In defence of temporary postdoc positions

I’m sick and tired of the ‘postdocs need more job security’ debate. Actually, it doesn’t seem to be a debate per se, but rather a number of individuals who are quite far down the postdoc ladder speaking out against multiple fixed-term contract, and a certain level of support from more senior academics who get their point.  I do get their point, it must be terrible to be on your third or fourth postdoc with a trail of unsuccessful academic interview in your wake.  Surely there must come a point when you realise that it is no longer an achievable career goal (perhaps when younger, less ‘experienced’ postdocs are hired ahead of you?). And in which other careers do people that are less successful within it attempt to change the system rather than do something else?

Let me be very clear here, I am not against the notion of staff research posts (and indeed would consider such posts an incredible boost to research, particularly in a teaching intensive institution.  What I am concerned about however, is the underrepresentation of postdocs who are perfectly happy with fixed term contracts.  The pannels who discuss such issues tend to be made up of individuals who have done their damndest to land the coveted position but have been unsuccessful. I am yet to read of a discussion that also involved new postdocs, a year out of their PhD.

To me, a postdoc was a fantastic opportunity to do research abroad.  It was a chance to work in another country (work visas often easier for postdocs), and do some research in a very different laboratory to my PhD lab, and gain a much broader experience.  I didn’t want to move, on a permanent contract, to the other side of the world, and have to decide when I would leave or try to find a new job.  I wanted it to be for a fixed length of time, and no mater what you say, people are lousy at sticking to statements like ‘I’ll change jobs in 3 years’.  I didn’t want to settle down right after my PhD and get a house and cat.  And I didn’t rule out the idea of doing a couple of postdoc jobs where I had to move a few times.

Before anyone chimes in with ‘weren’t contract renewals a bit stressful’, well yes they were, but also my first academic job was fixed term and I found out that that was being renewed about 3 weeks before end of contract.  Its a lot scarier when you’ve got a mortgage, I can tell you that.

Science relies on curiosity and drive, but nothing focusses that like diversity and experience.  It is only by doing a postdoc where you push your limits, do something that challenges you more than your PhD did, allows you to grow in ways you never thought possible, that you start to gain the kind of attitude that will see you through your first few years of an academic position.  You have to experience more than the place you did your PhD in, even just experiencing how  a different PI or department works is valuable.

I have a great deal of sympathy for those who find themselves going from postdoc to postdoc, amassing a wealth of experience and getting no opportunity to apply it as a PI. But what makes anyone think a ‘permadoc’ position would be any better? To me, being a postdoc forever, working hard but generally putting all of my inspiration and ideas towards someone elses research career (the PI), seems awful.  I’m sure there are people who would be quite happy in that role, and many others who would not, but for whom it would be a better role than being a PI. Please remember, however, that in these postdoc discussions (which focus very heavily on unhappy postdocs), there are many postdocs out there perfectly happy with their lot.  Perfectly happy with a few temporary contracts, different research challenges without the very heavy burden of leading a research group and being responsible for others, and quite unwilling to speak up with the same passion that those who are unhappy with the system do.

ETA:  Prof-like Substance conducted a blog poll, asking readers to rate their postdoc experience [Overall, how was/is your postdoc experience and what field was/is it in?].  The majority of responses across biomedical, basic, physical science and engineering, 80 % of the total, rated their postdoc experience as enjoyable.  Interestingly a comment asks if Prof-like Substance is trying to justify the ‘low-pay very unstable career stage?’. Well, quite possibly, but finding out how many people found their postdocs OK or better is quite necessary in determining what the future of a postdoc should/could be.

4 Replies to “In defence of temporary postdoc positions”

  1. I truly enjoyed my postdoc. I had a great time. And, as you mention in the post, I got to expand my horizons and experience “risk-free”.
    What I assume most people complain about with respect to the postdoc is that it is the PRIMARY option. I think what some researchers actually want is not to change the postdoc, but to have something else to apply for and, in so having, change the % of postdocs that are funded. In the end it all comes down to lack of choice these days in our bum economy.
    I agree with you that the postdoc shouldn’t be changed. However, I can also wish/try to figure out if there are other ways to use that research funding. A postdoc isn’t for everybody. But, these days it really seems to be THE only option.

  2. Yes, it would be good if there were alternatives to postdocs such as staff scientist posts because I’m reasonably sure that many people who do postdocs know that they wont/don’t want to become PIs.
    I’d like an alternative to the PhD – a graduate is more than capable of doing research as a staff scientist on a project. That was we get around the UK funding system that has limited the number of PhD studentships to specific institutions/training centres, AND avoid the paperwork and course burden… Of course, that will bring an entirely new professional development dilemma 🙂

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