejandro, I was worrying about you! Was the earthquake bad where you are? At least you seem to have internet, so that’s good.

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Alejandro Correa February 27, 2010 - 6:10 PM

Thank you Eva, I was assembling bookcases too.
I am in Santiago, eartquarks 8.5 Richter scale degree. Some small cracks in my department. Children worried me. In Chile much destruction, chaos and death is regrettable, can not be predicted.

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Henry Gee February 27, 2010 - 6:34 PM

@Alejandro – we’re all thinking of you.
@AJ – _So why didn’t you go into teaching Henry?_
Who’d want to teach Henry? I’ve heard he’s pretty much unteachable.

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Alejandro Correa February 27, 2010 - 6:50 PM

Thanks Henry.
It was an earthquake that was centered in Concepcion, grade 9.0 on the Richter scale. There have been 40 tremors reply of grade 6 in the Richter scale.
Have been restored telephone connections, but not the entire country. The public network of gas no operate. There is electricity in some areas. There are 144 dead. No access south bridges were destroyed as integers. It is difficult to assist this very disconnected roasway.

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Alejandro Correa February 27, 2010 - 6:51 PM

Sorry, Roadway.

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Alejandro Correa February 27, 2010 - 7:05 PM

Right now is shaking grade 5, I guess.

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Bob O'Hara February 27, 2010 - 8:41 PM

bq. More recently, there has been (for various reasons) a tendency to employ younger “teaching specialists” to fill this role; these are typically people who go into a teaching career after a couple of postdoc years. This shift is an interesting one; perhaps if I ever get time I might write a post about it.
I hope you do, Austin. It’s one aspect that we haven’t discussed in a lot of detail in our different blog posts, but I think it’s an important aspect of the whole problem of academic careers.
Alejandro – keep safe. We’ll miss you if you stop commenting here.

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Brian Derby February 27, 2010 - 9:46 PM

The recruitment of teaching specialists is becoming more common. University rankings, whether by THES or Shanghai Jiao Tong only really use research related metrics, so the hierarchy of the university wishes to select for research. But the finances of most universities are governed by bums on seats and so there is a driver to maximise the undergraduate intake (attracted by the position of the university on the rankings). Thus we get a dichotomy. Maximise research and maximise teaching. The solution is to recruit low pay teaching only posts. The alternative, use graduate students to do the teaching does not look good when the high fees paying students realise they are being taught by only slightly more senior students. Teaching faculty are normally at least titled as Dr./Prof.
We have recently recruited teaching staff into underperforming (research) parts of our department. This si to free up the time of people from teaching 200-300 size classes and let them (hopefully) develop their research careers. It is possible that these people might be able to do research in the summer vacation but in practice it seems to fit humanities style work better than experimental science.

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Alejandro Correa February 27, 2010 - 11:30 PM

Thanks Bob.

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Benoit Bruneau February 28, 2010 - 12:51 AM

Alejandro, we wish you well over here in northern earthquake country, and hope for the best for you and your fellow Chileans. My house is 500m from the Hayward fault, which is the next predicted big one, so these events make me very nervous.

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Alejandro Correa February 28, 2010 - 1:03 AM

Benoit thanks for your concern, so I was very nervous because we were on the fifth floor and my children were very frightened. But nothing happened.The worst you this with his hands tied.
In Chile there are many dead about 214 dead, is really an pain in the hearth.

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Benoit Bruneau February 28, 2010 - 6:29 AM

Eva, acts of god notwithstanding, I understand your post, and wish that more whiny posters might be humbled or at least tempered in their assessment of their future(s).

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Benoit Bruneau February 28, 2010 - 6:36 AM

To clarify, I was of course meaning out of the Chilean disaster context…..

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Cobi Smith February 28, 2010 - 7:12 AM

I know entirely how you feel. When I lived in Cambridge I worked in publishing, editing and journalism. But that didn’t stop many people asking “so what were you researching at Cambridge…?”
That happened even though I hadn’t finished a PhD when I moved there as you had, and the unversity was only one of several organisations I worked for. It’s just what comes to mind when people hear Cambridge, I think.

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Kristi Vogel February 28, 2010 - 12:20 PM

Great post, Eva, and lots of interesting comments!
I think Sabine is spot on about the need for more flexibility in faculty positions, with an associated flexibility in tenure and promotion decisions (I’m an example of how the two can be separate, but won’t go into the boring details). The percentage of faculty who really don’t want to teach may be even higher than 50% at some universities. I’m fortunate in that I love teaching, it constitutes the largest percentage of what I do on a daily basis, and the subjects (anatomy, embryology, neuroscience) that I teach are in demand (and will be for the foreseeable future) at medical and dental schools. However, as Austin points out, it’s research that is overwhelmingly rewarded and recognized, both within the university and in broader society – so much so that people will often claim to be actively involved in research, even when they haven’t published an original research paper or collaborated with others on such for many years.
I actually love almost every aspect of benchwork, from molecular biology through cell culture, and would be happy to have the time for microdissections and DNA damage assays every day at work. Most successful PIs I know don’t have much time for benchwork, though, and I found this to be a disappointing aspect of standard facultydom. In fact, it seems to me that most of the successful PIs, at least in biomedical research, are best at managing the the people in their labs who do the actual benchwork. I also have some thoughts about the sustainability of different kinds of research, in the context of the current economic situation, but I’d best shut up about that. 😉
O/T Glad to hear you and your family are OK, Alejandro … must have been very frightening.

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Benoit Bruneau February 28, 2010 - 3:02 PM

Perhaps a topic for another post, but all this discussion of careers mixed in with Alejandro’s dramatically unfortunate situation begs a question: how (if at all) have people been affected by events of gigantic proportions in their career decisions? Alejandro, you must be just happy to be able to hug your children at this point.

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Alejandro Correa February 28, 2010 - 5:14 PM

@Thanks Kristi, was a great earthquake,unfortunately there are 300 dead.
@Thanks Benoit, yes I am happy that my children and Donata are well.
Unfortunately in countries like these is to ensure a future with economics greater expectations (for example, select another area that is more lucrative) and the hard science let is unfortunately somewhat neglected because unfortunately here the jobs in science are minimal and there is extraordinary competition and rivalry, besides having to be subjected to small group of unscrupulous scientists who are more engaged in politics that the science, is regrettable and a shame. Depend upon that you be a good policy will have a good position in a University, not by talent or good scientific is an pain.

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Alejandro Correa February 28, 2010 - 5:50 PM

Send them a link here with the catastrophe in Chile (is in spanish, I so sorry):
“Earthquake”:http://diario.elmercurio.com/2010/02/28/nacional/_portada/noticias/CC333082-3E7C-4BB0-846C-B5A962DFF037.htm

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Alejandro Correa February 28, 2010 - 6:08 PM

15,8 gigatons liberate the earthquake in Chile.
“Richter scale”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richter_magnitude_scale

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Stephen Curry February 28, 2010 - 9:41 PM

Well played. And written.

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Nicolau Werneck March 1, 2010 - 3:35 AM

I find it very intere things aresting to rnd of text and learn how much different things are in other countries. Post-doc grants are only recently starting to grow here in Brazil, and there are very few job options for doctors other than teaching. Though I’m not too sure of how things are like in the life related areas, I’m speaking only for Engineering…

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Nicolau Werneck March 1, 2010 - 3:37 AM

I find it very interesting to read this kind of text and learn how much different things are in other countries. Post-doc grants are only recently starting to grow here in Brazil, and there are very few job options for doctors other than teaching. Though I’m not too sure of how things are like in the life related areas, I’m speaking only for Engineering…

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Brian Derby March 1, 2010 - 8:44 AM

Nicolau – I was in Brazil last in 2008 at the Brazil MRS meeting. I was very impressed with the snapshot of Brazilian Marerials Science that was on display. The projects were quite applied but there is clearly government funding that is supporting research. Most of the poster presenters I met were Brazilian students rather than post-docs. If you are in a period of expansion (at least before the recession) then there may have been new teaching posts that were using up the resource of trained PhDs rather than any need to have a buffer of a post doc population.

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Eva Amsen March 1, 2010 - 8:59 AM

It might be field-dependent. I think you have more options in engineering than in life sciences to find something without a postdoc, in any country. In bio-fields, if you don’t have a postdoc, you can barely do anything. Because so many people DO a postdoc, it even becomes a requirement for jobs that don’t really need it, just to cull their pool of applicants.

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Ian Brooks March 1, 2010 - 7:29 PM

Great post Eva. Even though i did postdoc I have to explain, just sometimes, to myself as well as others, that I’m not a failure.

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Åsa Karlström March 1, 2010 - 9:05 PM

Eva> Love the post. I feel a bit the opposite though.. I like the bench work and the hands on, but it is a roller coaster.
I think it is very important like you did, to take some time and think _”what do I want to do”_. Personally, even if I never get my own lab (don’t think I want that) – I liked my post doc and it was a good experience for me to do science and see what I like/need to do in the future. However, I wouldn’t say everyone needs to do one (but personally, I think it is good to go away from the grad department in order to become a PI in the long run).
I can’t tell you what _some_ people have told me when they realise that I did a post doc and now am currently away from the TT line…. [that would imply rude words and I prefer not to write those here.] It seems to be something that people need to have an opinion about; post doc or no post doc. Maybe because it is so hard to know what a PhD really _means_ in the grander scheme of things?

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