What’s the purpose of a postdoc? That’s a fairly straightforward question—one which you’d think could be easily answered. Yet, when you ask a scientist, this seemingly simple query elicits multiple answers—many of which are quite vague. Some of the more common responses I’ve heard are: “To receive more training”; “To further develop as a scientist”; “To expand your horizons”.
While those reasons all sound nice, the reality is that most postdocs are in their 30s, and at a point in life where they need to start providing a real, sustainable income for themselves and/or their families. Furthermore, after all the support you’ve likely received from your family throughout your academic journey, you may not want to lean on your parents for more money (especially if they’re nearing retirement), nor add to your student-loan debt.
To complicate matters, reputable scientific sources publish articles that might leave you further conflicted, or downright cynical. ”The price of doing a postdoc”, “The fool’s gold of PhD employment data”, and “The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell” don’t exactly paint a picture that screams, “Yes, further academia is a good idea!” Yet, here you are, with your shiny PhD, working as a postdoc. So, how did you get here? And more importantly, what is the end gain?
Based on discussions with fellow postdocs, there are a few common reasons that scientists end up in this line of work. Frequently, becoming a postdoc is simply the next logical step—it’s just kind of what you do when you finish your PhD. For others, they couldn’t find a satisfactory job that meets their education level. For some, they know that a postdoc (or even multiple postdocs) are necessary to eventually run their own lab. We know, however, that there are far more PhD scientists than there are full-time professor positions. Collectively, these reasons are quite disturbing. Why would a group of highly educated people who are trained to think rationally enter into a profession so fraught with uncertainty?
While this is a rather broad topic to tackle—akin to most of the questions we ponder in the lab—deconstructing a large question into its smaller components is the best approach. What was it that first attracted you to science? Before you were concerned with salary, publications, tenure, grants, etc., what inspired you to become a scientist? I can recall listening with wonder as I first learned about the cell cycle, intricacies of DNA replication, and the simple yet beautiful orchestration of metabolic regulation.
It’s these formative experiences that plant the seeds for a lifetime of discovery. If, for just a moment, we can forget about the societal myth that a PhD entitles scientists to fortune and fame, I think we postdocs might realize that we have it pretty good. While many of the people we grew up with had to abandon their fantasies of becoming professional athletes, movie stars, or musicians, we are still pursuing our dreams. We are working as scientists, asking and answering questions—all with the safety net of a mentor to help us when things go wrong.
As I approach my mid-30s, I have a PhD, and I’m making enough money to scrape by with three kids and a stay-at-home wife/mom. Best of all, I’m still dreaming—and I’m glad my kids get to see that.
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