Happy Postdocs : Not An Oxymoron
Disclaimer: I have no direct experience with postdocs in biomedical or other life sciences fields. My point of view derives entirely from experiences in the physical sciences.
Context: In the physical science academic niche with which I am familiar, postdoctoral fellowships are desirable, respected positions. Doing a (successful) postdoc gives the additional experience needed to make the transition from being a student to being a professor at a research university.
My experience: Aside from a few harassment issues I could have done without, I was happy as a postdoc. I enjoyed the responsibility, respect, and higher salary, and, although I had a lot of freedom in my research as a grad student, I felt even freer as a postdoc because I finally had the time and ability to develop some of my own research ideas at a more intellectually satisfying level.
Nevertheless, being a postdoc is not 24/7 good times. To help examine some of the pros and cons, let's compare the professional lives of postdocs and assistant professors:
Job security: Although some postdocs (or equivalent positions) have a contract of a similar duration as that of an assistant professor before tenure evaluation, postdocs live with more uncertainty about whether all these years of training will lead to the career they want. Although most postdocs who do well in my field ultimately get a faculty position if they want one, you never know. And, more typically, postdoc contracts are only for 1-2 years. Assistant professors may have some anxious years before tenure evaluation time, but they can achieve job security with tenure. Assistant professors clearly have the advantage in this respect.
Salary: Assistant professors typically make more than postdocs, although the difference narrows for more senior postdocs. In addition, assistant professors with significant postdoctoral experience can typically negotiate a higher starting salary, so the postdoctoral years 'count' in determination of future salary.
In what might be a rare situation, a former postdoc of mine recently took a pay cut (to $48k) when moving to a teaching position at a small university. He wanted a teaching-focused job, but was worried that the lower salary would make life more difficult for his family of four (his is the only income), but, when he asked me for advice, I said that I hoped he would take the job anyway because of the career opportunity and potential future job security. He did, and so far he is doing fine and is very happy in his new job.
Assistant professors in general have an advantage over postdocs with respect to salary, but not in all cases.
Benefits: In my field, health insurance benefits are typically similar for both postdocs and professors, but situations vary from institution to institution regarding whether the institution/PI contribute to retirement benefits. Some institutions make no retirement contributions for postdocs or assistant professors in the first year or two; some contribute to the retirement funds of assistant professors but not of postdocs; and others contribute to both. I am currently contributing to the retirement fund of a postdoc, as are many of my colleagues for their postdocs, so it certainly does happen. This factor works out about equally for postdocs and assistant professors in the institutions/departments with which I am familiar.
Independence: This one varies a lot. Many of us had a lot of independence as postdocs to pursue the research we wanted, but others are mostly/entirely confined to doing a project conceived and directed by a PI. Assistant professors have freedom to take the lead on research projects, although with that freedom comes a lot more responsibility (and management tasks) than postdocs typically have to deal with.
I think this factor is comparable for postdocs and assistant professors. There are certainly very controlling PIs who restrict the independence of postdocs, but there are also assistant professors whose research topics are constrained by various factors.
Time: Many of us think back on our postdoctoral experiences as the time in our academic careers when we had the most uninterrupted time to focus on research. One colleague of mine says that, for him, being a postdoc was even better than having a sabbatical (without the career anxiety, I suppose) because the professional service expectations and time spent managing grants and people was so much less.
According to that postdoc world view, postdocs are fortunate because they are not afflicted with the stresses of being a student (exams, classes) and typically doesn't have to do the same kind of professorial time management feat of balancing research, teaching, advising, managing, service etc. As a postdoc, you may help mentor grad students or undergrads in a research group, and you may also manage your own grant and start to be asked to review manuscripts and reviews, but all of this ramps up to a higher level when you become a professor. That's part of why spending time as a postdoc is a good transitional experience between being a student and a professor.
As a postdoc, I definitely felt anxious about the future. There were very few academic jobs in my field at that time, and I was very aware that I might not get one of those few.
Nevertheless, I was doing what I wanted to be doing. I enjoyed the intellectual freedom and the unrestricted time to think and write and do research. I was relieved to be taken (a bit) more seriously as a scientist than I had been as a grad student, and I enjoyed starting to gain visibility and build connections in my field. I was not ready to start a faculty position at a research university directly after finishing my PhD, but my postdoc time, followed by a teaching position, gave me the experience I needed once I was fortunate enough to get a tenure-track job.
Postdocs win in the 'time' category.
Summary: Being a postdoc has its stresses, even in the best of systems, but there are also very positive aspects of being a postdoc. Many faculty take seriously their jobs as mentors of postdocs, and many postdocs use well their year (or two or three) of research experience to launch their subsequent careers.
Happy postdocs exist. That fact doesn't help those who are in a postdoctoral form of hell; some fields clearly need to reform their postdoctoral systems. Nevertheless, I think it is important to present a positive case for postdocs, at least in some of the physical sciences, and to stop equating all postdoctoral fellowships with all the worst aspects of academia.
12 years ago
I couldn't agree more. I am 2.5 years into my post-doc in the biological sciences and love it. I think it helped that I took the time to find a lab that I could see as a great fit for myself, in both the research area and the personalities within the lab. I had been in a very high profile (aka- must produce a lot, high stress) lab as a graduate and knew that if I stayed on such a course I would quickly burn out. So I chose to do my post-doc with someone very respected in their field, yet not quick as high profile. My advisor is great and very understanding and my post-doc has been enjoyable so far. Now if only I could get a paper out..... :)
I agree with FSP's post: my postdoc time was a happy time.
I have a theory about biomedical postdocs. Many of them can get NIH postdoc fellowships. Maybe this is a bad thing. PI's typically have larger groups in bio, and the PI has responsibility to their own grants. In a group with PI-funded postdocs and independent postdocs, perhaps the PI focuses more attention and resources and support on the PI-funded people, so that the PI ensures that their grant agency is happy. How much of a problem is it for the PI if a postdoc with their own funding fails?
Two caveats. (1) I have no direct experience, so this could be wrong, and I'm posting it here to see if anybody disputes this. And I'd be happy to be wrong. (2) Advice I heard applies here: a PI's goal should be to make sure all of their postdocs are happy and successful and go on to productive careers; that's the best route to getting more postdocs in the future. So PI's who think that way have a self-interest in supporting self-funded postdocs as well as PI-funded postdocs.
I am a chemist, my career goals are industrial, and I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at a government lab. While my situation is different than you describe here, I am quite happy as a postdoc. I have found that completing my graduate study has given me more confidence in myself. Additionally, my postdoctoral lab is smaller, the environment less toxic and punitive,and the research more my own than grad school lab.It doesn't hurt that my government postdoctoral fellowship pays 3x what I made in graduate school.
But six months ago, being a postdoc was hard - we (two chemists) were trying to figure out our permanent position plans. I think much of the stress associated with being a postdoc has to do with finalizing the next step - at this age, we're ready to settle down already and not be vagrants. In this economic climate, it's difficult to be always looking for a job.
Luckily we both got what we wanted - industrial position for me, tenure track professorship for him. Life is good.
I'm in biology and this is my experience exactly. It's great! Fortunately there are no issues with harassment. However, the way my university handles outside fellowships I can't be on their health insurance (even if I paid the full price) and they don't contribute to retirement. It's a good thing I can be on my husband's insurance or this would be a huge problem - I'm still mad about the university's callous attitude toward my insurance.
I'm a postdoctoral fellow in Europe (no postdoc advisor). If this were a permanent position (with a slightly higher pay), this would be the most perfect job ever.
Great post, FSP! Being in the physical sciences myself, I can attest that my faculty colleagues by-and-large take good care of their postdocs and provide mentoring and prefessional development opportunities. A typical 2-3 year postdoctoral appointment (with proper mentoring, opportunities to work with students, write own grants, travel to conferences, take on research projects of own design largely independently, and enhance the publication record) puts the candidate at peak tenure-track employability after the postdoc.
My experiences as a post-doc were overall very good - great advisor, good colleagues, decent pay, and while a lot of hours/stress the level of annoying 'crap' you deal with pales in comparison to life as an assistant prof (my current exp).
I was in a bioengineering field - so I saw the difference between my life and straight biology. While some bio post-docs were happy and advisors were as good as mine, there are certainly some abuses. A good friend worked as a post-doc for many years (so long that NIH no longer considers her early stage after 1 year in her professorship) and her PI did almost NOTHING to help her find a position, despite the fact she is intelligent, hard-working, creative, and one of the reasons he had so much success in those years. My advice - look at how long people have been in the lab as a post-doc. Any pattern of more than 3-4 years is a warning sign (in biology, shorter in other fields is the norm).
Despite the discussion on the previous post, my life as a post-doc was not miserable, and in many aspects, in fact quite enjoyable.
For my 2 post-docs (3 years total), nice advisors and some great colleagues, a very modern and well funded lab, an "average post-doc" pay but for my US post-doc, since I was a foreigner, no taxes, which helped me to save money. I learnt new things, I published, my advisors helped me when I was looking for a job. I could go on, but all in all I was quite lucky (I actually was also quite lucky during my PhD).
The only thing that really prevented me for appreciating it was that, as FSP said: "As a postdoc, I definitely felt anxious about the future."
Which was not the case with my PhD, even though the situation was,in a way, pretty similard: perhaps I grew older...
When you spend 2-3 months a year for 2-3 years looking for a job, when you know that, even if the situation is good you still have to look for the "real thing", when you're 30 and you're seeing your 5 years girlfriend 2 days a week, you can start feeling insecure.
I understand that some don't feel that way or care less about it, but I know that most post-docs don't feel happy not because of their advisors or pay or research, but more about the "what's next?" question (and, yes, sometimes, a little bit, when will I get the recognition I think I deserve, and not be considered as a "super student", or, as phdcomics said, "an aging guy with questionable carreer choice").
In order to assess the post-doc system, you probably need to compare it to alternatives. I am not sure what those alternatives would be, however.
+5 for the title (assuming that I'm right and it is an allusion to the Little House books).
I completely agree. My postdoc advisor was a big fish and very difficult to work for, I didn't make much $$ and there were the nagging worries about the next step - but still, the freedom to conceive and do experiments without significant other responsibilities was incredibly enjoyable. I made many more friends than in graduate school and set up collaborations that, 10 years later, are still ongoing.
I'm in the social sciences, so post-docs are quite different in many cases (for example, I technically had a post-doctoral supervisor, but didn't work in a research group). I had a fantastic time as a post-doc: I had a post-doctoral fellowship that was tax-free; I lived in a great city; I had all the time I could imagine to do my research, develop my ideas, and write; I had a separate research budget; I had time to read some great new books. It was a wonderful time of intellectual development.
A physicist: In my field (biomedical) post-docs that are supported by their own fellowships are greatly valued and treated very well. BUT, until very recently, they didn't qualify to any benefits (like Anonymous #2), although post-docs supported by their PI's grant got the same benefits as faculty. Fortunately our institution (University of British Columbia) has seen the light and changed their benefits policies.
I am currently 1.5 years into my first postdoc (in ecology), and I much preferred being a graduate student. I think that the students and classes and distractions are a nice counterpoint to research/writing. Now I am a lot more solitary and have fewer diversions, which makes me feel like I should be thinking really hard 12 hours a day! Impossible! But then I wind up feeling bad about myself. I look forward to the transition to more, diverse responsibilities if/when I transition to professorship. But of course grad students have it best (freshest minds, fewest real pressures)!
I love, love, love being a postdoc! I want to be a postdoc forever. I know it's not realistic, but I shudder to think that I'd have to go on the job market. I love doing the research, the training of students, the flexibility to implement my own ideas, take on as many side projects as I like. My postdoc adviser is the best I could imagine. I don't have any health benefits, but my salary is higher to offset that, so I can purchase my own insurance.
I've been in this position for a year and 8 months now, and I suspect I will get a respectable number of papers out of my work.
I was very stressed out during my postdoc. The first year I was busy collecting data and the second year I was busy writing papers, applying for grants and applying/interviewing for TT jobs. Also, I was pressured to go to every conference under the sun to meet with people.
I am more curious than ever to know exactly what field you're in, FSP. A pay *cut* to $48k??? Benefits? Retirement accounts? I got my PhD in chemistry, and am now doing a postdoc in materials science and engineering, and this has not been my experience at all. Although I'm making considerably more now than the measly graduate student stipend I used to receive, I am nowhere near $48k, and my salary is considered high end by most people I've talked to. I don't get any real benefits (technically not even vacation or sick days), and I am eligible only for the undergraduate student health insurance. And certainly no retirement fund!
I just started a TT position 6 weeks ago and am so much happier than I was as a postdoc. However, a large part of that has to do with me moving far, far away from my postdoc PI. The added stress of balancing teaching and research and even getting grants transferred here is nothing compared to the stress I was living under every day because of that PI.
I am one month into a postdoc that will last three years, and I am totally loving it. Mostly, it's the freedom I have to work on whatever I feel like. As a graduate student, I essentially had this in the research arena, but there were still all these stupid hoops to jump through for the department/university.
Probably I'll be pretty stressed in my last year, when I'm applying for jobs, but for now, it's a dream life. I have a fantastic supervisor, and we've started up a really fun project. I have collaborators that were already in town, and we are making much faster progress now that we are in the same place. I can set my own schedule (modulo seminars, but the community is so active here that I really get to pick and choose). I've reached the point where people I don't actually know yet invite me to participate in small workshops and give seminar talks, and that is a great feeling. I love the city I'm in, and my salary is more than double what it was in grad school, so I can just enjoy it without worrying about money.
I am happy that so many happy current and former postdocs have left comments today.
I really enjoyed my post doc years (physics), for most of the reasons described in your blog. In addition, I had no specific responsibility for writing a grant or managing it, but I got exposed to that over time and that was itself a valuable learning experience.
Concerning your salary observation, I know someone who took a major pay cut (from an Oppenheimer at LANL) to an R1 job but was happy to do so.
One factor your former post doc might have considered (and that your readers might consider) is that your salary / median salary is the proper metric. As this map shows, there are lots of counties where a STARTING salary of $48,000 would be around the median for the area. Housing costs can vary a lot between where you do your post doc and where you take a job. Some job interview visits in this area include a quick real estate tour simply to put salary and expenses in perspective.
Rosie, thanks for answering my question, I'm glad to hear that. And that's great that UBC is fixing the benefits issue!
I was a postdoc about 15 years ago, and overall it was a positive experience. I was productive in lab, learned a lot, and enjoyed working with most of the other people in the group. My pay was fine and I was living in a not-too-expensive town. I looked for academic jobs two years in a row, so that part was stressful. From there I went to industry, which is common in my field.
I was somewhat less happy as a postdoc than as a grad student, and I think it wasn't quite as good a fit as my grad school group. That's really had to predict in advance, since it hinges on so many things. I had an exceedingly good grad school experience, though.
As a current postdoc I have to say, my feelings of uncertainty about the future makes its hard to enjoy the freedom of the position.
Thank you for this post...it makes me realize that until I get tenure (and maybe not even then) I will always feel uncertain. I simply need to learn to let go, work hard and enjoy the ride.
I'm one of the bitter ones, and it all comes down to lacking in benefits (I'm supposed to be saving for retirement a long time ago!), pay (I make USD10k/yr less than median US salary, and USD20k/yr less than the BS physics graduates last year) I make about half to a third of the pay I got as an *intern* in industry. I have a kid to take care of and a wife in what amounts to a humanities subject in terms of pay (the first mother in their program and they can't be assed to support her!) so money is extremely tight, so I couldn't put any in a 401k even were they to offer one. Plus, I have to find the *next* crappy-paid temporary postdoc position because I can't seem to get a faculty job. This adds up to one very frustrated and disgruntled postdoc who can't wait to find the end of this period of his life.
The *sole* benefits are the research and the great mentor I'm working for. I really like the research and my mentor is quite nice and lets me go to good conferences, despite having to fight the big boss for money for it.
"As this map shows, there are lots of counties where a STARTING salary of $48,000 would be around the median for the area."
Crap. I am about 15k below median for my county. Fan frickin' tastic.
Oh, I forgot the complete lack of moving expense compensation too. Crap pay + lack of moving expenses compensation + temporary position = quite a lot of pain
Great post. I am also a post doc. It dispels the "bitter-postdoc" impression that I had during my PhD. I reckon even professor would agree they did their most significant science during their post doc
One other great thing about being a postdoc is the opportunity to live in other countries - I have lived in three fantastically interesting places on PD positions. The downside is that taking positions overseas is basically essential to getting a TT position in my field (if you are European), and my significant other was unable to accompany me - leading to four years of seriously long-distance. The investment that we made in our careers has now paid off, but if it hadn't (and it was pure luck given the numbers that it did), I would certainly not feel so positive about the PD experience...
Another happy postdoc here. I would gladly keep this job forever if I could, and they wouldn't even have to raise my salary (except to keep pace with inflation). Of course, I realize my job is unusually nice: as a theorist, I have no supervisor and am free to work with others or alone as I choose; this job lasts for three years (typical in my field); my salary is somewhat higher than it would be at most other institutions; and I get full benefits, including a decent retirement package. If I get a faculty job after this, I'll probably get paid somewhat more but have much less freedom in how I spend my time. That's not a tradeoff I would want to choose, but since that's the only way to secure a long-term job, I guess I'll have to.
I loved my 2 postdocs! Yes there is uncertainty and that added stress but the intellectual freedom and time were so wonderful. If there was any job security in it a life-time postdoc would be ok with me.
Everybody is talking about intellectual freedom BUT if you are seeking for a chance to get an academic job, you need to be (extra-)productive during your post-doc(s).
Which usually means following your boss ideas (if you know he is good) or the ones that you know will work (which means, unless you are very smart - which happens-, doing some kind of spin-off of your PhD). Or be lucky to find some promising new system to study by playing in the lab.
All of this can be exciting, and good times, as research is when it's quite working, but I wouldn't really call it intellectual freedom.
I mean, you can do what you want if your advisor is willing to pay you to do what you want (and not what he wants), at least part time. But if you're an average dude and you're trying to work on things you don't already know, there are chances that you won't be very productive during a 1-2 years post-doc...
And doing the same thing as your PhD during your post-doc, even if it leads to papers, is not very recommended either to land a job(at least in my country). And probably not very interesting anyway...
In fact "publish or perish" makes it more and more difficult to have intellectual freedom, whatever your carreer stage... (I guess unless you're a big star with 800 papers and a pool of 50 students).
You mentioned that postdoctoral years "count" in your field when you negotiate a faculty position. In my physical science field, this varies hugely. I was extremely unlucky, and not only did my 6 years of postdoctoral experience count for nothing, but my additional years in a TT-track job also counted for nothing! I was expected to stay in rank for the full time, putting me *behind* in the scheme of things. That is now being remedied a bit, belatedly, but postdoctoral experience may be considered completely irrelevent to your seniority among the faculty.
I also wanted to comment that part of what made my postdoctoral years so blissful was also the terrific social life. Postdocs often hang together and socialize, with fewer kids and other obligations. Life on the TT has been far lonelier.
@ a physicist: The NIH postdoc fellowships are competitive. The funding rate is ~15%. I wouldn't be surprised if PIs were slightly less concerned with externally funded postdocs working on separate projects, but most postdocs in the biomedical field don't have this luxury.
On relative salaries: I live in one of the "darkest green" counties on the map (median income $74k-111k) and am making $47k/y. This is hard; I'm working as many hours as people who earn double (or quadruple) what I do, and who can put their money toward time-saving shortcuts (e.g., buying lunch in cafeteria, buying the first shirt that fits, moving help, etc.). I love doing science, but it's not the only thing I could see myself enjoying or doing very well. Some of the comments to the previous post made me suspect that a chunk of people in academic science are financially a teensy bit naive (e.g., about retirement and relative savings rates) and/or do not realize the opportunity cost of their decisions.
Money is obviously not important in itself, but recent economic history and preexisting common sense have encouraged me to value security. I don't want to have some job forever, but I want to be able to support myself (and any kids) during a 6-to 12-month period when I don't. It's very, very hard to develop that kind financial buffer in this field. I wish instead of doing nonprofit work that I had tried finance or consulting for a few years before starting grad school.
My postdoc involves less intellectual independence, but that's because I was on a nice fellowship in grad school (NSF GRF) in a theoretical group, and to get papers out ASAP in a new field, I decided to do a postdoc attached to my new PI's research project.
Postdocs should be paid more, and there need to be more density-dependent checks on the recruitment rates of PhD students. I'm not sure how this should be handled, e.g., at the NSF/NIH funding level, or if there should simply be more information available about what PhD students do with their degrees, including some models forecasting changes in academic (TT/non-TT) and non-academic jobs available in every field. I feel like I was a little misguided, but my undergrad and grad advisors were the preternaturally lucky ones who had made it to the top.
My postdoc years were marked by life-stress (not being able to get a job at the next level) and zero intellectual freedom and a toxic work environment so staying on in the postdoc wasn't even itself an attractive option. I had left grad school full of optimism and hope. I left my postdoc jaded, bitter and cynical. I am so glad those years are behind me now.
In my small nonprofit research institute, the postdocs are a dime-a-dozen, making up nearly a third of total employees. There are only a few hundred graduate students and they are treated like gold, while we postdocs may as well be wallpaper. I think most postdocs here are frustrated by this disparity. Also, postdocs in my field are becoming so long that they regularly run longer than the Ph.D. (5-8 years). This is partly due to "advisors" having no interest in helping their postdocs develop their careers and partly because there are so few jobs. No one wants to do 13 years of training only to have to give up on their dream of getting a faculty position. The "what next" question looms over everything.
I was just doing a google-search on "postdoctoral burnout" here in my office. I feel pretty worn out by the non-math duties of my (math) position and mourn for the unbusy days of grad school. I guess it's just going to get worse.
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