Postdoc poll: It was all unicorns and glitter, right?

Jun 24 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The postdoc might be the most controversial position in science. I think this is largely because the spectrum of what passes as "postdoc training" is enormous and the most variable of any career point. I've talked about postdocs before, oh wait.....

Ahhhh, that's better. Needed my postdoc discussion pants.

In any case, sometimes a post comes along that reminds me how different the postdoc experience can be from one field to the next. But one anecdotal observation is that the postdoc experience in the biomed-type fields seems to be very heavy in disgruntledocs compared with other sciences where postdoc training is an almost certain stage of one's career.

Perhaps this is just a numbers thing and all fields have a certain percentage of people who dislike their postdoc position, but given the sheer amount of biomed postdocs, they are a more vocal group. Could be. There are certainly PIs who do a terrible job of "training" in every discipline.

So today's poll is an effort to put some numbers to the question, "Are there more dissatisfied postdocs in bimed game than other fields or is this perception just an observer bias?" Now, I realize that a poll on a blog is its own observational bias and people can be "dissatisfied" for hundreds of reasons, but this is the venue and audience I have.

Apologies for excluding readers who have yet to, never did or never will do a postdoc. I have allowed multiple answers for those of you who did more than one postdoc.

17 responses so far

  • studyzone says:

    I selected "disliked" for a basic (life) science postdoc because "enjoyed" was too strong a term (but "dislike" isn't quite right, either). I think I feel disillusioned by the postdoc experience, more than anything. When I decided to enter grad school, doing a postdoc was not a necessity at many PUIs, my target job, and I was told that with my ample high school teaching experience, I'd be a shoo-in at most places (oh, how naive I was). A lot has changed in the decade since then - for one, postdoc-ing is absolutely required (except for some visiting/adjunct positions). So I dutifully went off to do a postdoc. I am in a fellowship program for postdocs wanting to combine teaching and research, and at the beginning, it was all unicorns and rainbows because 100% of postdocs in this fellowship have gotten the job they wanted! After round 1 of the job search, I'm finding that even for liberal-arts colleges that have little in the way of faculty research, they put far greater weight on my research than on my teaching experience (diminishing the value of the fellowship program, since 9 months are spent out of the lab, teaching). I have a supportive postdoc mentor, and a potentially cool up-and-coming model system, but I've lost my mojo for research, and for the past few months, have begun to regret my decision to get a Ph.D. With a dismal job market forecast for my target area, I'm growing pessimistic that I'll ever get to start the career I've spent 10+ years training for.

  • docdoc says:

    My best answer is ambivalent. Some of the research is interesting. I'm working in a very different lab than the one I trained in, that has been more challenging that I realized. Training? I'm pretty much out on my own. I may have picked the wrong postdoc. But it was either this position or no job.

    I share the pessimism regarding the job market. I feel like I spent 10+ years working for a chance to enter a lottery. The main result is that I am becoming ok, even happy about, the idea of leaving altogether.

  • Did a postdoc in the applied sciences (mostly genomic work). I enjoyed it, and only stayed at it for ~18 months before landing my permanent position. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much (it was so short).

  • Ink says:

    Please don't tell me that post-docs are NOT about unicorns and glitter.

    Everyone needs MORE unicorns and glitter.

    And cowbell.

  • Heavy says:

    I had two postdocs in evolution/genetics and enjoyed both tremendously. Each experience was instrumental in my success. Both advisors were hands-off but there when I needed them and had large enough labs where I could go to others for advice.

  • Postdocs are unofficially required in my subfield of biomedical science, even for SLAC positions, whether they are going to provide appropriate additional training or not. If you end up getting the kind of job you want after 3+ years of being overworked, underpaid, and subject to the whims of your advisor and institution, it was probably worth it. I did - I was lucky. But I've seen plenty of people, good people, toil along for 6+ years and still never get to where they hoped they were going. That's when it's easy to get disgruntled about the pyramid scheme aspects of the system and the neither-fish-nor-fowl drawbacks of the postdoc position.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Everyone needs MORE unicorns and glitter.

    This is why I negotiated for our lab's safety shower to pour glitter, no water. Now people are happy even when chemicals are burning their skin.

  • While my own experiences have been relatively good, my involvement with the posdoc association has put me in contact with a lot of the issues with surrounding the postdoc. Some are just whinny bastards who need to grow up, but an awful lot more quite rightly disgruntled.

    My biggest issue with postdoc “training” is that postdocs do not need training in research. What they need is more experience, and the postdoc does provide that in most cases. However, the postdoc is open to abuse and sadly some postdocs are treated as glorified technicians and not given the opportunity to publish or develop as independent researchers. Most PIs I think do care for their mentees futures, but department should step in when PIs are using postdocs as generic data-generators and not allowing them to work on their own first-author publications.

    Basically the postdoc should be treated as a junior scientist, trained, qualified, but inexperienced, much like junior PI’s are treated. The job of the postdoc is primarily to generate data, and this extended period at the bench is a necessary and important part of a career in academia. However, a postdoc should already be trained in a number of techniques and competent enough to take the initiative in learning new ones.

    In many cases a PI will specifically hire a postdoc who can bring a new technique to the lab that the PI has no experience in. As such a postdoc should be treated like a valuable employee and not a PhD student.

    What many postdocs do need training in, and which they receive very little of, is how to run a lab, write grants, and supervise and mentor students. Having said that, anyone who is PI material should be taking the initiative and taking note of what their PI does all day. Although research should be their primarily role, I think postdocs should be permitted to mentor, perhaps teach, be involved in grant writing and reviewing, learn about the requirements of a tenured position, and encouraged to start thinking beyond their own project.

    I also think many are happier in a postdoc-like position, just doing and publishing research, but without all the hassle and administrative duties of the tenure-track. Therefore I think the postdoc should be a permanent career option for those who don’t want to be either an industry technician or professor.

  • I conducted a survey of postdocs at my previous institution and found the same issues were prevalent across all the bioscientists.

  • NatC says:

    I'm having a great biomed post-doc, but don't be jealous, there are three things about this: (1) I was lucky with a position that opened at the right time. (2) I had a rough couple of years in grad school before switching labs so I was extremely vigilant about what type of post-doc mentor and lab I wanted. (3) I was lucky that things with my advisor worked out so well, both in terms of research, our relationship, and with the way my mentor selects people to join the lab.
    It's STILL not all unicorns and glitter, and I am ready to move on (I don't expect that to be all unicorns and glitter either).

  • I *loved* my postdoc in biomedical science! But then again I went in knowing that I didn't want to be a PI, so many of the usual stresses were significantly reduced.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm a little shocked that over 75% of the vote so far enjoyed their postdoc experience. Where are the throngs of disgruntledocs?

  • Ink says:

    Ooooh, shiny chemical burns. Very glamorous, PLS.

  • Namnezia says:

    I have to say I loved being a postdoc too. When else do you get to play in a well-stocked lab, without much worry about grants or other job obligations? When else do you get to just explore and learn a new field? By that point you have acquired some scientific skills from grad school that allow you to design good experiments, you are provided with the resources and time to do them, you work in relative independence, and learn a shitload in the process.

    I think the key is working in a lab where the PI is not psychotic.

  • I wouldn’t say I love my postdoc because I really don’t love the tedium or frustration of bench-work (I knew this from gradschool). The parts I loved were designing experiments, analyzing data, mentoring students, and writing up papers (which is why I choose to do a postdoc). However, I went in knowing I needed to do a lot of hands-on experiments. I was also very proactive in making the experience what I wanted it to be.

    “I think the key is working in a lab where the PI is not psychotic”.

    Unfortunately there is no one policing PIs as far as postdocs are concerned. I have learnt that contracts are important to order to prevent a PI demanding you spend your entire time helping finishing other people’s papers rather than working on your own project.

    As a postdoc you should be largely independent, which means you really are not a trainee. Neither does introducing a “career development plan” and talking about it every six months make you a trainee. That was always my biggest peeve – the lowly status the university gave the postdoc and how it allowed the position to be abused.

  • ecogeofemme says:

    I'm really enjoying my postdoc in the ecogeosciences. I think it's kind of an unusual situation, though, because I'm in a very small lab in a very collaborative, non-university environment. And I don't do much bench work. It's perfect.

  • I really threw off your poll because my disgruntledoc vote was balanced by my happydoc vote-two postdocs, two very different experiences.

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