5 Ways A Postdoc Will Ruin Your Career
Written by: Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
My PhD was rough.
I had a terrible relationship with my advisor and had spent the better part of six years trying to earn my degree.
I was depressed and the stress of working in a negative academic environment had given me a chronic inflammatory disorder.
It was unclear when I would be able to graduate.
But getting to graduation was just the first step. What was I going to do when I finally finished?
When I looked around, the postdocs in my lab seemed just as miserable as I was.
The postdocs were underpaid, overworked, and variable grant funding meant they had very little job security.
Was that going to be my future?
I did not want to stay in academia any longer than I had to, but everyone was saying that PhDs were supposed to do postdocs.
With the thought of working in academia as a postdoc for six more years looming over me, I was determined to see what other opportunities were out there.
What I found surprised me.
Industry was like another world, where PhDs were well-paid for their work and many held management and leadership positions at their companies.
Why had no one told me about this industry option before? Why did I think that the only future for me was to do a postdoc?
The grass really was greener on the other side.
I was determined to transition out of academia and find the industry position that was right for me.
Why No One Is Telling You The Truth About Your Postdoc
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about postdoctoral positions.
But the bottom line is, an academic postdoc is bad for your career and no one is talking about why.
(If you have already done a postdoc or are already doing a postdoc, you can still use your postdoc experience to become a top job candidate, so don’t stress out.)
It’s not a secret that postdocs are undervalued.
Yet, few academics talk about how awful the situation actually is.
There is only one publicly available survey about the mental well-being of postdocs.
Conducted by The University of Texas at Austin, the survey found that many postdocs struggle with high levels of anxiety and only 13% of postdocs felt that they were flourishing.
Why is this the only data available when postdocs are clearly facing a difficult situation?
Because the survival of PIs, professors, advisors, thesis committee members, and all lifetime academics depends on the cheap labor that postdoctoral positions supply.
It is not in the interest of an academic or academic institution to train their PhDs on how to transition into non-academic careers.
Instead, these academics just host a few seminars on alternative careers while supporting the mentality and culture that leaving academia means you are a failure.
But, what about academic journals? They are starting to shed some light on the current problem in academia, right?
It costs thousands of dollars to publish one article in academic journals like Science, Nature, and Cell and it costs institutions thousands of dollars to subscribe to just one of these journals.
Who is getting all of this money?
Elsevier alone raked in £2.32 billion in revenue in 2016, 37% of which was profit.
That’s over £850 million in profit.
These companies are literally profiting off of the horrible postdoc situation in academia.
Why would these journals and publishing companies really want to help you get a non-academic job or any job where publishing is not important?
You have not been told the truth about your postdoc.
You are not suffering for the greater good or for the honor of academic advancement.
You are suffering so that other people can make a profit.
But, there is a way out.
There are industry positions suited for highly qualified PhDs like yourself, where you can share in the profit of your research.
However, to reach these industry positions, where you can be well-compensated and make a tangible impact on the world, you have to be willing to leave your postdoc.
Top 5 Reasons You Should Quit Your Postdoc
It’s hard to reject the idea that PhDs are supposed to do postdocs.
But the reality of doing a postdoc is terrible and doing a postdoc can ruin your career.
Instead of blindly heading down the traditional academic path, consider the other options that are available to you.
As a PhD, you need to take your career into your own hands.
Do you really want to put your career in the hands of people and organizations who sat back for the last 50 years and did nothing while the postdoctoral situation in academia got worse and worse and worse?
Outside of academia, PhDs are highly sought after job candidates.
You already have the skills to succeed in industry.
But first, you have to quit your postdoc and here are five reasons why you should…
1. Your ridiculously low salary.
A postdoc salary is disgraceful.
As a postdoc you are highly trained, intelligent, and an expert in your field, but the monetary compensation that a university sees fit to give you is insultingly low.
The salary is so low, in fact, it’s not even clear if a postdoc could even be considered employment.
A study reported in The Atlantic positions postdocs as a group separate from those who are employed.
Perhaps, postdocs are placed outside the employment group because most postdocs do not even receive retirement benefits.
Worse still, most postdocs get paid less than a high school teacher, a librarian, and many garbage collectors.
(Yes, it hurts.)
However, the data doesn’t lie.
$56,880 – average salary of a librarian (U.S. Labor Statistics).
$56,310 – average salary of a high school teacher (U.S. Labor Statistics).
$55,296 – the average salary of a 6th-year postdoc (NIH, Stipend Notice #NOT-OD-16-132).
$43,692 – the average salary of a 1st-year postdoc (NIH, Stipend Notice #NOT-OD-16-132).
That’s right, even a 6th year postdoc gets paid less than a high school teacher.
(No disrespect if you’re a high school teacher. It’s simply a comparison of positions that require only a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree.)
Why are you putting up with the low pay of an academic postdoc?
It’s time that you transition out of academia and into an industry position that values your skills and pays you accordingly.
2. You will not become a professor.
Okay, that statement is not entirely true.
The truth is 99.55% of PhDs will not become professors.
According to a study by the Royal Society of Chemistry, only 0.45% of all PhDs will ever become professors.
That’s only one in 222 PhDs.
Those are not good odds and the number of professorships continue to decline.
As reported by the National Science Foundation, currently only 30% of PhD faculty members receive tenure, which is down from 42% in 1995 and down even more from 70% in 1975.
This is what is called a data trend.
The National Science Foundation further reported that in a recent 4-year period, only 16,000 new professorships opened up, but during this same time period 100,000 PhDs were granted.
That’s an 84% gap between professorships created and PhDs granted.
That’s 84,000 extra PhDs who will never become professors.
So, if you are never going to be a professor, why are you in academia?
While academic positions are limited, there are many industry positions available, including leadership roles, that are well-suited for PhDs.
3. You will end up in an industry job anyway.
Even if you stay in your postdoc for now, you will end up in a non-academic position at some point in your future.
Why? Because, there are way more PhDs than there are academic positions.
Academic institutions continue granting more and more PhDs while the number of professorships continue to decline.
And with each PhD they grant, the university gets additional funding from the government.
So, where are all of these extra PhDs going?
Into non-academic careers.
The Royal Society of Chemistry reported that 79.5% of all PhDs end up employed in non-academic careers.
PhDs are moving out of academia as available professorships decline and academic funding decreases.
This is true of every science and engineering (S&E) or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field.
(By the way, S&E or STEM PhDs include social scientists, chemists, and many other fields that are not a part of the S&E or STEM acronyms.)
By staying in a postdoc, you are wasting your time heading down a dead-end academic pathway while receiving a very low salary.
See the math below to understand what you are missing by staying in your postdoc.
A 1st-year academic postdoctoral researcher makes $43,692/year and a 7-year postdoc makes $57,504/year (NIH, Stipend Notice #NOT-OD-16-132).
As such, over a 7-year period, a postdoc will make a total of $402,636, according to the NIH stipend levels by year.
However, a 1st-year non-academic research scientist makes $76,601/year, while an experienced non-academic research scientist makes $112,726/year (PayScale).
Over the same 7-year period, the non-academic researcher will make a total of $662,644 ($76,601 + $112,726)/2 X 7).
That’s right, over 7 years the non-academic researcher will make $260,008.00 MORE than the academic postdoc.
Depending on where you live, that’s enough to buy a house. It’s certainly enough to buy a car, or better healthcare, or any number of things for you and your family.
Do not waste another day, or another year, dealing with your low postdoc salary.
There is an 80% chance you will leave academia anyway, so why not leave now and start making more money?
4. You already have the skills to excel in an industry position.
Anyone who tells you that prolonging your postdoc, or even doing one in the first place, will increase your chances of getting a non-academic job, is misinformed.
Of course, there are rare positions at a few non-academic companies where a postdoc might be suggested, but these exceptions are scarce.
So, when is the right time to make the career move and quit your postdoc?
As soon as you decide that you want a non-academic career.
The bulk of non-academic companies do not want you to gain more academic experience before hiring you.
They want you to gain on-the-job experience.
As such, once you have your PhD in hand, it’s time to put your career in your hands and start transitioning into a non-academic position, not a postdoc.
After you earn your PhD, there’s no value in staying in academia any longer, as you already have the skills needed to transition into industry.
Harness the transferable skills you have gained during your studies, and land a non-academic position that suits you.
5. You can be well-paid and do meaningful work in an industry position.
The only reason to do an academic postdoc is to become an academic professor, and that is just not going to happen in today’s academic environment.
Why would you want to stay in the negative academic culture while earning a low salary anyway?
You deserve better. You can do meaningful work and be paid well for it.
Budget cuts and academic politics often mean that the work done at universities is far removed from the real world.
In industry, companies are driven by the market and want to see customers using their products.
In the health sciences, medicines that make it to the bedside, and ultimately have a real impact on the public, are almost exclusively attributed to companies.
Plus, as a 1st-year non-academic research scientist, you will make more than $30,000 more per year than a 1st-year postdoc.
In industry, your research can make a positive impact on society and you will make more money than your academic counterpart.
You do not need to finish, or even start, a postdoc to be successful in industry. As soon as you decide you want to pursue a non-academic career, you should quit your postdoc. The only reason to do an academic postdoc is to become a professor, and that’s just not going to happen. There are too many PhDs for academia to employ. Take your career into your own hands and quit your postdoc now. Leave your low salary behind and find an industry job where you can do meaningful work and be well paid for it.
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