long-term postdoc

Should I become a long-term postdoc?

Becoming a long-term postdoc – isn’t this attractive? When discussing career paths in life sciences with postdocs, we hear on a regular basis the wish to escape from the “rat race of the professors” by accepting a kind of long-term senior postdoc position in academia. The idea is to obtain a permanent position (and thus a safe job in economic turbulent times) which encompasses at the same time an intellectual stimulating and creative profession with some (but not too much) responsibilities. Is this what you want?

In my experience especially women with young children (or plans to have them) find it an attractive option as they are in the most busy years of their lives. This concept is typically discussed near the end of a contract when the stress levels and the emotional insecurity about the future are increasing.

In some countries this type of position does not exist e. g. in Flanders/Belgium, in others countries these positions add an important “middle management” layer in academia e. g. in the UK, France and Germany. However, in my very personal experience these people are often not happy with their safe jobs. If you decide to become a long-term postdoc, your job is dependent on a professor who might retire or move to another city/country. When this happens, this leaves you with three possibilities:

1. To move with the boss to the new location AS A LONG-TERM POSTDOC.

This may be fine when you are young and moving to a new location is exciting and broadens your horizon. It becomes increasingly challenging when you are older and well-integrated in a circle of local friends and colleagues, when you have older children who are integrated in their circle of local friends and/or when your partner has a well-established position at your current location.

2. To look for a new job as a long-term postdoc.

In 2013, Victoria Doronina wrote a slightly depressing essay in Science Careers about the limited career opportunities of older postdocs in life sciences. You may not fully agree with her vision on academia as a work place, however, from the perspective of a new employer there are a number of reasons to prefer younger postdocs (see below).

3. To stay and adapt yourself to the new boss as a long-term postdoc.

theyTo adapt to a new boss is always challenging. When a group leader enters a new location, they probably prefer to hire new and young staff members for at least two important reasons:

  1. Psychological considerations: it is much easier to work with persons who are new to the location and have to adapt themselves to everything while persons who have to be taken over from the previous job typically have traditions and routines they are not willing to change easily. A lot more negotiating is expected.
  2. Technical considerations: When principal investigators work with modern techniques, they may fear that older staff is not necessarily fully updated and/or not willing or able to learn new skills. This attitude may be rightfully considered an agist perspective. However, this does not mean it does not happen. However, in my experience, senior scientists often have high high expertise due to long years of experience with selected techniques such as Western blotting or flow cytometry.

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A number of arguments speak against this type of job:

  1. Your career development is limited and the older you get the more challenging it is to restart your career when you are frustrated about limited freedom or the salary which does not increase substantially over the years.
  2. In my personal experience scientists in a middle-management position are often unsatisfied by their limited freedom. They may get the impression that they are technically much more qualified than the boss (this may be true or not).
    However, the boss gets the credit and they remain in the background. This may be combined with authorship issues leading to an unacceptable high number of middle authorships (this can and should be negotiated, of course). In addition, they often have to follow their bosses’ research ideas because he/she brings the money in and distributes the resources due to his/her position.
  3. All the points above may also limit the possibilities to attract grants for example due to a limited number of first/last authorships, limited access to technical staff and PhD students and – even more challenging – limited possibilities to make a name in a selected field.

Therefore, we do not advise following a career as a long-term postdoc. To my knowledge, some European funding agencies even adapted their postdoc funding schemes and allow contracts of 3x 2 years only if the candidate gets a permanent contract or a professorship at that university at the end of the contract.

However, under fortunate circumstances, you may be able to negotiate a relatively independent working style that allows you to become an expert in a specific field (thus, you get the credit), to publish as first and/or senior author regularly, to have your own group of PhD students and technical support and to get your own grants.

You should make sure not to get stuck in this specific job and to develop yourself and your skills. Get involved in projects which require to learn new techniques and take opportunities to follow courses in technical and transferable skills. This gives you a backup if your priorities change, and you do not want to be a postdoc anymore and need to seek another occupation.

Under these circumstances, you may consider pursuing a career as a senior scientist without becoming a professor.

If you find this helpful information, you may like the online course How to become a professor!

Please tell us what you think and add a comment below. 

Acknowledgements: Thanks a lot to Annelies Bronckaers who added a number of important thoughts to this text!

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7 Comments

  1. Gosh, this is depressing reading! There really is life out there, people, away from Academia – the trouble is that many young Post-Docs just seem to look for as many arguments as possible to avoid it.

    OK – let me come clean first, I’m not a Post-Doc – not even a Doc. I walked away from formal employment – including as a University Lecturer – after trying all the options (Post-grad public sector research and environmental management, private sector consultancy, undergrad and postgrad teaching) when I just refused to play the Great Game of subservience to employers. I ‘retired’ at the age of 42 and went freelance. Since then I’ve had one heck of a career – I’ve been there, done that, etc. And I got paid extremely well for doing it, too.

    So what’s the secret alternative to life as a Post-Doc? You have to take a short look back into recent history to see what’s going on., right under your noses now. When I gained my first degree only 3% of kids went to Uni, and that seemed to be around the right proportion at that time. Most young people didn’t (and still don’t) have the inclination, the mind-set, call it what you like, to live an academic life. So those of us who made the grade, hit the Firsts and 2.1s and fancied the relaxed ‘Ivory Tower’ as PhDs could do just that.

    Half a century ago that offered a safe and protected career after the uncertainties of war and deprivation. and we could look forward to a long gentle career and retire happy and contented. The rest of us – the really big majority – fretted and fought for jobs in industry or worse, with all the threats, pressures, politics and uncertainty that went with those jobs. We envied the chosen few who reached the safe haven of Academia, and put up with what life threw at us. We emptied dustbins, packaged cigarettes, bottled beer, and whatever other temporary jobs came up, at minimal wage and even lower physical conditions. (Yep – I’ve done them too!)

    But things changed. Here in the UK half of all school-leavers now have been brainwashed to go on to Uni – and it’s all a total disaster. If they survive the three year slog – and very many don’t, but just drop out in frustration – they end up in debt to the State to around £30,000 – and that’s before they even get a job. ‘Academic’ standards appear, in many cases, to be appalling, and I’ve spoken to kids who reckon themselves lucky to get two hours tuition a week – yes, two hours! That works out at £150 an hour. And, of course, there aren’t the jobs for that many ‘graduates’ anyway – what industry wants is trained apprentices with real economically viable practical skills.

    So now life in the outside world is just as nasty as that in the Towers – Prof. or policeman, Post-Doc or Line Manager , the pressures are the same, the risks just as great, the frustrations no less infuriating. So the first lesson is, stop grumbling, we’re all in this together! The world has changed, there are far more people chasing the same empty ambitions, not enough of the plum jobs to go round.

    Except that there is an alternative – provided you’re prepared to chance it. It’s very simple – and incredibly hard too – you can do what I did, and just walk away. Because if you do have those coveted skills that the people above mere industry look for, then the world’s your mollusc! In biology, the formal demand for conventional employees is closing down around us – the UK Environment Agency is sacking its biologists wholesale (hundreds have gone already – they’re all ‘managers’ now, with MBAs – not PhDs, of course). But the international demand for real field people is wide open, up for grabs – but not especially for the raw, unpolished Post-Docs of Academia.

    Your PhD is actually a real downer as far as getting hired as a freelance is concerned, although you can become an Expert Witness. if you dare risk the legal jungle that’s sprung up around the field, I’ve been there too, lots of times, and I don’t recommend it, stay out of Court if you possibly can!

    What you need above all is practical ‘field’ experience – no, not necessarily the messy wandering about in jungles (which aren’t up to much nowadays anyway) or sliding about on remote ice-fields, but hands-on problem solving and a flair for compromise when things get dangerously confrontational The world is in urgent need of the ‘Generalists’, and this is the face that you need to be able to present to prospective hirers.

    So if things are closing up around you, prospects disappearing as you look for new opportunities, it’s time to get some ‘edge’ into your CV. If you’re offered the right sort of experience and really are certain that you want to get out, then take whatever real job may be offered, regardless of how much it’s paying (just remember those kids with a shiny new first degree and £30,000 worth of indebtedness to the Great British State, before you start to back away!)

    In my experience, once you have demonstrated that you really can do something useful, take on a wider range of challenges, find both problems and solutions, more than your PhD suggests you are capable of, and you can show you’ve got some dirt under your fingernails, then you’ll suddenly find yourself in demand. If you’ve got what it takes, and are prepared to take some risks, you won’t have to advertise your skills. The word will go round and the Jobmasters will come knocking at your door. And although they’ll offer you contracts, you will have a say in just how they are worded – no more arbitrary bullying over where you go, when, how much you get paid, and who publishes your work – these are all negotiable.

    When I left Uni, with my pathetic 2.2 (Hons) (couldn’t get out of there fast enough – those guys had no idea how to teach or inspire) I walked straight into a research post with one of the world’s leading ecotoxicology teams. The reason? Simple – I’d served my ‘apprenticeship’ ten years earlier, at 16 to 20, at another renowned lab, where I learned the skills needed as a scientist. A ‘good’ degree counted for nothing – the question was, could I do the job, so I got the research post, And after ten more years knocking about in labs and lecture theatres, I had enough practical skills to sell to the highest bidders as a freelancer. I spent the next forty years moving around, working for international agencies and engineering consultancies, had a whale of a time, and half of every year at home whenever I fancied it. I’m still working – when I feel like it – and the pay is fantastic!

    So, if you’re a frustrated Post-Doc looking for escape, that’s one way to go forth and prosper. There are risks – but aren’t there always? Never, ever, forget those hugely indebted kiids leaving the English Unis now – who’s taking the bigger risk in life, them or you? There are other ways too – you could become a lawyer, for example! Retraining is always a possibility. But there really are ways to escape the rat race, if you’ve got the courage, the mind-set – and above all, the skills – to make that blind leap into the unknown. And when it comes down to the crunch, how predictable and safe is that beckoning academic career anyway? It’s your choice – if you’re prepared to make it.

    1. Dear Doug,
      thanks a lot for this long and very instructive comment! I hope that it will inspire a lot of young scientists who realize that only 3 to 5% of all PhD holders pursue successfully a career in academia. Thanks again for adding your point of view!

  2. What horribly stereotyped views of senior postdocs! What is a postdoc doing if they’re not keeping up with the best techniques in the field, bringing them into the lab and doing excellent research? If a professor can cope with moving city, institution and perhaps country (and the associated upheaval, change in ways of doing things etc) when why on earth can’t a bright, lively, technically sure postdoc left behind retrain to work in a new lab? Let’s leave the age out of this and start dealing with individual people.

  3. I believe Adak is crecort the postdoc system is broken. Universities have no place to put their PhD grads, so they create more low-paying postdoc positions. Meanwhile, the proliferation of postdocs means the competition for faculty positions is even more fierce, creating the need for candidates to hold multiple postdoc positions. All of this is driven by the frankly excessive number of graduate positions that universities have created. My university is currently in the process of creating a multi-year strategic plan, with goals of both increasing the percentage of female faculty members and also vastly increasing the number of graduate student positions and post docs because they are an excellent resource for the university. The things that have always struck me as odd about this plan are 1) How callus it seems to treat students as a resource and care so little for the fate of these resources once they are spent and 2) How they are contributing to a system that makes it very difficult for women to both have families and go after tenure track positions, but somehow think that a little extra recruiting or whatever they have in place will make up for that.

  4. Although my view might be to some extend be specific for Flanders-Belgium and the field of Biomedical Sciences, I’d like to share it. Being a long-term postdoc, permadoc if you like, is almost always bad news. It comes at professional costs (temporary contracts, no long-term career perspective, no career progression), financial costs (poor pension plan, no group insurance plan), and persona costs (effect on emotional well-being/frustration, family planning, settling down). Universities should therefore strongly encourage postdocs to move on within ~6 years afte obtaining there doctorate. This can be in a permanent academic position (professorship of other positions) or a non-academic position. And that’s is where the good news comes in. For Biomedical doctorate holders there is no unemployment in Belgium (<90% of its doctorates will leave academia and move into intellectually challenging and well payed (better payed!!) jobs with much better work-life balance than academic jobs. Pity those left behind in academia 🙂

  5. As a retired professor who worked my way up from being a lab technician I think I can perhaps see how this systemic situation has arisen It is clearly true, at least in the UK, that post doc positions are often dead-end and cannot lead to career advancement as an independent scientist. I can name institutions and directors of institutions who state clearly that their policy is that post docs cannot write grants and become independent. Therefore if you are able and ambitious you must leave. There also many cases where post docs have driven a research project to a publication but are middle authors on the paper as it is ‘good for the student to have a first author publication’. I have seen this many times and it makes it difficult to move on to an independent position and in some cases when an institution undergoes ‘restructuring’ post docs are later fired as they do not have enough first author publications. I have seen this many times and I think it is an appalling waste of talent. I think the loss of the tenured technical branch in most institutes has led to this situation. Paul Nurse (Nobel Laureate) who himself started off as a lab tech talks about their invaluable contribution to research success, and not just in the biosciences but in the physical sciences too (see the Tour of the Cavendish Laboratory video by Simon Schaffer). So my take home message is that with the reduction in technical support positions in UK universities and research institutions (begun by Margaret Thatcher), post docs have become the technical staff and are regrettably treated as such.

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