Into the Bottleneck

Liquid dripping from bottle
Photography credit: Karen Maraj

Fall 2016 | Greer Arthur

A brutal fact of academic life is that there are a too few permanent positions available for the legions of postdoctoral researchers fighting to fill them. The result is a bottleneck, and for the vast majority who do not manage to trickle through to the next stage of their career, staying stuck in a postdoc bubble seems like the only other option. Is it right to ever accept defeat and leave?

By the time you make it through your thesis defense examination and hear that you have passed, bumbling headfirst into a new project as a postdoc feels like a refreshing new start. Your brain is still bustling with the mistakes and frustrations of your PhD – but it’s OK. This time you are well prepared. You have learned from the multitude of lessons that your last degree had to teach you and you know precisely what you are here to do. The academic career path that lies before you looks challenging, but your foot is on the road and you can see a straight line to the next stage. What could stop you?

Fast forward to a few years later. Suddenly that route is not quite so arrow-straight. In fact, it’s starting to curve into more of a ring-road, making it hard to see whether you have made it much further along than where you first began. As time moves on, you become consciously aware that your career momentum is dissolving and you risk getting trapped in a sticky postdoc cycle.

This experience is by no means a singular one. In 2009, Sheldon Schuster reported that according to the National Institutes of Health, 42 was the average age for researchers to obtain first-time grants – strong evidence for the severe limitations preventing career advancement through academia. Today, influential publishers such as Nature, Times Higher Education and Science discuss continually the clog in the postdoc system and the impenetrable mass of contributory problems. While more PhD students are fed into the system, a combination of poor economic climate and severely limited tenured and full-time faculty positions has caused the postdoctoral population to swell. In biology research in the US in 2012, only 15% of PhD students migrated into tenure-track faculty positions within 6 years. According to previous studies, fewer than 10% of PhD students obtain tenure-track faculty positions despite more than half of the graduate student population having aspirations of achieving a professorship.

As the problem compounds, institutions have proposed solutions such as rearranging laboratory structures and increasing the number of permanent staff. Additionally, it still remains predictable that a researcher will fulfill a postdoctoral appointment if they intend to pursue a full-time career in academia; if newly graduated PhDs were presented with options other than the postdoctoral default, this could release some of the building pressure.

But for postdocs today, for whom any solution remains dismayingly distant, taking a place in the ever-expanding queue for tenure-track and permanent positions seems inevitable. For those of us in line right now and waiting for something that might never happen, is it right to give up and jump ship?

The notion of giving up a PhD is one of the first barriers against leaving academia. Years of hard work, stress, long hours and frequent sprinklings of emotional turmoil make the degree something to be proud of and hold on to. Without the challenge of daily research, everything you have learned so far would surely go to waste.

What’s more, an exit from academia feels like slipping back down the career ladder to somewhere unknown – a huge and incalculable risk. You’ll be competing against fresh-faced, cherry-cheeked graduates energetically springing out from their undergraduate degree with an up-to-date view of the job market. For you, the last few years of your life have been spent in research, not fluffing up your CV with employer-enticing morsels. The outside world is not run by a currency of papers, publications and grants, so your job-hunting and interview toolkit appears ill-equipped and useless.

Finally, even if you do take a wary glimpse of jobs on a search engine, you have absolutely no idea what to look for. Titles such as “Project Manager”, “Principal Scientific Officer” and “Operations Manager” seem generic and drearily unfamiliar. Every vacancy also seems to be routed through a recruitment agency, making you feel even more disconnected from your potential interviewer. The postdoc bubble might be frustrating and exhausting, but at least it is familiar.

An essential part of survival is recognizing when it is time to let go, and a vital part of allowing that to happen is recognizing that it is not necessarily a bad thing to do. A career switch seems frightening, but any change takes time, and trying something completely different is never pointless.

Leaving the academic route is not something that all postdocs should do, of course. Those determined enough to reach permanent faculty jobs are under no illusions that this will be easy, and know long hours and repeated letdowns lie ahead. But postdocs without this burning desire to persist are a far cry from failure, and are by no means unsuitable for science and research. Research provides an exemplary platform for problem-solving, and is a highly sought after skill to have mastered. The field in which postdocs learn this proficiency is, for the most part, inconsequential, and the very nature of this ability allows them to adapt to any future situation. Few arenas other than research teach individuals how to think, critically assess and troubleshoot to such an extensive degree. In research, it quickly becomes impossible and insufficient to be spoon-fed knowledge.

With this in mind, suddenly your interview toolkit does not seem quite so impoverished. There is more to research than churning out data and papers. While your publication list may not have the same weight outside academia, as a researcher you also possess an impressive arsenal of invaluable technical and analytical experience and specialist knowledge, as well as non-cognitive qualities such as the tenacious mentality to deal with repeated setbacks and tackle seemingly insolvable problems.

By reassessing your flourishing skillset you can also start to visualize how an employer might hope to put those qualities to use. And yet for many postdocs, taking the time to sit back and think about this can be challenging. In the fast-paced world of research it is all too easy to become consumed by the relentless pressures of publishing data, so much so that the pursuit of extracurricular activities can slither down the priority list or disappear altogether. But when the grant ends many postdocs can be left blinking into the headlights of the oncoming employment gap. By seeing it as an essential part of career progression, time spent improving other areas of your CV begins to climb to a higher priority position.

Non-research-based activities come in all shapes and sizes and rather than being a distraction from research, should instead be viewed as an essential attribute to postdoc life, not simply because they will improve your appeal in the non-academic job market, but also because the institution each postdoc belongs to is built on a vast mechanistic framework, the functioning cogs of which are in prime position for any inquisitive postdocs to access. Delving into these hidden workings can reveal previously unrealized interests or talents – a flair for interdisciplinary communication might be useful for outreach programs or establishing institutional collaborations, for instance; holding positions in various association, regulatory or legislative committees not only provides a fundamental opportunity to network and have a voice in more than your own research project, but also to witness the crucial organization and backbone of the institution. Showing this initiative and learning how things are done are translatable and precious assets in the job market. Mingling with non- research staff in your own establishment can expose potentially interesting job titles that you never even considered.

Other worthwhile ventures can be subtly embedded in postdoctoral life. Contributing to peer-reviewing of pre-publication papers boosts critical thinking and increases awareness of frontline research, but also lends itself to editorial and publication companies, which benefit enormously from the experience retained by postdoctoral researchers. Useful insights into alternative careers can also be found in the form of internships, temporary positions that should not only be considered by pre-graduates, but by anyone wanting to test unfamiliar waters. Doors into obscure fields such as policy work, technology transfer and licensing can be opened via internships, and afford quintessential meeting grounds with prospective employers. Training seminars and corporate workshop days offer similar opportunities, and also supply glimpses of what different jobs involve and which skills are required.

As such a prized commodity, allocating time to career-related activities must be done carefully and wisely. Remaining glued to the research bench during all waking hours is not the most beneficial nor efficient way of furthering a career, particularly if a route out of academia after a postdoctoral appointment is being considered. Nurturing your skill-set should be a continuous task and will allow you to gain a better perspective of your expertise.

Postdoctoral researchers build up a resilient mindset and obtain the ability to rebut defeat and reject the idea of quitting. This in itself is priceless, but when combined with an inquisitive ability to learn and adapt, as opposed to rigidly gathering knowledge and staying put, a postdoctorate will have a more potent influence on whatever they choose to do.

At NC State, the impressive diversity of research disciplines provides an ideal proxy for postdocs from all arenas to enhance not only their academic experience, but also build a lucrative stockpile of skills. So, for researchers who are contemplating work in the outside world, it is not so much about giving up and leaving the academic queue, it is more about realizing the profound impact you can have, acknowledging your strengths and seeking out your next task, no matter where it might be.