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Fitting a Postdoc into a Non-Academic Path

As you come to the end of your PhD, if there’s no tenure-track job in sight, there is another P word that starts to get thrown around: postdoc.

A postdoc for many academics is the unquestioned next step. The springboard to an academic career (we’re told). It opens doors, lets you publish that brilliant first monograph, and gives you access to new people and referees. Right?

Ask the average postdoc, and you might be surprised to find that they’re not so sure. For many, a postdoc is what you take to keep you in limbo, to keep a foot in academia while waiting for the warm embrace of a tenure-track position that may never come.

Many of the postdocs I meet are stuck in a seemingly impossible situation, spend a few more years justifying the sunken costs in hopes of getting a permanent academic position, or jump out of academia and waste all that time and money.

Today I’m taking a look at postdocs. Are they worth it? What do the numbers say? (Spoiler–they mostly suck.) And is there ever a time when doing a postdoc makes sense?

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You can read my story about leaving academia in Doctoring: Building a Life With a PhD–Available on Amazon.

What is a Postdoc?

A postdoc is a position, usually research-based, taken up after a PhD. Postdocs allow for the continuation/completion of some element of PhD research or a new but related project. Postdocs can be held in academia, industry, government, etc. Another model of a postdoc that’s becoming more common is a “teaching postdoc,” where the focus is on developing your teaching rather than research.

1. Is a postdoc good for your career?

um… (*crickets*)

No, postdocs are not inherently good for your career, academic or otherwise (but especially otherwise).

Let’s talk academia first. There are some field differences here. A postdoc in many STEM fields is the norm for academic jobs. However, the hiring rates in academia, in case you haven’t noticed, are low–a recent Science survey found that only 28% of postdocs had a positive view of their career possibilities.

And the postdoc isn’t necessary for academic positions in all disciplines. In fact, in some cases it negatively affects your chances.

There was recent outrage among humanities grads when the American Historical Association discovered that the vast majority of new faculty hired was done through people who had finished their PhD the year before, with diminishing hires for each year after.

Karen Kelsky talked about this phenomenon in her book, The Professor is In, that hiring committees love the sexy, new PhD, while there’s an assumption that, if current postdocs were good enough to get tenure-track jobs, they would have by now.

Outside of academia, I know of no fields where a postdoc is a competitive advantage, short of a postdoc adding a new area of expertise, skill, or a network you didn’t already have (see below).

Sure they can be a bridge, but they are rarely necessary for non-academic success.

Check out this post on Three Bad Reasons to do a Post Doc!

2. How much do postdocs earn? And is it enough?

Apparently, the average postdoc salary in 2016 was $45,000. That’s not much money. Given the choice between working at Wendy’s or doing the postdoc, I suppose I’d take the latter. But still…

Data from Nature’s survey of STEM postdocs puts these a little higher, most make between $30,000-$80,000 yearly.

If you want to do a postdoc, take a clear look at the opportunity cost. There are high-paying postdocs at prestigious institutions that might be worth it. I would consider an $80,000 postdoc at Princeton, and work my ass off to network with alumni. Ditto Berkeley, and try to meet people in Silicon Valley.

I think this could be a really good way to launch a career.

But a postdoc that pays $40,000 a year in Idaho might, might (read probably will), cost you more than it gives you.

Although it’s intimidating to leave academe, working a job outside that pays $40,000 might mean that your next role pays 60k or 70k.

But if and when you finish your postdoc and don’t get a career in academe, you will still need to start to build a career outside.

My first non-academic job paid me over $70,000 a year, and I hit six figures in three years. And I’m a humanities major. If I had done a postdoc, I would be making less money right now. Make sure you know what that postdoc will cost you.

Cheeky Scientist wrote about this…

3. But my supervisor said I should!

Yah, tough call. Let’s question your supervisor’s advice for a moment. Does your supervisor know about non-academic jobs, or is a postdoc just their default? Have they ever worked outside of academia?

Or do they just not know what else you could do?

Or, which also happens, would your supervisor see you leaving academia as a personal failure on their part? There’s still a lot of stigma around non-academic careers.

Let’s be honest. That’s their crap, not yours. Your career shouldn’t suffer because they’re operating with an outdated view of where a PhD can fit.

Most supervisors mean well. They really do. But question their advice, and get second opinions. And start networking beyond academia (some tips here).

So when does a postdoc make sense?

Here are a couple of scenarios where a postdoc might make sense…

1. Using a postdoc to transition to non-academic work

This is the strategy that I have seen some people use effectively.

A postdoc can essentially be a waiting room, but it can also be a liminal space, a time of transition. Rather than having your postdoc just be more of the same, why not use it intentionally to transition, or at least to give yourself the option of transitioning, into industry?

I think the simplest way to do this is to set up your postdoc in a way that helps you make the leap from academia, if you choose to. For example, you can pick an organization that you might like to work for, and do a project that aligns with them in some way. See if you can forge relationships with them, and use the premise of a postdoc to effectively work your way into a job.

In Canada, we have an organization called Mitacs that actually funds industry postdocs. This means that you can choose your own adventure. Approach an organization that you would like to work for and a professor who might supervise a postdoc, pitch your project to both, and Mitacs will fund half of it. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and lets you step between two worlds.

But there are industry postdocs all over the place, you just need to look.

Building non-academic partnerships doesn’t only apply to STEM researchers. It’s possible even for those of us in social sciences and humanities.

If you study poverty, approach to non-profit or government entity to see if you can align a project they would be interested in. If you’re a historian, try to approach a local Museum or historical society. Be creative. If you’re going to do a postdoc, make sure that it gives you options.

There’s a piece here from Inside Higher Ed, that identifies different kinds of postdocs: academic, industry, government, teaching, etc.

IMPORTANT – I want to make clear that you often don’t NEED a postdoc to transition to industry (it’s common not to), so don’t tell yourself that lie. In many cases, it would be better to have a year or two of industry experience under your belt than a postdoc.

2. Using a postdoc to immigrate

One other place I think postdocs can be useful is to get your foot into a new market or country. I’ve met people who want to come to Canada, for example, and it’s really hard to get an employer to hire you from abroad. Getting a postdoc can mean immigration, and once you are in the place you want to be you can start working on building your network there.

Is a postdoc worth it?

As I drafted this article, I was thinking–almost never.

But I ran this Twitter poll, and found that there was a slight edge for the people who were glad they did it… This is a pretty small sample size, so make of it what you will, but at the very least NOT EVERYONE regrets their postdoc.

But for many of us, the postdoc is delaying the inevitable, which is the necessity of stepping beyond the academy.

And in the cases above, where a postdoc pays well, or facilitate your exit, or helps you move to a new city or country, I can see the logic. Australian postdocs used to make over $100,000, which is not a bad rate to go and live for a few years down under.

But I meet so many scared and desperate postdocs who move from position to position waiting for a job that never comes. If this is you, you owe it to yourself to at least strategically start opening up some non-academic possibilities, whether you use a postdoc to do it, or pull the bandaid off and start moving beyond the academy.

We have lots of advice for doing that in this blog. Wherever your journey takes you, good luck.

You can read my story about leaving academia in Doctoring: Building a Life With a PhD–Available on Amazon.

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