The Postdoc Trap: Why You Shouldn't Become a Scientist
The Postdoc Trap aka as The Pit of Despair
So you want to be a scientist? You love finding out how the universe works, science subjects were your favourite at school, and you loved playing with your chemistry set/ microscope/ telescope as a kid. You are very smart, hard working and you think you’ve got what it takes to dedicate your life to unraveling the mysteries of nature. Don’t do it!
No matter how good you are, chances are very high you will fall into the postdoc trap.
Many people will advise you against a career in scientific research, or in academia in general. The arguments they will use, that after spending 4-7 years doing a PhD you will end up with a relatively low paid, stressful position, don't dissuaded you, you've dreamed of being a scientist since childhood.
But these arguments miss the most important point. You know that endpoint your parents are warning you against, the relatively low paying tenured position at a university or a research institute? For most PhD students today, that endpoint will never happen. Instead they will find themselves doing one postdoc position after another, until they are deemed "too old" and will graduate to the status of a failed scientist.
What is a Postdoc and Why is it So Bad?
So what is this terrible "postdoc" status? The word is short for "postdoctoral" and describes a researcher, after obtaining a PhD, who does not yet run his or her own lab, but works under a mentor. The most common characteristic of a postdoc is that the positions are temporary, in the life sciences they usually last 3 years.
Decades ago, doing a postdoc might have been an attractive option. After obtaining a PhD it offered the chance to spend some time in an established lab, learn new techniques and concentrate on research unencumbered by teaching responsibilities. This would be followed by a permanent position at a university.
It is fascinating to think that Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA when the former was a postdoc and the latter a PhD student. Nowadays, the discovery would have been primarily credited to the head of the lab (the Principal Investigator).
But in the 1970s funding for science increased dramatically. However the number of laboratories and lectureships didn't grow proportionally. Universities now produce way more PhDs than are needed to replace scientists who retire, leaving people on a never-ending stream of badly paid fixed term contracts.
An obvious solution might seem to be to limit the number of people doing PhDs. However science has become completely dependent on the cheap labour of students and postdocs. A Principal Investigator often does not do experiments. They oversee, lecture, and most importantly, write lots of grants. It is the postdoctoral scientists who carry out most of the work in the lab.
A Typical PhD Student Experience......Then it Gets Worse
A Holding Pattern of Repeat Postdoc Positions
At the end of their degrees, the new minted Doctors of Philosophy go on to do a temporary postdoc position. When their funding runs out, they can try to get their own lab and a tenure-track lectureship.
There are many more postdocs than there are openings. So the majority of postdocs start a second postdoc. Often this means moving to another city, or country, and another lab. They can't keep working on the same project, they have to start from scratch. This often involves a few months when they are not very efficient as they get to grips with new techniques and new ideas.
Some junior scientists will leave science at this point, and get a "real" job. Others go on to do a second and third postdoc despite all the disadvantages, trapped by the dream that eventually they might get a secure position.
What Can You Do To Avoid The Postdoc Trap? Not Much
Many people disregard the warnings about how difficult it is to achieve something by imagining that they will work super hard and they will be in the minority who succeed. But consider this:
- You might be very smart. So are the majority of your competitors (although admittedly having a PhD is no barrier to astonishing idiocy)
- The majority of people in science work very hard. Way beyond what they are 'supposed' to be doing. Weekends or nights spent in the lab will hardly give you an edge.
- Science is very unpredictable. You are going into the unknown, trying to discover new things. Whether things will work out brilliantly or end in abject failure is as much a matter of luck as of ability.
This unpredictability is a major factor of why the lack of a coherent career structure in science is so unfair. It is not a Darwinian system of natural selection where only the best survive. Rather it is like playing a lottery. A project can go smoothly and produce significant results, getting you the all important paper in a short-named journal (Nature, Cell or Science). Or you can work like mad solving one technical problem after another and end up being published in The Norht-Eastern Journal For 'I Ran All These Gels So I Might As Well Publish Somewhere' Manuscripts.
The best advice I can think of, to improve your chances of eventually getting that tenure-track job is to pay particular attention to the lab you choose to do your PhD and postdocs in. Most people who succeed in escaping the fixed term contract trap work in labs of distinguished scientists. This will increase your chances of getting that all important publication in a high impact journal, and your famous PI will have an extensive network of connections that can smooth your way.
Of course working for one of the 'silverbacks' has its own challenges. You will probably be part of a huge lab, with 20 postdocs rather than the usual 2-3. You might hardly ever see your boss, who will be busy jetting around the world, presenting data at conferences. Some of these big labs are run like research assemby lines, with each person assigned a small part of a project, and nobody really 'owning' the work.
However, it is possible to find famous scientists who are also great mentors. Working for one during your postdoc years will greatly improve your chances at getting your own lab.
Publish or Perish...Or Is It Publish and Perish?
'Publish or perish' is not just a cute phrase, your publications are the most important factor in determining your future in science. However, not all papers are equal. Increasingly your publications don't matter very much unless they are in prestigious high impact journals. Having a first author paper in Cell or Nature counts more than 5 papers in a 'specialised' journal.
The competition of getting your work into one of the 'important' journals is crazy. Editors there generally reject 90-95% of the submissions out of hand. Sometimes that is a mercy, since if the manuscript goes to peer review you will most probably encounter the dreaded reviewer comment of "as it stands the manuscript is not suitable, but if these additional experiments can be done, we might consider it again". What follows then is another year's worth of work.
This trend started with the best publications, but has spread to ones with a lower impact factor. Now it takes almost as long go get a manuscript accepted, as it does to produce the data in the first place. As with many of the things in science, something that started as a simple means of communicating to other scientists one's discoveries, and sharing results has taken on a life of its own and is now being played as a game in its own right.
If you are interested in finding out more about how the imperative to publish in the most prestigious journals is distorting science, check out an eminent embryologist's thoughts on the mismeasurement of science Note that although Peter Lawrence wrote this in 2007, nothing has changed since then.
I Have Been in Many Meetings Like This!
Is Anything Getting Done About This?
The problems of the career structure in science (or rather lack thereof) is nothing new. People have been writing about this for years, with warnings that if nothing is done "the best and the brightest" will choose other careers. There have been some changes, to give postdocs more rights as employees, in the UK through E.U law (the fixed term work directive), and in the US through the efforts of the National Postdoctoral Association.
But the major problem of the huge overproduction of PhDs remains. In the Salon.com piece I linked to above, the author asks an NIH (the major federal funder for research in the US) about it. The answer is "Science has become addicted to cheap labor.....It’s a great system for the senior scientists to have all these slaves working for them."