Found yourself in the ‘Postdoc Trap’? In this blog, Martin Bloxham investigates this phenomenon – what it is and how to get out of it.
I was 33, I’d completed my PhD and I was doing my second Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship. And I felt trapped. I didn’t have a name for it then – I don’t think the expression the ‘Postdoc Trap’ had entered common parlance – but I knew what it felt like. When I talk with academic scientists now, I often hear them talk about the same challenges I faced back in 1996. As a matter of fact, I’ve just searched the term postdoc trap on Google and there are plenty of hits with terms like ‘escape’, ‘avoid and ‘ruin’.
In 2010 The Royal Society published a policy document titled The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity1. Within the document there is a sobering infographic on careers in and outside of science that has stuck with me for a number of years.
The upshot of this is – only 1 in 200 PhD students will ultimately achieve the role of Professor and only 7 will find any permanent research position in a university. And the kicker here? There will be upwards of 60 PhD students doing early career research, many stuck in the postdoc trap.
Interestingly, the postdoc trap is different things to different post docs. For me it was the feeling that I’d painted myself into a corner. There was nowhere else to go apart from academia. For many, it’s because they are passionate about their research and want to pursue it into the future – whatever the risks. We were recently working with a fantastic group of postdocs at a very prestigious research university. Some were on their first post doc, others had been at it for 10 years or more and were getting grants, running small research groups, and writing high impact papers. Every one of them was passionate about their science. All of them were on short term contracts. Most were chasing the elusive permanent academic position.
In 2018, the US National Academies of Science2 published a report that showed that postdocs regularly contended with low pay, poor training and mediocre career prospects, spending years moving from one short-term contract to the next as they wait for scarce academic jobs to open up.
A challenging blog article by the Isaiah Hankel, PhD (better known as the Cheeky Scientist)3 identified The” Top 5 Reasons You Should Quit Your Postdoc”. These were:
- Your ridiculously low salary.
- You will not become a professor.
- You will end up in an industry job anyway.
- You already have the skills to excel in an industry position.
- You can be well-paid and do meaningful work in an industry position.
So why do people get stuck in the trap? Again, it comes back to the passion for the research that most scientists in academia have. Compounding this is the lack of career advice given to PhD students and postdocs. Oh, and then there’s the elephant in the room. The academic system benefits from this situation – it can pick from the best and it gets an abundance of cheap labour to teach undergraduates, and to help develop and deliver research.
What’s the solution to the Postdoc Trap then?
According to Andy Stapleton, a long term post doc who now creates YouTube content in which he advises others in making decisions about their PhD career, there are two ways to avoid the post doc trap – get an academic position or leave academia. I like the purity of this argument.
He suggests that if you want to stay in academia you need to excel in at least 3 of the following 4 criteria:
- Your publication record needs to be in the top 10% in your field
- You need to be seen to be bringing in grant money – not just living off others grants
- Your research needs to align with your academic institutions’ research priorities – also do you offer what your dept wants? Or needs?
- Do you have a good reputation – both within your academic institution and outside – are you known?
But for many, leaving isn’t easy. In a Guardian Newspaper Letter in 2015, Athene Donald of the Royal Society wrote: “we must dispel the myths that a PhD leads to a job for life, and to leave academia is to fail”. I completely agree (I suppose I would as I’m one of the leavers…).
So, if you feel you are in the Postdoc Trap, what can you do? Here are 4 suggestions:
- Take control. It’s your professional life. Decide what you want. It’s very easy to get into a fixed mindset around this subject so remember:
- You have options,
- You have a unique skill set
- You would be seen as an asset in many organisations outside of academia.
- Start this thinking early. Don’t leave it until your current research contract is about to run out. Make it a project and give it the same attention you would give any other work project.
- Research your options – Think widely. There are many organisations outside of academia that require highly skilled PhD students and postdocs including research organisations, government agencies, the consulting sector, industry, the NGO community etc.
- Build your network – the earlier you start this, the stronger it will get. Consider, who’s in your network now? Who should be in your network? How can you expand your network? What do you need to do to improve your networking capabilities? Ultimately, it’s the people in your network who will help you make connections, signpost opportunities and provide advice.
- Consider getting some one-to-one coaching to develop your career – Coaching is a supportive, thought-provoking and creative process the purpose of which is to help you to maximise your personal and professional potential.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but as I’ve gone through the process of researching and writing this piece, I’ve realised that I did take these steps. Perhaps not in the order above, and it was a continuing work in progress over a number of years, but I did it. You can too.
1. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, 2010, RS Policy document 02/10, ISBN 978-0-85403-818-3
2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through. The National Academies Press, ISBN 978-0-309-47137-4
3. Isaiah Hankel, 2023, 5 Ways A Postdoc Will Ruin Your Career, Blog, https://cheekyscientist.com/5-ways-a-postdoc-will-ruin-your-career/
4. Andy Stapleton, 2023, Escaping the Postdoc Trap – Your Only Options, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4REKdEbkeY
5. Athene Donald, 2015, A PhD is for life, not just for academia, The Guardian Letters, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/apr/23/phd-for-life-not-just-for-academia-uk