Skip navigation

Who is to blame for postdoctoral collapse?

A reflection on four stressors that many postdocs feel in academia, and how they can contribute to burnout.


Editor’s note: this is a follow-up post to a recent article by Dr. Sabrina Zeddies on the Black Hole and it tries to dig around at the main contributors to postdoctoral fellow burnout.

In my first guest post, I shared my personal postdoctoral burnout story, but there is much more to tell. In the first instance, I thought it would be most useful to use this post to reflect on the main stressors that many of us feel in academic careers and detail how they can contribute to burnout.

  1. There is only one career and you shall follow it

Have you ever talked with your PhD supervisor about what you want to do after defending your thesis? Most likely, the focus was on where you want to become a postdoctoral fellow, not if you would do one. It may have even extended to after your first postdoc when you talk about the move to the next postdoc position before becoming a junior group leader and finally a group leader. University Affairs and others have pointed out for years that there are not enough jobs in academia at any of those levels to keep every PhD who was on the academic path in academia – but very little gets done about it. What has to change is the perception of these jobs in our supervisor’s minds and the way they are presented to us during our scientific training. When entering a master’s program (or even graduating from undergraduate science programs!), information needs to be given to students on all options they have on the job market, especially outside academia – and it can’t just be pamphlets, people need to hear it from their peers.

And please, dear supervisors, stop describing any job that is not following the same path as you as an “exit strategy”, a “plan B”, or a “second chance”. This makes it sound like the PhD student failed “the real job” and has to do something less demanding. This is total nonsense and it has to stop. After two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the boundary of research, pharmacy and industry, I met a lot of scientists who have found their passion anywhere from scientific writing to regulatory affairs and teaching. They are aware of their specific skills (more on that below) and found a job that fits them perfectly. A PhD is just the beginning of a career and by no means is it limited to academia.

(PS: If you do not want to stay in academia, Jonathan just wrote a series of great blog posts on this topic)

  1. Stuck in postdoc limbo

This topic has actually been covered on The Black Hole a lot and rightfully so, because it is a major stress factor. These days, when you become a postdoc, you might stay a postdoc for the next 10-plus years. Funding is getting more difficult and the chances of starting a research group are getting smaller and smaller. Supervisors (especially younger ones) are having the same issues – financial insecurity of their labs and their institutions means tough decisions, often resulting in that uncertainty being passed down to employees in the form of temporary contracts. The flipside to this is that employees (in particular the postdoctoral fellows) feel an overwhelming pressure to perform at a higher level than their peers to secure the few jobs that are available. They need to work harder, prove they are better (in science, politics, and career building!) than their peers. Time for hobbies, vacation, starting a family…. Are you kidding?

These young scientists need to get as many high impact publications out of their project as possible. At the same time, the very people they are collaborating with to achieve this may be applying for the same grants. Fellow scientists that they work with are also potential competitors on the job market. Job insecurity, financial insecurity and pressure to perform make a fantastic recipe for (mental) disaster.

  1. Relocate (and then move again…)

What happens when there is no more funding for a project? A postdoctoral fellow moves to the next lab. This is great for those nomadic spirits who love to travel, but what if someone made the decision to – gasp – start a family? How many times can one really ask their spouse and children to pack up and follow along to a different neighbourhood, city, or country? Are the children of scientists doomed to starting at a new school every two years? What about the (unreasonable?) demand to their spouse to look for a new job in another location? Perhaps scientists should all run their family life via Skype and WhatsApp? Is it reasonable to demand this kind of “flexibility” from anyone at this stage of life? How have we gotten to the point where young scientists are regularly in the situation where they have to choose between their private life and their passion for science?

  1. Lack of focus on transferable skills

Completing a PhD taught me a lot. I became an expert in a specialized subject but I also acquired a set of valuable transferable skills – nobody really mentioned that during my training though. The PhD training I received (and countless others I imagine) did not identify the value of such skills. This has also been recognized by others and you can read more about that here and here*. So when the time comes to look for a job, I was very insecure if I would be able to actually work outside of academia because I had become such a specialist. What we need are options for PhD students to recognize the transferable skills they acquired and showcase them to prospective employers. PhD training today should also include more than just learning how to pipette at the speed of light. Why not include training in project management or recognize skills in quality assurance. Only then we will prepare PhD students for a broader spectrum of job opportunities and not just train scientific experts on the gut flora of termites.

So, fellow readers of The Black Hole, what do you think? Do you recognize these stressors? Do you agree with them? What would you add to this list? What do you struggle with? We would love to hear from you!

Dr. Sabrina Zeddies is a postdoctoral fellow at the University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands. She works at the hospital pharmacy as head of QC and project manager for new advanced therapy medicincal product (ATMP) projects.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Sarah / August 4, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    Spot on. Currently struggling/thinking/worrying about with these things.

  2. Jose / August 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Very well written article. It is tough to think that after a PhD, the opportunities diminish for many. I had to take a 180 degree turn after my postdoc to get back into industry. I have tried to get some phd/postdoc friends industry. Sadly, many/most of the postdoc research themes are not aligned with industry needs and there is a reluctance to hire phds unless their training is directly linked. My opinion is that many of the research skills translate, but that is not the general belief, even though many that are high in management have phds in other areas themselves.

  3. Charles G. / August 7, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    Too many PhD students live in a bubble and complain that they should have been taught project management and various soft skills. The “gut flora of termites” quote at the end reeked of this attitude. If you can’t sell your work, results, and skills derived from a termite gut flora thesis, you shouldn’t expect a research position. On that note, you should expect anything and a sense of entitlement is very harmful in academia.

    You have to be independent, self-aware, and motivated. Papers are the currency in academia/research, so focus on publishing as much quality work as possible. Soft skills are crucial for most successful positions in any field, so hone them via conferences, networking, etc. You shouldn’t have to be spoon fed these obvious points and be surprised that in the real world people will judge you based on things other than your thesis.

    Make your own opportunities and don’t corner yourself in your own little world while gazing at your navel and deluding yourself that you deserve to be hired because you were in school for X years. Be competitive! Don’t expect anything! Be passionate!

  4. Salman / August 10, 2017 at 12:06 am

    I agree with the author that there is a limit for relocation. I am in my third country after my Phd. This time I am really concerned of getting a settled job somewhere where my family do not need to move with me.

  5. Prof Casey / August 10, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    I have to admit I’m a little concerned by phrases like,
    “information needs to be given to students on all options they have on the job market” and ” nobody really mentioned that ”

    You’re an adult with research skills. Nobody should have to “tell” you anything. Post-docs were easy compared to the grind of the tenure-track, and I’m guessing your profs are too busy to have to tell you what you should look up/find out for yourself.