Was will das Postdoc? (What does a postdoc want?)

Introduction.

A couple of months ago, an interesting article by Jennifer Rohn on Nature prompted an explosive discussion on the interweb about the career perspectives of  post doctoral researchers. Jennifer’s point in a nutshell was “we should give postdocs the chance to keep being postdocs forever and ever if they so wish” and was encountered by an overwhelming appraisal, at least judging by the comments in the original piece.

I, for one, would not really like to be a postdoc forever and after a, cough cough, probably excessive rant, I made my points clear on these pages. To say it all, my post was sparked by the surprise of seeing so many postdocs showing enthusiasm when facing the idea of being stuck in their limbo forever. Am I the only weird? Everyone claim their postdocs was the best time of their scientific experience, why didn’t I feel like that when it was my turn? Why do I enjoy so much more being completely independent instead? Part of the answer is, I am sure, that yes, I am weird indeed. The other part comes from the results obtained from the poll I then decided to put up in the successive weeks.

Methods.

The survey was conducted with great scientific rigour pretty much in random way. I put up a web page and asked for feedback on my blog post. Except for an initial round on facebook and so, I didn’t advertise it much on social sites myself, because I felt in that way I would have reached more easily people somehow close to my views and I would have somehow biased the sample. Instead I asked the participants to spread it around and gave them 4 weeks time to do so.

Results.

After about a month, I came back and found little more than 100 responses. The exact picture of the responses is available in the page here (I suggest you open the result page in a new window and scroll along as you ready my comments, figure by figure).

84% of respondents were either in life science or Physics. For some reason I think Physics is heavily represented and life science is probably under represented. This may be due to physicists being better at twitter.

For how long have you been a postdoc? Very nice skewed distribution. Apparently the median of a single postdoc experience in the USA is 2.2 years, which matches nicely what I got. I cannot help but cringe when looking at the first and last bar of the graph: those who don’t know what it’s going to happen to them and those who, also, don’t know what it’s going to happen to them but in a different way.

Most people are at their first postdoc. Some at second. Not much else to comment here.
67% of respondant want (or dream) to continue their career in academia. This matches exactly what found by the National Academy of Sciences in the USA. Dear God, I didn’t know I was so good at making survey!

First surprising result: only 6% has no clue of what to do with their life. I am sure if we were to ask PhD students a similar questions we would get a different picture. There are two possible explanations of why almost 70% of postdocs want to pursue a research in academia: the first one is that they really still love it, no matter what they go through; the second one is that they wasted invested so much time and effort and money and personal relationships in it, than they cannot admit to themselves that maybe it was the wrong choice. This latter, is exactly what the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance predicts. Namely,

inconsistency among beliefs and behaviors will cause an uncomfortable psychological tension. This will lead people to change their beliefs to fit their actual behavior, rather than the other way around, as popular wisdom may suggest.

So, we are all a bunch of stubborn delusional. Are we?

Where do you see your career progress? Here things get a bit more grey in colour. Suddenly 1/3 of respondents is not sure they’ll manage to land on an academic position and most seem to start growing doubts. This is particularly relevant if you think that most people are still in their <3 years of postdoc.

And now is where things get a bit more negative indeed.

Most people think they are not well informed about alternative career outside the academic path and only 10% of respondents seem not to have concerns. About 70% of folks are quite worried indeed.

Next two questions are about the environment in the lab: a shy majority thinks their PI doesn’t really care much about their career progression but it’s really not as bad as one may think.

Most postdocs, on the other hand, are experiencing a lot of freedom given that more than 60% seem to be experiencing complete or almost complete academic freedom.

Then, here comes the result that makes me think I am not so weird at all! 70% or so of respondents would be quite ready or ready to be an assistant professor starting next Monday! (OK let’s say Tuesday, given that Monday is bank holiday). This is astonishing considering, again, that most people have < 3 years of postdoctoral experience. I personally value experience in this job very very little and I keep saying that either you are ready from the start to be a scientist by yourself or you will never really be. From the start can be anything between 5 and 25 years of age.

Yet, I do realize that I may be a bit extreme in my view, given that in fact most people recognized their postdoc was in fact useful to prepare for the next step.

Now, next question is again an experiment in social psychology. Question is: do you feel more or less suited to being a researcher than your peers? Overwhelming majority thinks they are better than average, confirming yet again what scholars call Illusory Superiority. Those with Impostor Syndrome were probably all Darwin-ianly selected out during PhD.

Majority of respondents would not mind a job in research. Good to hear.

Then comes the question that started it all. Would you enjoy being a postdoc for life? Would you enjoy being an independent postdoc? Most people would rather be an Independent Postdoc (75%) than a Postdoc for life (42%). Ah! I knew it!

Finally, the last two question: people are quite divided on whether funding agencies should produce less postdoc but with higher salaries. In fact, only 42% thinks that would be right to do so. Awww, I am moved. What a socialistic altruistic bunch are postdocs! And, if that was not enough, an overwhelming majority think is a bad idea to be protectionist about the job and do not think that their country should make it difficult for foreign people to get a postdoc position. I am so proud of you guys!

Discussion.

First thing to notice is that I may have an alternative career in designing survey. Second thing, we confirmed at least two important theories of social psychology: too bad I am late to publish them. (Note: The Freudian title of this post is dedicated to my staggering successes in the field of psychology indeed).

Third: if you look into how to redistribute money, take into account what postdocs want. They are scientists and they want to be treated as such. In short: they think they are better than their peers, they want freedom and they don’t care that much about money after all. Their priority is to keep doing research whether in academia or industry whether independently  or as postdocs.

I gave my recipe of “what must change in Science and how” already, no need to repeat myself. Glad to see I wasn’t speaking only for myself!

 

16 Comments

  1. Reply
    Massimo Sandal 26 May 2011

     “First thing to notice is that I may have an alternative career in designing survey.”

    No you haven’t. As you have yourself noticed, your sample is horribly biased towards physicists: this is completely different from the actual distribution, where biomed are probably the vast majority. Results should at least be divided by discipline -things are not identical for physicists and for biologists (e.g. competition).

    ” 70% or so of respondents would be quite ready or ready to be an assistant professor starting next Monday! […] This is
    astonishing considering, again, that most people have < 3 years of
    postdoctoral experience."
    +
    " I personally value experience in this job very very little"
    =
    You're all a bunch of horribly deluded people.

    You've never been an assistant professor. You don't know what it means to be one. No, you can't predict it on the basis on your current job: you don't have the data. Same for being a fisherman, a commercial jet pilot or a cinema actor. You simply Do. Not. Know.
     
    It's kind of astonishing that people who should know the value of experience in the broad sense of "evidence" then blatantly ignore its value when we're talking of personal experience.

    When I was in academia, I myself thought that working in a company had to suck for many reasons, because that was my prejudice. Guess what? A month I'm here, and I was wrong. I experienced that. You didn't.

    "Then comes the question that started it all. Would you enjoy being a
    postdoc for life? Would you enjoy being an independent postdoc? Most people would rather be an Independent Postdoc (75%) than a Postdoc for life (42%). Ah! I knew it!"

    Then you haven't crossed this with 1)the amount of people who are worried about their career 2)the *general* inexperience of the sample 3)the *specific* lack of experience in "being a professor".
    That is:
    – We don't know how many people would like to be professors, rather than postdocs, *after having actually been one*
    – We don't know how many people would actually be *good* as professors, rather than *thinking they are*
    – Most importantly, the whole point is not that people could necessarily love being postdocs forever. Heh, despite all of this, me myself would *like* an independent position (despite not knowing at all if I want it/I'm good for it). What people want is a *third alternative* between leaving academia and the tenure track. But you seem to always dodge this.

    • Reply
      gg 26 May 2011

      >No you haven’t. As you have yourself noticed, your sample is horribly biased

      I am writing tongue in cheek, you silly geek!

      >When I was in academia, I myself thought that working in a company had to suck for many reasons, because that was my prejudice. Guess what? A month I’m here, and I was wrong. I experienced that. You didn’t

      I think you completely missed my point. I will write more about it in the future anyway. The point is that in certain jobs creativity matters more than experience and viceversa for other jobs. I happen to believe science falls in the former class.
      Don’t know why you say so but personally I don’t think working in a company would suck. Work environment depends a lot by what you’re doing and who are you working with. Doesn’t take genius to guess that.

      >We don’t know how many people would like to be professors, rather than postdocs, *after having actually been one* 

      True, but not relevant to this discussion.

      >We don’t know how many people would actually be *good* as professors, rather than *thinking they are*

      Same as above.

      >What people want is a *third alternative* between leaving academia and the tenure track

      The best I can do is try to collect data and let them speak by themselves.But you seem to always dodge this.

      • Reply
        Massimo Sandal 26 May 2011

        > I am writing tongue in cheek, you silly geek!

        And I was TIC too! But I pointed a very serious issue: Your statistics is horribly flawed and as such nearly useless (even if you get nice agreements of a couple median values).

        >The point is that in certain jobs creativity matters more than

        >experience and viceversa for other jobs. I happen to believe
        >science
        falls in the former class.

        I think there is no job whatsoever where experience doesn’t matter. This is true as much for painting as for doing science. Perhaps poetry is the only exception I know: usually late poetry books tend to suck more than the first, for a given author. Oh, and *maybe* somehow math.

        To think that experience doesn’t matter is a serious and widespread cultural problem, and probably comes from the fact that most scientists are young (again, due to structural issues) and as such cannot appreciate what proper experience and training means.

        >personally I don’t think working in a company would suck.

        Yes, but *I* personally thought so. And I was wrong. Guess what made me change my mind? Experience.

        > Work environment depends a lot by what you’re doing and
        >who are you working with. Doesn’t take genius to guess that.

        Yep. But how can you know what is your interaction with these things without having experienced that? That’s what relevant and that’s why asking people “what do you want to be 10 years from now” (or tomorrow) is utterly *useless*. They cannot know.

        >>We don’t know how many people would like to be professors,
        >>rather than postdocs, *after having actually been one*
        >True, but not relevant to this discussion.

        See above.

        > The best I can do is try to collect data and let them speak
        >by themselves.But you seem to always dodge this.

        You’re being disingenous. You do not “let them speak by themselves”. You first put forward an introduction towards you own personal view of science career, then you collect a (small and eye-wateringly biased) sample and go forward with stuff like “Most people would rather be an Independent Postdoc (75%) than a Postdoc for life (42%). Ah! I knew it!” – failing completely to recognize that it’s not only a matter of what people *like* to do but what people *can* do in the current system and what kind of *compromises* or *alternatives* can be put into place (where the “permanent postdoc” is an example of one).

        This post could really be used in a class to show how bad statistics and misrepresentation of other people’s opinions can be merged for bad policy making. It’s appalling.

        • Reply
          Giorgio Gilestro 27 May 2011

          I am more than sure this statistics is flawed but  the only way to judge how much it is, it’s comparing part of it to bigger numbers or more significative samples. Do that, then come back to claim it’s horrible having some meat to support your rant. Till then, take it as it is.

          Also, you had no idea of what it means working in an industry not because you had no experience but because you never really considered it a real option and suddenly you jumped. 

          I considered working outside academia at a certain point and I tried to make my mind about it: you can meet peoploe, talk, go for dinner and ask’em what is their feeling and so on. 

          Finally, again: I should leave this to another future post but I think 4 components make a scientist: creativity, organisation, experience and stamina. This is the order of importance I give to them. Is it clearer now? I accept you may have a different opinion and live with it.

        • Reply
          Giorgio Gilestro 27 May 2011

          I am more than sure this statistics is flawed but  the only way to judge how much it is, it’s comparing part of it to bigger numbers or more significative samples. Do that, then come back to claim it’s horrible having some meat to support your rant. Till then, take it as it is.

          Also, you had no idea of what it means working in an industry not because you had no experience but because you never really considered it a real option and suddenly you jumped. 

          I considered working outside academia at a certain point and I tried to make my mind about it: you can meet peoploe, talk, go for dinner and ask’em what is their feeling and so on. 

          Finally, again: I should leave this to another future post but I think 4 components make a scientist: creativity, organisation, experience and stamina. This is the order of importance I give to them. Is it clearer now? I accept you may have a different opinion and live with it.

          • Massimo Sandal 27 May 2011

            >I am more than sure this statistics is flawed
            >but  the only way to judge
            how much it is, it’s
            >comparing part of it to bigger numbers or
            >more
            significative samples

            Did you always answer “You can’t say my work sucks unless you redo it yourself” to your supervisors?
            Little wonder you’ve had a hard time with them.

            You acknowledge your sample has a problem. It’s seriously flawed (no way there are more physics postdocs than biomed ones -I’m trying to get numbers on that now). Conclusions may not be flawed, but they can’t be trusted.

            >you had no idea of what it means working in
            >an industry not because you
            had no
            >experience but because you never really
            >considered it a real
            option
            […]
            >you can meet peoploe, talk, go for dinner and
            >ask’em what is their feeling and so on.

            This is total nonsense. What you can have this way is an *educated guess*, not *knowledge*. Different people perceive and value different aspects in different ways. Maybe there’s something nobody cares about that is essential for you, and viceversa. The only way to *know* how your nervous system reacts to a situation is to put that nervous system in that situation.

            >I should leave this to another future post but
            >I think 4 components make
            a scientist:
            >creativity, organisation, experience and
            >stamina. This is
            the order of importance I
            >give to them. Is it clearer now?

            It’s no more or less clear than before; I just think it’s simply *wrong* (stamina last? Lol, that’s probably going to be first).

            Anyway, again, the real problem of all this is that your stat isn’t helping anything to understand the situation.

            Let me explain. We’re basically in a nuanced equivalent of:
            “Now you have a job you more or less like. In 5 years, either you are the lucky one who wins a huge lottery or you end up being a homeless.”

            Then you ask people “Would you prefer winning the lottery or continuing your own job?” – Of course a lot of people will tell you that will prefer winning the lottery. But you didn’t even touch the real issue: that there is a lottery to win, and that most of them will eventually end up to be homeless, no matter what they want.

  2. Reply
    nihil 27 May 2011

    While I appretiate your time and effort
    to assess the difficulties and perspectives, postdocs in Life
    Sciences and other disciplines are facing, I am concerned about the
    way you do it. I think it is needless to say that your survey is
    totally pointless and you should have better given some more thought
    on this matter. I just hope that you have not presented these numbers
    elsewhere. This is certainly an anti-climax in the current discussion
    about ‘postdoctoral matters’.

    If I had posted the same survey on my
    webpage, the results would have been totally different. So what
    should this be? Probably just a personal reflection of a very narrow
    minded view of what research and science is.

    Let me elaborate on this:

    1.) You have never ever worked in an
    industry setting and moreover you have probably never gained any
    first- hand insight into why governments are funding academic
    research in Life Sciences better than many other disciplines. Most
    of your comments in your blog are simply a naive glorification of
    ‘academic research’. The reason you push your flies from A to B is
    the collective hope that further down the line your results and
    those of countless other labs are useful to what you call industry
    research.

    2.) I have moved from academic to
    industry research several years ago giving up a professor position.
    As this was a very easy, excellent and interesting move for me, I am
    ever since truly shocked by the nescience of postocs, PhD students
    and joung group leaders about industry research. It seems to me as
    if the current generation of young scientists is pursuing a career
    path in a lemming- like fashion, that their old mentors advertised.
    The problems is that the times have changed and holding a faculty
    position in most Universities is for the most part only a self-
    retrenchment; somtimes even a self destruction. Hence, if you would
    send your little survey to industry postdocs, you would find that
    nobody wants back to where they came from. Totally opposite to what
    you state!

    3.) With all that fight for funding,
    positive evaluations and publishing high, academic research, in my
    opinion, is nowadays less flexible then industry based research. I
    have more scientific freedom in the comany than I had at my old
    University! You can not even imagine how it feels if the absurdity
    of ‘impact factor driven research’ falls off your sholders!

    So please: Inform yourself and gain
    experience outside academia if you really want to contribute to this
    discussion. And for the next survey you conduct, please include an
    equivalent amount of industry postdocs.

    • Reply
      gg 27 May 2011

      Nihil, first thing: cool down and read the post again if you think you need to. There is no need to be “concerned” about what I do, because my influence on the matter is not *that* high.
      My life goal is not to solve the postdoc problem and all I do is offering some food for thoughts on my blog.
      Also, no, I haven’t published this anywhere else, it didn’t even cross my mind.

      I don’t know why you articulate three points about the differences between academia and industry when I barely ever mention the word “industry” here. I simply say that most respondents would accept a job in industry and I am happy about it. Nowhere I state that industry postdocs would want to go back to academia, do I? 

      Also I happen to know what it means working in industry, as I married a person who does work there. There are aspects of that job that I like and aspects I don’t but, that is better discussed in another post given that this one is not really about this topic.

      Finally, I didn’t “include” any postdoc in this survey. These are mostly people I never met who stumbled upon the poll and gave their opinion. 

      That said, I agree that career paths are very conservative and that most people feel like following their supervisor steps just because they think it’s the only or best option. This is also seen here in one of the questions, by the way. 

      Maybe it’s industry’s fault. Maybe industry itself should make a step forward and inform more people about how beautiful it is to work for them? Try to attract and recruit the best people out there? Maybe industry postdocs and PI should have blogs about what is like to work there? (since we are at it, why most scientific blogs are authored by people working in academia? Do you have an opinion about it?) 
      I know managing consulting agencies make a great effort to go and pick bright minds coming out from good universities, never heard of big pharma doing the same. How come?

      • Reply
        Massimo Sandal 27 May 2011

        >Nihil, first thing: cool down and read the post again if you
        >think you need to. There is no need to be “concerned” about
        >what I do,
        because my influence on the matter is not *that*
        >high.

        Speaking for myself, I *am* concerned because this is a small world and this stuff can easily go round the globe (I’ve seen that happening with me, you know that). Spinning bad data and worse conclusion on such a delicate matter *is* serious.

        >Also I happen to know what it means working in industry, as
        >I married a person who does work there.

        Sorry, no, you don’t. Buzz Aldrin may have been to the moon, but I’m sure that his wife doesn’t know at all what it’s like to have been on the moon. She has a better picture than us probably, but she doesn’t *know* that. Please wrap your head around that, because you’re starting to sound very silly. Second-hand reports are *not* equivalent to first-hand experience.

        • Reply
          Anonymous 27 May 2011

          That’s fine, I’ll take the responsibility of changing the world if you think this may happen. I’ve got big shoulders.

          Also, today I learned: working in a company is like walking on the Moon. You do really live in your world Massimo, you’ll never change.

        • Reply
          Giorgio Gilestro 27 May 2011

          That’s fine, I’ll take the responsibility of changing the world if you think this may happen. I’ve got big shoulders.Also, today I learned: working in a company is like walking on the Moon. You do really live in your world Massimo, you’ll never change.

          • Massimo Sandal 27 May 2011

             Sorry, but here everyone is telling you that you live in your own world -and you’re blatantly refusing to acknowledge that. You think you “know” how is it to do stuff you’ve never done in your life, just because your wife does that.

            Specifically, working in a company or going on the Moon are equivalent in the sense that both are experiences your brain is immersed in, and both are experiences you can’t know what they look like until you actually *do* them. Yep, we have more third-party data on the company thing (there is no Dilbert strip equivalent for the moon), but apart from that, where is the *actual* difference? You can substitute the Moon or the company with “driving a car” , “having a baby”, “divorcing” “living in the Easter Island” , “eating sushi” : if you’ve never done that, you do not know. I am honestly worried about the fact I have to explain such platitudes to a neuroscientist.

            So, no, your sample doesn’t know what’s actually best for them until they tried (they can, again, have pretty good educated guesses at best, and horribly wrong expectations at worst). Neither you do.

    • Reply
      Massimo Sandal 27 May 2011

      >I have more scientific freedom in the comany than I had at my old
      >University! You can not even imagine how it feels if the absurdity
      >of ‘impact factor driven research’ falls off your sholders!

      In my case I probably have less freedom (I’m not doing scientific research, I develop in a software company) but the constrains make much more sense. I don’t have to second-guess reviewers and grant agencies: If it works and it follows a few reasonable specs, it’s good.

      In any case, I think academic freedom is an illusion nowadays, in general -at least in many fields.

  3. Reply
    nihil 31 May 2011

    What a nice little discussion! Excellent! Thanks for reading
    my post and for the reply.

    I can only repeat myself: I really appreciate people in
    academia and industry who think about the future development of this profession.
    In the end people working in this area (no matter in which setting) want to
    develop themselves, be creative and make a contribution to gaining knowledge;
    but also want a certain level of job security and a fair perspective from early
    career stages onwards. So thinking about how to cope with job- bottlenecks and
    so forth is certainly a good thing.

    I am only questioning you approach, GG. I do think that
    poorly designed or even ‘joke’ surveys and personal- view biased
    interpretations can do quite some damage. Maybe not this one, but there are
    certainly a lot of similar ‘surveys’ out there that do encourage young people
    to choose certain career paths or not. We should take this matter very serious
    and only conduct surveys with the highest level of stringency; usually a
    prerequisite and necessity anyway, I would say. Bad designed surveys usually
    also have quite a bad impact on the people who initially developed them; think
    about it.

    The whole ‘survey’ and your comments somehow remind me about
    a former Professor of mine who had the bizarre view that you can apply
    different levels of stringency in your research depending on where you submit
    your story. While I do think that this is a very common view in academia, I
    also think that this and similar views are in part responsible for the
    increasing disappointment of industry with results of academic research. We do
    not need joke papers, nor do we need joke surveys!

    My message is clear: If your are seriously concerned about
    career perspectives in Life Sciences and you want to do something about it, do
    it properly. Do not go on as previous generations abusing young scientists, but
    offer them the chance for more permanent contracts, let them be corresponding
    or last author if they lead the project, give them the opportunity to gain
    experience in industry and other areas and so forth and help them to overcome
    the high impact publication absurdity but instead get them excited about what
    you are interested… There are simply too many people out there who, once they
    are ‘independent’, just talk hot air and swim with the system they condemned
    when they were postdocs themselves.

    And most importantly: Get insight into industry research
    yourself. After reading your comments I do think that you have never worked
    there and you seem to have absolutely no idea of how research works there. For
    the most part you’ll be surprised how much more stringent and efficient
    industry research is and that the values, you respect in academic research, are
    operational in ALL research driven institutions.

    One last thing: I also fear that you do not know how
    companies recruit people. While for most jobs in research we do get many, many,
    many more applications then we can possibly handle, we do fill important key
    positions by recruiting specifically from universities or other companies.
    People with multiple degrees (who are of central importance to bridge
    operations between departments) are usually directly hired from some of our
    partner universities (this is also the way how I switched sides;). “Lower”
    positions in research (lab heads, research Investigators,…) are mainly
    recruited from people who got their PhD or postdoc already in industry. It is
    certainly getting increasingly difficult for postdocs in academia to secure the
    few very good jobs in industry research. After all they are educated in a very
    narrow sense of “little bits” (a little bit of molecular biology, a little bit
    of genetics, a little bit of programming and so forth) which makes it hard for
    them to compete with industry PhDs. But that last thing might just be true for
    the place where I worked at (maybe there are postdocs and PhD students in
    academia who are really educated and not just hired for a specific set of
    questions and experiments).

     

    Anyway,

    Have a good one!

  4. Reply
    Andrea Giammanco 2 June 2011

    A-hem, I suppose that the large number of physicists is my fault 🙂
    I have to twitter, but I posted your survey on an internal mailing list of the CMS collaboration at LHC, dedicated to job offers. This collaboration has 3800 members worldwide, and that mailing list is, obviously, mostly read by post-docs.
    Sorry for having biased your data. Anyway, I second Massimo’s suggestion to divide the data by field. Although you obviously have insufficient statistics for Chemistry, Mathematics, etc., you might provide meaningful distributions for Physics and Life Sciences, and I would find very instructive to see the differences, despite the unavoidable biases of these very special samples (life scientists who are your personal acquaintances, and physicists in the very special environment of big experimental collaborations.)

    • Reply
      Andrea Giammanco 2 June 2011

      > I have to twitter

      Typo. I meant I have NO twitter.

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