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Sidestep the 'post-doc trap' by never starting up a career in research in the first place
My Experiences and Advice
Member Name: worst_trip
My Experiences and Advice
Advantages: You might be working in a field that interests you, although on balance, most probably not
Disadvantages: No job security; scarce funding; competitiveness of the job market; reliance on senior academics
I write this from the rather jaundiced personal viewpoint of being a failed research scientist, so I feel well qualifed to comment certainly on the cons of this particular 'career path'.
Having graduated top of my class with a first class degree in the hopelessly useless but very interersting subject of zoology, I went on to complete a PhD on - essentially wildlife management - which was funded by a three-year university scholarship. Unfortunately the PhD took me five years to complete - which is not at all unusual in this field, where obtaining data is often strongly dependent on seasonal working. My university fees had been paid by the original scholarship, but there were no additional funds available for my day to day living expenses - hence for the last two years of my study I 'self funded' by working part-time as a telephone operator for BT. The PhD itself was however a success and I published a number of papers (about 4, I forget) resulting from my work.
After my PhD I got a teaching job at an agricultural college that was running a new BSc course in my field, for which I was designated course tutor. I was expected to start up 'original research' to support the course but this didn't work out in practice, and I soon left to take up a DEFRA-funded post-doc in wildlife biology at a well-known university.
That was the final nail in the coffin of my 'career'. It is imperative, if you want a long-term career as a research scientist, to build up a strong publication record - this means submitting your findings to peer-reviewed journals for publication. I wasn't able to do this during my postdoc as due to a combination of inept project management and frankly, over-ridingly bad luck, the overall study produced no useful results during its three-year span of funding whatsoever, and the subsidiary papers I had written in the interim - all based on garbage post-hoc analyses of pre-existing, low-quality datasets, instigated at the insistence of my boss, were all quite rightly rejected by every journal I submitted them to.
After my three years of DEFRA funding on the postdoc were up, I was kept on as teaching / research assistant in my boss's research group but my paid hours were cut to part-time. I was however able to partly supplement my income with other teaching work in the department. I wasn't able, as a junior researcher to apply for grants for further funding to continue my own projects as I had no official / long term standing as a researcher or staff member at the university and my lack of publications made getting a further independent research position elsewhere unlikely. This is the so-called 'postdoc trap' that has been discussed in the trade journals 'New Scientist', 'Nature' etc. - it means that it is very difficult for new researchers to secure permanent positions with any level of job security. In my case after the end of the DEFRA funding I found myself entirely dependent on the goodwill of my current boss for ongoing employment - a situation that although I got on with the boss reasonably well, I found quite unacceptable, and I left to take up a short-term teaching post later that year. I am currently taking a 'career break' while I care for my young family and if I do return to work in this general field, it will be in a post with some degree of long-term stability - ie. in a teaching capacity, as probably a college lecturer.
I think my experience highlights a lot the general cons of working in short-term research.
Post-docs are always short-term contracts; once the designated funding runs out you have no job security whatsoever. Most post-docs are in their late twenties to early thirties but it is therefore nigh-on impossible for them to undertake what I would call 'normal' activities for this stage of life - such as buying a house or starting a family. It may be possible to obtain a mortgage if you are - as are most post-docs - a short-term contract worker, but if your next research appointment takes you to the other side of the country, what use is there in putting down roots in any one place? Even simple matters can become absurdly difficult. Due to the attitude of my boss during the term of my post-doc for example, I found it difficult even to find the time / money to do something as simple as going on a week's holiday.
The early years of one's research career are also critical, for building up a strong publication record. If, like me, you select a 'dud' post-doc study to work on (ie one that produces no useful results whatsoever) you will have squandered the time when your competitors in the future job / research market have been publishing many papers of their own. In my case I found it impossible to catch up following the end of my post-doc and my own research career, such as it was, was stymied from the outset.
The post-doc / senior supervising academic is also in my experience a source of discontent. It can very much develop into a relationship based on a disparity in power between the parties involved - more so I think in research than in other fields - wherein the postdoc finds themselves dependent to an unacceptable degree on the ongoing goodwill of their supervisor for their continuing career. My boss's research group, for example, was filled with volunteer workers and other 'hangers on' all jockeying for position and desperate for him to provide them with research funding / a PhD place.They all curried favour to a nauseating extent which made for a very unhealthy atmosphere to be working in in general. Perhaps for this reason, the net result was that there was little or no sense of worth (to the reserach group) of any of the individual researchers; it was the boss, and his international reputation that were of paramount importance throughout.
Possibly because of (in my field) the number of people willing to work for free, extra, unpaid work is also often expected 'for the love of the research'. If employed by a university (though I believe the civil service scientists organize themselves somewhat differently) you cannot in my experience treat - certainly at least field research - in any way as a 'proper job'. You don't get much holiday leave - or at least, you aren't expected to use it - nor are there scheduled lunch breaks or tea breaks or benefits of any kind! In my field, night-time working and surveying early in the morning and late in the evening was routinely necessary and I frequently worked long hours, and at weekends, for no additional pay (and the pay isn't that great in the first place: incidentally, nobody becomes a post-doc for the money). The commonly-stated 'perks' of post-doc-dom - in terms of attendance at scientific conferences abroad - certainly weren't available to me unless I paid for the trip, accommodation and conference fees myself, as my boss was unwilling to 'squander' money for conference attendance on any of his junior researchers. (I suspect that he was also unwilling to encourage his staff to build up the professional dialouge and relationships with other academics that are the result of scientific conference attendance although of course, I have no concrete evidence for this).
In any case the extra-curricular working, if you are a successful researcher putting in the hours for their own benefit, is undoubtedly a major part of a researcher's life but if - as in my case - you find yourself constantly forced to chip away in your own time at what you already know to be a thanklessly pointless task, this soon becomes a source of major discontent.
In summary I found my post-doctoral reserach to be an overall negative experience. The aspects of research that I personally enjoy - the application of novel methods in research, and even thrill of discovery, if you like - all came secondary, being subsumed by the stifling environment in which I found myself working.
Based on my personal experience, I would recommend a career in scientific research only for the very young - those who have yet to want to settle down - and for those who feel so driven by some sort of personal vocation to excel in their particular field of interest. Although I would have once been of the very strong opinion that personally, I fell into the second of those categories, my experiences as a post-doc at university X have left me with an attitude that I find I can't express any more clearly than by quoting the words of the great Bob Dylan -
"I used to care, but things have changed."
And as I near my forties, I find it that scientific research is no way any longer exactly my cup of tea
Summary: You'd almost be better off begging in the street