Should I Postdoc... (again)? | AIChE

Should I Postdoc... (again)?

Posted for Roman Voronov by Stéphanie Orvoine-Couvrette.

View of the Postdoc:

About two thirds of you are postdocs, according to the results of our survey. In this day and age, a postdoc is pretty much required to land a faculty job. But at the same time, holding too many postdoctoral assistantships is actually undesirable!  (The rule of thumb is that the postdoc's desirability rises linearly to the fourth year and then drops like a step function. Even the granting agencies put a four to five year limit (since graduation) on various "transitional grants" so that is a clear signal that you shouldn't spend too long in the pipeline.)

Professor's View of the Postdoc:

First, what is a postdoc? From the point of view of a professor, a postdoc is basically underpaid, overqualified, labor who looks for another position the minute they get hired. As such, professors are both in love with and weary of, postdocs.

Granting Agency's View of the Postdoc:

NSF doesn't like to fund postdocs because their mission is to educate students, while NIH is more open. So unless you are doing bio-research and have a big name, it is actually hard to get money to fund a postdoc.

Self View of the Postdoc:

I loved my postdoctoral assistantship! It felt like graduate school, except with less responsibility and more money! I was lucky enough to be in a top school and live in down town Philadelphia. My group was doing cool research that I loved and my boss was too busy to micro-manage me.  Moreover, once I wrote my own grant and got it funded, I was afforded complete freedom about work direction, etc (and believe me, it is important to be able to develop an independent direction, and not be your boss' appendage for the rest of your life).

There is a Dark Side:

Your contract is yearly, your undergraduate classmates often make triple (perhaps quadruple) what you make; opposite sex might not view well such an unstable financial situation, and you do not even know if it will pay off in the end...if you will even get a real job after all the nonsense!

Now, getting an academic position is insanely hard, so this is a very real concern and naturally you should look at alternative career paths, as I did!

What else is out there?

Industry View of the Postdoc:

Now this makes the whole postdoc experience kind of a black hole. Here is what I mean: I went to a seminar given by some representatives of big pharma companies. Given the bad economy, the audience was about two thirds postdocs (they probably expected PhD students). Naturally, the question arose as to whether they were interested in postdocs, and this was the reply: “No.”

"Why?", someone asked. The logic kind of makes sense, I guess. Pretty much, why invest more money (for some reason they view postdocs as more qualified, so they have to pay more) into labor that is over-qualified and is not truly interested in being there, when they can just hire a PhD student and train them all the same? It appears they felt that a postdoc looking for an industry job either a) wants to enter academia, but didn't make it (so they will not be happy in industry and quit their company at the first opportunity), or b) wants to enter industry after the PhD, but also didn't make it, so the postdoc was the back-up plan (so pretty much you aren't that great to begin with).  For case (b), the advice was "do not go for the postdoc position if you really want to be in industry... get a job at McDonalds if you have to, tough it out, but do get that industrial job directly out of the PhD program!"

Also, get this: They ARE interested in you AFTER the postdoc period! If you become a professor and suddenly you want to go into industry, some companies who do research actually do need group leaders, etc.  This is what I mean when I say that the postdoc is a "black hole" to industry.  You are desirable to the outside world before and after, but not during.

So that was pretty disappointing to hear, though true, as I really did not have a desire to work in industry.  So here are some alternative avenues that I explored while looking for the academic job:

  • Faculty Jobs Abroad: Bad idea if you ever want to re-enter US academia.
  • Teaching Institutions: These are actually the first ones who will interview you. They are basically small colleges (e.g. liberal arts colleges) with no PhD program, expect you to mostly teach, but maybe also do some small-scale research.  The pay is probably just as good, but to me it wasn't as interesting. Yet, I still talked to these guys just not to burn any bridges or anything.
  • Financial Sector: Yes, you read that right. Business wants to make money, and they look for anyone with more than half a brain. In fact, I do computer modeling, so I even tried with high frequency trading companies on Wall Street. The ones I liked the most consults (McKinsey, BCG, Bain & Company). That reminded me of science, because you could work on different projects, in various industries, so it’s still kind of interesting. You can also travel internationally, and even work with biotech.
  • National lab: These pay even more than academia but projects tend to be kind of dry (whatever is in the interest of the nation is what you do), locations are pretty limited, and there is little stability as far as the job contract. The way I understand it, you can get the boot any time funding depletes on the research strand on which you are working.
  • Research Professor (non-tenure):  Weird animal. Basically, you do mostly research (you can bet they will still ask you to teach a little). Your salary mostly comes from grants (i.e. you have to be amazing at pulling in money); and the very most are not on the tenure track line!  So who would even do a thing like that? Well, I know a guy who is just very good at bringing in money... but most of them, in my experience, are postdocs who have been at one place for a very long time. They are given this title so they could be principal investigators on grants.
  • Start-ups! If you thought academic life is stressful, try selling your house and investing it into a business. It’s exhilarating yet insane. Maybe one in a hundred succeed. If you don't want to make on your own, you can probably get hired by someone else. The pay will be lower, but, you will have less structure at work and more room for creativity. I guess if it works out, you could shoot up the career ladder quicker and maybe get rich on those stock options they offer instead of real money... but chances are it will probably turn into worthless paper by the time you are done. Actually, you might not realize it, but the start-up is analogous to academia.

So these are your choices.  In my case, I made myself a promise that I wouldn't be a postdoc a second time despite how much I enjoyed the first. Although some are okay with the bohemian life-style of a perpetual postdoc, I wanted to draw the line and make some changes in my life. The rest is up to you.

- Roman