Thursday, November 09, 2006

Life as a post doc: Is it really that bad?

As I said yesterday, I want to get back to this topic. Since then Propter Doc has written an excellent post about this article "climbing the UK academic ladder" from "Chemistry World" and called for opinions on the "perfect postdoc". It is clear that many post docs feels trapped in dead-end, low pay and insecure jobs, but is that really the truth for everyone, or do we only hear about the worst case scenario?

Maybe it is particularly bad for the lab post docs. It is not my impression that we have nearly this level of complaints in my own field. But what do I know, maybe I don't know the really miserable people. Academic positions in my field are scarce - to say the least. Some of us hope to land one some day, but it is not a given, and many have decided to take other routes long ago. Good for us, there is a healthy job market for my profession in the industry. Many PhDs in my field never planned to do anything else than get a good research position in the industry. Sometimes people take a semi-industrial post doc and heads into the same or a competing company afterwards. Others stays in academia for as long as possible hanging on to the hope of a future faculty position and many of us will be disappointed. However, my point is, that the number of PhDs and even post docs are not supposed to match the number of faculty positions. Anyone believing so are fooling themselves. There are other walks of life that value a PhD and research experience and a faculty position is not the holy grail for everyone.

That being said, I still think a post doc position should prepare one for academia as well as other professional settings. Different people have different opinions but as I said in a comment over at PropterDoc I think a post doc should be used to gain experience not only in ones particular research field but also with a range of soft skills, which will be useful in any job.

So where am I heading with all this? I think I have one of the better post docs available, and I think it is important sometimes to recognize and write about what is good and what is working for others to see what could be different.

I am hired to work on one particular research project with four years of funding. My contract runs for the duration of the project. It is a large collaborative research project with four PI's at four different institutions, each responsible for subsections of the final goal. Since I am not in a lab science we are not as strictly organized regarding members/employees as it often seems to be the case there. I belong in one department with a department head who is not the PI. Only three other people in the department are involved in the project at the moment (the PI, the department head - but for his scientific contribution and one more colleague in a permanent position). I am the only one of us who is so far only involved in one of the departments projects. Most people are involved in several projects - with a new combination of people in each project. Some are PI's in one project and participants in others; others are only participants in a number of projects, but might have been PI's on former projects or have proposals in now. My closest collaborators are the PI and colleague with a permanent position who is not the department head (we will call her CoolFemaleColleague from now on).

My specialty requires a lot of field work and often in remote regions in the far north. Our first field season in the new project was this summer when PI, CoolFemaleColleague, GeniousForeignCollaborator and I travelled to an undisclosed place in the woods in the northern hemisphere for five weeks. Before going away, we spent a lot of time planning the field season, sorting out the logistics, getting vaccinations, buying equipment, ordering visa's and tickets and of course discussing our scientific ideas. During this phase everybody involved did their fair share of things and nothing was particularly handed to me because I was the post doc.
We also spent time last winter/ spring on meetings with the big research group for the entire project and travelled to meet with people we want to establish contacts with for the purpose of the project. Again, everybody did their part of the work, and nobody gained more credit than the others.

During spring we also worked on a grant proposal. Again a collaborative effort with colleagues from other institutions heading subsections of the proposal. Five people from my department are involved in this (PI, who also happens to be PI for this one, CoolFemaleColleague, Me and two other people with permanent positions). Our part of the proposal relies heavily on an idea PI and I have been nurturing over some years (since before I became a post doc with him). I consider myself personally involved but also recognized in the proposal. The proposal has since then come through and the grant will start running from next year. I will work on this this project alongside with the one I was originally hired for.

Since we came back from the field I have been away for this temporary associate professor-gig and I haven't had much time to devote to research with all the course planning and teaching, so things have been a bit slow. We have had a couple of project meetings (PI, CoolFemaleColleague and I), been away for a conference and submitted a couple of abstracts with some of our results from this summer. I have been involved in setting up a database and finding a couple of promising Master's students to-be who can join us next year in the field.

I have only written one manuscript this year and it is based on some previous research. This is something that is not really related to what I do no or what my current research group is doing, but I see a link between the two sub fields and a way for me to grow in that direction. My colleagues seem to acknowledge that this might someday be useful for them too, and my ideas in the new grant are sort of a first step in that direction. I have more ideas for papers pointing in the same direction and PI is aware of that. Next year we will probably also start publishing something from the new project. I expect to have first authorship on the papers that are pointing most in my interdisciplinary direction and be co-author on papers taking the more traditional but equally useful angle of my collaborators.

I know, I am truly blessed with a good work environment. I am also in a country where the labour rights allow even post docs a decent salary. But many of the good sides to my work place doesn't cost much, if anything in money, only in attitude. What I do not understand is why it cannot be better in so many places.

What do you think? Are you exploited by a cruel PI or are you having the time of your life? Are you sick of temporary contracts and overseas moves or are you excited about new opportunities and new colleagues? Is it as bad as they say, or are you satisfied with your options?



At 8:41 PM, Anonymous Propter Doc said...

You know what, sometimes it is that bad, other times I wouldn't change it for anything. Sometimes I think I am screwing up my career, sometimes I think I'm doing the best thing I can be. And I can't make up my mind which it is. Perhaps this is something other postdocs can identify with!

At 11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think most of us who are postdocs are working in labs. The vast majority of the complaints you are hearing are probably from us biomedical science postdocs. Those of us who are married to staying in academia (i.e. Ms. PhD) are probably the most miserable. However, for us it is not simply a matter of "finding another job that values a PhD". Industry jobs are hard to come by (not as bad as academia, but still tough to find a job). So, we feel like we are stuck in a temporary, training position that gives us little respect, prestige, and pay. The truth is, we have no one to blame but ourselves, nobody held a gun to our heads and said "get your PhD."

I do feel that a lot of the pain that is felt by postdocs is self-inflicted. Many of us (again typified by Ms. PhD)are perfectionists and martyrs, who feel we have to work 90-hour work weeks to get ahead. Thus the complaint that "we work so hard, why are we paid so little and given so little recognition?" When in reality, one can be just as productive in much less time if one chooses to.


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