The Disadvantages and Benefits of a Postdoc in Science

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You've spent seemingly endless years as a student and even completed the dissertation you thought would haunt you forever. Now that you finally have the highest attainable academic degree, you're probably wondering what your next step should be. Obviously employment would be the best and most desirable path to take, but it can come in many forms. Postdoctoral fellowships are one popular option, especially for individuals in the life and physical sciences.

According to a report from the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), "Recent Ph.D.s pursue postdoctoral positions out of necessity to promote their career development and improve employment opportunities." However, the NPA was formed in 2003 specifically to address poor working conditions and make improvements in postdoc policy for universities and research institutions in the United States.

A postdoctoral fellowship is a temporary training and research position for recent recipients of doctoral degrees and is intended to provide research and publishing opportunities, as well as further training and skills. Getting paid to learn and pursue your career goals under the supervision of a mentor of your choice sounds like a good deal, but there are some disadvantages as well. In fact, postdoctoral fellowships have a somewhat unfavorable reputation in general, thanks in part to some of the horror stories that circulate about overly demanding or entirely unconcerned advisors.

Unfortunately, there are potential downsides to postdocs that go beyond unpleasant supervisors. For starters, the salary of a postdoc is considerably less than that of a faculty member. In 2001 the National Institutes of Health promised to increase postdoc stipends by at least 10% each year. For the past two years, however, the stipend has remained the same. Since most institutions base their postdoc salaries on NIH’s National Research Service Award stipends, a lot of postdocs are receiving substantially lower salaries than their work warrants.

Another disadvantage of being a postdoc is the temporary nature of the position. A given fellowship can last anywhere from a few months to a few years, but many researchers spend years in a slew of consecutive fellowships before making it to a faculty position or a full-time position in the sector of their choice. Despite the importance of their research, many postdocs end up feeling out of place and unrecognized, as they do not get the respect or rights of a faculty member, but are also not considered students.

Add to that the fact that there is a considerable lack of uniformity in the conditions under which postdocs are employed. According to an editorial in Nature Genetics, "In the absence of adequate oversight, postdocs have come to be seen as a cheap form of manual and intellectual labor." Though the NPA has made efforts to establish guidelines for the employment status and duties of a postdoc, there is still significant room for confusion as to the rights and roles of a postdoctoral researcher. This serves to make it easier for universities and other research institutions to abuse their power over postdocs.

Despite such issues most Ph.D.s do take up positions as postdoctoral fellows. According to a September 2007 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 70% of physics Ph.D.s take postdoctoral positions, up 27% since 2000. The reality is that the job market for careers in science, especially within academia, is tough. In 2006 11% of science, engineering, and health doctorates cited "Other employment not available" as the reason they took postdoc positions, according to a survey by the National Science Foundation. Among engineers alone that number rose to 23%. There is also an increasing trend across universities in which the number of tenured and tenure-track professors is decreasing, along with the percentage of postdocs that move on to become faculty. The number of young scientists vying for research grants and fellowships is therefore disproportionate to the number of positions and the amount of money available.

But for aspiring scientists and researchers who genuinely love what they do, the advantages of postdoctoral fellowships can far outweigh the drawbacks. Many postdocs are given the opportunity to spend most, if not all, of their time dedicated to research, whereas faculty members spend a lot of time on teaching and preparation. Publication opportunities also appeal to potential postdocs. The NPA lists publication as one of the characteristics of a postdoctoral appointment and notes that postdocs are expected to have the freedom to publish their results. Those who have the foresight to research potential advisors and their track records with other postdocs may have the added perk of working under someone who can help them along in their careers and teach them valuable skills.

Though the ungenerous salary of a postdoc can be a disincentive to some thinking about a career in scientific research, those with a true passion for the field will recognize the benefits that a postdoctoral fellowship can afford them, as well as the utility of such a position in a competitive market.
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