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What is so bad about the post-doc lifestyle anyway?

  1. Apr 15, 2014 #1
    What is so bad about the "post-doc" lifestyle anyway?

    One of the reasons I've been initially considering against graduate school was the academic job market and the chances of a permanent position. However, now that I think about it, it honestly doesn't seem like a really bad deal. Getting paid 35-40K as a post-doc might actually be a good deal. If it's possible, I wouldn't mind being the "eternal" post-doc and never getting a tenure-track position.

    So, what makes the post-doc lifestyle so bad that many people on here feel that they were "forced" out of science?

    Edit: This is possibly a little naive, so forgive my ignorance if I'm way off the mark on how it really is.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2014 #2
    because 35-40k isn't very good pay, especially for the investment in hours you are putting in. I'm not post-doc, so take my advice with a grain of salt; but at some point you'll become dissatisfied with the same old thing, you'll want some room for advancement, you'll want more responsibility, more leeway with your research, more influence with grants and department direction...the list goes on
  4. Apr 15, 2014 #3
    And there are personal reasons too. Like you might want to start a family and settle down.
  5. Apr 15, 2014 #4
    Good pay is "relative", IMO. 35-40K is more than enough for me to live comfortably and still have money saved in the end.

    And how do you know I'll become dissatisfied with the same old thing, that I'll want room for advancement, more responsibility, etc? Personally, I'm not nor have I ever been an ambitious person. I can be perfectly content with the post-doc position you are describing above if those are the only real downsides to the job.

    Fortunately, I have no such interests in ever starting a family so this is a non-issue for me.
  6. Apr 15, 2014 #5
    Bear in mind that you won't have benefits either. Sure that range is livable for many, but it provides very little buffer for incidentals. What if you need to buy a new car, what if you find yourself requiring to pay legal fees at some point, what if your position at the university is no longer sustainable for (or desired by) the university?

    There's a big difference between not being ambitious and simply wanting to do more with your current position.

    Do you have loans for your education?

    Fair enough, I don't know. But I'm fairly confident. People change as they age.

    For now, but I wouldn't be so sure of how you'll feel in the future.
  7. Apr 15, 2014 #6
    I would be more than happy with that kind of pay too. But post docs are temporary positions and I wouldn't want to move around and re-apply every 2-4 years for very long. If that is something that you can do or even want then it may be a great lifestyle for you.

    Of course you will still always have the option of applying to a permanent position if you change your mind.
  8. Apr 15, 2014 #7
    There is no such thing as being an eternal postdoc. After a few postdocs nobody is going to offer you a post doc. A post doc is supposed to a stepping stone to prove yourself for a junior faculty position. The idea is to have someone who is good enough to become faculty do some work of that level for you before he/she gets a junior faculty position. If after a few postdocs you cant get a junior faculty position you will have just proven yourself as a very mediocre postdoc.
  9. Apr 15, 2014 #8
    But what if he is publishing good papers and getting grants? In my lab we had a guy who was postdocing for over 6 years because he didn't want to move. That is far from eternal, but he did good work so he was kept around.
  10. Apr 15, 2014 #9
    I'm content with driving a used, beat-up car that gets me from place to place. Unlikely I'd have to worry about that kind of thing. As for the rest of the issues you bring up, frankly those are isolated and extremely rare incidents that only need to be addressed when they arise. As I mentioned earlier, that would still be enough for me to have something saved up in case of such emergencies.

    I do, but I've done things to minimize it to the point it's trivial to pay it off once I get to that point. Even if I didn't do that, I still feel the pay is more than enough to make the student loan payments and live comfortably.

    Definitely, I don't disagree with you here. But, for now and the foreseeable future, I'm fine with being a post-doc until retirement.
  11. Apr 15, 2014 #10


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    Job Stability
    Post-doctoral positions tend to come out of grant money and last as long as the grant does, which is most cases is only a few years. After the project is over the position is gone and you have to look elsewhere. With a highly specialized academic skill set, that often means moving to another city or country. Included here is the stress of having to move and find a new job every few years. Not to mention the fact that financial uncertainty can play havoc with goals like getting and paying off a mortgage or saving for retirement.

    Becoming Obsolete
    Remeber that a lot of post-doctoral positions are there not to develop a researcher's skill set, rather to efficiently apply skills that already exist. So on top of the project work, you also have to make sure that you're staying on top of your field to compete for the next job. In a hot field, there likely won't be any shortage of fresh PhDs to compete against.

    Other Opportunities
    It's also important to think in terms of relatives instead of absolutes. Most people naturally want to advance in their careers. It's one thing to say that you'd be happy with a $40k salary right now while you're a student. It's another when your peers are all making more than you and the opportunity comes along to double your salary for half the work. Remember it's not like you make the decision once and live with the consequences. This is a decision you face every time a better opportunity comes along. And it's not just about money either. Eventually you get to a point where the people your age in the department are all professors and you're still a post-doc.

    In the end, these may not actually apply to you specifically. For some, life as an eternal post-doc really isn't all that bad. They get to do work they like. They end up with some stability because they get in with a group that has lots of funding over the long term and they have desireable skills sets.

    I think one of the key messages to get from people who are vocal about feeling forced out of science is simply to be aware of the situation that you're facing... not that you shouldn't necessarily pursue science as a career.
  12. Apr 15, 2014 #11
    Strange, as I see many people in the astrophysics and particle physics groups at my school that are about as old as the tenured professors and I can only assume they've been spending that time doing post-docs after completing their PhD. Correct me if I'm wrong, but from what I've heard and read, people can continue to do post-docs as long as they are qualified to continue doing research.

    Otherwise, that begs the question: What happens to the vast majority of these PhD's who can't get another post-doc? Are you telling me that the average PhD who completed a few post-docs is then forced out of academia completely and must now retrain in a completely different career? Because, simply put, the vast majority of PhDs will not get a permanent position in academia. So, what happens to them then?
  13. Apr 15, 2014 #12
    I think if you read around this forum you will find they do exactly what you suggest. They retrain in a different career. Hopefully for them one that is somewhat aligned with their preexisting skill set.
  14. Apr 15, 2014 #13
    I'm generally aware of these as it comes with the job description of being a post-doc, so I've taken this well into account already.

    I'm glad I'm not "most people". Fortunately, I don't have much material needs and only really desire shelter, food, and some extra to pursue a few inexpensive hobbies. As for peers, I really do doubt that other physics post-docs will be doing much better as that group is what I would only describe as my "peers" if I were to ever get to that point. Also, I highly doubt that the opportunity would present it self to double my salary for half the work. That type of opportunity never presents itself to the average physics PhD that's toiling away in academia, and even if it did, it's almost always to be a job that is not doing physics or research and I have absolutely no interest in such jobs even if they were to pay 10 times as much.

    This would be the best case scenario and I hope I get there someday assuming I decide to continue on to graduate studies (which is becoming more and more likely as the days go on).

    Agreed. In fact, one of the primary reasons I initially decided against graduate school was entirely based on the horror stories and articles I've read about the state of science and academic jobs these days. While a permanent academic job would be perfect, I realize it's more fantasy than reality and I'd still be perfectly happy and content with a career as a post-doc.
  15. Apr 15, 2014 #14
    From what I gather, they all seemed to have the options of remaining in academia as post-docs but were completely disillusioned by the lifestyle which is why they left academia altogether. As far as I know, none of them were completely "forced out" as the above poster seems to be suggesting.
  16. Apr 15, 2014 #15


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    there are also non-tenure track positions above a post-doc (research scientist, asst/assoc/full research professor, etc) that you can be promoted to.
  17. Apr 15, 2014 #16
    It sounds like you've made up your mind, Dragoon. That's cool, go for it.

    You'll be a very highly trained individual working for peanuts and virtually no benefits. Hopefully you'll choose an area of research that benefits society and/or mankind. I appreciate the benefits that science can provide, and you'll be providing them on the cheap. That's good for me, and if you enjoy it, then I guess everyone wins.

    Personally, I couldn't do it. I, too, don't need much in the way of stuff (though I do appreciate having a family). It's the unfairness that would get to me. You'll be making 1/3rd of what other people with similar educational investments make. While they fight off recruiters, you'll be begging for a job every few years. They'll be promoted, you'll be a perpetual postdoc. They'll be putting away 50% of your pay into their 401k, and still enjoying amenities that you can't afford.

    I just wouldn't be able to put up with the difference in outcome for similar investments. So years ago I became the them, and years from now you'll get to be the you. And hopefully you'll be happy, and everyone wins.

    But I'd bet a dollar it won't work out that way.
  18. Apr 15, 2014 #17
    Institutions occasionally have "research staff member" positions which tend to go to people who are good researchers but exceptionally awful at teaching classes or have absolutely no interest in teaching even if it means not being a professor.
  19. Apr 15, 2014 #18
    This depends significantly on where you live. Have you lived on your own? I see you have HS listed as ed background. I assume you are currently living in dorms or a first/second apartment at college. You may not understand how much living costs.

    If you live in a place where people don't want to live, this is decent pay. I have a friend who bought a house in rural KY on a salary in this range. If you live in a nice city, you will have roommates and little to no savings. I live in Boston and make about $40k teaching high school (no Ph.D, just BS). If I didn't have a girlfriend who owns a car and splits the rent in a one bedroom apartment, I would be alive and paying my loans, but nothing more. It would not be comfortable. That being said, you won't be doing anything other than somebody else's research, so you could just sleep in your office:smile:

    I'm not going to argue about research being more or less fulfilling if you get to decide what it is. You may be happy having less control. But you should do some research on cost of living. Remember, you pay rent, heat, electricity, cable (at least for internet), food, health insurance, car insurance, gas, a few hundred for loans every month*, and ... taxes. In no uncertain terms, I could not live in the Boston area without roommates and would probably need 3 roommates to be able to save money.

    I am honestly not trying to convince you against going the academia route, but you should make the decision after doing some research. Also, I think that a lot of Ph.Ds in physics work for government labs, industry, or banks. Every physicist I know has done at least some time in one of those and have many friends that didn't return to academia (by choice or not).

    *I had about $45k and pay almost $600 a month with mostly subsidized loans.
  20. Apr 15, 2014 #19


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  21. Apr 15, 2014 #20


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    People found it bad because it is not in line with their expectations. If you know what the lifestyle is like and still think you will enjoy it, then there is nothing wrong with it.
  22. Apr 15, 2014 #21


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    Stanford limits postdoc positions to 5 years. http://postdocs.stanford.edu/admin/how-to/reappointments.html

    Yale limits postdoc positions to 6 years. http://postdocs.yale.edu/faculty/reappointing-postdoc

    See also http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/component/content/article/51-npa-advance-/410-advance-clearinghouse-oversight [Broken]: "Establish limits for total time as a postdoc".
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  23. Apr 16, 2014 #22
    I think this is the overarching theme here. The thing driving people out of science apart from lack of abundant permanent positions is insatisfaction with pay. Looks like it affects primarily graduates that come from middle-high backgrounds particularly in the US, where all of their family members and peers make more than they do for significantly less investment in their education. Peer-pressure to earn is alive and well here.

    I don't know how many times I've read in this forum things along the lines of "anything less than 50k is not worth my time". With only a few exceptions, I think most people with the background I described genuinely feel entitled for that kind of pay, especially if they're college-educated. It is no surprise a good fraction of the post-doc market is not made up from people with these kinds of expectations (rather East Asian, Eastern + Southern European, and South American)

    I do happen to think 35-40k is fairly decent, and at least at some US schools (and most in the old continent), health and paternal benefits are included. FYI, I am not a teen living in dorms, I am in my late 20's and have rented out my own apartments/shared them for the past 6 years. I know full-well the actual cost of living in a mega city like London, which totally surpasses the living costs in most big US cities, and living in a place like that with $30k (or ~20k quid sterling) is very doable if you don't insist on owning a car (which would be a pointless exercise in a city like that anyway).

    To me, the post-doc lifestyle looks very similar to that of a traveling musician or artist. The difference is your paychecks are guaranteed for 2-3 years instead of a few months (a tour), and you don't need an extra 'day job' when you're not touring or recording to cover your living expenses. The experience also probably counts more towards a future job than flying/driving around countries in a mini-van for gigs. Your chances of getting a better job afterwards are almost certainly better, but your appeal towards members of the opposite sex is a lot worse. There's always something...
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2014
  24. Apr 16, 2014 #23
    Really? I can't ever remember reading that in this forum outside this thread.
  25. Apr 16, 2014 #24
    Can we establish that you cant do a post doc forever. At some point you are going to need to get a permanent research position like "staff member" or the few research only professorships. If you cant get those than you are going to get squeezed out.
  26. Apr 16, 2014 #25
    I think we already have established that.

    Had to search for it, I deserve a cookie:


    and I think that is a very pervasive opinion in the US especially among those with higher education.

    http://www.accenture.com/SiteCollectionDocuments/PDF/Accenture-2013-College-Graduate-Employment-Survey.pdf [Broken]

    and more specifically STEM majors' expectations:

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
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