Welcome to My Life as a Postdoc: Overeducated and Underemployed

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog.

I know a lot of really dumb PhDs.

I’m not being mean.  I include myself in this group of book-smart, determined idiots.  Many of us are creative, versatile, lifelong learners who embrace challenge and handle failure with aplomb. And a select few, with the right combination of grit, luck, and guidance, do make careers for themselves as tenure-track faculty. But the vast majority do not.  For all our knowledge, we can be dumb as doorknobs when it comes to navigating careers outside of academia.  Perhaps because we are trained to be so specialized, we lose sight of the big picture. Once we take a postdoc position, many of us languish at the bench relegated to the dreaded “perma-doc” realm without a clue about what to do next.  Yet, when we think about leaving academia, many of us become paralyzed at the thought of abandoning our native land.

Suffering is an inherent part of academic culture.  In graduate school, my friends and I would brag about working in the lab through weekends and holidays, getting by on a handful of hours of sleep a night, and using a toxic cocktail of Red Bull and coffee to push us through full course loads and lofty scientific aspirations (I didn’t sprout wings, but I did almost conjure up an ulcer). We wore our wrinkled clothes and dark under-eye circles as badges of honor. We thrived on the pressure, and if we didn’t, surely something was wrong with us.

I look back on those days with a mixture of fondness and incredulity. I felt at home surrounded by overachievers who, unlike my family and nonacademic friends, understood the addictiveness of unraveling the mysteries of the universe (or trying to, anyhow), until one day, I felt nothing but uneasiness.  The ecstasy of the hunt for truths was displaced by worry about grants, about publishing in journals with high enough impact factors, about continually generating data. Moreover, somehow despite the crazy hours I managed to find the time to get married and even have a child.  Then, for the first time I admitted to myself that I wanted something that academia couldn’t provide: more.  I wanted more time with my family, more flexibility, more fulfillment.

Now, I was left with new mysteries to unravel:  How could I possibly function on the outside? What transferable skills could I possibly have? The research enterprise requires us to spend much of our time focusing on what we don’t know and how to get inside the black box.  Is that why, as PhDs, we can’t fathom switching careers?  Do we become too fixated on discerning what we don’t know and how what we do know could possibly be applicable to “real jobs”?  I’m not sure where this academic Stockholm Syndrome came from, but it’s time for some of us to snap out of it.

Leaving academia does not equate failure.  I know that the decision to leave does not mean that I fell short as an academic.  Prior to this, I had to navigate a sea of well-intentioned colleagues who urged me to apply for tenure-track positions. I believe that my decision to leave reflects my own evolution and maturation as a PhD who believes her time and efforts are better suited for a more well-rounded life, and perhaps more importantly, who now has the courage to voice that opinion.

The next step is still murky. As I write this, I am currently contacting people for informational interviews about writing, editing, and publishing careers in the sciences and gathering together application materials for a master’s program in genetic counseling.  On my best days, I look at this approach as covering my bases, but on my worst, I am so confused about the trajectory of my life that I want to curl into a fetal position and binge-watch Netflix until I forget that I might have wasted the last 13 years of my life doing bench science.  Well, maybe “wasted” is too strong a word …Mishandled? Perhaps. But the situation is not beyond correction.

What I do know is that realizing that academia isn’t for me is sufficient reason to take action.  It should be reason enough for you to take action, too. Over the next few months, I plan to use this forum of the BEST Program blog to explore careers outside of academia and the skills necessary to get them.  Because we DO have the skills: As PhDs, we have learned how to logically attack problems to get answers; how to use failure to change tack and persevere; how to communicate effectively; and most importantly, how to find the tools to improve our lives and move on to fulfilling careers.  Let’s stop being the smartest idiots we know.

New Overtime Law Could Mean Pink Slips for Postdocs … and Maybe That Isn’t Such a Bad Thing

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog

On May 18th, a new ruling by the US Department of Labor makes overtime pay mandatory for workers making less than $47,476 per year. The change goes into effect in December 2016. Rather than pay overtime, many universities are expected to raise salaries to meet the cut-off.

With the average annual compensation of a postdoc hovering around $45,000, and many making far less, the 30,000 to 40,000 postdocs across the nation are counting this as a victory.

But does throwing a few extra thousand dollars at highly trained scientists really count as a win, or more as a consolation prize?

In their December 2014 report The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine argued that postdoc salaries should be raised to a minimum of $50,000 a year, and that many postdocs should be reclassified as staff scientists, with a pay increase appropriate to their education and expertise.

Originally intended as an extension of graduate training, the postdoc is supposed to be a temporary position – a time of skill refinement, critical thinking enhancement, and above all else an apprenticeship.  Apprenticeships, historically, are poorly paid.  But they are so because the benefits of such experiences — extensive mentoring, the bestowing of skills and strategy to novices — are supposed to launch lifelong careers.

Over the years, however, the postdoc has morphed from a brief, guided stint into a directionless, holding pattern.  Many “superdocs” work indefinitely,[1] managing the lab and doing far more than the the position warrants, especially for the pay.  Some do so because they are unable to find positions (on the academic job market or otherwise), but also because they do not receive the mentoring from lab directors who are either stretched too thin or fail to recognize the importance of discussing career plans with their mentees.  Others remain in order to maintain a work-life balance or for family reasons.

Between 2000 and 2012, the postdoc population swelled by 150%, a consequence of newly minted PhDs pouring into such positions by default, as the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions plateaued and, in some places, waned.  As a result, there is a large pool of “superdocs.”  (For a snapshot of trends in doctoral education in the sciences, see “What shall we do about all the PhDs?”)

As the laws of supply and demand dictate, postdocs are in high supply and consequently, they are cheap.  Many postdocs are trying to raise families on less than what the average college graduate earns.

But if postdocs look outside the academy for employment, they may find that scientist positions in industry are also scarce – the result of stalled drug discovery, expired patents on so-called “blockbuster drugs,” and outsourcing of jobs.  Even the better postdoc positions, at the top end of the pay scale at R1 institutions, are becoming increasingly more difficult to snag.

Further complicating the situation, many doctoral graduates accept postdoc positions even when they are unsure they want to continue doing bench work. According to one study published in Science in May 2016, nearly 80% of life-science graduate students reported that they were planning on doing a postdoc. The reason most cited was that doing so would increase the chances of getting a desired job, even among those looking for nonresearch-oriented careers. Of those who hadn’t planned on pursuing postdoctoral research but ended up doing so anyway, difficulty finding a job was the most commonly reported reason. The study’s authors, Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach, conclude that a “significant share of junior scientists proceeded to the postdoc stage without sufficient information to evaluate nonacademic career options.”  The report urged students to start thinking about their careers before even applying to doctoral programs and called for graduate schools to require applicants to analyze career alternatives and justify why securing the doctorate was the most appropriate way forward. Sauermann said in an email to Inside Higher Ed, “I think that everybody who considers doing a Ph.D. should think about the subsequent steps as well, i.e., the potential need for a postdoc and the possibility of not getting a particular desired job (even with a postdoc).” He noted that “Rather than thinking short term and going step by step (‘Let me do the Ph.D. first and then I’ll think about the next step’), long-term career planning is likely to result in better outcomes.” For example, Sauermann said, a master’s degree may lead someone to work that is just as satisfying as what that person would find with a doctorate.

The new Dept. of Labor ruling may mean that some postdocs can expect a small increase in pay. However, since many labs continue to struggle to maintain funding, there may also be downsizing.  According to Paula Stephan, who studies the economics of scientific research at Georgia State University, “You can’t just say everybody’s going to get more money.”  In a recent article in Nature, she predicted that “There will be fewer postdocs.”

But perhaps thinning out the postdoc (and graduate student) herd is exactly what is needed. Nobody wants to be laid off, but postdocs could benefit from figuring out if they are at the bench because it is part of a bigger plan or because it is the path of least resistance. While the new ruling will only mildly alleviate one symptom of the larger ailing system, it is a sobering indicator that awareness of the problem exists; in the very least, it will ignite a conversation.


[1] Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been in their position for more than 6 years (‘The postdoc pile-up’).