The Postdoc Trap: Why You Shouldn't Become a Scientist

Being a junior scientist initially seems like a fantastic gig, until you realise you are in the postdoc trap.
Being a junior scientist initially seems like a fantastic gig, until you realise you are in the postdoc trap. | Source

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.

Examining chromosomes might seem worthy of dedicating your life to, but eventually the need to have a normal life with a mortgage and a pension will start to re-assert itself.
Examining chromosomes might seem worthy of dedicating your life to, but eventually the need to have a normal life with a mortgage and a pension will start to re-assert itself. | Source

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 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."

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Comments 42 comments

Amadaun profile image

Amadaun 3 years ago

This was exactly the reasons I changed my major from astrophysics to digital art. I realized that as much as I loved the subject, there was no way I'd enjoy the scientific environment.

(Also: Best. Videos. Ever.)

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America

I had to rate this Hub up and all checked across the board AND shared.

In my field, just from MS to PhD was 10 years of doing research for a professor for at least 40 hours a week (sometimes 60) at the pay of less than $800/month stipend as a research assistant. There were no classes, just the research. I could not have mentally tolerated a postdoc on top of that. CrAZy...

Fantastic Hub and the GaGa parody is one of the best I've ever seen.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks very much. I think conditions are a bit better for PhD students and postdocs now, at least superficially, but the main problems remain.

Tbh the Lady Gaga parody was the main reason for writing this hub, I really wanted to use it.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks Amadaun, you were certainly wiser than I was. I've stuck it out for over 15 years, purely due to bloody mindedness. When it was finally over I surprised myself by being relieved rather than depressed.

CarlySullens profile image

CarlySullens 3 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

This is so interesting. It think most of us all know a postdoc. I liked the article very much and learned a lot. Is that you in the top photo with the glasses on?

MarieAlana1 profile image

MarieAlana1 3 years ago from Ohio

This is very interesting. I know several postdocs. I guess they don't get paid as much as I thought.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks Carly. No the ginger in the top photo was our technician a few years back. I think I took the picture, so I am probably hidden behind the flash reflection in the window!

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

In the UK at least the salaries have gone up a bit, for postdocs working at Universities. But most of the positions are still dead end, after a certain time people are considered "too expensive" to hire. At positions in Institutes funded by one of the major research councils the salaries are still dreadful. Apparently appeals to the government to allow for an increase were met with "you have no problems filling the positions so everything must be fine".

gmmurgirl profile image

gmmurgirl 3 years ago from Pilipinas

Hi aa lite! Thanks for sharing this information and the issues/concerns faced by postdocs Very enlightening and comprehensive. :)

MasculistFeminist profile image

MasculistFeminist 3 years ago from Australia

Yep this was exactly why I turned down a PhD, stopped working in science and made a career change into business. Ultimately wanting a normal and balanced life with reasonable job security, was more important than looking at glowing plants through a microscope for hours on end.

drpennypincher profile image

drpennypincher 3 years ago from Iowa, USA

Nice article. I think few students entering Ph.D. programs really understand how difficult it is to become a professor or principal investigator. Since much scientific research is government funded, getting grants could get harder if budget cuts occur.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Well you were obviously much wiser than I was. But really, if people stopped falling for this, and all of a sudden they had problems recruiting good postdocs, I bet you all these supposedly impossibly difficult problems would be solved. There might be fewer PhD students and postdocs, but they actually might work more efficiently if they're not spending half of their time in a lab looking for the next job.

Thanks for commenting.

SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 3 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

Thanks for writing the truth, and keeping it funny. (And the videos are awesome.) The only problem is that the pattern is the same in any professional field of endeavor. Psychology & the humanities function the same way. Lawyers do the same to their paralegals, and CPAs to their accounting staff. "Leveraging" poorly paid trained talent is universal, in the corporate world, in academe, in publishing, and just about everywhere else.

Let's keep perspective so we can laugh about it as we find our way.

CarlySullens profile image

CarlySullens 3 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

CoNgRaTuLaTiOnS! On HOTD! Innovative Ink Rocks!

ytsenoh profile image

ytsenoh 3 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

Very interesting. The video was unique and funny and I have to say I agree with Sid. I'm degreed and work in a law firm. I'm not an attorney, but I work my you know what off.

truthfornow profile image

truthfornow 3 years ago from New Orleans, LA

Interesting. Had no idea that there were so many challenges to a scientific career. Chemistry was too hard for me and so I became an English major, which was pretty useless. Very funny. The videos are great.

oscar86 profile image

oscar86 3 years ago from Canada

Haha it was an interesting article. I enjoyed the Hitler video :P

But being a scientist seems hard :s Never been a huge science guy myself and kind of happy after reading about the troubles of one.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

@SidKemp & ytsenoh Thanks for reading and enjoying the videos.

I agree that a lot of the professions exploit the junior workers but I don't think they are as dependent on fixed term contract work. I think in accountancy there are more "intermediate" positions. In science you get 3 years in a lab, then you have to find another lab and so on. Eventually you are considered too old and there is no place for you in science. This happens to most graduates.

In medicine, junior doctors might have it very tough, but they know if they can get through that they will eventually get a good job. I don't think most people who train in medicine or law end up finding out that there is no place for them in their chosen profession.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Yep, I agree about the PhD students, but I don't think it would make much difference even if they were told. And the cuts to grants are very worrying. Another thing that I really dislike is the way so much emphasis is now put on "translational research" rather than curiosity driven. Everybody is scrambling around to make their interests fit a fashionable disease. Most of it is rubbish, but since everybody does it, you can't not do it when you are writing a grant, because it will guarantee that you don't get it.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks very much Carly. I feel quite spoilt by HP.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America

Congratulaations on HOTD! It's even better when I read it the second time.

Darinder profile image

Darinder 3 years ago from Bellingham, WA / Vancouver, BC

Great work, I knew someone like that when I was an undergrad, he was postdoc, when I graduated, he was still there. Albeit with an M.Phil and a Ph.D. in hand. When I caught up with him years later, guess what? Yup, he was still there.

Billie Kelpin profile image

Billie Kelpin 3 years ago from Newport Beach

Ah, but there's nothing like walking on a campus in Springtime; visualizing the glow on your mother's face when she brags about you at bookclub; and doing the Ulysses' striving-seeking- and-not-yielding- thing. Great hub, adorable video, important information.

DreamerMeg profile image

DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

Yes, I see it happening around me! unfortunately. :(

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks truthfornow. Yep a lot of the "non-vocational" degrees have serious negatives when you consider getting a job after graduation. Some of it I think is really just down to supply and demand. But it is quite sad. When I was young I really resisted thinking in practical ways about the future. I knew what I wanted to do and I thought it was important to do it, rather then compromise.

Now I really wish I wasn't so naively idealistic, and yet....I think it will be a sad world if everybody just does the expedient thing, do we really want to end up being a bunch of automatons just living so we can pay the mortgage?

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks oscar. Both videos were trending in the "scientific community", which sadly contains most of my friends a few years ago. There is a whole bunch of Hitler videos on youtube on a variety of topics. This one was definitely written by somebody who experienced the nightmare of peer review first hand, which makes it so good.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks very much Patty! Your enthusiastic feedback the first time round motivated me to have another look at it and improve the writing somewhat which is why it probably reads better.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks Darinder, it is actually really difficult to leave, even if you are unhappy with the situation. After you've invested so much, you really don't want to do the sensible thing and cut your losses. So I'm not surprised.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thank you very much Billie. You are so right. There are so many beautiful things about being in academia that attract you at the beginning. My mother was very proud a while ago, but now she constantly wailing about "my situation".

Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 3 years ago from Northern California

Hi aa lite,

Good job! Voted up and interesting.

Now here's my long, stooopid comment. Somewhere there's got to be a really excellent book, entitled: So You Want to be a Scientist and to Lead a Normal Life? It's modeled after the masterpiece: What Color is your Parachute?

It includes detailed info about which scientific disciplines are the most marketable outside of Academia. For example, my academic background is in analytical chemistry. Earth Day in 1970 was a pivotal event for people in my field. Since then, environmental researchers of all kinds want to know the levels of various pollutants in air, water, and food, down to the nearest ppb.

The book also describes a step-by-step guide on how to how land a decent job in your field of choice.

And your outstanding hub is the first chapter of that book. Oops, I guess this means that the book does not exist yet. No worries! I nominate you to write the rest of the book.

bulama2 profile image

bulama2 3 years ago

Great Hub and videos. Congratulations on HOTD. After I got my science degree. I really thought it was a waste of time and effort. I still do today (10 years later). I came to the conclusion that a post doc. or a degree is not really necessary. My partner has only a higher certificate in a trade job and earns several times more than me.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks Larry,

Excellent idea about the book, but I'm rather busy with my semi-autobiographical novel of failed postdoc kidnapped by telepathic aliens who appear as spiders :) Once that is done I will consider a factual account.

DreamerMeg profile image

DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

Only semi-autobiographical? LOL

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

He he, well I have to make it sound realistic, if I told the story as it happened exactly, people would think it was too strange.

StellaSee profile image

StellaSee 3 years ago from California

Hi aa, I love the Lady Gaga parody! ahaha. Anyway, this is THE reason why I'm hesitant to pursue a PhD..I would hate it when after spending all this time obtaining a degree that I graduate unable to find stable employment. But I guess it all depends on what you want out of your life. I'm still figuring it out ;) Thanks for writing such an informative hub and congratulations!

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America

I had to read this one again and it's still great! Pinned it this time as well.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks StellaSee. About doing a does depend what subject you do it in, I suppose. Also some people do a PhD and then move into a science related job, but not research, and can do very well.

Also some people succeed and eventually get their own lab and a fairly stable position. However, the stress doesn't end there. Lab heads now spend most of their time writing grants as opposed to doing research.

It's a case of following your dreams, knowing that the chances are rather slim that it will all work out, or doing the sensible thing and choosing something more reasonable.

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

Thanks Patty! That's very kind of you.

LeanMan profile image

LeanMan 3 years ago from At the Gemba

Needing a new person for my department in a large 1000+ person company a few years back I asked the HR dept to do a quick search through the rank and file personnel to find if there was anyone possibly qualified who could be promoted.

They turned up an individual with more qualifications than I had ever seen including a PHD in I think Astrophysics. He was driving a forklift truck in the stores!

I interviewed him but he was happy with his new career as no one bothered him and he got to contemplate what ever he wanted in relative peace!

aa lite profile image

aa lite 3 years ago from London Author

That is a lovely story.

One classic that I'd heard was of somebody leaving science to become a plumber, apparently he got talking to a plumber who was doing some work in his house, comparing working conditions and rewards, and the conversation convinced him he needed to change careers.

Kelsey Farrell profile image

Kelsey Farrell 17 months ago from Orange County, CA

Wow--I'll definitely be sending this on to my husband (who is a PhD candidate in neuroscience). I especially love the point about Watson and Crick, too true that they wouldn't have been credited with that discovery this day and age. My husband is about a year out from finishing school and hopes to get a job in industry and avoid the dreaded post-doc, but who knows. Fingers crossed I suppose!

Who cares? The postdoc slave 13 days ago

Yes, it is true. I would never again work for a large scale facility as a postdoc. Exploited like hell. While I have to work 2/3 of my time for users and maintenance of the instrument, I spend maybe 1/3 of my own research. But now, with a contract ended, I am judged like a postdoc from uni. Can you tell me how to publish high impact first author paper when I have to waste 2/3s of my time at the large scale facility?

End of story: I am exhausted, depressed, sick, jobless. Relationship destroyed. Welcome to the word of large scale postdoc slaves.

Somtimes I wonder what is left of me. What a waste of time to work for such facilities. Stay away if you are clever.

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