I had to go into the lab at 4:30 AM for a few days during my first year of graduate school to collect cells at a critical time for a new type of experiment I was running.
I hated getting out of bed the first morning but felt a sense of pride as I walked into the University building my lab was in. “I bet I’m the first one in my lab today” I thought to myself. Then I got a little more confident—I bet I’m the first one in the whole building!
The elevator opened and the blinding lights of the lab hit my eyes. A postdoc zoomed by me with an ice bucket in his hands. Okay, maybe I’m the second one here. Not bad. I threw my bag on my desk, put on a pair of gloves, and went into the cell culture room. Another postdoc was sitting in the hood I was going to use. What? Do these people sleep? (No, they don’t sleep.) I saw three more postdocs from other labs that morning, all before 6:00AM—one in the flow cytometry facility, one walking out of the dark room, and another in the hall on my way to the bathroom.
Over the next few years I saw first-hand how hard postdocs work. I also saw how little money they made and how poorly they were treated. Many of the postdocs I worked with were in their labs before I started graduate school and still in their same labs after I left graduate school five years later. On the one hand, I was impressed and inspired by their tenacity and dedication. On the other hand, I felt sorry for them. I had a horrible feeling they were working for something that would never come.
Never Ending Supply Of Postdocs
The holidays have started and postdoctoral researchers around the world are doing what they always do—working. While tenured professors are vacationing and graduate flying home to see their families, postdocs are staying put. They’ll be in the lab working 18+ hours today, tomorrow, the next day and the next day until (what seems like) the end of time.
After more than 20 years of schooling (with an average of 6 to 7 years of graduate schooling), postdocs continue to work insanely long hours, executing exquisitely complicated experiments, all while getting paid very little for it. In the U.S., postdocs make only $42,000 a year to start. If they work diligently in a big lab for 7 years, they can hit a maximum salary of $55,272 (or ~$26/hour). That’s the same average salary as a librarian or high school teacher. Again, the maximum salary a postdoc will ever receive is the same as the average librarian or average high school teacher’s salary. But at least these highly trained doctors will be paid what they’re worth when they become professors, right?
Highly Trained And Nowhere To Go?
There are hundreds of thousands of postdocs in the world. In the U.S. alone, there are 68,000 postdocs. In Boston—a single city—there are over 8,000 postdocs. And these numbers are climbing. The problem is that more than six times as many PhDs are being granted as professorships are being opened. For example, from 2005-2009, there were 100,000 PhDs granted and only 16,000 professorships opened. This means that 84,000 PhDs had to either get a postdoc, transition into a non-academic career, or remain unemployed.
The bigger problem is that these PhDs are not trained in advancing their careers. They’re simply taught that every PhD should do a postdoc and every postdoc should work in a lab for peanuts until they get a professorship. Many have no idea that well-paying, non-academic careers exist, let alone how to pursue one. But the Phd jobs are there. In fact, there are currently over 22,000 industry research jobs and 24,000 non-research science jobs. There are also 7,000 government research jobs.
Why Postdocs Make Better Employees
In college, you’re nice the people on your hall who have cars so they can take you places. In graduate school, you’re nice to the postdocs in your lab because they can help you get your degree.
If you want to get something done in lab, forget asking your academic advisor. Advisors who don’t have tenure are moody and busy writing grants all day. Advisors who do have tenure are either in a meeting, on holiday, or too far removed for lab work to know the latest techniques (or they’re moody and busy writing grants all day). Every graduate student and technician knows that postdocs are the keepers of the lab.
Postdocs know the most current technologies and methodologies, they know the literature, they know where everything is in the lab, and they know how to get reagents from other labs. Altogether, postdocs know how to get things and how to things done. These are the same skills that make postdocs great industry employees.
1. They work harder than anyone else.
The average industry worker is lazy. Most employees nowadays don’t know how to work hard. More specifically, they don’t know what hard work is. This is because they have no reference point for real hard work. I’ve worked in several elite industries and played a variety of extreme sports but have never met a group of professionals who work harder than postdocs.
When it comes to brute force work ethic, postdocs win. They work the longest hours for the littlest pay and recognition out of anyone I’ve ever met. The key is that postdocs are not doing brainless work. In other words, they’re not building fences or laying brick. They’re not regurgitating information or doing the same routine task over and over again. Instead, they’re creating information. They’re doing high-level research that requires them to understand very complicated concepts while also thinking creativity and constantly changing their approach to the world’s most difficult scientific questions.
A strong work ethic is extremely valuable, especially when done without complaining. Most employees constantly complain about how bad things are at their company. Or, they run their mouths about how much work they’re going to do without ever really doing anything. Postdocs aren’t complainers or talkers. They’re workers. They are highly skilled in finding problems and finding the right answers to the right problems, no matter how long it takes.
Work ethic is a skill that very few people have. Companies who hire postdocs and train them well benefit greatly from their work ethic. The problem is that many postdocs fail to communicate this valuable skill to employers. If you’re a postdoc, it’s important that you let industry employers know you have this skill by using the right language in your industry resume and CV, and by bringing the topic up correctly during your industry interview.
2. They’re experts at managing time, people, and resources.
The average employee does not know how to manage their time. Studies show that most employees spend hours surfing the Internet at work. These employees don’t know how to manage people or resources either. Surveys and studies show that most new hires lack interpersonal skills and waste significant company resources each year.
Postdocs don’t waste anything. They are experts at squeezing data out of the smallest amounts of money and resources. This is because postdocs don’t live day-to-day, they live second-to-second. At any given time, the average postdoc is running 5-10 different experiments while also writing 2-3 different papers and grant proposals, attending lab meetings and seminars, applying to jobs, and staying up-to-date on the literature in their field. Not only do postdocs manage their time exceptionally well, they also manage other people’s time well.
Postdocs commonly have to deal with inept graduate students, angry academic advisors, and dozens of competing postdocs. As a result, postdocs learn which conflicts to engage in and which to avoid. They are experts at navigating their way through the intricate world of office (or lab) politics. Contrary to popular belief, postdocs have excellent interpersonal skills. They’ve learned how to negotiate for equipment time, for reagents, for projects, for grants, on and on. Postdocs are skilled strategists when it comes to making a way when there is no way.
Still, postdocs need to do a better job of communicating their communication skills. Just because you have good interpersonal skills, doesn’t mean that other people know it. A survey of 717 postdoc supervisors in North America, Europe, and Asia showed that communication skills were the most important skills in term of postdoc career success (see below). If you’re a postdoc, make sure you’re communicating your communication skills.
Postdocs are not only great managers, they’re great leaders. Many postdocs carry entire projects on their own. Some carry multiple projects that are worth millions of dollars (or euros) in grant funding. Yet, many postdocs don’t see these skills as valuable and don’t leverage them for non-academic positions. If you’re a postdoc, start communicating your management and leadership skills to potential employers. These transferable skills are highly valuable and will get you the job you want. If you don’t know how to communicate these skills, connect with people who do.
3. They’re driven by passion and innovation, not money.
The average, non-academic employee is driven by money. Just money. Studies show that using money to motivate employees actually makes employees work less, not more. The problem is that money is a horrible motivator. It’s an external reward and numerous studies show that extrinsic motivation is very weak compared to intrinsic motivation.
Desires like the desire to be creative or the desire to do significant work is much more powerful than the desire to earn more money. Postdocs are intrinsically motivated to innovate and leave a legacy. They value doing cutting-edge work that matters. They don’t just value getting a paycheck. Good luck finding that in your typical employee.
Sure, postdocs are human and want to make more money. But money is not their strongest motivator. More than anything else, postdocs are driven to make a difference. This is why they work insane hours for almost no money. This is why postdocs live for years in harsh conditions working under extreme uncertainty, facing failure after failure after failure.
Postdocs are also driven by an intense need to learn and to teach. They don’t fear failure, they use it. Postdocs thrive on discovery and sharing, which makes them highly valuable to any company. Most employees just want to finish whatever task their boss gives them and move on. Postdocs, on the other hand, want to pick apart and solve the task so it can be done quicker and better next time. Postdocs have faced so much adversity in their academic careers that anything they experience in industry afterwards is easy in comparison. They’re so used to working without money and with old equipment that they can hardly believe how simple and fun it is to work for a company that has new equipment and money to spend.
The biggest reason postdocs make great employees is because they never give up. They’re committed internally to their work and this acts as force multiplier for the companies that hire them. However, sometimes postdocs should give up. Most of the postdocs that I knew well were working for a professorship, or just working until something better came along. But there were never any new professorships. And nothing better ever came along. So they just kept working. A postdocs drive to succeed can be their downfall if they refuse to change course once they hit a dead end.
If you’re a postdoc who has hit a dead end in academia, it’s time to change course. Don’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again like a fly banging itself against a glass window trying to get out. Instead, do something different. Ask yourself, “Do I feel stuck? Do I keep doing the same thing over and over?” If the answer is yes, then do something about it. Don’t just keep doing what you’re doing.
You will never be successful unless you change. You will never do work that matters or be recognized for your work unless you start investing in yourself. Build your professional network. Get the industry training you need. Make a change now because you’re highly valuable to industry employers and there are industry jobs waiting for you.
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Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.