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To Postdoc or not to Postdoc?

By Dr. Kristiina Aasa

For this blog I am going to reach out of my comfort zone of strictly talking about ultrasound and discuss some issues faced by early researchers (including myself to some degree).  Be warned, I am not strictly talking about science here, so my personal opinions and experiences will be shared.

As the final experiments of your PhD finally come to a close you may get filled with all sorts of different emotions. Elated because you are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and gone are the days of desperately checking on your animals every weekend morning. Anxious about the prospect of writing an entire thesis… and defending it! Not to mention unsettled, because you know that soon you will need to decide what your next move will be (especially if you are indecisive like me). Toughing it out on the long road to an academic position or turning to “the dark side” of industry… or maybe an alternate route like a highly sought after government position?

After completing 10 years of post-secondary education and at the ripe old age of 30 I found myself very resistant to the idea of entering another chapter as a “trainee” and enduring 3-5 years (or likely more) as a postdoc. These days, unfortunately, that seems to be the typical scenario even for the best of researchers aiming to stay in academia. A 2013 Canadian study on postdocs conducted by CAPS and MITACS describes these early researchers as being “adults in the middle of their lives, but at the beginning of their careers”, which I thought was very well put, and something I struggled with. Two thirds of post-doctoral scholars earn a meager average annual salary under $45,000, and this does not always include health and dental benefits1. This can be a bit hard to swallow for such a highly educated, well-trained group of individuals, especially with a huge pile of student debt many have acquired over the years in tow.

The next career step may also be difficult to see, as many scientists undergo several postdoc positions and the time can climb up closer to 10 years before a faculty position in some cases. Kendall Powell published an article last year in Nature nicely describing the issues facing the postdoctoral system. In the US there has been a 150% increase in the number of postdocs from 2000 to 2012, and yet availability of full-time faculty positions has remained stable, or even decreased in some areas! In the US only 15-20 % of postdocs eventually move onto a full-time, tenured faculty position, a situation that is even more extreme in places like the UK2. This bottle-neck is something many PhD candidates are agonizingly aware of, and may contribute to additional stress when trying to decide on the right career path after convocation. Personally, I had no qualms with joining the “dark side” after completing my PhD, and the stats on being a postdoc certainly reinforced my decision.

There have been many recommendations over the years on how to solve the problem of the postdoc… increase salary minimums, mandate a cap on the total length of time spent as a postdoc, creating more “staff scientist” positions and even limiting the number of available postdoc positions. Yet the issue still remains, and from my research, without any sense of real improvement. If you want to share your opinions on postdoc’ing or maybe even your success story please find us on Twitter,Instagram, LinkedIN or Facebook (links for or social media are at the bottom of the page)!

 

1. Mitchell, J.S., Walker, V.E., Annan, R.B., Corkery, T.C., Goel, N., Harvey, L., Kent, D.G., Peters, J., Vilches, S.L. 2013. The 2013 Canadian Postdoc Survey: Painting a Picture of Canadian Postdoctoral Scholars. Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and Mitacs.

2. Powell, K. (1985). The future of the postdoc. Nature520(7546), 144–147. http://doi.org/10.1136/vr.117.21.563

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