After completing your PhD, the main career paths within an academic setting are a post-doctoral research positions or other various teaching roles that still enable you to conduct research in some capacity. Post-docs are typically non-permanent and is a fancy way of saying ‘research that you do after completing your PhD’. A post-doc typically works within a larger research group or team under the guidance of a Primary or Chief Investigator (PI or CI for short). In other words, post-docs do some, if not all, of the heavy lifting and carrying of a particular research project from start to finish.
These roles are often faced with a bit more responsibility that typical research assistant positions have and enable you to move up one or a few pay grades within an academic setting – however, that’s about it. They aren’t necessarily more challenging than your PhD, especially as at this point you’ve mastered the art of working things out on your own and crushing research. The research projects are likely to be bigger than your PhD as they will have more working parts or involve more collaboration with a research team or possibly external research teams. But in real terms, you’re just doing what you did for your PhD just on a larger scale. Research.
Post-doc positions are often on a non-permanent basis and typically last from 1 year to 3 years depending on the amount of money that has been awarded to the PI to cover your salary. However, being based within a research team can almost guarantee full-time employment, as when that specific project’s pot of money runs out, a new grant is likely (although not guaranteed) to have been secured. In this instance, post-docs will just be moved onto a new project, under the same role and same pay scale. This is the ‘most obvious’ next step for all PhD students as this is something that is widely discussed within an academic setting. In fact, it’s very rare if not impossible for someone without a PhD to be awarded a post-doc position. These roles are specifically catered for a PhD student’s skill set with the intention to allow them to continue their training. Usually this is brought up by your peers, supervisors or other academics because, put frankly, it’s all they know. This creates a sort of echo chamber where everyone only talks about post-docs and that’s the only thing you hear about – meaning that this is the most familiar and informed option to take.
Reasons to take a post-doc position.
Before I start outlining why this isn’t a good idea – I’ll try and balance the argument with a few positives as to why you should do a post-doc. Firstly, if it is your dying ambition to become a member of faculty, professor, or obtain full-time tenure at a university, then you have almost no choiceas this is the preferred route to take. It is possible to obtain industry related research on your way to fulfil this ambition; however, you will need to complete a post-doc at some point as part of this journey. Secondly, if you love what you do. If you are researching a very niche subject area that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, then sure take a post-doc position. A post-doc position might be the only way for you to continue doing what you love, but as I’ve outlined in another post there are bound to be other things you will love and enjoy in this world that is not research. Lastly, it’s easy. Transitioning into a post-doc position is a comfortable transition to make, as you are already well acquainted with the academic world and most likely have good contacts to get you into a post-doc position.
Outside of these three points, I struggle to see any other reasons to do a post-doc. It can be argued that the pay is better than your PhD – which is true, but this is something you can obtain outside of academia, so this added benefit does not lie within the post-doc position, it lies with finishing your PhD, irrespective of what you do after.
Reasons to not take a post-doc position.
Okay, now the good stuff. Up to this point you’ve probably been completing your PhD and other academic accolades for a range of reasons, one of which being to increase your market value or employability. This is most certainly true, but a post-doc position is unlikely to give you much added value. A lot of companies also value on-the-job training or work experience as opposed to your academic record. By taking a post-doc role you’re stopping yourself from finding this skill, or even if you have that skill already – it’s a lot easier to communicate it to an employer if you’ve learnt it from a full-time role and not your PhD training programme. At this stage, you’re at the point of ‘diminishing returns’ for transferable skills, whereby every new research job provides a lower return of new skills that you can obtain. So small in fact that it’s highly unlikely to give you any added benefit.
In addition to this, the chances of you continuing onwards within a more senior academic position are relatively slim. On average, it takes 3-5 years of post-doc positions before landing a lectureship (i.e. being a lecturer) but is some instances this can take significantly longer depending on the institution, your publication record, and in some cases your teaching experience. Furthermore, these lectureships are not always permanent. So, to get here, you’re having to navigate multiple post-doc positions that aren’t necessarily stable and engage in teaching to simply land a job that is not stable. Of course, I try to air on the side of optimism as anyone can achieve this, but in real terms, it might take longer than 5 years and that’s a lot of time to be doing something that isn’t giving you new skills in the meantime. This is often why post-doc positions are a bit of a ‘revolving door’, you just end up staying in post-doc positions in an eternal cycle. My perspective is that if you were to invest 3-5 years into a different industry/career sector, you’re likely to obtain a better return on your investment (that investment being yourself and acquired skills).
Also, just because you have a PhD does not necessarily mean you will find a post-doc position in the same field. Ultimately, you are probably more likely to be grinding out research and publications on something that is completely irrelevant to your PhD. It is also a possibility then that you won’t even enjoy the research you’re doing in a post-doc role. Not only is this frustrating, but it can be extremely detrimental to your mental health. Imagine turning up to work every day, not gaining new skills, in a non-permanent job, that has only reasonable pay to research something that you don’t even care about or find interesting. That’s a recipe for disaster. Although it would be easier to get a post-doc position after your PhD, is it something you would find ‘easy’ once you’ve got it. This is a personal question I encourage you to consider.
The final reason to not take a post-doc position is time. If your intention is to not stay in academia, there is absolutely no reason to do a post-doc. Because if at some point you will make an active decision to leave academia, you want to put yourself in the best position possible by doing this sooner rather than later. As mentioned, you won’t be gaining many new skills in a post-doc position, so it’s likely to not improve your employability afterwards. This would be a year or more wasted in terms of your career progress. If you were to take a post-doc role, you would be older, which is likely to mean your personal circumstances would have changed meaning your desired salary will likely increase, you’ll be expecting more responsibility, or you may want different working conditions. This can limit your options at this stage. Put simply, you’ll be wanting more from your career and job but without any new skills to justify it. If you make the decision to leave academia as soon as you finish your PhD, any salary will be an improvement, because let’s face it, PhD salaries are horrendous – even if they’re funded, you’ll be younger, so you are likely to be more flexible with the working conditions, location, and pay scale. So, by the time you would have finished your post-doc, that would be the equivalent to having gained new skills from having worked in a new career. This makes you more employable at this stage when compared to if you had just decided to do a post-doc for a few years and then change career.
To summarise, there are some benefits of staying in academia and taking a post-doc. Especially if you need a job immediately, are deeply passionate about your research field (and nothing else), or have the ambition to be a professor or always be an ‘academic’. However, if none of these resonate with you, it is likely that leaving academia sooner rather than later and not pursing a post-doc position is your best option.
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