How Applying For A Postdoctoral Position Can Ruin Your Industry Career Options In Science

career options in science | Cheeky Scientist | postdoc application
Written by Klodjan Stafa, Ph.D.

I had just started my PhD and, along with every newbie on campus, I attended the welcome session.

To the surprise of every aspiring professor in the room, the program coordinator stood before us and delivered a crushing opening slide…

70% of the graduates from this school will end up leaving academia and going for alternative careers.

I panicked.

Wait a second, I had just started an academic postdoc and now the academics were telling me that I should expect to leave academia?

My professors and labmates all led me to believe that a postdoc would lead me to a tenured professorship.

They sold me on staying in academia.

Now, I was being told that academia had nothing for me.

I felt lied to.

Up until now, my ultimate goal had always been to lead my own lab.

This was the only career option I knew.

Therefore, not doing a postdoc was never an option as I saw it as a natural next step to becoming a group leader.

After that speech, everyone around me started doubting their futures.

All the postdocs, myself included, started second-guessing their career paths.

I still had a shred of hope, though.

So I started asking around for advice from peers and senior scientists.

I started asking about the pros and cons of doing an academic postdoc and how it would affect my career path.

Opinions varied: some were positive and energized about life outside the ivory tower and others held more skeptical opinions about the ‘dark side’ of research known as industry.

Was industry really the ‘dark side’?

I finally sought advice from the campus career counselor, fully expecting an endorsement for academia but was once again shocked and disheartened:

“If you choose to undertake postdoctoral training, you would be making a lazy choice in your career and would not be fully exploiting your true potential.”

Wait—what?

Did I just hear that?

Going for a postdoc is a lazy career choice?

I had in my mind that a postdoc sets you apart from the crowd and trains you to become a better scientist, guaranteeing you a job afterwards.

I was wrong.

In a highly dynamic world where job searching has become very tedious and highly competitive, indulging yourself in the academic system after you graduate is simply foolish and counterproductive.

That’s when I decided to stop wasting my time in academia and start applying to research positions in industry.

A few months after making this decision, I transitioned into a lucrative Senior Scientist position at Estée Lauder Companies.

Why Doing An Academic Postdoc Is A Waste Of Time 

Too many scientists believe that staying in academia longer will increase their chances of getting a full-time professorship.

This is ridiculous.

As a scientist, you can’t ignore the data.

You can’t ignore the downward trend of open professorships and the downward trend of annual pay for postdocs and professors relative to inflation.

You can’t ignore the downward trend of career and life satisfaction of academic postdocs either.

According to the NIH, between 1979 and 2009, the number of life science PhD students grew from 30,000 to more than 56,000 while the number of postdocs rose from 37,000 to 68,000.

PhDs are literally piling up in academia.

A scathing report of the academic system was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, labeling the system as…

“Unsustainable and poorly funded, a place where only a few selected people will make it to tenure tracks due to lack of openings and shrinkage of NIH funding, year after year.”

It is time to take off your rose-colored glasses.

There’s no future for you in academia.

None.

Zero.

If you stay in academia despite this knowledge, you deserve to be poor and unhappy.

After all, you’re a scientist.

By staying in academia after getting your PhD, you’re committing the cardinal sin that all scientists must guard themselves against…

You’re ignoring the data.

You’re covering your eyes and putting ‘blind faith’ in a broken system.

Start being a scientist again and open your eyes.

Look at the data.

Address it.

Draw a logical conclusion and then take action to better your situation.

Experiment if you have to, consider new options, but don’t keep doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result.

science and technology careers | Cheeky Scientist | science careers

3 Reasons Why Academic Postdocs End Up Poor And Unhappy

Having a PhD does not entitle you to a job.

Doing a postdoc does not entitle you to a job either.

Applying for an academic postdoc may seem like the obvious next step in your career, but it’s not.

In fact, doing an academic postdoc could keep you from ever getting an industry job.

How can you build up industry credibility and attend industry networking events when you’re slaving away in a lab 12 hours a day?

How can you develop and leverage your transferable skills when you don’t even have time to take a shower?

The competition to get an industry job is intense.

Staying in academia longer—becoming more and more removed from the real world—is only going to work against you.

Every day in academia is one less day in industry.

On-the-job training is much more valuable than a postdoc.

The best time to get into an industry role is right now, not in 6 months or 6 years down the road.

Refusing to acknowledge these facts and choosing to ignore the data is not only foolish, it’s lazy.

It’s lazy because you’re taking the easy road by staying comfortable.

You’re choosing to stick with what you know instead of learning how to transition into the field of research that is growing.

Unless you make a change, you will end up poor and unhappy, and your career options in science will be limited at best. Here’s why…

1. Academic postdocs are easy, comfortable positions. 

Most PhDs accept postdoc positions that are merely an extension of their thesis work.

Very few PhDs step out of their comfort zones to get broader experiences and obtain new technical skills.

After their second or third postdoc position, these PhDs leave with a very narrow field of expertise.

An academic postdoc is a holding pattern.

It’s purgatory.

The number of years you spend in a postdoc does not equate to the number of years you have improved.

Instead, it indicates laziness.

When recruiters and hiring managers see you piling up years of postdoctoral experience doing the same work in the same field, they don’t see you as experienced.

They see you as inexperienced.

They see you as someone reluctant to change and as someone who lacks cutting-edge skills.

Research is rapidly evolving.

This means that improving your technical skills, both dramatically and consistently, are imperative to staying competitive in today’s job market.

The hard truth is that most academic postdocs will do nothing more than settle you into a predictable routine, providing you with little motivation to grow or diversify your skills.

It’s impossible to stay on the technical cutting-edge in a broken system that lacks funding and lacks career options.

As such, you should stop seeing an academic postdoc as another step in your career and start seeing it as career failure.

2. Academic postdocs are expendable and laughable. 

A recent analysis by the University of California-Berkley’s Center for Labor Research and Education found that 7% of families of part-time faculty at U.S. Universities were on government assistance.

Most of these people were receiving food stamps, which are usually reserved for the poorest members of a society.

PhDs on food stamps!

Let that sink in.

A report by Yahoo Finance confirmed this trend by announcing a 3-fold increase in the number of PhDs applying for food stamps, unemployment, or other government assistance this year.

In today’s world, being an academic postdoc is laughable.

Choosing to stay in academia after getting your PhD makes you a joke.

It sounds mean, but it’s true.

Your friends and family get paid better salaries and get great benefits while working normal hours in the private sector while you are working longer and longer hours for peanuts.

Whether you realize it or not, working long hours without getting any respect in return is ruining your health.

It’s putting a strain on your mental and physical state.

It’s also putting a strain on your career.

How can you build relationships with hiring managers and recruiters when you’re busy begging for grant funding, grading undergraduate exams, writing manuscripts, and preparing for the departmental seminar you are to present?

You can’t.

So you don’t.

Instead, you just keep slaving away while others with less education thrive in industry.

Academia’s dirty little secret is that academic postdocs are used as cheap labor and their hard work is consistently taken advantage of by senior professors.

You do not have to accept this fate.

You can leave academia now and transition into a more fulfilling career.

3. Academic postdocs become bitter and resentful. 

Leave academia while you still love research.

Leave academia while you are still motivated to do good work.

Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Don’t wait until you become bitter.

If you leave now, before your first, second and third postdoc appointment, there is a chance of maintaining your passion for research.

If you leave now, there is a chance you will be able to network effectively without communicating to other professionals that you are guarded and desperate.

Your resentment towards the academic system will be particularly difficult to hide when you start having industry interviews.

Will you be able to respond professionally when hiring managers ask you why you’re leaving academia?

Will you be able to respond without letting your bitterness bleed through?

When interviewing, you need to have a professional response which does not reek with the fact that you are fed up with your tyrant supervisor.

You need to be able to maintain your professionalism despite the fact that you are desperate for a decent paycheck.

You need to have a reason why you’re leaving academia other than because your grants were not renewed.

You might be thinking that you could easily hide the real reasons why you’re leaving academia.

But you won’t be able to hide them.

If you’re bitter, guarded, desperate, and in the middle of your fifth postdoc year, hiring managers will see it.

They will know that you’re trying to transition into industry because you didn’t make it as a professor, not because you’re passionate about their company.

Don’t stay in academia until you become desperate.

Don’t ‘pay your dues’ for one more year.

Instead, leverage your technical and transferable skills to get an industry job now, not later.

Biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies are looking for fresh PhDs to join their teams to help advance cutting-edge R&D projects. There is no reason why you cannot transition into an industry R&D role now. You have the technical and transferable skills these top companies are looking for right now. Additional time in academia is not going to set you apart from other job candidates. Instead, staying in academia will hold you back. Do not wait until you become desperate for an industry job. Begin transitioning into industry now while your passion for research is still palpable.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan is a Ph.D. and currently works as a Sr. Scientist in the Research & Development department of Estée Lauder Companies in New York City. During and after completion of his Doctorate, Klodjan published several prominent papers in a variety of scientific journals. He got the Brain Mind Institute (EPFL) best PhD thesis in 2013 as well as a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Klodjan believes self-innovation is paramount in today’s competitive job market and encourages other PhDs to take action for themselves instead of allowing others to dictate their choices and careers.
Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.
  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Yeah, I did a postdoc and even though it was the only thing I knew to do at the time, I’ve learned more and more about how the fastest path to success lies outside the lab and inside an industry track. I had no idea at that time that a postdoc does not lead to professorship and tenure, and in fact I was quite fired up about science in general and leading new generations to excellence in academia. I’m glad I’m working in industry at this stage, but I can see now how important it is to get this information out to grad students as soon as possible.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Wow, that is such a powerful statement about ignoring the data. Now that we have all this new information coming in about the job market and the glut of PhDs in the academic system, we’d be foolish to ignore it. Great job making this crystal clear, Klodjan.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Klodjan, I think you’re right about transferring to industry ASAP so you don’t lose that enthusiasm for learning before you try to get a job. I’ve heard that the postdoc experience can be less than savory, because you have to deal with egos, you’re basically the low man on the totem pole, and you’re almost treated like a second-class citizen because there are so many PhD’s wanting to do a postdoc. So, it’s like supply and demand — when there are a ton of PhD’s and they all want to do a postdoc and stick with academia, and there are very few vacancies needing a PhD, then we’re really just so much extra unwanted personnel.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    It’s what I try to tell everyone. When you’ve completed your PhD and you’re ready to start looking for work, go for a high-paying industry job with some upward mobility and real life experience instead of staying another couple of years in academia. The people I know who stayed end up lecturing at a very low wage. While they are a tremendous asset to the professors, they’re not really getting the benefits I think they deserve.

  • Aaron Gottschalk, PhD

    Nice article Klodjan…I’d posit that they use this article as a handout to students looking to attain a PhD, or to continue foolishly within the broken ponzi scheme of academia as a postdoc. But of course, that will never happen… they’ve got to keep the mills churning somehow. Good on you for successfully moving on and I wish you all the best in your continued endeavors!

  • Harvey Delano

    Boy, that really hits hard about the postdoc being a lazy choice — simply because I know how hard some of them work! Not having time for a shower is right!

    But I also realize that the postdoc is a lazy choice not because you don’t work, but because you haven’t engaged your intellectual, analytical mind to gather the data and weigh up the pros and cons. And there simply aren’t enough jobs in academia to merit the extra years of time.

    Sometimes being “comfortable” is really uncomfortable! Slaving away in a postdoc position is one of those times.

  • Kathy Azalea

    A three-fold increase in the number of PhD’s who are on food stamps!! Ridiculous! PhD’s should be highly paid. This is NOT the reason we’re bashing our heads against the wall trying to get a PhD.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    I think that your optimistic call to action really helps. Students need to spread their wings and fly out of academia before they become bitter and disillusioned, not after. It’s a complete pity that the state of affairs is such a distorted shadow of what it once was, but those are the facts and we should encourage our young PhD’s to get out of the system and start putting their talents to use in an industry where they’ll be appreciated and needed.

  • Theo

    Don’t be a fool. Get out while there’s still time.

  • Xenobio

    I am back in grad school for a PhD now, but I really enjoyed and learned a lot in the 4.5 years I worked in industry between my Masters and PhD. It helped me become a lot more confident in myself as a person and a scientist. I would like to become a professor eventually, but now I know I have the skills and flexibility to go either way. I definitely recommend people get industry experience early, you can work for a few years as a technician after your Bachelor’s or a research associate after your Masters, which would also then help you to make the right choices about where and in what to get a PhD.

    I think the big stereotype that drives people with academic-only experience away from industry is that it’s boring. You may be confusing the role of Quality Control (routine work where PhD holders would probably be only in supervisory/management roles anyway) with R&D, which is much closer to what we do in academic research.

  • Julian Holst

    It’s really encouraging to know that biotech and pharma companies are looking for fresh new PhDs to join their ranks. That’s the most encouraging news I’ve heard for a long time. The prospects of staying in academia are dismal. And making a difference in a vital industry job sounds more interesting anyway.

  • Sonja Luther

    I never thought about people needing a good reason for leaving academia. You are right – most people will not be able to hide it if they left because time went on and they were never offered a scholarship, or if they’re angry for some other reason. Considering the insanity associated with staying, it seems reasonable that people should jump ship and find a better position as soon as humanly possible.