Thank you to those who answered our request to share their feelings about the postdoctoral stage in the life of a scientist. YOU can still share your own opinion (in a 5 responses to a very quick survey!) at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/5CPPJ98
Note the responders demographics: Currently a postdoc 40 %, Previously a postdoc 60 %, Currently a mentor of postdocs 25.9%, Previously a mentor of postdocs 29.6%
The Post-doc experience in a nut shell
Here is a tally of responses to the question: “What are three things (words) that first come to mind when thinking of your experience as a postdoc?” As you will notice the postdoctoral years provided clear highs and lows (including for the same individuals!), but this definitely was not “just a job”….
- Learning opportunity: 63.0%
- Useful: 40.7%
- Frustrating: 29.6%
- Exciting : 29.6%
- One of the best of my life: 22.2%
- Enlightening: 18.5%
- Happy: 18.5%
- Horrible: 14.8%
- A waste of my talent: 7.4%
- Wish to forget it: 7.4%
- Boring: 3.7%
- Just a job: 0.0%
Other words used to describe: “hard work, eye-opening, feeling of responsibility, inspirational”
What is “the best of” and “the worst of” being a postdoc?
I grouped a variety of essay responses offered to these two main questions into several main themes. The cumulative weight of each theme (made of adding up the weight of related responses) is indicated in %. Here are your feelings and my quick thoughts regarding the top themes that had emerged from the survey.
Summary of “the best of being a post-doc”
One of the top two top best things about being a post-doc was the overall learning opportunity, both professional and personal. This was also the thing that came to mind most frequently when thinking of the postdoc years (see above). Thus, venturing to do a post-doc that allows the expansion of one’s scientific and personal horizon (different location/county) seems to be most rewarding. I could not agree more. In the same time we all had to re-/discover a lot of essential things (being taken out of our comfort zone) and to create support systems allowing us to survive and maybe thrive in the new environment.
The other top best feature was considered the ability to explore science without the worries usually associated with the next “independent investigator” stage. Personally, I came to fully appreciate this feature in hindsight. If I was to offer a piece of advice to current post-docs, I would say they should try to take full advantage of this opportunity to develop their scientific and professional independence, by exploring and learning as much as they can about “what comes next”, in the same time realizing and enjoying their freedom. This would likely enhance the overall feeling of happiness during the post-doc years. If you feel that you are not getting such opportunities, talk to your post-doctoral advisor. If you do not know how to talk to him/her, find some mentors who are willing to help you plan such conversations and advise about what you will need to know to be successful. Please take advantage of all the accomplished and nice people who indicated their willingness to coach or mentor within the My Lab Your Lab community. This is an extremely valuable commodity that you can tap into! If you are not member yet, please join us at www.MyLabYourLab.com (it is free!)
- Learning opportunity from a professional (e.g., new area of interest, writing grants), and personal point of view (exposed to different cultures, different ways of thinking, meeting interesting people) (28%)
- Being free of other worries (e.g., insure funding, politics), being able to explore and focus on experiments (28%)
- Opportunity to be creative and take risks with one’s science (17%)
- Being offered independence to do/implement own ideas (14%)
- Feeling that own opinion matters, feeling important (5.5%)
- Building a career, perfect time to network (5.5%)
- Being able to “buy some time” if unsure of future career direction (2%)
Summary “the worst of…”
And the worst thing about being a post-doc? By far the (in)famous low pay! There are many reasons for this, the reason I was given when I was a post-doc was that I was still in training, thus I could not expect to be paid a fully salary. While this is a valid argument, many have to not only work longer hours than many other professionals, but are fairly mature (after years of gaining a Ph.D.!) and have to make ends meet at home, sometimes as the sole bread winner. One argument that I did not like as a post-doc was being served: “I was paid less than that”. I remember how it felt hearing that so I try not to do the same. If I may offer sponsor’s of post-docs a piece of advice, please do NOT use this argument! Your current trainees are not responsible for your historic low pay, and this is not some sort of a pay-back thing. Instead acknowledge that you understand their “pain” and try to relive it as much as possible, maybe taking out your lab for a meal, bringing some small treats back from your international trips, etc.
Current and prospective post-docs, take heart, things are about to get a bit better: the post-doc stipend is planned to go up – not much but some (while the pay remains flat across the board for other positions). Interestingly, this has many already worried – especially the new independent investigators (the most recent ex-post docs!!), see the article in the latest issue of the Scientist, “More money, fewer post-docs”. http://bit.ly/djvPOa
The ‘lack of’, or what must have been even ‘negative mentorship’ were also cited. Some post-docs felt confused and uncertain about their work and future, and even more worrisome, some responses (although not many) indicated that post-docs had really felt stifled or literally ‘stepped over’. I would offer the same advice, remember that you are not alone, you can always find people who are willing to listen to and help you, whether it is with understanding the bigger picture, or even to strategize with you on potential immediate remedial solutions. REACH OUT to mentors who are not your direct supervisor (boss)! Frequently, people are not able to manage what could become a conflict of interest between mentoring you and what they perceive as their own professional success. I am convinced that training people on how to become successful is essential for own success, but not everybody believes in that.
- The typical low post-doc pay (25%)
- Being too busy, long hours (12.5%) The uncertainty regarding one’s future/career (12.5%)
- Not being respected (opinion does not count ,“abuse”) (12.5%)
- Poor mentoring, lack of team feeling (other post-docs) (12.5%)
- High pressure to produce papers, expectations too high (w/low pay) (9 %)
- Having a limited understanding of the bigger picture/reality (narrow science focus, not being able to see the result of your work, delusional about own future) (9%)
- Lack of control (over one’s science e.g., inability to apply for grants, “paying your dues over a long time”) (6%)
What say you?