I have recently graduated from my PhD and am working in my first post-doctoral (post-doc) position.
Before I carry on with the rest of this post, I feel I should clarify that I love my job and I intend to stay in academic research!
However, to continue an academic research career beyond your PhD is very competitive and establishing yourself as a respectable, employable scientist can be incredibly taxing and stressful. But if it wasn’t difficult, then it wouldn’t be worth doing!! Right?!
(Me at graduation, pondering science – probably)
The major problem that many PhD students face when nearing the end of their project is that there are not as many post-doc jobs as there are post-docs. Of course, not every new PhD wants to stay in academia and they may leave of their own volition, but there are also those that have no choice but to put their academic careers on hold. A quick ‘Google’ brought up various diagrams and reports floating around the internet that place the percentage of PhD students who continue onto an academic post-doc position at around just 20%. From my own experience and that of my colleagues, this figure isn’t all that surprising, and is likely to be a result of a lack of funding/jobs available, stress and a desire for financial stability.
Following a PhD, there are three main avenues to a post-doc job, each with their own pros and cons;
- Your supervisor/someone they know has money to be able to pay you and keep you in their lab
Pros: You know the lab and the people, you will most likely be working on a project you are already involved in or know about
Cons: There may not be much money available, and may only extend to a couple of months work. On the other hand, if there is a constant stream of funding available you may up staying for several years and getting ‘stuck.’ It is increasingly expected that new researchers move around different labs and establish an international career (referred to as ‘mobility’, and remaining in the same lab as you completed your PhD for several more years can be viewed unfavourably.
- You apply for advertised post-doc positions in different labs and universities
Pros: You can move on from your PhD lab. If you didn’t enjoy the subject you were researching you have the opportunity to transfer your skills to a new research area. You experience a different lab, meet new people, make new connections, and enter a ready-set up project often with a clear job description and goals.
Cons: You may have only applied to positions in different research areas because there were no available jobs in your area of interest, and you don’t really want to move or change. This option is also made more difficult and stressful when post-docs have families (especially when considering jobs abroad).
- You apply for your own grants and funding to carry out the research you want to carry out
Pros: A first step towards independence! You outline the project you want to do, and if a panel of scientists decide it is worthy, the project (and hopefully your salary) is funded. It looks very good on your CV. Depending on the type of funding awarded, you may be able to choose where you work (as most labs will allow you to work there if you bring your own money!)
Cons: These are the most difficult positions to get, especially at the very beginning stages of an academic career. They are therefore very competitive and very demanding; there is often more responsibility involved as you have more control over your account, administration and organisation. There are several opportunities available for new post-docs, but the majority of grants are designed for more experienced researchers or whole lab groups.
So once you have your first post-doc, perhaps by one of these three avenues, everything is sorted, surely?
(Popularising women in science, FTW!)
Well, no, not really. The first few years following a PhD can be incredibly unstable – contracts can be as short as 6 months, and are rarely longer than 3 years, with many being around just 1-2 years long. After this period of time, there is no guarantee that more funding will be given to your lab to keep you, or that you can win your own funding to carry on your work, and the whole process starts again. It is this instability and lack of financial protection that causes many scientists to leave academia for more reliable jobs and careers.
I am currently working on a small grant I won to carry out a project I designed for my first post-doc position, which is in the same lab as I completed my PhD, but this contract ends in March, so the search for my next source of funding is beginning now (although it should probably have begun a few months ago!). I remain determined to stay in academia and to pursue my research interests, but it’s not going to be an easy fight!