I'm a postdoc - get me out

November 17, 2006

Want to tread the academic path after a PhD? Are you sure , asks Eleanor Lingham

A week before I started my postdoc, I met an old friend whom I hadn't seen since my undergraduate days. He had just dropped out of a postdoc - after a year - and was now getting a "real job" instead. I had as short a conversation as possible with him and went on my way. I didn't want to listen to his negative experience. A few months later, I wished I had listened.

If I had thought more before I entered the postdoc world and had looked at the other options available, I'm not so sure that I would have made the same choices. I hope that my experiences can help some people to see the whole picture before they decide to continue down the academic road.

First, are you studying for a PhD? Yes? And you like it, right? You like the lifestyle and you like your supervisor and you like your research. The funding isn't that bad either. And so when a nice postdoc comes up and someone says, "You should apply for that!", then off you go. Well, stop and think about it. Here are a few things to consider:

Money

It sounds good, doesn't it? Don't forget about tax, though, and isn't it time you started a pension? After taking these two things into account, the take-home salary is maybe 70 per cent of the total. Granted, this is lots more than PhD funding, but how does it compare with a "real job"? It's at best the same and at worst a lot less. The other downside is that for the first time in your life you're going to be paying council tax. And don't think that you can top up the cash by doing extra teaching or tutoring.

This is normally unpaid and, worse, expected. Added to that, your expenses will probably rise. After all, you are now a postdoc and will probably want your own place. Or maybe even to buy somewhere? Just remember, fixed-term contracts and mortgage providers don't really mix.

Research

You really like your PhD topic, don't you? If you didn't, you'd probably have cracked up already and certainly would not be considering a postdoc. So, you like your topic and you quite fancy the idea of continuing with it for another couple of years. Well, stop and read the small print.

Is the postdoc on the same topic? If so, great. But if it's in a different area, you might not like it quite so much when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, and starting again from scratch can be tricky. Like your PhD, it will take a good few months of hard slog to get a firm basis in a subject - and somehow it's not so appealing second time round.

Supervisor

Technically, you won't really have one anymore. You'll have a "principal researcher" or "principal investigator" (PI). They'll control the money, the project and the travel opportunities. If it is your existing supervisor - whom you like and respect - good for you. If not, you could be in for a rude awakening. The postdoc-PI relationship involves far less hand-holding and far more "OK, here's the project I applied for. I know it's not really your area, but best of luck with it. See you in a few months." And if you're really unlucky it will be: "Here's your project. By the way, there's a slight error in it, so if you could just prove this first, that would be great. I'm off to Uzbekistan. Bye."

Travel

When you're a PhD student, travel is great. You can get money for travel from the department, from the graduate school or from conference organisers. When you're a postdoc, it can be a bit more complicated. For one thing, you don't really qualify for department funds anymore - well, you might do, but normally they prefer spending it on "proper staff" or PhD students. As for conference organisers, they have funds for PhD students and people from disadvantaged countries. In fact, everyone assumes that the travel money should come from your postdoc grant - and thus from your PI.

This is good news if you get on well with him or her, bad news otherwise.

Relationships

By this I mean you and your significant other. No, not you and your PI, you and your boyfriend/ girlfriend/spouse/pet. Think very carefully about doing a postdoc. For one thing, it sets you firmly on the road to academia. This can mean a year in one location, 18 months in another, a semester in Siberia and then three years in Dubai. Will your relationship survive? And is your significant other in academia, too? Will it even be possible for you to still see each other?

Friends

PhD students are great, aren't they? You hang out together in a huge office and go for three-hour coffee breaks and talk about Superman versus Batman and "Jaffa: cake or biscuit?". Well, it all changes at postdoc level. First, there's only a few of you - Jmaybe two or three. And the others are probably child prodigies from some far-off land, and the last thing they are able to do is be sociable. And you might even get your own office, but when you're stuck in there all day with a project you are having difficulty with, the foul-smelling cramped PhD rooms gain a rose-tinted glow. And if you move to a new institution, I'm afraid that the PhDs there will think you are old and the staff will think you're invisible. They are far too busy with the research assessment exercise to even think about talking to postdocs.

Career progression (forward)

You think: yeah, I'll do a PhD and then a postdoc or two, and then I'll get a lectureship somewhere great. Well, best of luck to you, but the reality can be quite bleak. Obviously, it depends on the subject and on the topic, but for a lot of people getting a lectureship is really, really difficult. For one thing, there are millions (OK, maybe that is an exaggeration) of foreign lecturers who are dying to get to the UK and who are applying for junior lectureships (and even postdocs) aged 50 with 40 publications. It is really difficult to compete with that. Also, the short-term nature of many postdocs means that it is difficult to master the topic and complete the project with publications in time. So, after your first postdoc, you may have little to show for it, which makes getting a second one a lot more difficult. And then there are the time pressures involved, as most people want to move directly from one into the other.

This requires military-style planning, an excellent academic record and a huge amount of luck.

Career progression (backward)

What if you do go for a postdoc and realise that it isn't really for you? Remember that making the switch to a "real job" can be a lot trickier after a postdoc than after a PhD. After all, you've demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that you are not that interested in the "real world". And maybe there is the idea that you have failed in the academic world, which is not really the strongest position to be applying from.

However, if like me you have reached the brick wall in your postdoc, then don't despair. Just make the leap. Line up your ducks - that is, a new job preferably - and then just go for it. No one will mind. No one will be disappointed in you. Well, your PI might have something to say about it, but who cares? You've left and you're never going back.

Does this tally with your experience? What advice would you give to someone contemplating a postdoc? E-mail mandy.garner@thes.co.uk

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