If it's not a labour of love, just leave

January 12, 2007

Postdoctoral study is not for everyone, but it's nirvana for creative types who thrive on intellectual challenge, says Anastasia Simi

I was in Greece a few weeks ago visiting my family when I got an invitation to give a talk in Stockholm about my postdoctoral research. I began to put together a few slides and noticed my mum peeking at my laptop screen while cooking dinner. So, there I was showing her my green-and-blue cells when I think it struck her for the first time: "You really love this, don't you?"

I do indeed. Which is why I was so shocked by an article that appeared recently in The Times Higher ("I'm a postdoc - get me out", Features, November 17). The cynicism and bitterness of the author was clear as she described her bad experience as a postdoc. It turned everything pleasant and rewarding about my job - everything I love - into something negative. The article painted a bleak picture of a postdoc's life that is likely to put off young people - our future generation of scientists.

There is not a single person involved in scientific research, from postgraduate student to professor, who hasn't thought at least once in their career: "What have I achieved since this time last year? Hmm... nothing!" Scientists today don't need to be the smartest people on earth, and certainly not the luckiest. But they do need to be able to rise above the challenges of everyday existence and to possess great resources of creativity and enthusiasm.

Scientific research, along with everything in life, is about rewards. Can you find enough reward to justify the long hours, the low salary, the pressure to move around the world and not prioritise your personal life or your significant other? Can you still find interest and satisfaction in mingling with students, seeing them learn and grow, developing ideas of their own and getting enthusiastic about just about everything? But most of all, when you go home at night what are you thinking before you close your eyes? If it is "it's time to find a real job", then maybe you are simply not cut out for the science world. Most scientists I know (and the overwhelming majority of them are postdocs) think: "I thought of a brilliant experiment today - and it's going to work this time" or "Isn't it great that we get paid to have so much fun?"

Postdoctoral training is meant to be the time when you get your first glimpse of the life of a scientist. You are no longer a student who can leave the planning and responsibility to others. You are the master of your own project and your own time, trying to fit in teaching, publishing, supervising students and applying for research grants.

Yes, it is overwhelming in the beginning and as daunting as every new start. But you slowly find your way about it. Admittedly, until you do so your life is quite a mess. You work longer and longer hours because you never seem to finish what you've planned for the day. At times your priorities seem quite scrambled, and you almost forget... but let me remind you: you did not end up here because you had to, or were asked to, but because you chose to. And every choice that we make in life can be followed by a new choice if the first one doesn't work out.

Choosing to do a postdoc is a path you can walk away from. If life in academe is not for you, you will nonetheless have a strong card on your curriculum vitae when looking for a new job. In my area of research, that job may be in the pharmaceutical industry. Would you be surprised to know that most people in high positions at, say, AstraZeneca, had between five and ten years of postdoctoral experience before they were chosen for those positions? Nobody was put off hiring them - I, on the other hand, was surprised when those exact same people welcomed my decision to leave AstraZeneca for Manchester University, saying that they remembered their postdoctoral days as the best of their lives. My project leader never missed an opportunity to tell us another story from the five years she spent as a postdoc in Australia.

If you now think you need to run around the world as a postdoc to become a successful scientist or get an interesting job, that's not true either. The longest distance my PhD supervisor has moved during his entire career is to a new building across the road.

The UK is the third country I have lived in. I have been doing my postdoc here for the past two and a half years and am moving again this spring. I have enjoyed a rich experience in what I've learnt, the people I've met and the friends I've made. And for those of us who want to be scientists, it doesn't get more real than that.

Anastasia Simi is a postdoctoral research fellow at Manchester University.

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