These studies offer a realistic view of postdoc life—and guidance for making career decisions that work for you

If you care about postdocs, the general dearth of reliable information about them is probably a continuing frustration. It’s encouraging, therefore, to report on two recent studies that offer useful insights. Though disparate in their aims and approaches, the studies reflect the exploitation of postdocs—both financially and through the generally unattainable academic career aspirations that many harbor—that continues to undergird the structure of academic research in the United States. But suggestions also emerge about how postdocs can equip themselves to cope with the changing career conditions they are likely to face.

By the numbers

In 2016, 7603 postdocs from 351 U.S. institutions answered an online survey developed by postdocs at the University of Chicago in Illinois. The findings, posted to bioRxiv in June, represent “the most comprehensive data on the U.S. postdoc population to date,” the authors write. The survey respondents were self-selected, so it’s not clear how accurately this sample represents the total postdoc population. But the respondents split almost equally between U.S. citizens and noncitizens and between women and men, with men 14 percentage points likelier to be on temporary visas. The survey spanned all fields, but just over half of the respondents—55%—were life scientists. Racially and ethnically, 60% of the postdocs identified as white/Caucasian, with smaller percentages identifying as Asian/Asian-American (25%), Hispanic/Latino (7%), and black/African-American (3%).

Gender influences how people experience their postdocs, the article’s authors conclude, with men advantaged in several respects. Perhaps not surprisingly, 71% of postdocs had male mentors and men were more than twice as likely to have mentors of their own gender as women. This matters because female mentors appear to help women in science and engineering develop greater confidence, motivation, and sense of belonging than do mentors of the opposite sex. Men were also 9 percentage points likelier to have children and 5 percentage points likelier to have a spouse or partner, who may provide additional sources of emotional and social support in facing the challenges of the postdoc years. 

Most postdocs earned between $39,000 and $55,000, with 5% reporting earnings below $39,000 and 10% above $55,000. Women earned $1200 less than men, on average, and that difference persisted even after controlling for factors such as years since degree and marital status. Some of that wage gap may be due to pay differences between fields, the authors note, as men were more likely to hold degrees in engineering or the physical sciences, which pay better than the life sciences. 

Postdocs in large metropolitan areas earned more than those in rural areas or college towns, but after accounting for living costs, their salaries on average were worth roughly $7000 less. Clearly, choosing to do a postdoc, especially in a high-cost area, entails financial sacrifice for scientists who could earn considerably more outside academe. For many, the generally unrealistic hope of an academic career is one factor that motivates postdocs to endure financial hardship.

In fact, faculty jobs were the top career choice for 58% of the surveyed postdocs. Only 18% favored more lucrative industrial research, while smaller proportions hoped for other jobs, such as teaching-focused academic careers and government or nonprofit work. Men and noncitizens more heavily favored academic research careers, and postdocs with mentors from outside academe tended to prefer the government or nonprofit realms. Postdocs with academic ambitions tended to have published more papers, attended more conferences, reported working more hours per week, and perceived greater support from their mentors than counterparts not aiming for careers in academe.

Building identity

The career ambitions of postdocs are malleable, though, and can be shaped by changes to their sense of identity, according to a study that interviewed 19 postdocs at an unnamed research university in the United States. The study explores how postdocs develop science identity, defined as “one’s conception of oneself as a scientist,” amidst what the authors describe as the ambiguity of the postdoc role—no longer a student but not yet a full-fledged professional—and the “marginalized” and “isolated” position that many postdocs occupy in their departments and campuses. Postdocs’ success or failure in developing a solid science identity “will influence their future career paths,” the authors add.   

That’s because the content of an individual’s science identity can crucially shape “what she or he envisions as possible and desirable” and thus can strongly affect such decisions as whether to stay or leave academic research, the authors write. The opinions of the established researchers whom postdocs know and admire often play major roles in forming postdocs’ science identities and their conceptions of “acceptable” career paths. For example, many postdocs view leaving academe as betraying the ideal of science—a belief that has proven problematic for many who find themselves unable to attain their desired academic career because of the shortage of faculty openings. 

But not all postdocs hold that view. And some of the interviews show how other forms of science identity can help postdocs think more broadly about other career options. For example, one postdoc observed that industrial research is a better way to fulfill their “childhood dream” of being a scientist because it would allow them to spend more time designing experiments and collecting data. Tasks central to the professorial role—teaching, mentoring, and applying for funding—weren’t as enjoyable for that particular postdoc and thus detracted from the appeal of faculty careers. Another postdoc added that, given the insecurity of academic funding, laboratory work in a pharmaceutical company would offer a far more secure path to spending one’s time actually doing science.

Cultivating a science identity that admits such considerations appears likely to help postdocs move toward nonacademic careers with more confidence and self-regard. Postdoctoral offices, departments, and administrators, the article’s authors recommend, “should incorporate explicit attention to issues of science identity in professional development programming for postdocs” and educate faculty mentors about the importance of guiding postdocs toward building strong and resilient conceptions of themselves as scientists.

There’s a message in this for postdocs, too, and even for graduate students: Take note of your developing conception of yourself as a scientist, and especially of any assumptions—even unconscious—about the nature of “legitimate” scientific work that might needlessly constrain your choices or limit options. A science identity that admits a degree of flexibility seems likely to prove useful, especially in the challenging and unpredictable professional environments that many scientists appear likely to encounter.

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