80% gruntled

Jun 27 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last week I posted a poll in an attempt to get a feel for whether or not postdocs were more likely to be disgruntled in the biomed world than in other sciences and I was a little surprised by the response. Based on the general volume of the disgruntlesphere I would have predicted that the number of dissatisfied postdocs was relatively high, but the poll suggests that may not be true. After 165 votes, 80% responded that they are enjoying/did enjoy their postdoc experience and those numbers were pretty consistent across all disciplines.

Given the variability in postdoc mentors, the current funding climate and job market, 20% of people being dissatisfied by their postdoc experience is probably lower than the percentage of people generally dissatisfied by their job. Of course, the poll was open to anyone who has been a postdoc and one could argue that the majority of current faculty respondents likely had good postdoc experiences, which then landed them a job. Therefore, the results could be skewed in the positive direction based on the audience and those polled.

Nevertheless, I'm glad that an enjoyable postdoc position is not an outlier because I truly view that time as a valuable experience. I know that I wouldn't have been nearly as effective as a scientist, teacher or manager if I had started a TT position right out of grad school. I gained an incredible amount of perspective as a postdoc, without which I don't think I would have been very successful.

So for today, I would be interested in what others are gaining or have gained out of their postdoc experience and whether you think the time has been a positive or negative career influence.

17 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:


    No. 1 preparation was the milieu of grant-funded science, the pace, etc. It was only the tip of the iceberg but it was critical.

    No. 2 was additional oportunity to GetShitDone. More of the same? Perhaps but repetition helps.

    No. 3 was a change of subfields and the start of social integration into it. Would I have gotten here eventually? Well perhaps but it worked out through postdoc'ing so that gets credit

  • Respi Sci says:

    2 post-docs in biomed and both were overall positive.

    Positive #1: went to labs with much more \(\) than my PhD lab. It was an absolute thrill to be able to order reagents when I wanted and to get more work done faster without the constant worry of budget constraints.

    Positive #2: complete change of culture. Went to research facilities which were very different from my PhD lab. Exposure to interesting colleagues and topics, excellent seminar series, saw new ways of doing things (from experimental techniques to how to run lab meetings). Broadened my view and outlook tremendously.

    From my post docs, my mastery of various techniques and dabbling in a variety of research topics were responsible for getting me my first job. However, I am continually striving to learn new things and to improve. As of this moment, I feel that I have learned more about science, research and management in the past 2-3 yrs in my current position than I did in both post-docs.

  • docdoc says:

    Positive influence on my development as a scientist. Unclear the influence on my career.

    -The main negative is that, for various reasons, I haven't published. I've done a lot of work. Have a lot of data. Have a lot of drafts, some in review. No pubs.

    -Positives. New lab is a lot different than my old lab. So I've learned a bit about different models of doing science. I have learned a completely new method that greatly improves my work. I've done A LOT of writing and gotten much better at it. I've greatly increased my knowledge of the field. Learned a little about creating a research program, as opposed to just a study or two.

  • rs says:

    Although, I did vote for positive experience as a bio-med post-doc, I think I would have been equally effective as a TT professor without that experiance as well. True, I get a chance to work on a different sub-field, but as a TT faculty, I would have looked for these opportunities anyway. So I am not sure what is the point of your post. Yes, I did have positive experience, but no, I don't think post-doc position are absolutely essential for an individual. Are you trying to justify this low-pay very unstable career stage?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Are you trying to justify this low-pay very unstable career stage?

    This is exactly what I am trying to do. How did you see that so quickly?

  • I didn't respond to your poll because there wasn't a slot for "what's the point?"
    I'm not tied to a lab, but post docs are normal in my field, so here I am. Actually, I think there are people high up in the university's administration who are asking the same question....

    I'd say on the whole this is a wash. I guess it's nice getting to work with graduate students without being responsible for them, or to be at a university without having full faculty obligations. But assuming that a university wouldn't hire me unless they had other people sharing interests similar to my own, the extra money and stability of TT would be a plus.

  • Dr. O says:

    I needed my postdoc to do what I'm doing. Grad school was a chance to learn how to think about science/research, while my postdoc has given me the opportunity and protected time to develop a project that I'm passionate about.

  • My postdoc did mostly positive things for my career:

    1. Met Postdoc Mentor who introduced me to New'N'Shiny Subfield as well as Big Wig Collaborators with whom I now collaborate myself.

    2. Got to learn how to write grants.

    3. Doing a postdoc in the US meant that I was more competitive for US TT jobs (one of which I subsequently got) and a US postdoc and TT job will make me ubercompetitive for jobs in my home country if/when I ever choose to return there.

    Really only one negative:

    In the land far, far away, postdoctoral training is almost non-existent due to the nature of the grad school experience there. Therefore, I essentially spent 4 years longer than my grad school peers doing additional training rather than skipping straight to the TT and lost a chunk of money in earnings compared to what they were getting when I was a postdoc.

  • My postdoc was at a National Lab. I was paid much better than an academic postdoc would be (heck, better than many TT noobs to be honest), but the money was less important than the excellent environment for getting things done.

    The most important things I got were more experience in research and some time as the resident expert in my technique (which I brought to my new group--this was a huge confidence boost). I was not ready (or even interested) in a TT position when I started my postdoc.

    I also learned three REALLY important specific things that helped me out later in my career:

    1. Got a feel for when a project is ready for publication. This is something I never got in my PhD, since I wrote up mostly after I was done with experiments (a philosophy I do not share with my PhD mentor).

    2. Changed subfields AND met many big players in my new field at conference, seminars at National Lab, and project review meetings (a DoD thing). I also learned how to overcome my introverted tendencies a bit, though this is an ongoing process.

    3. Got my feet wet with grant writing. Even the limited exposure I had was a huge help later on.

    I ended up staying on as a staff member at the National Lab where I did my postdoc, which is a bit of an unusual situation. I restricted these comments to things I did as a postdoc, not stuff I learned on staff (which prepared me even more for the TT).

  • Namnezia says:

    There's no way I could be doing what I'm doing now without having done a postdoc.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Agreed. I would not be doing what I am doing with my postdoc experience.

  • Tideliar says:

    My postdoc experiences probably balance out to mostly neutral. First one ,albeit brief, was horrific and left me second guessing everything about myself as a scientist.

    Second one was just badly managed by PI and me. I should have taken more control, but I caved thanks to lack of spine from postdoc 1. This however, lets me know that I likely wouldn't have succeeded on the TT if I had chosen to go that route anyway.

    As it was, I decided to leave the bench and spent a lot of extra time and effort making myself marketable in a non-lab environment. I did my lab work and put in my hours, and in addition I wrote and read and joined, well, formed our PDA, networked etc.

    It paid off and I now have a great job that i love in administration. I could not have got here without my postdoc experience for two reasons:

    1. It was the crucible of the postdoc that let me know I couldn't handle it at that level. I think. I fear.

    2. The additional years of training have proven invaluable thanks to a far more developed and nuanced understanding of the process of science and the life of the Academy.

    Did I mew mew about money and long hours: no. WTF, if you're that fucking naive when you start your postdoc that you don't realize what you're getting into financially and commitment-wise, then get the fuck out of the lab, you're clearly too short-sighted for this gig.

  • A postdoc is all about gaining valuable experience and developing into an independent researcher ready and able to lead a group (in industry or academia). I doubt anyone is truly ready to head a lab straight out of grad school.

    My only gripe with the postdoc is this training façade and the lowly status it insinuates. A postdoc new to the lab should require less training and supervision than a technician. Furthermore, a postdoc should able to learn new techniques in the same manner as PIs – by reading papers, seeking out lab mates or departmental peers familiar with the technique etc.,

    Postdocs should be respected as junior scientists and treated like the valuable employees they are, and not fed this “training” bullshit which leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

    I also think it is a shame that the postdoc is not a long-term career option for those who like benchwork and the scope to publish, but have no aspirations of leading a group. Research professors are essentially senior postdocs, but such positions are rarer than tenure-track ones.

    A postdoc in theory provides be a good opportunity to move fields (within reason). However, most PIs want someone who has already published in that area or knows many of the techniques. It seems few PIs actually want to train a postdoc!

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    You've assumed that all who come to your blog are a true and unbiased sample of all postdocs. But my guess is that those who visit your site are mostly sold on the koolaid. Now if you were to have asked this question at YFS blog the results might have been skewed in the opposite direction.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Dr. G - I wish you could appreciate the irony of complaining about this “training” bullshit and then lamenting the fact that you don't think PIs want to train postdocs. Just because postdocs are not being trained in the same way as grad students doesn't mean they are not being trained. By the time you get out of a PhD, you have the research skills, but you need training in the broad-picture stuff, communicating your science to different audiences (particularly in proposals) and managing - if your goal is to stay in academia. If you are willing to act like a grad student with a "junior scientist" badge as a postdoc, it is going to be harder to make the transition to running a lab.

    Girlpostdoc - If by "You've assumed", you mean "specifically acknowledged the probability of a positively biased audience in this post, and to a lesser extent, the original post" then yes, that is what I did.

  • Prof-like – you are confusing training with gaining experience. What you gain from the postdoc experience largely depends what you make of it – if you just want to do research that is fine and no one is going to bother you or insist they train you to be more. As a new PI no doubt you learnt a lot, but despite the title “assistant professor” you are not considered a trainee.

    My point is a trainee is TAUGHT specific skills, where as a postdoc acquires them through experience.

    I did consider training in another field, but quickly learnt that there are few postdoc positions that actually do this!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Dr. G - I couldn't disagree more with your "gaining by experience" position. I go out of my way to get postdocs involved in aspects of career development that I either don't do, or do on a very limited basis, with graduate students. I send postdocs to workshops critical to both their developing research and mentoring skills. This idea that a postdoc can just work in the lab and passively obtain the type of knowledge one needs to succeed in academia (if that is one's goal) is ridiculous.

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