Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Being a Post-doc

After completing a PhD, most people who wish to stay in academia end up doing one or more post-doctoral positions. Experience as a post-doc is a prerequisite for a career in scientific research, as it is during your post-doc career that you get exposure to ideas and techniques outside of your PhD, and work with a wider range of people than you did during your PhD. The chances of going into a permanent academic position, without doing at least one post-doc, are very slim (most people who manage to do this tend to wind up in the same department they did their PhD in). I've done three post-docs, at Lincoln University in New Zealand, at the University of Sydney, and the University of Adelaide, both of which are in Australia.

So, what's it like being a post-doctoral fellow?

Basically, it sucks. Most post-docs are for two or three years. This term is fixed as the position is usually tied to a particular research grant, which is itself of fixed duration. This means that even if you do extremely well in your research, there is no guarantee of further employment after the contract ends. This means that as a post-doc, you will probably be changing jobs and cities every two years. If you're young and single, that's not entirely a bad thing: travelling and living in different places broadens your mind, can build a wide network of friendships and helps you appreciate different ways of life. Things get harder if you are a couple, as your partner also needs to find work in your new home. If you have even one child, it's a nightmare: you need to find a new school, your child faces the awful wrench of leaving their friends behind, if they're in after-school activities they need to be organised all over again, and if they have even minor health issues, finding adequate care for them can be very challenging. The stress that this can place on your relationship is enormous. In short, being a post-doc is a young (single) person's game.

If your post-doc is tied to a grant, then you will be working on someone else's project. In other words, you'll be working on something that is interesting to someone else (the grant holder). This also means that the outputs you produce (that is, papers) will be of benefit primarily to the grant holder rather than you.

While you should concentrate on doing the work you are paid to do, if you want to move up the academic ladder, then you also need to demonstrate the ability to do independent research. So, in addition to working a full-time job, you're also working part-time on your own research programme.

On top of the above are the dangers of any workplace: while most post-doc supervisors are good and kind people, they get their positions by being good researchers (or occasionally good politicians), not good managers. In the worst case, you might end up working for a narcissistic sociopath. Doing a post-doc with the wrong supervisor (or supervisors) can make your life a living hell. Sociopaths can be pretty hard to spot, too.

My experience is that it can take six months or more to find a new position, which means that shortly after starting a post-doc, you need to start looking for another. If your career is a chess game, then you need to start getting your pieces into place sooner rather than later.

To sum up, being a post-doctoral fellow means a semi-itinerant life of uncertainty and upheaval, serving the research needs of others, while also planning a future career that might not happen.

Was it all worth it for me? While there are many things I would do differently if I had the chance to do it all again, I don't want to live my life in regret: the things in my life, the good and the bad, the joy and the hurt, have all made me the person I am. But I do regret the hurt it has caused my family. Being a post-doc is hard on everyone if you have a family. It's not all bad news, though, and in a future post I'll be discussing ways in which you can make your post-doc career successful.