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To Be or Not to Be a Postdoc, That Is the Question!

You've completed those last few experiments, the corrections are all done, and you've finally finished your PhD thesis! But after the general jubilation, you may suddenly find the question 'So what next?' looming over you. This is certainly what happened to me, and unfortunately the answer was a long silence, followed by a huge 'Don't know'. So after enjoying the novelty of some midweek lie-ins and the diminishing attractions of daytime television, I decided that I should probably try to find a better response.

Although there is an increasingly wide range of employment options open to students completing their PhDs, the most obvious choice for many students is still postdoctoral research. But while there is an expanding array of resources catering to 'career changers', there also seems to be an attendant lack of information for those wishing to pursue research as a career.

What are the realities of postdoc life? Although academic research has gained something of a reputation as a thankless task with relatively low pay and long hours, plenty of people do opt to continue to work in university laboratories. Is this simply due to scientists passively drifting from being PhD students to postdoctoral workers, or is there another side to research that we just don't hear very much about? It seemed it was time to undertake a more detailed investigation!

Speaking to a number of postdocs made it evident that, for many, research is in fact a rewarding and enjoyable career choice. Johanna Cornah is in her first postdoctoral position and relishes being in a job in which "I can really use my experience and my brain." She also values the relaxed atmosphere of academia. "Day to day, I enjoy the flexibility and freedom I have," she explains. "My time is really my own, as is my project and the direction I want to take it." Many people also cite the opportunities that research presents for both travelling and working abroad. But another postdoc had less of a need to travel, because "at one stage I was working surrounded by people from five continents! This meant that not only were lab meetings interesting events, but we all got to experience a little bit of a whole range of different cultures." It seems that the academic environment is certainly a unique one!

For those who are attracted by the idea of research as a career, the commercial sector may provide an interesting alternative to academia. Ranjit Kaur, a research physicist, recently completed her PhD and now works in the rapidly expanding telecommunications industry. Industrial research was always her first choice, because "[in this setting] you are motivated by the fact that the work you are doing is going to make an actual difference to the company and is not just aimed at publishing papers." Of course, the higher salary and more structured career than in academia, as well as extra benefits such as private health care and pensions, also make industry an attractive option for researchers. But ultimately what makes Kaur stick with research is "the satisfaction you derive when you have thought of something no one else has, and it works!"

So research work can have many positive aspects, but it is not a totally rosy picture--with many postdocs under huge pressures and routinely working 12-hour days. As with PhD students, the experiences of postdoctoral workers vary and often depend on the attitudes and expectations of their group leaders. One postdoc who finished her PhD 2 years ago and is currently in her second research position remarks, "In this environment there is a constant demand for results, which means it is very difficult to have any kind of life outside of the lab." She adds, "I also have very little independence to conduct experiments at my own pace or to do things like read papers, since I am continuously expected to do experimental work." She advises that, while it is obviously nice to work for people who are enthusiastic and motivated by their areas of research, in the future she would try to find a group leader who has a more balanced outlook and is able to appreciate that postdocs do have interests aside from their experiments.

So, what of my own future? It has certainly proven reassuring to find that there are many researchers out there, both in academia and industry, who thoroughly enjoy their work and could not imagine doing anything else. For them the pay and conditions of postdoctoral work are secondary to the actual science, and the elucidation of finding the final step in a signalling pathway, the function of a novel protein, or some such 'breakthrough' result is always worth the time and effort invested in it.

But I'm not sure that I really want to spend the rest of my life in a lab coat. It seems that a research career requires that you be fascinated by a tiny aspect of the area you are working in. During the course of my PhD I was always more interested in the 'bigger picture', and I'm not sure I could sustain a long-term interest in the role of a single gene, protein, or chemical. What kept me most motivated during my postgrad research was the defined goal of completing my thesis. I think I would find it hard to invest the same degree of commitment to postdoctoral research, because its aims, such as publication, have less of a personal dimension than a PhD.

But after spending almost 4 years getting my doctorate, the decision to leave the world of research is certainly not an easy one to take. I have had many positive and valuable times during these years, ranging from the achievement of solving seemingly intractable experimental problems to the experience of attending major scientific meetings, but as a postdoc would these be sufficient to compensate for the lack of job security and the demanding hours of research? Because the answer is probably no, I don't really think that postdoctoral research is right for me.

Perhaps there is a broader point to my investigation, however. Although there will always be people who are prepared to put up with just about anything to continue working in an area that they love, and who find career progression and financial reward to be lesser issues, just how long can any profession expect to rely on good will? It is evident from the pages of this Web site alone that there are many appealing alternatives for postdocs and those who have just finished their PhDs, and there must surely be an examination of the pay and working conditions of postdoctoral workers if academia expects to attract and retain new researchers.