Postdoc blues: how do you know when it is time to give up?

They think I’m a rising star, says a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, but my hopes of a real career in science are sinking

October 15, 2015
James Fryer illustration (15 October 2015)
Source: James Fryer

Ever since I decided I wanted to be a scientist I’ve been going pretty steady. With hard work, great guidance and a good dash of luck, I am now a self-funded postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

As a consequence, everyone thinks I’m a “rising star”. But instead of taking pride when people remark on this, a brief rush of positivity is usually followed by the persisting feeling that they will soon find out that I’m slowly turning into a falling star. My research is not progressing, my collaboration attempts have all failed and I only compare myself with the brilliant people who surround me here at Stanford. My hopes of ever becoming a “real” scientist are slowly sinking.

Everyone tells me your postdoc years are the most important of your career. Failure or bad luck at this stage will haunt you forever. Universities will consider you for a faculty position only if you publish something in a major journal. And because of the sheer number of job-seeking postdocs – many of them beloved colleagues whom I wholeheartedly want to have a great career – the expectations are becoming ever more stringent. That leaves more and more of us stacking up temporary position after temporary position, putting our lives in limbo.

So what should we do? How do you know when it’s time to give up and move on to another career? I defer to the almighty internet. I read stories about professors who admit to having made it only because of their sheer perseverance, but I also find accounts from postdocs who got stuck in academia (so-called “permadocs”) and regretted it. I read other people’s accounts of the “academic blues” and what they are doing about it. All this only makes me more unsure about what I should do.

So I start exploring other, non-academic career options. I talk to people who left academia, and to people planning on doing so. I visit careers fairs and fill out personality questionnaires at Stanford’s career development centre. But this only reinforces my conviction that I like being a scientist and I have the skills to be one. I would be happy in another job only if it requires as much creativity, variety and flexibility as science does. Great. Either I drastically change my expectations in life, or I am back at square one.

What makes devising an exit strategy so difficult is the fact that while publishing is all-important in science, the people who might interview you for a non-academic job are not interested in your publications. They only want to know about your skills and motivation. But these are not easy to build when you spend most of your time trying to get publishable results.

I think it is fair to say that we can roughly divide postdocs into three categories: the ones who have the skills, the best mentoring, and good data; the ones who have the skills and mentoring but don’t get clear data; and the ones that lack either skills or good mentoring. With only a small proportion of postdocs making it to a faculty position, only the first group and perhaps a few lucky ones out of the second group will make it. This leaves a large share of good postdocs who miss the boat, mostly out of misfortune. But how do these unfortunates know exactly when their luck has run out and they should stop trying to climb the steep pyramid?

I recently put this question to a Harvard professor during a “careers in science” discussion. She couldn’t really answer it, but kept reassuring me that everything would work out as long as I just hung in there. My peers were supportive, telling me it was brave to ask the question that haunted everyone but that no one dared to voice. The faculty were supportive as well, but they all agreed that if I just persevered I would never “fail” in academia. It made me wonder whether the older generation just does not understand the harsh realities, or whether we youngsters see a problem that’s not there.

It would help if mentors were more honest about actual career chances, and stress the luck as well as the perseverance factor. But they also need to stop equating leaving academia with failure. In addition, it would take a huge weight off many postdocs’ minds if more permanent staff scientists were created; I was among those who gave overwhelming support to this option in a poll linked to a recent Nature article on the “postdoc problem”.

Even if such measures did not stop The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? from playing on an endless mental loop, they would at least help turn down the volume – allowing postdocs, for once, to hear themselves think about their future research, instead of their future life.

The author is a European postdoctoral researcher working at Stanford University.

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Reader's comments (14)

This is a very important contribution and thank you to the needlessly anonymous author. Everyone knows that the vast majority of good postdocs cannot be provided with the resources to do well in science. What is kept more secret is how many of those few who are actually invited onto the next step, face a looming slavery and are subject to perverse incentives and stresses that impede creative thinking, long-term projects, but also due care and attention to experiments and teaching, to their own students and postdocs, the community etc. The solution lies in breaking up the culture where only the highly-successful in terms of publishing expensive research should survive and be allowed to compete for resources. Instead, resources need to be delivered in more rational ways, for example to institutions, who can then take a fairer view on how to distribute them, supporting smaller groups and fostering their independence and possibility to collaborate - if they wish to - on mutually beneficial terms. One problem is that the current system has corrupted institutional management (good practices within instutions are a prerequisite for my suggestion above to work) and as the older guard retires, I see less willingness to engage and less understanding of the problem of what is required for science to flourish at the top. The bottom, on the other hand, is inexperienced, divided, dependent, fearful, but above all, too busy to consider the situation. Those of us concerned (commendable initiatives have been voiced in many venues) should move the debate forward.
I do agree with some of the author's view, in particular the bit about mentors having to be more honest about career opportunities (but that would not be in their own interest ....). I would, however, say that by the time a student has completed his/her Doctoral studies the whole picture of academia should be pretty clear to them. Everybody with a PhD has the ability to understand the most recent statistics about academic careers i.e. only a few %, much less than 10%, of those starting a PhD end up in a Uni/research job. If you decide to gamble on that, well, be prepared for a loss as it is more likely than a win! I can't avoid moving some criticism to the author's attitude towards employment, within or outside academia. The whole article sounds much like the attitude I see every day in academia: quite simply, most researchers are either not being pro-active about their own jobs/careers/life, or not willing to do anything but being an academic. I do have a permanent academic position in a top University. I landed this job about 10 years after my PhD and after 4 years of probation. Since my PhD graduation, I haven't had even one day as a postdoc. I didn't have, to say the least, the best of PhD supervisors, and I was definitely not a "rising star" (I truly dislike this expression). In fact most people thought I should do something else as I was not material for academia! Being a realistic individual with a good grip on real life, I was well aware that my chances of getting a postdoc, let alone becoming a permanent faculty, were very slim. And this was despite the fact that it was definitely not my fault that my PhD turned out to be sub-standard; I worked very hard at it (exactly like 99% of people undertaking a PhD, we all work hard not just the rising stars!) but I lacked guidance and advice. So I decided to work as researcher outside academia and continued publishing. By doing so, I built additional skills that most of my academic peers cannot even dream of. Indeed, I would say that I am grossly overqualified for my current position (or largely underpaid depending on how you want to look at it). At one stage academia came back looking for me as I could offer something that the "rising stars" they had nurtured could not offer. Now I am an academic by choice but with an option to quit and do something else if I don't like what I see. PhD/Postdocs have skills that most other people don't have. They should stop thinking that if they can't have the exact job they want then it's unfair. And if they like flexibility, they should start thinking about self-employment. It is possible! My wife, also a PhD, this year decided to quit academia because there were no chances she could get a permanent position anywhere, and started her own company. 10 months later with an initial investment of about 2000 euro she is already making a decent living out of it, comparable to her former postdoc wages.
The main issues is that graduate and Pdoc mentors train scientists as they were trained. The world today does not need clones. It wants an edge. Scientists have to be writers, rhetoricians, trained reviewers. A postdoc needs to show a hiring university that they can do exactly what the job entails, by already having it done. Get a grant, publish, show leadership, innovation, and do outreach. That is what you will be measured by in the university. Show you already can do it. It would take me two hands to count the "dead-end permadocs" that found a job AFTER we talked about the interview, re-worked the job talk and changed the interview philosophy. Good scientists are dying on the vine because their skills are not translating to the real demands. It is a communications and training exercise, not a scientific one, that separates the candidate from the position. And "Contributor" needs to get this message. Publishing career guidance in a forum like this could be the difference that makes this pd stand out from the others that choose to never flex popular-press writing muscles. Today's students/pds need to take every step to develop a brand, participate in wider science, and take any opportunity to provide evidence that they can work above and beyond the basic call of science duty.
"Good scientists are dying on the vine because their skills are not translating to the real demands. It is a communications and training exercise, not a scientific one, that separates the candidate from the position." Amen. PhD students are not trained well how to market themselves. Perhaps it is inherent to being focused on the thesis so long, but the ones I speak with always want to convince me of how great it was what they did, and get in the nitty-gritty of their technical skills as if they have to convince a reviewer. They forget that the employer (whether academic or non-academic) is focused on what they can do for them.
I am one of a group of researchers and former researchers at the University of Manchester who have organised a one day event on 4th November, Rethinking UK Research Funding (, prompted in large part by the issues raised in this excellent piece. We worry about the effects short term funding and excessive competition is having on the quality of science and the quality of our lives. Like 'Contributor' we love our work. Similarly, we recognise that the odds of a successful academic career are stacked against us. We also worry that those of us who do stay in academia will be subject to the 'perverse incentives and stresses' mentioned by Fanis in their comment above. Beyond our own ambitions and disappointments, we are concerned about the effects of current structures on the quality of the research conducted in universities (see The Nuffield Council for Bioethics report, The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK). Who does the current system benefit? Certainly not research staff, probably not funders either - given the sorry situation where many results in some scientific disciplines are not reproducible. We believe we need to talk about this and that researchers need to find the time to make their voices heard in the essential debate about how to move on from the inherent and growing difficulties associated with the short term culture of academic research.
I'm always amazed when I hear about people doing self-funded PhDs (bad, bad idea). But really, do people really need telling that doing a self-funded postdoc is not a great career move? The fact that working in academia is your top choice can't be the be all and end all. Being a premiership footballer is a lot of people's top choice too. I also don't think this is a question that no one dare voice. When I was in grad school it was voiced constantly! Good luck to the poster, luckily I am sure that you do have a great CV which will stand you in good stead for a transfer to non-academic jobs. Doing so won't be as bad as you think.
Self-funded means in some cases (more it the US than in the UK that they received their own grant, not that they are paying from their own pocket.
Posted on behalf of the article's author: "Thanks everyone for the insightful comments. I was pleasantly surprised by the interest for my piece that I decided to write anonymously because, unfortunately, the current academic environment still does not praise you when you are openly doubtful about your chances, even when justified. Here, I would like to respond to some of the comments above: (1) I definitely agree that more money should be committed to institutions directly instead of giving it directly to the skillful lucky ones that have the CV to compete for the increasingly small amount of (governmental) research money. With this money, more senior researcher and staff positions could be created that could be taken by the postdocs that are now missing the boat towards a (tenure track) professorship. Additionally, it will make science a more tranquil place where people are inspired more by understanding the world instead of trying to secure themselves a future. (2) I also agree that postdocs should know that this is the current situation, understand their chances within and outside academia, and prepare for it adequately. Unfortunately, this is not always easy to predict. The main problem lies, as described towards the end of the piece, in mentors that keep reinforcing that if you just persevere you will survive in academia – which is still the main goal for many postdocs. I think they do this for two reasons: to be nice - and, hopefully, honest - to their mentees, and to save their own face. No professor wants their students to leave academia because it makes them look bad as a mentor. This is where we can and should change. Mentors should see that having more than 10% of your students land a job in science already shows good mentoring skills. Additionally, the ones that do decide to leave do not make you look bad as a mentor but show that you prepare your students for a realistic future. Additionally, “leaving” academia does not always mean - as many people appear to think - that you can never return, something that was nicely raised by one of the commentators. (3) And finally, yes I got the message that transferable skills, such as popular writing, are useful outside of academia. I would definitely suggest young scientists explore popular writing (amongst other things), think about alternative careers, and discuss them with peers. This will hopefully help to increase the dialogue about these issues, something that is already happening more and more at Stanford. I know this made me more aware and less anxious of my future, whether this is in academia or not!"
Work on your own interests or those from someone else? Having finished a PhD you should have demonstrated ability and independence. Hopefully, creativity. But to live you (usually) need to earn money, so you have to take a job. If it is an academic job, you can spend part of your time working on your own ideas (or should I say 'research'?), but in industry that is often also possible. If you do not want to work for others, start your own business. Living is a road of discovery, a continuous development of oneself, and I believe that anything you do you can be a part of that road. Just be sure that you know what you want and what is possible, then prioritize. Move on. Personally, I decided to move back to work for the university after 18 years, doing research, because that was the best fit for me at the time. It paid a lot less than industry, but had other aspects that fitted better to me. You have made the choice to continue in academia without pay, and now seem to have second thoughts. I think you need to consider your options and decide one way or the other to make it work.
The main trap I see both PhDs and postdocs fall into is that their immediate surroundings define the full range of possibilities for their career. The competition at Stanford and other R1 institutions is intense, and jobs at R1s are very competitive. But that doesn't mean that completely satisfying jobs aren't out there at other colleges and universities. And frankly, some of those opportunities may possess a better work/life balance.
Thrre important questions: 1) Are you enjoying your work? 2) Are you getting anywhere scientifically / building a portfolio? 3) Do you have reasonable prospects of continuing to be paid? If the answer to any of these is "no" - time to consider an alternative. I'm hopelessly biased; I still have the first job I applied for, back in 1980 - but I have trained 20+ PhDs and employed 10+ postdocs, and seen them go on to a variety of careers in academia and industry. The industry ones don't seem to look back; the academic ones are always searching for another path...until they get tenure, at which point they relax. I also know folk who have come back from industry to academia, after making a fistful of money - so dreams of academic jobs are never completely lost!
"But this only reinforces my conviction that I like being a scientist and I have the skills to be one." I assume you realize that in a permanent position (i.e. higher op the steep slope of the pyramid) you will have a different kin of schedule than you have now? Being a university lecturer in the UK for example (I was one) comes with quite some admin. So the "creativity, variety and flexibility" you might be experiencing as a post-doc with your own grant cannot really be extrapolated to the lecturer/professor level. Looking back on my own career, I mostly enjoyed my PhD and post-doc phase. After our department was made redundant (me and some other lecturers and a professor had to go) I decided it was a good opportunity to leave academia.
Also, I find it telling that you would frame a career change as 'giving up'. Changes can be exciting too! We have one life to live, so who knows what exiting experiences a career change could bring. When I did not look for other university lectureships after my redundancy, I first started freelancing. Through that, I learned so many new things (Ok, some were boring, like how to do my tax return as a sole trader :)), I got to know different people, and other ways of making a living. I am now back in a permanent job (non-academic), with a very pleasant work-life balance. Also, you can always take comfort in the fact that research shows us we are very bad at predicting how (un)happy life changes will make us. We overestimate the happiness we derive from 'positive' changes, as well as the suffering we'll gain from negative ones. What I am trying to say is: there is no need to be fearful of a career change or to frame it as 'giving up'. In the end, a change is just a change.
I hear your voice, seems to me you need some additional mentors from the 'real world'.. a problem when your life has been in academia.. with no life experience. Bon chance

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