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Three bad reasons to do a postdoc

Lucy feels a wave of relief rush over her. She just passed her Ph.D. defense; her long journey in grad school is finally over. She’s not sure where her path will take her next, but she’s not worrying about that for now.

As she and Thomas, her adviser, walk away from the exam room, he excitedly says, “Linsey told me she has an open postdoc position in her lab.” Linsey had served as the external examiner during Lucy’s defense, and she was impressed by Lucy’s research and knowledge. “She thinks it would be a good fit for you.”

“I am not sure if I want to do a postdoc,” Lucy responds meekly.

“What’s the matter with you?” Thomas says playfully, thinking that Lucy is joking. After all, Lindsey is at the top of Thomas’s private list of “Young Scientists Most Likely to Win the Nobel Prize.” And she is a fantastic person: smart, humble, respectful—someone who would be a great mentor.

An awkward silence follows. “You need a postdoc to become a professor,” Thomas blurts out.

“I know. But I don’t want to become a professor.”

“But you would make an excellent prof!”

“I don’t like teaching, Thomas. Students would run away crying if I tried to teach them the basics of biochemistry. And I can’t imagine sitting at a desk writing one grant proposal after another. I am a better fit for industry.”

Thomas sighs, knowing that it is impossible to argue that professorships hardly involve teaching and grant writing. So, he switches gears and makes a new argument: “Even if you don’t become a prof, getting work experience in Linsey’s lab will be great for your resume.”

“Really?”

“If you ask me, you would be crazy not to take it,” Thomas says before opening the door to the building’s indoor garden, where Lucy’s colleagues had already gathered for a postdefense celebration.

“Congratulations!” they all say at once.

“How was it?” Mark—a Ph.D. student—asks. Lucy surveys the group. Some of her peers, she suspects, are looking for a juicy story. Others are probably hoping to hear that the big exam they still have to pass isn’t as scary as they’d imagined.

She replies theatrically, “Oh, it was miserable!”

“Really?” Mark asks with eyes as large as Ping-Pong balls.

“No, it wasn’t. Nerve-wracking, yes. But after a few minutes, it was clear that they just wanted to have a constructive conversation about my science. It was fun! And, I only have minor corrections to do. They’ll take me less than a week.”

“She did a great job,” declares Thomas. “Passed with flying colors.”

Linsey and a few other professors who were on Lucy’s committee walk in the door. Thomas goes to the far end of the garden to greet them.

Mark continues the conversation. “What’s next, Lucy? Vacation?” he asks.

“Vacation?” Lucy laughs. “I am a little strapped for cash. I need a job first. I’ve applied for a few positions in industry. But Thomas just told me about a postdoc position in my external examiner’s lab. Maybe I should take it—in part so that I know I’ll have a job. Thomas also tells me that it will be good to get some work experience as a postdoc.”

“Definitely,” Mark agrees. “You can’t get the really interesting jobs straight after your Ph.D.” 

Sandra and Hans both frown.

“Rubbish,” Sandra says. “You don’t need postdoc experience to get a job in industry. Why would you want to spend a few more years making barely more than a grad student salary—especially when a postdoc isn’t needed for what you want to do?”

“Exactly,” Hans adds. “Plus, the longer you stay in academia, the harder it is to leave. That’s what I’ve heard.”

Thomas calls Lucy over to where he’s talking with Linsey. She leaves the group and walks over to that side of the room.

“I’ve told Lucy that you have a postdoc position available,” Thomas starts the conversation, looking at Linsey.

“I do. Are you interested in it, Lucy? I think you would be a great fit for our team,” she says with a broad grin, before going on to explain how closely aligned the project would be to what Lucy studied during her Ph.D. 

“Thank you. I feel flattered,” Lucy says. “Can I think about it and get back to you?”

Career advice

There are good reasons to do a postdoc, even if you don’t want to stay in academia. For instance, it might offer international experience or an opportunity to change fields. But a postdoc shouldn’t be viewed as the default option, and you should go into the decision with your eyes wide open. Here are three bad reasons to do a postdoc:

1. Your Ph.D. adviser tells you it is a good idea.

Professors are scientific advisers, not career advisers. They’ve pursued an exceptionally focused career track, and they won’t necessarily be aware of all the other options that are out there. Many professors also view a postdoc as the default option, especially for high-achieving grad students. But this view isn’t correct: Even if you’re a successful grad student, that doesn’t mean you should stay in academia. You may be happiest in your career if you find a job elsewhere.

2. You think it will increase your market value.

You’ll likely need to do a postdoc if you want to land a faculty job. But for most jobs outside of the professorate, that’s not the case; your academic credentials will be enough by the time you graduate with a Ph.D. Also, keep in mind that if you do a postdoc, it may make it harder for you to transition to a nonacademic job. Some managers in industry, for instance, may see “postdoc” on your resume and view that as an indication that you are not genuinely interested in an industry career.

3. A postdoc is the easiest job to get.

Staying in your Ph.D. adviser’s lab for a postdoc—or following their recommendation to join a colleague’s lab—is often the easiest way to prevent unemployment after you graduate. If you truly have no other options, then maybe you should consider taking the offer temporarily. But keep in mind that you probably have more options than you realize, and it’s important to think through them carefully. Before agreeing to do a postdoc, ask yourself, “Will I get something valuable out of this postdoc, or am I doing this because I’m afraid to step out of my comfort zone?” If you don’t see yourself benefiting professionally from the position, then it might be best to take a risk and leave academia—because in all likelihood, the sooner you do so, the better it will be for your career.

Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.

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