“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.