Surviving the Postdoc Experience – or Not

Last night I talked at an RSC/IOP event launching a report (Mapping the Future: Physics and Chemistry Researchers’ Experiences and Career Intentions) based on a survey of 776 postdocs. The report illustrates some interesting differences between the cultures experienced in the two different disciplines and also between the sexes’ experiences. However, what is clear is that academia needs to do a better job of supporting some of these postdocs, to make sure they feel valued and are able to develop optimally. I have not yet had a chance to read the full report (only the summary was provided to me in advance), but some of the feelings expressed will undoubtedly tie in with the working experience of life as a postdoc described in a recent NN blog (if I am allowed to mention NN on this site) which indicates the long hours culture so typical of postdoc life in a lab-based subject.

As with the ASSET survey I have written about previously, getting responses from those directly involved is hugely valuable in knowing what is really going on in the population, and the numbers involved are large enough to make conclusions drawn fairly reliable. The first thing that struck me when reading the summary report was how many years some postdocs are willing to stay in that role (I understand the term postdoc was meant explicitly to exclude those on independent fellowships): 19% of male physicists had been postdocs for 7 years or more, contrasted with 7% of female chemists. Are they receiving good career’s advice which makes these men think that if they just stick it out a bit longer a permanent career in academia will transpire? Well, probably not. Careers advice seems distinctly patchy, with only 21% of respondents having taken advice from their institution’s formal careers service during their present contract. More (45%) had obtained advice either from their PI or other academic staff member. However, putting these two bits of quantitative information together makes me worry a PI may be encouraging a postdoc to stick around because they are useful, rather than because it is in the best interests of the postdoc themselves. It will surprise few that some PI’s may be slightly self-serving in this way; the loss of an experienced postdoc can be a real blow to the successful functioning of a team. Of those long term postdocs there are far more men than women, far more physicists than chemists. The former may be explained by women jumping ship because they aren’t happy, but it may also be they are more realistic about career options.  The results show that female chemists in particular, who have done more than 1 postdoc, are getting increasingly dubious about pursuing a scientific career, with 60% of them expressing doubt.

Furthermore it is clear that most postdocs know very little about careers outside the academic world: not an astonishing finding if they are predominantly relying on their PI – who almost certainly hasn’t themselves worked outside the university sector – to provide advice. However, blame for not seeking professional advice from the careers service cannot really be laid at the PI’s door. A postdoc needs to take responsibility for their future to a large extent, making sure they get all the facts they can from wherever they can, and making sure the information they get is ‘in the round’ and not just a partial view from their PI who doesn’t want to lose a skilled pair of hands. At this point let me flag up the useful set of guidance notes the Athena Forum drew up to help postdocs work out just what it is they need to know and where they might go to for advice. Postdocs do need not to be passive, but take active control of their lives and the directions these might go in.

Even working on the assumption it is the individual’s responsibility to seek out careers’ advice, the postdocs ought to be given good appraisal and mentoring to help them work out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they need to do to improve the latter. By and large they aren’t. More than half the postdocs aren’t getting appraised and of those who were only 1/3 found the process useful. Many felt it was  a mere box-ticking exercise. This is shameful. The ASSET survey showed that in general the more senior you are the more likely you are to be appraised, something I feel is quite the wrong way round. We need to help our postdocs work out whether they should be staying in academia or if their talents would be better used elsewhere. We need to encourage the more diffident – often women, but not necessarily – when they may be far more talented than they realise. We need to make sure they know what opportunities are out there, and what gaps they have in their CV’s. And, collectively, it would seem we are failing to do so – or just assuming their PI will cover this comprehensively.

Some of these findings speak to the need for ‘empowerment’ of postdocs, a point stressed by one of the other speakers, Tennie Videler from Vitae, an organisation devoted to

championing the personal, professional and career development of doctoral researchers and research staff in higher education institutions and research institutes.

She particularly stressed something that Vitae have been developing, called the Researcher Developer Framework, which provides a framework within which researchers can think about their strengths and weaknesses, and how they might tackle them to enable them to grow and progress. I had not come across this before, but a quick look at their website shows just what a valuable resource this could be for employee and employer alike.

There are further worrying bits of information this report throws up. For some, the transition from PhD student to Postdoc obviously brings greater responsibilities and a change in attitude from those around, but for no means all. The questionnaire specifically queried whether postdocs felt respected and that they were now treated more like a staff member than a student. More than half the physicists felt they were treated more like staff – both male and female – but the numbers were rather lower for the chemists, notably with less than 40% of the female chemists feeling this. When it comes to feeling respected, again the chemists were less content than the physicists by some considerable margin: 45% of the physicists felt respected and less than 10% felt definitely not respected with little difference between men and women, whereas for the chemists there was both a markedly lower number who overall did feel respected and a higher number who definitely didn’t. Furthermore, the women definitely felt less valued than the men (37% men and 29% women did feel respected amongst the chemists; and 11% men and 16% women did not).

This highlights, as have earlier reports, some clear problems with the culture and working environment in chemistry which seems distinctly less favourable for women than men. The RSC’s own previous report indicated that women in biosciences were less content in chemistry departments than in biochemistry departments; the EPSRC’s 2009 International Review of Chemistry highlighted how women were conspicuously absent from those asked to present to them, as if this was felt to be too risky a strategy. Chemistry, as a discipline, clearly needs to reflect upon its mores and work out why their working patterns are so particularly disadvantageous for women. It can be no coincidence that, despite the percentage of girls starting on chemistry degrees being at least 50% in most university departments, the number of female professors remains depressingly low. This seems to be the discipline where the leaky pipeline leaks most.

Postdoctoral years may be wonderful, a chance to develop independence and autonomy without, for instance, the grind of committees and grant writing. (A large number – 82% of physicists and 63% of chemists – reported being given an opportunity to teach, but one hopes this is at a level of their choosing and not the overload with which many lecturers feel burdened.) So, these years may be fruitful and exciting. But they are also a time of job insecurity and anxiety, as written about so poignantly by my fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn. Postdocs need to think carefully about how to optimise their opportunities and seek out advice beyond their immediate circle, to ensure they are as well equipped to make decisions about their futures as possible, enabling them to take realistic control of the directions their lives are heading. Equally importantly, PI’s need to assume more responsibility about ensuring postdocs get sensible and constructive advice at each stage of the way. Neither party should be passive in this interaction.

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9 Responses to Surviving the Postdoc Experience – or Not

  1. Steve says:

    When I first became a full-time staff member I set up a postdoc forum (sadly this no longer runs – maybe it is time to reinvigorate it!). I was alarmed from the discussions at these forums at the lack of awareness of what might be expected of postdocs to progress to a permanent position. In particular the writing of papers (themselves) and more importantly writing of grants seemed to be off their radars. It hadn’t occurred to them that their ideas could lead them forward in their careers – ok, the boss will take the credit, but at least writing grants (and successful ones) always seems to distinguish postdocs at the interview stage for full time positions.

    On another note I have always taken the attitude that postdocs should move whenever possible -even my good ones! In a well-equipped University it is tempting to stay and almost relax into a comfort zone of successful grant income (there are places I am told that still get grants…..) of the PIs, with the next handout of a job round the corner. All of us know though that it is these years of nomadic postdocking (is that an adjective?) that, to a certain extent, look most impressive on a CV. I wouldn’t wish to comment on the male/female divide too much myself, but I do think that it is more difficult for a woman to manage this part of their career without putting off having a family etc. Society is biaised in this way, and for a career in science it is especially biaised to the male species.

  2. Benjamin Robinson says:

    Athene,

    Another excellent article, I would just like to say that I am enjoying your blog very much and find your writing very insightful. I would like to add two purely qualitative observation to the stats you have discussed. I have PhD’d and postdoc’d (like Steve above I am not sure that is correct grammar or not but we all know what it means) in two Chemistry departments and two Physics Departments so have been lucky to see the best, and the worse, that both can offer. It has been my experience, based on this very limited sample of institutions, that there is a definite cultural difference in the way which postdoc mobility is viewed. For a chemist interested in remaining in academia it is much more common for them to see their ‘natural’ career path to start with a postdoc in the same group as their PhD, or at least in the same department. This means that the postdoc, as well as their PI, has very little to differentiate the roles by, everything carries on as before but with a different title and as a consequence the postdoc often fails to appreciate the additional responsibilities, opportunities and challenges associated with their career progression. I have observed the opposite to be true for the vast majority of physicists, where there is a much better understanding of the importance of mobility and it is actively encouraged.

    Additionally, it has been my experience (again I accept from a small sample of departments) and from conversations with friends in academia in other departments around the UK, that there is a stark contrast in emphasis on securing additional funding in terms of fellowships, conference and travel grants etc. Where it tends to be widely publicised and actively encouraged in physics it is occupies a much more passive role in chemistry departments.

    I’m sorry for the broad brush approach but I think these two observations correlate well with the meatier data you have commented on in your post, specifically in relation to the questions about feeling respected and feeling that they are treated as a member of staff.

  3. csrster says:

    Off topic, but could you let your tech-people know that the Occam’s Typewriter merged RSS feed (http://occamstypewriter.org/feed/) is currently broken? I haven’t had any valid updates since the 3rd of April.

  4. Andy Parnell says:

    Athene,

    Interesting post. From my own experience and conversations with fellow postdocs it seems that in the past the the time between gaining a PhD and becoming a lecturer has become longer. The nomadic lifestyle of a postdoc certainly does not suite some people including myself who for personal reasons want to stay in a certain country / city etc. And I find it difficult to think of any other career where such highly qualified people have the same level of uncertainty at this stage in their life when their friends/ peers in other jobs have obvious career progression and stability. Also it is not clear what the requirements are to become a lecturer, a lot of the time academics say they were lucky, this is not very helpful advice. It is very difficult to differentiate yourself from your immediate academic boss. As we are not able to apply for grants independently. It is hard to change the status quo as it benefits those who are already established with academic contracts.

    • Andy, thanks for your comments. There are indeed many and sensible reasons why people such as yourself stay in long-term postdoc positions. The reason you give – of wanting to stay in a given place – is one of those advanced as being particularly disadvantageous to women, who often may be the trailing partner though it can cut either way. Similarly, the average gap in years you identify between starting being a postdoc and landing a permanent position has also increased over the years undoubtedly. Nevertheless, for people who find themselves getting into this insecure no-man’s land I can only reiterate one should:

      Seek advice from anyone and everyone as to whether they feel you have what it takes to get that lectureship;

      If not work out if certain steps could improve your chances (training, getting exposure at conferences etc) and then make sure to act upon what you find (and if even that seems likely to be insufficient, act upon the implicit advice rather than keep fingers and toes crossed something will pan out);

      See if you can apply for fellowships which give you independence – although I grant you if you can’t move that is usually looked at with disfavour for the reasons you identify, of not being able to differentiate yourself sufficiently from your academic boss.

      Check whether there are any permanent support posts (few and far between in my experience) for senior postdocs.

      If none of the above apply then, harsh though it seems, sometimes trying to work out an exit strategy may be preferable than endless frustrating insecurity. Of course it may not be, there can still be much satisfaction in continuing to be stuck into the excitement of bench science or whatever, so leaving may remain a less attractive option than staying. If I can bring in the gender angle agaiin, there is evidence (from this survey and elsewhere) that women are more prepared to leave rather than fret in insecurity, trying to find positive alternatives early rather than wait to find the sausage machine simply spewing them out at the far end. Yes it is a waste of a lot of talent and it is why the PI and institution must take responsibility for pointing out early on what a miserable pyramid the academic ‘ladder’ really is. On the other hand individual postdocs also need to keep weighing up their options in the light of changing circumstances, and ensure they are doing the best thing for themselves as individuals, not just taking the line of least resistance.

    • I think the reason PIs/bosses stress “luck” is because we (PIs) encounter a lot of people at postdoc stages who are rather down on themselves because they have not made it to a permanent post, and say “I guess it must be because I’m not good enough”.

      Another prompt for this kind of statement is the perception (which has a good dose of truth to it) among postdocs that the people now entrenched in the system as PIs came through a much easier system, and (less true, but sometimes) don’t really get this. Thus one tends to say things like:

      “Well, I was lucky, you need a bit of luck in anything, and obviously the system was less tough in those days”

      Interesting to hear that this comes over as unhelpful to some postdocs, as it is really intended helpfully, or at least to convey that we old farts, err, feel your pain. I guess the only REAL advice is to do all the right things, or as many of them as you can, and to keep trying until you feel it is time to stop and do something else.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Athene,

    I agree with you that it really should be a partnership between PI and postdoc–the postdoc needs to decided upon career goals and actively ask what he/she needs to do to meet these goals. The PI needs to give good and realistic feedback–and most importantly–a good PI needs to sometimes do what is NOT always in his/her own best interest (in the short run) by holding up postdocs, but send them on to the next level.

    I think that a postdoc should stay in a lab more than 5 years only under absolutely extraordinary circumstances. Otherwise, it’s inevitably extremely detrimental to the postdocs career–and although in the short term perhaps the PI thinks he/she may be hanging on to an experienced work force, but this almost always backfires.

    In addition, as a frequent reviewer of student and postdoc fellowships, there is always a direct component related to the mentor and his training record. Those that have students and postdocs who have successfully moved on to academic and other scientific positions score well. Those–despite the fact that they may have “trained” many postdocs–who do not have a record of training and releasing postdocs to go on elsewhere lose credit as mentors. So in the long run, thinking about the postdoc’s career before the PI’s own career can actually be beneficial.