Being a Postdoctoral Research Fellow is traditional for those pursuing a science career in academia. Everyone agrees that postdocs play a key role in modern scientific research and deserve to be much appreciated, but there presently is turmoil amongst postdocs leading to proposals that they should have a better salary, higher status, less routine work, and less job stress. This dispatch is for present postdocs and grad students, and gives my views about some current issues. My opinions reflect my own experiences with 2 postdoctoral appointments before I found a faculty job, and with several postdocs working in my own research lab on grant-supported projects.
What should postdocs aim to do?
I have previously discussed this general question in detail (please see: “All About Postdocs, Part II: What Should You Work On and Learn as a Postdoc?” ).
How does being a postdoc help young scientists develop their career?
The postdoctoral period (e.g., 1-4 years) provides much beyond what was learned in graduate school. Unlike graduate students, postdocs concentrate on doing research, become technical experts on some instrumentation and methods, solidify their professional identity as researchers in a given area of science, master their ability to compose manuscripts and give oral presentations, and learn about the biggest problems faced by faculty scientists doing research. Postdocs are analogous to medical residents; hands-on experience is a great teacher!
Postdocs also should learn very much about activities associated with researching (e.g., business aspects of being a research scientist, how the research grant system works, handling administrators and regulations, explaining what their research is trying to do, getting results done in time for deadlines, approaching famous scientists at science meetings, and, what unexpected challenges their chosen career will present).
Is being a postdoc necessary?
It is not necessary, but sure is very useful for many jobs involving research! Some faculty positions as fulltime teachers do not require postdoctoral experience. Postdoctoral training now is increasingly required for researching in industries . For science-related non-research jobs, a postdoctoral period with research usually is not needed; however, a year or 2 of practical experience working in the area is a big plus for landing a good position (i.e., if you want to be a science writer, work in a beginning position with some media organization before you seek a permanent post).
What can postdocs do if they cannot land a job?
The postdoctoral experience should directly help you get job offers. If a modern postdoc is unable to land a suitable job in academia (or elsewhere!), they should try hard to identify the cause or causes (e.g., not enough experience, missing some key expertise, amateurish affect in interviews, distance of personal research interest and skills from those wanted by the employer, lack of teaching experience, likelihood for winning a first research grant, etc.). To identify your causes, it is useful to imagine that you are the potential employer and you are evaluating and interviewing yourself! Try hard to stop making excuses and start being realistic and decisive about yourself!
Sometimes your candidacy will be strengthened by another postdoctoral position! In other cases, it becomes obvious that a faculty job is not within your reach, so a major shift in career goals is needed. The skills mastered and the research experience you obtained as a doctoral degree holder and postdoctoral fellow qualifies you for many good positions outside academia, and even outside research. Get advice from postdocs who recently succeeded in finding a good position in science.
If everything bothers you so much, then why remain as a postdoc?
“Permanent postdocs” complain bitterly that they are trapped and being used only as technicians. Dealing with this quagmire is no fun, but necessitates being brutally realistic! Are you really sure you would be happy in academia? Maybe a good science-related job would be better instead of spending more years struggling (see “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part III: Unconventional Approaches to Find or Create Employment Opportunities” ).
Not every research scientist wants to have to deal with the business of research grants! They would be very happy to let someone else worry about that, so they can concentrate on doing experimental bench research. Changes are afoot whereby professional research positions are becoming available with no teaching duties and no requirement to obtain research grant awards. These newer academic positions have various labels, such as Professional Research Staff, Associate Researcher, or Senior Researcher; salaries, benefits, and job atmosphere seem quite appealing!
Commentary on some common mistakes and misunderstandings made by postdocs!
I will now list and comment on what I see as mistakes and misunderstandings for modern postdocs. Whether you agree or disagree, see if any applies to you.
- Select your mentor and postdoctoral institution according to what you want for a future job and professional identity.
- Being a postdoc is not a continuation of graduate school; it is much more and quite different! Become an expert! Become a professional!
- Postdocs are not yet fully independent scientists; some big activities are conducted by the mentor, so be grateful no matter what happens!
- Many problems bothering modern postdocs are a direct preview of job problems science faculty have to deal with (see “Why Are University Scientists Increasingly Upset With Their Job? Part II” )!
- There is nothing wrong, and often is something quite beneficial, with having a second postdoctoral experience!
- Becoming a permanent postdoc (i.e., a super-technician) mostly is your own fault. Take a look at industrial science employment, non-faculty science jobs, and non-research jobs available for doctorates in science. Make changes, be more clever, and try something new, or, make the best of it!
- In my opinion, the main special benefits of the postdoctoral experience are becoming better with handling the time problem, getting several good publications, understanding research grants and the business of being a scientist, getting to know other researchers and talking to famous research leaders, and, learning exactly what it means to be a fulltime professional scientist!
A personal statement from Dr.M!
Working on scientific research as a postdoc often is one of the most exciting and wonderful times for scientists. It certainly was for me!
Being a postdoctoral researcher should be an enchanting experience for any dedicated scientist! The world of postdocs now is opening up; postdoc positions now are more numerous in industrial research labs , and longer-term professional research positions with good pay and benefits are being established at universities.
 Woolston, C., 2016. Industry: Open for business. Nature 537:437-439. Available on the internet at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v537/n7620/full/nj7620-437a.html .
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