Perspectives of a Postdoc

I realize a vast majority of my reading audience is not involved in academic science, but I decided to write this post regardless because it is important to me--it's my livelihood. And it is also the livelihood of thousands of other individuals.

If you are not familiar with the academic science world, let me take a couple quick paragraphs to give you the 10,000-foot view. College graduates, typically with a degree in a scientific field, can enter graduate school in their field. During that time they gain experience and expertise in scientific thinking, experimental design, data analysis, and technical presentation. These skills prepare them for a future of their choice, but the "academic" route is rather established. If a person chooses this path, they should decide in graduate school, or perhaps even before graduate school. They will spend their time doing research, publishing their findings, and hopefully securing funding to further their research initiatives. This sounds fantastic, except that fewer and fewer organizations have millions of dollars to throw at cool research projects. Remember that whole recession thing?

If a person publishes well (which is an art in itself) and graduates (not guaranteed) with their PhD, they are then expected to move on to a position known as a postdoctoral researcher. This amounts to doing mostly the same stuff they did in graduate school, but now they actually get paid like a real American citizen (graduate student stipends range from $20,000-30,000/year with most being on the low end of that range). During a "postdoc", a person is expected to do more research, publish gobs of papers, and get a large grant, preferably from the NIH (National Institute of Health). This sets a person up for the POSSIBILITY of getting hired into a real job.

If said person does all this work, they might snag an assistant professor position, which is fundamentally a probationary job contingent upon their success at, you guessed it, acquiring more funding. If a person does not secure funding in a certain window of time, all that work goes down the toilet--sortof. They can still dust themselves off and try again, but losing a job for lack of funding is a bit of a scarlet letter in the academic world. If a person is driven and successful enough to advance to associate professor, they must continue being successful, but they are closer to having "job security" (which may or may not be a myth in 2014). After decades of success, this scientific guru can then become a full professor, and a subset of those will attain tenure. All in all, the path is very difficult and the success rate very slim.

With all that in mind, I have a great deal of respect for people who are capable and motivated enough to attain those levels of success. It takes the type of work that most people are deathly afraid of. It requires dedication and passion like most people do not know. It's a sacrifice, but these people are truly the catalysts of medical progress. They are special people. They are not all nice, nor are they all altruistic. Some are competitive egotist that border on narcissism. But they get the job done. It's a lot like the NBA or the NFL. Some folks are worthy of your respect, and others aren't.

The question for me has always been, "Am I capable and willing to make the sacrifice to run my race on that path?" We all face these decisions in life, and ultimately it comes down to what your priorities are. If you eat, sleep, and dream about curing diseases and you have the intelligence to do it--go for it! I would never discourage someone from following their passion! But what about me? Is it right for me?

I have faced a similar decision in my life when I was 19 years old. I had played baseball my entire life, and I had developed a special ability to pitch. People told me I was good--like coaches on the other teams, not my grandmother (she said I was good too). I could have pursued that career. I could have tried to play baseball in college and move up into professional leagues. So I had to ask myself some questions. Am I good enough? Am I willing to put in the work to be fantastic at baseball? Do I want a career in sports? Is the professional athletic atmosphere one I want to subject myself to? To answer these questions I had to do some digging and find answers. After answering questions to my satisfaction, I chose to give up baseball for my pursuit of Science. I knew I could not play baseball full time in college and finish my degree with the grades I needed to advance. I had to choose.

Here I am again, making choices. Choices never go away. I was never afraid of failure. Failing is part of life. If you don't fail once in awhile, you're not trying enough new things. I am currently a "postdoc" in the research field; but do I have other options? As it turns out, I do. In my graduate school, we were taught there are three choices when you get your PhD--academia, industry, and government agencies (CDC, NIH, DOD, etc.) These are very broad categories, but they give the impression of black-and-white. There is a huge gradient of grey between these giant categories where many people can find a niche. But it's up to you (me) to find that niche.

What type of jobs are available to the scientific PhD? One could become a scientific writer, either employed by a company or running freelance. One could enter the business or legal world and apply their scientific knowledge to business R&D, or perhaps helping attorneys understand scientific law. Along those lines, a person could enter patent law, since there are so many scientific patents being filed in our scientific age. The skills acquired in graduate school are also highly transferrable, so if a person chooses to switch to business or legal, they are well equipped due to their experience with writing, presenting, and critical thinking. If a person is good at what they do, they can become a consultant for a marketing group, or a political campaign. Science is a huge part of our society today, and for that reason, people that understand science are in high demand. But jobs don't usually come looking for you. You have to seek them out to even know they exist! And if you're truly a revolutionary individual, you might even be able to invent your own job. Just think about what a company or organization needs and doesn't have, then figure out how you can supply their need. I know; sounds simple--but it's not.

As I press forward in my postdoc position, I am always keeping my eyes open for new opportunities. My priorities are similar to most people. I want some level of security in my job. I want to apply the skills and expertise I have, but also push myself to learn, develop new skills, and have new experiences. I would like my job to push me, but not to stress me out and keep me awake at night. I want to go home to my family and forget about my job as much as possible--focusing my attention on them while I am with them. I never want to let my career be divisive or overbearing to the point that it threatens my marriage or my other important commitments. I believe my career is important, but it is a means to an end. It gives me a purpose, satisfies my desire to be useful, provides for my family, and allows me to make a contribution to our nation and our society. It is NOT the center of my life. As I said, I respect people that devote so much of themselves into science or sports or whatever their passion is; but in my own mind I cannot justify pursuing a career at the expense of being the person I believe I ought to be. Jobs and careers can change people, so I must be careful how I allow myself to be changed. 

Postdoc positions are temporary in nature (1-8 years). The average time spent is around 3-4 years. For a person entering the academic world, longer can be better to get more publications and establish themselves as a good source of new information. For someone like myself that is not headed that way, shorter time can be beneficial. 

Why did I become a postdoc in the first place? I asked several trustworthy people for their advice, and they ALL told me that working as a postdoc is beneficial regardless of the path I choose later in life. Having been in this position for a little over 18 months, I agree with them. I see how I've grown and learned since my graduate school days. I know 18 months is not incredibly long, but when I plopped myself into a totally new environment with new methods and new models, I have had to learn new things every day. Thus, 18 months can teach a lot!

I hope my perspective has been made clear in this post. My goal was not to persuade anyone for or against academic science as a career. I have no intentions of telling you what your priorities ought to be. I am sharing my perspective in hopes that others will relate and perhaps find some inspiration. I have no conclusion to this post because it is an ongoing process. I will periodically make new posts as my career progresses. If you have any questions for me, feel free to comment on the blog or contact me.

Twitter: @TheDevineWrite

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