Is a postdoc worth it? It can be, if you use it strategically.
Recently, I came across a passage in the book Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover that I think perfectly captures the nature of finding one’s place in the world. When talking about all the decisions that go into making a life, Westover makes the following analogy:
“Decided. Choices (that people make, together and on their own), numberless as grains of sand, had layered, compressed, coalescing into sediment, then into rock, until all was set in stone.”
Truly, the choices we make throughout our life ultimately shape and define us. Some choices may seem small and trivial (grains of sand) but they compound over time. The choice to pursue a postdoc is certainly not a trivial one but some of the experiences that accompany it can add up to have an impact on one’s career trajectory, often in unexpected ways.
The most pressing decision for the majority of late-stage graduate students is whether to pursue postdoctoral training. Long the default for those Ph.D.s interested in careers in academia, the postdoctoral fellowship, especially in the sciences has become ubiquitous and a virtually expected next step after graduate school. Even for graduate students interested in careers in industry, many are told that employers want to see postdoctoral experience before offering them a job. Nevertheless, graduate students should definitely consider the value of a postdoc to their own career goals before committing to a few (or often more) years of training.
If you love doing research, a postdoc can seem like a great thing as there are no longer pesky classes and dissertation committee meetings: it is all about the science. However, there are clear short-term financial costs to pursuing a postdoc as a well-publicized 2017 study found, estimating that 15 years into their careers, former postdoc researchers earned a total salary ~20% less than non-postdocs across a variety of sectors (non-tenure track academic research, government/nonprofit, industry). While this number is somewhat depressing, I am about to use a cliché but one I whole-heartedly believe in when it comes to the postdoctoral experience: it’s not all about the money.
Obviously, it is not about the money while you are in a postdoc and clearly one’s particular family situation may prompt you to look for a higher salary than that of a postdoc after you complete your Ph.D.; I realize my perspective as a mobile, single, relatively young man is different than many others. To summarize my personal experience on the matter, I have found my 4 (going on 5) years as a postdoc to be a great experience that helped me grow as a person. During this time I have done cool science that will hopefully have an impact on human health, learned a variety of new techniques and skills (both “hard/technical” and “soft”; including leadership skills in the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association), and discovered more about what I desire for my life. In addition, I used my time as a postdoc to explore a variety of career options via informational interviews and on-campus sessions as part of Vanderbilt’s BEST Program: ASPIRE and greatly expanded my professional network by attending a variety of local and national conferences (on topics ranging from Healthcare to Data Science to Neuroscience). I also honed my written or oral communication by volunteering to write/blog for a variety of outlets and never saying no to an invitation to talk about my research work (which I have done at conferences, universities, on Twitter, and at a local science club in Nashville). These varied experiences have shaped who I now am. I didn’t come to this postdoc thinking all of these experiences would happen to me but they did and I am a better person for experiencing them. From these experiences, I know I can write effectively, speak publicly, organize meetings, work as part of a team, and plan and execute a variety of projects, all skills that will be valuable in whatever career I pursue post postdoc.
Furthermore, and while it will vary from lab to lab, I have to say that my postdoctoral experience has also given me the ability to live a flexible life. I can take a few weeks off between Christmas and New Years to visit with my parents and sisters, take a week off in the summer to go to the beach with family and friends, or take a Friday off to get a jumpstart on a weekend trip.
There is a saying that life is often a tradeoff between time and money, you will often have too much of one but not enough of the other.
While this is certainly not always true, I feel like my position as a postdoc, while not giving me the best monetary reward, gave and still gives me a lot of flexibility and a good work-life balance. It is hard to put a price on that. As my parents get older, I am keenly aware that I should take the time when I can to visit them and other family members. My choice to do a flexible postdoc (as opposed to working in the corporate, 9-5 always “on” world) has given me the ability to make time for family.
Obviously, a postdoc should eventually come to an end and I think one shouldn’t stay too long. It is easy to get complacent but this position should be a temporary “stepping stone” to bigger and better things. For me, the postdoc expanded my view of what my life could be. I was pretty convinced a faculty job was what I wanted and while that still could be a good career for me, I have come to learn there are so many more opportunities out there for Ph.D.s. Furthermore, I have found a few “alternative” (horrible wording) careers that I think I would not only be good at but also would give purpose and meaning to my life. As I mentioned in my first BEST Blog post, everyone is looking for those two things in life: purpose and meaning. My postdoc has helped me to find what that might look like for me. While I haven’t completely gone down any of these available career paths (more on these in my next post) fully just yet, I think I could be happy and fulfilled taking any of them.