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Is a Postdoc Worth it? 233

Jim_Austin writes "In a very funny column, Adam Ruben reviews the disadvantages and, well, the disadvantages of doing a postdoc, noting that 'The term "postdoc" refers both to the position and to the person who occupies it. (In this sense, it's much like the term "bar mitzvah.") So you can be a postdoc, but you can also do a postdoc.'"
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Is a Postdoc Worth it?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:08PM (#45520213)

    Unfortunately, for my field, a postdoc is required for just about everything outside of industry. Even teaching position at community colleges want postdoc. And since there is a flood of people with them already, they can be picky and get them.

    To me, the increasing use of them is a sign of oversupply of interested people and not enough 'real' jobs for them. We are beginning to see very long postdoc times (during which the postdoc isn't actually rolling in money...)

    • by qbzzt ( 11136 )

      As you said, it looks like an oversupply of interested people. If I were you, I'd try to get into a different field or industry.

    • by jythie ( 914043 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:19PM (#45520299)
      Yeah, postdoc stuff really seems to either be mandatory or irrelevant (bordering on a negative), with very little in between. Either way, if one is looking for money, they are the wrong way to go. Postdocs are generally for people really passionate about a subject, not people who just want a well paying job.
    • by mspohr ( 589790 )

      A postdoc to teach at a community college?
      Our local community college is staffed with M.S. and M.A. (and no PhD's or postdocs).

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Looking around recent appointments at my own institution and at the career progression of a good number of friends who did PhDs at the same time as me, across most of the physical and biological sciences, you don't get academic positions without 4 to 7 years of postdoctoral research experience. (There are exceptions to this at both ends of the scale but they are either brilliant/lucky or unlucky/slow at taking the hint.) Since a post-doc appointment is usually 1 or 2 years, this is either a continual proces

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:08PM (#45520217)

    if you know what I mean.

  • My experience (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kell Bengal ( 711123 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:12PM (#45520255)
    My post-doc was the most grueling and difficult thing I've ever done. Two and a half years of crushingly long days, hard deadlines and uncertain future. I guess I got my faculty job out of it (and traded up to the same thing again for another 5 years before tenure review)... so I guess it's worth it?

    Now I'm left wondering if tenure is even worth the struggle at the end. Bear in mind, tenure in Australia is not a "secure job for life" as people in the US seem to think it is. We're actually having a lot of difficulty convincing newly minted grads to come and do PhDs when they see all the junior faculty are deeply bitter, cynical and exhausted. But hey, I build robots for a living, so I tell myself when I see those same grads getting jobs that pay more than mine does with zero years experience..
    • by amaurea ( 2900163 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:39PM (#45520495) Homepage

      I'm doing a postdoc right now, and while I don't mind the 60 hour weeks, the uncertainty is what gets at me. After a long education one basically becomes a vagabond, drifting from university to university, never knowing where one will be working in 3 years' time. And the last year of each postdoc is spent writing applications for other places. In my home country, there are 1-2 available permanent positions every decade or so in my field, each of which typically has more than 100 applicants from all over the world. Getting one of those is pretty unlikely, to put it mildly. So I'll have to choose between permanently moving far away from friends and family, or leave my field of research. Unless I'm better than all the 100+ other applicants.

      The postdoc situation is a symptom of there beeing too little resources invested in science compared to the number of people who want to do science. Instead, society is investing resources in things like moving imagniary money around really fast (yes, high frequency trading and other finance is a big employer of drop-outs from my field - they can emply more people, and pay much higher salaries, despite their detrimental effect on society). Yes, I am a bit bitter.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 25, 2013 @07:20PM (#45520895)

        The career progression for early career researchers is crap at best. Governments and funding bodies have come up with all sorts of ways of making it sound like a good thing (e.g. the EU likes to have "Human Resources Mobility") but that doesn't make up for the gnawing "I don't know how we are going to pay the bills in a couple of months time" feeling.

        It's even worse if you have a partner who is also playing the same game. If your contracts don't end at the same time, moving to a new country to take up the next position is really difficult. If they do end at the same time then the financial uncertainty is multiplied. Data show that the partners of male academics have a fairly typical spread of occupations, while female researchers have a disporportionately high representation of academics for partners. It appears that this is one of the significant contributors to female researchers giving up on this for the bad joke it is (they are obviously brighter and see that it's more sensible to get out) and why there can have been quite good gender balance at PhD level for many years but there is still poor gender balance at academic level including amongst recent appointees.

        I can understand the "bitter" feeling. Been there, done that. Now I have a permanent position, I'm starting to shed that... I'm actually thinking about doing science again rather than just writing job applications about the projects that I'd love to do but can't. I'm starting to relax, I'm certainly a lot less stressed and as a result I'm being much more creative and doing much better science too. At some stage, I'll realise that I've replaced the job application treadmill with the grant writing treadmill... but one step at a time.

        Chin up, old chap... you'll get there.

      • What is your field?
    • Re:My experience (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @08:49PM (#45521789) Homepage

      I'm on my fourth postdoc, eleven years after graduation. Honestly, I don't even aim for a faculty job any more. That train left the station long ago.

      So why do I do it? Fairly long working days (but so are industry jobs), and no secure future of any kind. But the pay is decent, at least here in Japan, and I do get to work on things that interest me a lot more than I'd do outside academia.

      Still, left to decide by myself I would have left a few years ago already. The uncertainty is really the big issue, and I often feel I'd prefer even a language-teaching or convenience-store job if it came with job security. But my wife points out that we're not hurting for money, and doing what I love is not a chance that will come again. So better to rowk in research while I still can and while it's still fun. Hard to argue with that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:17PM (#45520283)


    (Brought to you by a postdoc.)

  • Post docs (Score:3, Interesting)

    by paxprobellum ( 2521464 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:28PM (#45520385)
    Postdocs aren't all bad. I'm convinced that the issue with academia is that everyone thinks they are outstanding. As a result, postdocs that have a rough time of it blame the postdoc, not themselves. In other words, I made a decent wage and had normal hours. YMMV.
  • The people going the post-doc route either hoped to become faculty at a University somewhere, or were foreign nationals who needed a green card, and the universities were the only ones willing to do the paperwork. Then again, sometimes the Universities would string the post-doc along and only put in a half-hearted effort on the green card.

    • Must depend on the field. In Molecular Biology you might get a low end industry job without a post doc. Anything else, not a chance. Kind of like medicine - while it's technically possible to get a job without a internship (essentially a one year post doc position) and a residency, you won't like the job (some Indian reservation in the badlands of West Nowhere).

      YMMV of course. It would be interesting to break it down by major fields.

      • Kind of like medicine

        No. Go through the grueling years of residency any you're pretty much guaranteed a good paying job for life (for some specialties, it's spectacularly paid). Do you get that sort of certainty in molecular bio?

  • My Dad Said No (Score:4, Interesting)

    by retroworks ( 652802 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:30PM (#45520395) Homepage Journal
    He was a Ph.D, taught at University of Arkansas. Told me it definitely depended on the field, and that even a Doctorate in some fields (Business) was considered a bit questionable. But he said the number of people who get postdoc's is based on the number of people who A=(can't figure out what they want to do) + B=(can't find a job), more than C=(fields that need post-doctorates). So I looked at my dad, and quit at a Masters.
  • Yes it is. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:33PM (#45520421)

    There was an interesting editorial in Nature back in 2005 commenting on how postdocs earn barely more than a janitor at Harvard.

    With the economy having gone south and the inevitable funding cuts that has brought about, the situation is even worse now.

    I moved halfway around the world for my postdoc (from Australia to the US), for a job that pays approximately half what I'd get in Australia. (Postdocs in the US are paid far less than Postdocs in Australia. Maybe that's why there are so many Postdocs in the US. They can hire more of them for the same amount of money.)

    Sometimes, I do wonder what I'm doing here. And then I remember how I have a job that I absolutely love. That I can go home every evening looking forward to going to work the next day. And when I am reminded of that, I think how incredibly lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing. And if I have to accept lower pay and the lack of job stability as a trade-off, I am perfectly willing to do so.

    This doesn't mean that I think Postdocs are getting a great deal, of course. We know we aren't. But we never got into this profession for the money anyway.

    Knowing all that I know now, would I still have gone through all those years of grad school and gotten my PhD and moved halfway around the planet for a postdoc? Was it all worth it? I believe I'd say yes.

    • I think it depends where you post-doc. I'm at a private research institute in the US and I get paid about $55k gross plus an excellent health plan. It's hardly starvation wages. I went looking for jobs in industry and a good chunk of them weren't going to pay me any more. Didn't take those, of course.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Think of it as a year-long or two-year-long work contract. That's it. It's a way to get some experience, put food on the table, and figure out what the hell you are going to do when it ends. In my case it was 4 years of employment in a series of contracts before getting a "real job" elsewhere with some permanence to it. I enjoyed my time as a postdoc, but when other opportunities came up, I gave them my notice and left.

    The article is sarcastic and funny mainly because some people put in all those years

  • Short version (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Compuser ( 14899 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:42PM (#45520531)

    Long article to say: postdoc is a lot of work for low pay and iffy career prospects.

    Well duh.

    On the flip side, if you are doing it, chances are "a lot of work" is a plus not a minus. As Aldous Huxley said: "An intellectual is a person who's found one thing that's more interesting than sex." Yes, the pay is low but you get to use someone else's money to fund your research. If you want to worry about science and not administrative issues then postdoc days are the golden days.

    • If you want to worry about science and not administrative issues then postdoc days are the golden days.

      Who needs money? You can live on science!

      • by Compuser ( 14899 )

        I did a five year postdoc. The money is not bad. Above poverty level. If all you do is go to lab, go home to sleep and go to the lab then this is plenty. If you you do _anything_ besides the above two then you are doing it wrong. I put in 100 hours per week for five years with no breaks or holidays and I have a good reputation and a faculty job now. I would have been happy with the former alone.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Intellectual curiosity isn't really the deficit here. The problem is more one of security and mental health than job satisfaction.

      Imagine doing your normal job (assuming your normal job isn't a post-doc position), but ALWAYS having a fixed-term hanging over you. In anywhere from four months to three years, you know that you'll be looking for work. Not work with a different client, or a different company down the street (trust me, it's NOT AT ALL like consulting!), but in a different state or country, whe

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

    If you like crippling debt and no better chances at employment. If you are going into the education field and hope to become a tenured professor, then you need to do it. Otherwise it's just pissing away your money and time.

    Even to become one of NASA's top scientists you dont need it.

  • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @06:53PM (#45520631) Homepage Journal

    I recently finished a book where the author analyzes the entire process of getting a PhD in physics. For various reasons, it's not at all worthwhile. You will never be in a position to realize your dream of doing interesting research or becoming a professor. I'll let others describe the various problems, but they're fairly self-evident.

    So let's think out of the box. Is there a way to do interesting research without the PhD?

    It turns out there's a ton of interesting things being done by home experimentation nowadays. Actually, this used to be common - a gentleman scientist [wikipedia.org] was someone with an independent income who tinkered with home research. Many had quite elaborate laboratories [wikipedia.org] and discovered useful things.

    If you want to be a researcher, you could approach the problem intellectually. Establish a steady income from which you can support yourself and family, allocate some time and money to setting up a lab, and do your own research.

    Ben Krasnow [blogspot.com] built an electron microscope (!), and is experimenting with vapor-phase deposition of conductive traces. Robert Murray Smith [youtube.com] makes graphene and conductive ink, Brad Graham [lucidscience.com] built a rock disaggregator (which is, incidentally, totally frightening), Lindsay Wilson [imajeenyus.com] built an untrasonic drill, Timothy Ferriss [fourhourbody.com] is scientifically studying of nutrition, I am trying to detect dark matter (no link - sorry)

    ... the list goes on and on.

    Lots of people are doing interesting research at home with a modest budget. If you can give up the big questions (Higgs Boson, Penicillin replacement, Egyptian archaeology), there's a wide swath of interesting areas just waiting to be explored.

    • I am trying to detect dark matter (no link - sorry)

      No link? At least say what type of detection method (and corresponding range of DM possibilities) you're using! Is there a particular section of parameter space that you think you can access that's not solidly covered by existing academic DM experiments? Sounds like fun in any case.

      Of course, these days, even getting "a steady income from which you can support yourself and family" can be a difficult task --- landing a "dream job" professor position from "within the system" is hard, but so can be getting a t

      • No link? At least say what type of detection method (and corresponding range of DM possibilities) you're using! Is there a particular section of parameter space that you think you can access that's not solidly covered by existing academic DM experiments? Sounds like fun in any case.

        Nope, sorry - not this one. It's a "lottery ticket". It's looking for something that isn't forbidden by current theory, but unlikely to be true. It requires a careful analysis to see that it doesn't violate basic principles, so I don't want to be judged before I have data. My analysis might be wrong in any event.

        If I get results, maybe. Publishing takes time and has no benefit.

        • Make sure you publish if you get negative results, too --- that's just as important, and puts you on equal ground with all the mega-multi-million-dollar big dark matter experiments that also haven't found anything yet. Ruling out previously untested possibilities is a worthwhile task, and just about the most that any dark matter researcher can realistically hope for. And, if you think publishing "has no benefit," why are you doing this anyway? There's no monetary payback to the experimenter, but isn't doing

          • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @08:08PM (#45521393) Homepage Journal

            And, if you think publishing "has no benefit," why are you doing this anyway?

            a) The original reason people become scientists is to do interesting research. Publishing isn't as interesting as doing. (And scientific publishing has it's own style of nonsense.)
            b) I'm working with a professional magician who's interested in effects that are based on science, but uncommon enough that people wouldn't recognize them as such (unrelated example [youtube.com]).
            c) If I can find a measurable effect, it can be used to make products. This is more likely beneficial than publishing.

          • Damn! I wish slashdot had a way to contact other users.

            Drop me a note. If and when the experiment is finished (several months of data gathering) I'll let you know the results.

            reolh at beddly dot com

            (That's a temporary E-mail - I'll respond from a permanent address.)

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      Everything you list was, at best, derivative.

      Cool, but nothing new.
      What NEW thing are being done by a lone inventory? hint: Nothing.

      • A lot of funded science bypasses detail for novelty. Most of the things mentioned by GP were *tools* that could be used to analyze many things that a professional scientist probably could not get grant money for.

        If you're talking cutting edge clean room produced nanodevices, of course not. If you're talking good science, then these guys have a shot at doing so, as long as they approach it methodically.

      • I suppose it depends partly on your definition of science.

        Take for example this post [youtube.com]: a method for electroless copper plating which is easily in the realm of the home experimenter.

        The video was not published in a journal, didn't have a write-up, and wasn't an accredited researcher - just some kid who thought things through, tried it, and it worked. I admire the presentation format - the video gives complete details of the process without a standard writeup (abstract/background/procedure/results/discussion).

    • Good point. If you don't need super-expensive equipment, and don't need someone to motivate you to work towards getting to the edge of your field, then doing your own research is a better idea. You lose the need to "publish or perish," and a lot of other distractions along the way.

      And I would argue that you don't even need to give up the big questions (trying to detect dark matter is really big).
    • Lots of people are doing interesting research at home with a modest budget. If you can give up the big questions (Higgs Boson, Penicillin replacement, Egyptian archaeology), there's a wide swath of interesting areas just waiting to be explored.

      Is it time to start jump start style funding scientific research? It's a sad sick statement amount our governmental priorities, but it may be the only way to get knowledge into the world without a company or government claiming ownership.

  • I don't know or understand all the negativity regarding doing a postdoc or a PhD - I personally am having a blast doing my PhD! I do research in materials science, and while the money is not spectacular, I enjoy myself immensely. And you know, at the end of the day that's really what matters. Maybe the ones who complain are doing postdocs in economics, political or social sciences, humanities... or some other subject that to me does indeed sound boring... I don't know. I can only say that for me it has be
  • Most of the ones I've known (from when I was in grad school and then from when I worked at a major biotech) do postdocs in order to build their research portfolio. If you want to a faculty research (not teaching) position in science, you need publications. These require research. Research requires time and money and in this day and age, the time typically spent in grad school is not enough to do a lot of top-quality research. And, grad school time is often spent teach undergrads, doing coursework, etc

  • The PhD in science, engineering and technology gets to be super specialized. The supply and demand do not synch up well. When you start your PhD in "unstructured tetrahedral mesh generation using advancing front technique for complex 3D domains" you are not very sure there will be a job in the field five years down the line. If there is a job, you will hurry and finish up. If not, you will delay, change the topics, to find a field with better job prospects. If you are too far along to change the thesis title, and your field suddenly goes cold, you finish the PhD, while away time in post doc, acquiring skills in related fields, ready to jump when some job comes by. Usually both PhDs and post docs get paid decent, but not industry standard, wages, in STEM (what is it now? 24 to 30K for PhD candidate and 36 to 48 K for post doc?). So you will have decent standard of living, completely flexible working hours (you can choose to divide the 24 hour day into any chunks adding up to18 for the lab and any chunks adding up to six for sleeping, cooking, eating, shaving and bathing).

    When the economy gets hot, and you ditch mesh generation altogether and jump to computational electromagnetics. While doing the jump be careful not to collide with the Computational electromagnetics PhD jumping to mesh generation ;-)

  • by drolli ( 522659 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @07:30PM (#45520993) Journal

    I did 4 years of Postdoc (in Japan). It was fun, in Japan the payment for Postdocs is ok, and i worked in a field i liked to work in since i was 16years old. I contributed to some publications (10 Impact points per year) and did some really nice experiments. To me it felt like playing with the most expensive lego bricks which i ever was allowed to play with. I had the priviledge to see parts of the world which i would not have dramt about when before my masters thesis. I met some interesting, peculiar, and exceptional people (coauthors from ~12 nationalities).

    OTOH, it was hard work (>80h per week average, in critical times >400h/month), strange habits, uncertainity, and a lack of decent positions after it.

    I got out of it, to a technical consulting company. I earn less than the people who started 10 years younger, but somehow doing a phd/postdoc kept me young and agile. I am now more or less resistant to stress (did not feel it since i started the job), am used to pick up new things at a high pace.

    I can only say: i did it, it was fun and broadened my view. My PhD and postdoc thought me that persistence in following something you want to do leads to success. I managed to get rid of my attenton span problems. I quit as postdoc when it stopped being fun and when i did not see decent positions around, i left science. I dont regret having done my postdoc, i did not regret for a single day leaving it.There was a time when a very different path in my life would have been very possible. I proably also would not have regret it.

    Remarks: you have to have a compatible partner or risk a series of relationships. IMHO the only point where i really seen from behind could have spent some attention on. I also saw people not being able to handle the pressure. I saw people doing postdocs until they where older than 40 because they became too anxious or to incompetent in other things to leave. I saw people fuckign up their lifes for good. People not good enough to get any decend publicaitons, but valuable in the lab, hoping that the professor who kept them forever in a dependent relationship would give them the life-long position as assitant. I habe seen people growing old faster than they should and people breaking down. I have heard of people becoming so fristrated that they sabbotaged the co-workers experiments.

    So my advice is: do it als long as you do it for fun. Dont get addicted.

    • OTOH, it was hard work (>80h per week average, in critical times >400h/month), strange habits, uncertainity, and a lack of decent positions after it.

      I can imagine no scenario where that would be worth it at any point in my life. In my 20s, I would have missed out on so many memories. And after that I doubt I'd have the energy for that kind of rigor. Said a friend of mine about a guy who build an entire house by himself, "life's too short to work that hard."

  • __END__
    =head1 Postdoc
    Embedding Perl's Plain Old Documentation in your source as a particularly perverse take on self documenting code.

  • by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Monday November 25, 2013 @10:54PM (#45522687)

    As a former government oversight scientist, I can also say that the minimum recommended salary for a scientist with a PhD is significantly higher than the average postdoc salary. The government has tried many methods to increase postdoc pay, but the established professors and academic administrators push the salary down. I used to work with a few guys to convince their universities to allow them (allow!) to pay the higher standard government rate for grad students and postdocs, but there is tremendous and extraordinarily depressing pressure from academia to keep those salaries low.

  • by l3v1 ( 787564 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2013 @01:44AM (#45523595)
    Oh, most certainly you can do a postdoc. And you don't even have to be a postdoc for it :D

    Anyway, on the serious side, postdoc jobs mean one thing: working for food. But, there are much worse places to do that than at some university's research lab, so at least you might be at a nice place to be exploited while you figure out a). where to go to actually make some money and then leave, or b). that you can't actually get a job where you could make money so you get stuck. Problem is when one gets to be a postdoc at 27-28 years of age - calculating with 5 years university and 3-5 years until the phd degree, which is pretty normal -, and realizing you're just starting to - eventually - earn some real money, with some friends having got to well-paying positions during those 3-5 years you've spent for that degree.

    Especially since there are now companies who actually don't want to hire phd's based on some weird philosophies. Go figure.

Luck, that's when preparation and opportunity meet. -- P.E. Trudeau