“I love my job; the uncertainty doesn’t bother me, I only work 9-5 and I feel like I’m on track to living a fulfilling life” said no postdoc ever.**
An academic postdoctoral scientist (postdoc) is the position you usually hold after finishing your PhD and before becoming a lecturer. There’s a bottleneck between PhD projects and postdocs, so by default, most people never become lecturers, let alone professors. I acknowledge that there is a rare breed of people that publish a tonne of research in high impact journals during their PhDs and quickly land permanent positions. Perhaps they are too busy being successful to write this. I wouldn’t know. I am in the other category – the one that feels like a poorly coded loop in a long and detailed script, the formula includes endurance, faith and luck but I can’t really tell if it will work when I press run, or if the program will spit out 10 lines of red error messages.
I don’t have many friends that are postdocs and I only know a handful within my institution. Considering these sparse data that I do have, in the past month (excluding my own close brush with unemployment), other postdocs I know have either:
1) finished their contract & faced unemployment,
2) left their academic position to work for government,
3) threatened to leave and taken time off work for mental health reasons or
4) started a brand new contract of no more than 2 years
…and so the bottle neck continues to squeeze. I don’t believe that it squeezes out the least capable, least willing or the least committed. It just squeezes. And if anything gets squeezed hard enough, things come out. Contracts end, stress builds up, better deals crop up elsewhere, outside academia.
So why do we stay? Research truly is the most exciting job in the world. In the past year I have traveled to remote areas of forest in Arnhem Land, Papua New Guinea and Madagascar. I have been part of teams discovering species of animals unknown to science. I have opened the minds of undergraduate students to penis-fencing flat worms, lesbian albatross and the evolution of vaginal dead end pockets in female ducks with cork-screw vaginas. Biologists conjure up ways to collect data to test questions to dispel myths. We live to question. I even coordinated a tequila drinking experiment with 19 friends to find out if I’m a cheap drunk. I am. It is a trade-off, a decision weighing up the thrills and adventure we get in our lives, often at the price of excessive criticism, competitive interactions and deep insecurity in our future.
People that can find those rewards in other jobs get lucky, people that decide security is more important get out… and people that can, hold on. So is the system supporting the brightest minds to funnel our limited scientific funding into the most worthy causes? Is it supporting our scientists to excel with a healthy work-life balance and reward for quality science? Hell no. It’s pumping out an oversupply of people, leaving them to compete for a limited number of positions through whatever means they can. It is leaving a number of postdoctoral scientists in short term contracts for years on end without the security to take out home loans or have any idea where they’ll live in two years’ time. For many there is certainly little option in where they eventually settle, should one be so lucky to land a permanent position at the end. So yes we have the best job on earth but it comes at a cost and if you are of the young and passionate variety and just so happen to be considering academia as a future pathway, you should fully explore that cost before embarking on the journey.
P.S. The journey is wild.
**Yes this is science so yes there is an exception. If you know one, go and ask them how they feel about outliers in their data.