Postdocs are stepping-stones in a career, not a final destination.
The National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA both define a postdoc as:
“An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path.”
The defined period covers an approximately 3 year contract where scientists work in a laboratory helping a principle investigator (PI) to conduct their research. Ideally it is an opportunity to develop skills, work on interesting projects with interesting people in interesting places and train to become an independent scientist.
In the UK, the average starting salary for a first postdoc is approximately £27,000. This will increase incrementally throughout the duration of the postdoc. Normally, you would then start the second postdoc at the salary that you finished the first one on, and receive incremental increases again. In the USA, the National Institute of Health (NIH) National Research Service Award (NRSA) had a baseline postdoctoral stipend for new postdocs of approximately $39,000 in 2012 (this was raised to $42,000 in 2014). This increases to approximately $54,000 for those with seven or more yearsof experience.
However, “being a postdoc is not a career in itself,” warns Karen Hinxman, consultant at the Postdoc Development Centre at Imperial College, London. “It’s a stepping stone to the next part of your career, whether this is inside or outside of academia.” You will not be able to become a perpetual postdoc in the current research sphere. There is an age (and experience) limit to many fellowships: if you have done too many postdocs (or are above a certain age), you will not be eligible for certain funding schemes. If that is the case, you will need to rely on your PI to provide funding. Unfortunately, perpetual postdocs become expensive and PIs often cannot afford them.
The number of scientists taking on a postdoc in the US has increased dramatically since the late 1970’s, according to data collected by the NSF for their Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS). (Note: data before 2007 was collected in a slightly different way compared to data collected from 2007 onwards).
The logical next step after completing a postdoc (or two) is to apply for your own funding so that you can become an independent scientist with your own lab in an academic institution. In the current climate this will most likely depend on your publication history (number and in what journal). If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that.
What some young postdocs don’t know is that there are limits attached to some of the grants you can apply for. The Future Leaders grant from the Biotechnology and Bio Science Research Council in the UK, for example, has an eligibility limit on it that states:
“Applicants should not exceed five years in active postdoctoral research employment prior to announcement of the awarded FLFs (30 November 2015)”
And this one from the Wellcome Trust is only for newly appointed postdocs in the biomedical sciences with less than two years experience. More postdoc funding opportunities and challenges will be covered in another post.
However, academia is not the only option post-postdoc. The skills learned during the three year contract are diverse and transferable. In part 3 of this series, we explore those other options, and other issues that trouble postdocs.