Being a postdoc – career driver or career killer?

A postdoc, as the name suggests, is the next stage of an academic career after having obtained a doctoral degree. A postdoctoral position is usually temporary and it enables career development through the acquisition of new skills and experience. Postdocs typically conduct research as part of a group, or under the supervision of a mentor - a senior researcher, often called a postdoctoral advisor. The main reasons people choose a postdoc appointment after a PhD are to further their knowledge in a certain field, publish their work and receive appropriate training either for a position in academia or industry. In theory, being a postdoc can be a prerequisite for a successful career, but there are two sides to every coin. In some cases, spending too much time in academia might not pave the path to occupational success, but in fact, prove to be a career killer.

The reality of being a postdoc – research and more

In addition to primarily focusing on research, postdocs also get additional education and training for their chosen field. The ultimate goal of a postdoctoral researcher is to participate in research, training and teaching and as a result gain better professional skills in terms of time management, entrepreneurship, cooperation, research methods, teamwork and willingness and availability to work on projects. Postdocs often publish their research after completing it either on their own or as part of a team. Because a postdoc position is a period of transition from studies to an independent career, pursuit of other projects such as mentoring, teaching and integrating into a team are encouraged. Some postdocs choose to apply for a faculty position where the main goal is to become a professor or associate professor. Others opt for a career in research, consulting, communications, science policy and many more.

A postdoctoral researcher is generally temporary, with most positions being two to three years long on average, but some can be extended depending on factors such as country, university and funding. In some countries there is a time limit. For example, in Canada and Sweden you can be a postdoc for five years at most, while in Germany and the US there is no limit. However, it is recommended that Postdoc Offices set guidelines for the duration at the institutions, because a postdoctoral appointment is still a stage of training and gaining skills before going on to a more permanent career path.

What career path to tale is one of the hardest decisions postdocs face. Although applying for a faculty position seems the most logical, options are usually limited. The reality is that only a small number of postdocs find success through tenure-track positions, because the market demand is low. There are other alternatives which can directly be directed to your field of research, while others may require more application of the skills you have gained during your time as a postdoctoral researcher.

Instead of pursuing a faculty position, which can take time, you can opt for academic research in research labs or agencies. Teaching and mentoring are good options, as well as administration and management. Depending on your field of expertise, you can go on to research in IT, banking, financing, automobile, pharmacy, manufacturing and many more. Market research and product management are very popular nowadays, so the demand for positions in those industries is high. You can also choose to be an entrepreneur and create a business around your original ideas, or advance in publishing by creating medical brochures or becoming a scientific publisher for example.

How a postdoc position can be beneficial – upsides of being a postdoc

When considering a postdoctoral research position it is important to take into account both the pros and cons. It is true that the postdoc is a relatively new term in one’s academic life. The number of graduates choosing to further their knowledge in a certain field of expertise is growing fast, because a postdoc appointment has proven to have many advantages as a stepping stone towards establishing yourself in their chosen field.

More time for doing research

One of the biggest advantages is without a doubt the flexibility you have to travel, administer your own funds and establish working hours. The teaching and administrative responsibilities are less, which means more time can be spent researching and writing. This creates the opportunity to submit and publish your work, and to collect more information for future publications.

Opportunity to increase your academic skills and expertise

Another benefit is the time you have to gain and develop new technical and research skills and expand the area of expertise you have been focusing on during your doctoral studies, or shift to an entirely new branch. The time you have can also be used to send in job applications and go to interviews, or discover what career you really want to pursue.

Through the mentorship of an experienced advisor you can acquire new skills and learn new methods which can be essential to establishing yourself in the professional world. You also have more time for networking and integrating yourself into a team before moving on to long-term academic positions.

Beware! Being a postdoc can be damaging to your career as well

While doing a postdoc might put you ahead of your fellow postgraduates, it can also be damaging to your career development.

Low career prospects outside of academia

Most postdocs get very limited practical training and as a result have less work experience. This makes them less attractive candidates for companies, in comparison to other postgraduates who may have less academic knowledge but more practical experience. Thus postdoctoral training often leaves researchers underprepared for future careers. Apart from faculty positions where teaching experience is necessary, it is difficult to obtain any other practical abilities more suitable for different jobs.

The age factor

The average age of postdocs in the Netherlands is 34, and 34% of them have children. These numbers are comparable to postdocs in the USA, Canada and Japan. Postdocs in Germany however, are older at an average age of 38. Because furthering your studies and doing scientific research as a postdoc is a lengthy process, many are left feeling that they have lost too many precious years. This is a factor to consider, especially if you want to start a family and have children.

Many countries have forced a retirement plan at a certain age. For example, in Germany the retirement age is 67, so you need to be wise with the number of years you spend as a postdoc.

Overqualification is a real problem

Many postdocs struggle with finding a job, because they are seen as overqualified. Several companies therefore prefer to hire people with lower qualifications and more practical experience. Another reason is that someone with lower qualifications, such as Master graduates, would settle for a lower salary, compared to a postdoc who would value the work they have put in their qualification and hard-earned degree a lot more. In some companies in the USA, for example, it is common practice for the HR department to completely disregard applications from postdocs, because they are viewed as “too set in their ways”. Postdocs face the challenge of proving to companies that their skills can be translated to the workplace and that what they have learned through their research is a valuable asset.

Relatively low salaries and very few benefits

Postdoc positions can be funded in one of several ways: some receive their salary from the respective university or higher-education institution, while others are paid a scholarship or grant. In all cases, a postdoc is not well paid – in some countries they earn even less than mail carriers and garbage collectors. In the US, first-year postdocs annually make $42,000 and by the sixth or seventh year that can increase up to $55,000. In the UK, the average postdoc earns about £35,000 a year. In Germany, salaries are usually in the same range of up to €50,000 per year. At many universities postdocs do not get any benefits – no healthcare costs covered and no retirement plan being the most significant.

The two sides of being a postdoc

Studies have reported that there is often a mismatch between industry demands and skills that postdocs have acquired. Because academic positions are limited in number, postdocs often have to compete for non-academic jobs. However, since their whole studies have been focused on gaining academic skills, they lack in practical and organizational abilities.

The most sought-after qualities in a postdoc that companies search for are availability, familiarity and willingness to work on short-term projects, but many postdocs have mostly worked on long-term projects previously, so it might be difficult for them to adjust. They face many misconceptions about themselves such as being unable to work well with others and not being able to see the bigger picture.

The years spent doing postdoctoral research can be very hard and uncertain. Postdocs are required to do a lot of work for a low salary, without much appreciation. Your work may get published, but even then it is hard to be recognized for your achievements. The process can be very isolating even if you are part of a group. Many avoid sharing ideas and collaborating, in case they get stolen.

So, is doing large amounts of work with the expectation of little pay and recognition in return worth it? That is in many ways a question you must answer for yourself. If you intend to pursue a career in academia or a tenured appointment at an institution for example, the hard work is worth it, and in many cases even required. However, in other instances, it is by no means necessary to do a postdoc in order to increase your chances of finding a job or having a successful career. There are many examples of accomplished people who have established themselves without a rich academic background, so it is a matter of choice and priorities.

There are many arguments for and against doing postdoctoral research. On one hand, doing years of research and getting your work published increases one’s expertise and prepares you for the next steps on your professional path in academia. Getting your work published is a great advantage. On the other hand, many see a postdoctoral appointment as a waste of time. If you are more practically oriented and want to establish yourself in an industry, there is no reason to make the effort of staying in academia and spend more time researching to just potentially get a higher qualification. The mismatch of companies’ demands and postdocs’ skills proves that it is not always the best decision. For those seeking a position in business, policy and communications, for example, internships, traineeships and fellowships are more effective, because of their practical orientation.