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The Black Hole

To postdoc or not to postdoc?

BY VANSCI | APR 25 2011

Following a very popular article by Sonja B. (To MD or PhD: That is the Question), we were asked if we would be interested in having a similar article from someone choosing whether or not to become a postdoctoral fellow. What makes this particular author of interest is that she is not being forced out of academia but, on the contrary, can basically choose whichever group she would like across the world (good publication record, already has an NSERC postdoctoral award) and is being encouraged to do so.

A trend that we’ve written about on here is the peer (and family) pressure felt by many academics to pursue a professorship and stay in the academy or be deemed a failure or someone who just couldn’t handle it. With streams of young academics being produced and the vast majority of PhD holders working outside of the academy, this is a sentiment we can no longer espouse if we hope to get the best return on the investment into this cohort of highly trained individuals.

Finally, we were asked to keep her identity anonymous as both her and her husband are in the midst of deciding on the next stage of their careers and we hope that you’ll understand this as you read her story.

To postdoc or not to postdoc? – Musings from a Vancouver scientist
I’m in the final few months of my PhD and am deciding whether or not to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship. I am 30 years old and am married with no kids. I conducted my graduate studies in an excellent lab, have produced several high-quality papers (including one first-author paper in Science) and won some awards. I just received an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship, which is 2 years of postdoc funding that can be used at any lab in the world. To an outsider, the world is my academic oyster.

There are many reasons cited to undertake a postdoc (to travel, to see if academia is right for you, because you can’t find a ‘real’ job, to live in the same city as your partner, to kill time, because you got a fellowship). For me, however, the purpose of a postdoc is to gain new skills and experience so that I can get a job as a professor. To that end, I am not interested in pursuing a postdoc simply because I can. I want to make the decision now: either I want to be a professor and therefore need to complete a postdoc or I am leaving academia and therefore need to start looking for jobs. I am either going to go for it or get out now.

My situation is not unique – many people face these same choices, same roadblocks. I’m not whining, I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me, and I’m not looking for sympathy. I simply want to share my own story and outline the challenges I am facing and the questions I am asking.

The first thing I did on my “to postdoc or not to postdoc” journey was to ask myself these questions (I’m not kidding, I have a word doc): How do I define happiness? What is success to me? What do I want out of life? Where do I see myself in 5, 10, 25 years? What do I love to do? What do I dislike? What are my skills and weaknesses? What job opportunities do I see for myself?
From that exercise, I came up with 7 priorities and many more questions:

  • Family – I want a family. And I don’t want to wait until I’m 38 to start. How can I fit having children into pursuing an academic job?
  • Career – I want a job that allows me to learn, to continually be challenged. I love to teach, to mentor, to write, to do research, to affect change, to organise events. I’m ambitious and hard-working. I do not want a job that is monotonous or repetitive. I do not want to spend my time in countless meetings or working with negative people. Is academia the right career for me, or would something else make me just as happy?
  • Location – Ideally, I want to live in Vancouver. My family is here, my spouse’s family is here, and our friends are here. I’m not averse to living elsewhere for a while, but ultimately, Vancouver is my home. An academic cannot afford to be so specific (there are only 2 research intensive universities in Vancouver), so I will likely need to either give up Vancouver or give up academia. Which is more important to me?
  • Spouse – My spouse has a great job, which pays well, in a specific industry that is located in only a few places in the world. How do we tackle finding somewhere to live that is suitable for both people? Is it fair to ask him to leave a great job to pursue my career, which may or may not work out? How do we make the timing work out?
  • Work-life balance – As anyone who has ever worked with me can testify, I am not afraid of working long hours. However, I do not want to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I want to take vacations and spend time with my family and friends. I want to attend my (future) kids’ soccer games. I am just not willing to give everything else up for my career. Could I be a successful prof and still maintain work-life balance?
  • Money – I want to make enough money to put away for retirement, buy my own home, take vacations. I don’t need to be rich, but I do aspire to be comfortable. Pursuing an academic career means I likely won’t start earning a real income until I’m 35-40 years old and may also put my husband’s career/earning on hold. Is it worth it? Can we afford it?
  • Security – There are no guarantees! There are only so many academic jobs and they are highly competitive. An excellent postdoc does not guarantee an excellent job in academia. Likewise, landing a job as a prof does not guarantee getting a grant or obtaining tenure. Does it make sense to uproot my family in pursuit of something that is so risky? Then again, in this day and age, what job isn’t risky?

My decision? It’s still up in the air. Do I have what it takes to make it in academia? I believe I do. Is pursuing a job in academia worth the risks and the sacrifices? I don’t know.

Click for further information about the The Changing Human Resources in Academia

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  1. atta / March 9, 2012 at 20:39

    Nice article… I am wondering the answer of same questions.

  2. Mary / March 15, 2012 at 18:27

    And what was your decision at the end? What was your answer to some of theses questions? If you did choose a postdoc how did you convince your self in the security section?

    • Dave / March 25, 2012 at 21:57

      Hi Mary,
      In the end – their decision was to do a postdoc, but the concerns about security are still looming. Doing the postdoc certainly delays the concerns for a few years, but in the end, funding will be finished and the decision percolates again. This is the route to becoming a professor though and it seems that anyone with that goal needs to tolerate this as part of the game – not a happy answer, but a realistic one. It also sets the stage for the grant cycles that one will eventually have to deal with too.
      Definitely a good idea to ask yourself what your priorities are, but if one is really motivated to become an academic scientist, it might be well worth the battle.

  3. Brett / August 16, 2012 at 22:08

    I feel the same pain (age 32) with most of what you described. If someone with a Science paper and accolades is doubting themselves, what the heck am I doing plugging away! That’s what this article says to me.

  4. Ameng / August 21, 2012 at 06:15

    I am also confused about this question. After one-year post-doc, I chose to stop and think carefully about it. Maybe I will leave academia for my family. But will I love the world outside academia? I don’t know. Maybe one day I will come back again. The most important thing for me is to enjoy my life, no matter at what age, in what job and live where.

  5. michael / October 19, 2012 at 10:52

    I was on the same situation. Academia is a scam, like a ponzi scheme.
    I left academia and started my own business.
    Never look back since.