News Flash: Postdocs are a Screw Job

To people who have been involved with academic science recently (say, the past forty years), this will not come as a shock, but the National Academy has released a report concluding that, well, being a postdoc sucks. The report, released in December, was summarized by Science Careers:

The penetrating analysis in The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited comes all the way up to, but does not actually state, some inconvenient realities: For all but a small percentage of aspiring researchers, doing a postdoc at a university is a lousy idea because it will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance one’s career. If graduate students had accurate information about what lay ahead, many would—and should—choose not to become postdocs.

The traditional postdoc is a weird job. You typically work long hours for not enough pay in a semi-autonomous position where you have all of the responsibility, but for which much of the credit will ultimately go to your boss.

Which is to say, it is a lot like most other crappy jobs.

The thing that is so weird about postdocs, and much of academia, is that these are people who apparently have succeeded at the very highest levels. They studied hard, worked hard, became world-class experts in something. And yet they are getting paid a lot less than they would be had they taken a “regular” job.

It seems like a fundamentally untenable system, or at least one that is destined to drive the best and the brightest out of science careers. In fact, the only reason the system has not yet collapsed under the weight of its own iniquity is because of the immense capacity of people to delude themselves. The thing is, what makes it all worth it (in the mind of the delusional and underpaid postdoc) is that this is the honorable path, which will eventually lead to a coveted faculty position. But the fact is, this is the outcome for only a small minority of postdocs:

workforce infographic ASCB COMPASSimage via Talebearing

In a way, graduate students and postdocs are just like student athletes. They provide cheap labor that generates value for Universities. They are paid well below their actual worth, with two justifications: 1) they are receiving “training”, and 2) they will be rewarded later (with tenure / a professional career). The problem, of course, is that this training is of highly variable quality, and is often nonexistent for postdocs. And, as with athletes, most will not actually get that long-term payoff.

There is more and more recognition of the fact that not everyone goes on to get (or even wants) a tenure-track position. But this alone does not seem to be altering the structure of the system. Fundamentally, as long as there are enough people who are willing to put up with the current arrangement to fill the seats, there will be no real incentive to change. But there are definitely people who choose to opt out, and I worry about that.

Here’s the thing. Who is it who chooses to leave before or during a postdoc? Well, compared to the person who stays put, they are probably more self aware, better able to step back and see the big picture, better able to “think outside the box”, as they say in 1990s-era management seminars. In short, the person who looks at how postdocs work and says “screw this” is exactly the sort of person who is most likely to make a genuine contribution to science. Those who keep their heads down, don’t question the system, and carry on will certainly make great worker bees, and will competently design and perform the obvious next experiment. But will they really be the ones who give us genuine innovation and insight?

So, even if the current system is able to sustain itself for a while longer, it is already failing to do what we claim we want it to do: train and empower the brightest and most creative minds to make the next set of big discoveries.

(h/t Viviane Callier)

4 thoughts on “News Flash: Postdocs are a Screw Job

  1. Being a postdoc can be great IF you have enough funding, your advisor isn’t under the delusion you work for him or her, and you’re not worried about what comes next. If all those things, it’s the ideal academic condition, because you can do pretty much what you want, with no classes or exams to take or teach (unless you want to teach), no dissertation or tenure committee looking over your shoulder, and little pressure to get grants or even publish papers. My postdoc with Greg Wray at Duke was this way, and I had a good time, for the most part. I was also highly productive of ideas, work, and publications, which some might think unlikely but I consider a case in point of a general principle, namely that people tend to be more productive when they’re NOT under intense pressure to be productive. Unfortunately, most postdocs lack at least one of those big IFs, and accordingly, many postdocs are having terrible times. And even if you’re having a good time and being highly productive, the system won’t let you keep doing it. Like it or not, you’re “supposed” to become a professor. So I had to leave, having concluded being a professor is really not a very good gig these days – too much hassle, too little reward.

    • Absolutely. My personal postdoc experience was great as well, as I had enough funding and complete freedom.

      But, your case and mine are in the minority, I think.

      Plus, even though I think both of us felt reasonably compensated, I guarantee that we were being paid less than if we had abandoned academia for, say, consulting positions.

      • Oh, certainly. I was fairly well paid by postdoc standards – I had an NSF bioinformatics fellowship – but right now I make about twice as much as I did when I was a postdoc, and for shorter working hours too.

  2. Love being a post-doc but yes, starting my 3rd year of faculty position hunting and expectations are low. I’m starting to view the post-doc as a fun hobby with some decent pay but probably not going to really help me get a job.

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