Falling into a postdoc after a PhD is a waste of excellent credentials, say Karin Bodewits, Philipp Gramlich and David Giltner.
Eight years ago a postdoc position was the first job a pseudonymous Thomas found. And, like a lot of post-PhD professionals looking for work, he took it. It “turned out to be a stupid move,” he admitted to us a few years later. He says he never had the ambition to become a professor, and he ended up working in such a specialised niche that he soon became what he called an “odd duck” on the labour market — nobody could work out what he would bring to their company. “Nobody had any idea what I was doing. I quickly realised I didn’t want to become a professor. I was trapped.”
It took five years for Thomas to find a job, as an editor at a publishing house, outside of academia. From there he moved into patent law. “Just a short delay,” he laughs. “I am now where I wanted to be five years ago.”
Thomas is not unusual. Too often, postdocs leave academia feeling exploited by a broken academic system that profits from an endless supply of cheap labour. After wasting many years, they end up competing in a labour market with freshly minted PhDs in a world that gives more value to youth and flexibility. Academia breeds ballooning armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs, which boost universities and their research capacities at the cost of their own careers. Sadly, those rising numbers are met by plateaued demands on the academic and private job markets. A postdoc should not be the default option, and it is not the best career step for everyone.
We recognise only one very good reason to do a postdoc: if you want to become a professor at a research institution. This should only be the case if you’re willing to put up with a litany of issues: you must be viciously competitive, shouldn’t have too much of a problem with the publish or perish attitude that you may spend the rest of your career in, and be willing to be one day promoted out of your position and away from scientific research. Landing a junior professorship (Germany), a first academic appointment (UK) or getting tenure (USA) is all about showing you have the credentials to make a significant contribution in your research field, and a postdoc is (in most cases) essential to build these credentials.
In nearly every other career path, progression happens faster if you dodge the postdoc position, get a relevant job, and start gaining experience away from the bench. To those outside of academia, a PhD is plenty impressive enough — more academic credentials might be nice, but they’re not essential. And, like Thomas, the more time spent in academia, the more you run the risk of being perceived as too specialised to work anywhere else.
Is a postdoc really not valuable anywhere else? Perhaps not. If you’re interested in working as a technical or scientific expert outside of academia, a postdoc could help (or, at least, not hurt). If you see job ads asking for postdoc experience, we suggest getting in touch or setting up an informational interview to work out if a postdoc is really necessary. If you want to work abroad, securing a postdoc in your target country is probably easier than getting a non-academic job when it comes to visa and legal restrictions, so it may be a good way to establish a local base. There’s a catch, though: postdoc positions are demanding, so you might not be able to invest much time outside the lab.
These examples aside, procrastination in thinking about career development is the main reason many scientists choose a postdoc. It is also the very worst reason to do so.
We strongly suggest you forget the postdoc life raft. Double down on your decision to leave academia, and invest in activities that will help you stand out from the crowd. Analyse your strengths and skills, explore different career possibilities, network, create an eye-catching CV and learn to tell stories that are relevant to people who you hope will hire you. Get help from people if you need it and use the resources available to you.
There are numerous exciting career opportunities in industry, non-profit, and governmental organisations out there. Don’t fall into a postdoc just because you can’t immediately find something different.
Karin Bodewits, PhD graduate from the University of Edinburgh, founded the career platform NaturalScience.Careers. She works as an author, speaker and seminar leader for a range of communication topics, and is the author of ‘You Must Be Very Intelligent — The PhD Delusion’.
Philipp Gramlich has studied and researched chemistry at various universities in Germany, Australia and Scotland. After experiences in industry at baseclick and Eurofins Genomics, he co-founded NaturalScience.Careers. With seminars like “Goodbye academia?” he focuses on career- and skill-development for natural scientists.
David Giltner is the author of the book Turning Science into Things People Need, and is an internationally recognized speaker and mentor on building rewarding careers in industry. After 20 years commercializing laser technology for a wide variety of applications, he now mentors scientists and engineers on creating their own exciting career paths. Check out his blog.