It's difficult to truly ascertain the importance of a postdoc position for a scientist's career. Ask a hundred folks and you'll get a hundred different stories. That's a long-winded way of saying, "take this with a huge grain of salt."
You could write a lot of stuff on the utility of the postdoc. I could write probably ten posts on the topic, which would greatly outstrip the interest in the topic.
There is this, fake, greasy lie that that the postdoc is a training period where you "complete" your training. I have no idea what that means. In the real world, the two schools of thought on this are (1) a postdoc is an unavoidable necessity for biomedical PhDs these days, or (2) the postdoc is an OPPORTUNITY to get your dream job. Note that these are not mutually exclusive possibilities.
I've pretty much given up on the idea that a postdoc will help you develop into something other than a bench scientist. This creates an interesting situation, because the most obvious progression from postdoc is tenure-track faculty. Based on my extensive experience, most professors have as much to do with hands-on experiments as the lab's janitor does. This means that the postdoc is ostensibly training for a job that will be inherently different. The Peter Principle, writ large.
The postdoc is a laborer. Necessary, relatively plentiful (thanks to a system that overproduces PhDs) and competing for jobs that are readily available (provided you accept the working/wage conditions). Judging from my direct experience and other postdocs I've met, the main criteria seems to be having your degree (and there are a whole lot of people who should have been flunked out but made it anyway) and the ability to fog a mirror. Although now that I think about it, I never had to prove I had a degree when I started my postdoc at one of the ten most prestigious universities in the United States.
So what is the point of the whole postdoc exercise? Skeptical Noah thinks that it's just a holding pen to contain the overflow of new PhDs who have no other job available. Perhaps its purpose is simply to last long enough to weed out enough people so that those left can find a job in the oversaturated academic market. Darwinian competition and all that. Crude, but respectable nonetheless.
For those easily daunted and/or uninterested in sticking it out, the postdoc is just a short sentence where you do your time, then move on. In a perfect world, I'd urge anyone not dead set on academia/professorship route to skip a postdoc, only that's not so easy to do.
There's also another worrying data point for this analysis - I'm not entirely convinced that your productivity in a postdoc matters. As I mentioned up top, postdoctoral study should ideally be a meritocracy, where the best scientists produce the best results and get the best university (or other scientific) jobs when they're done.
I'm not so sure that's the case.
Since everyone' experience is different, all we have to go on are n=1 stories. Rather than talk about crappy scientists who landed a sweet job or good scientists who got screwed, I thought I'd share my story from my own postdoc and ensuing job search.
After finishing my degree in 2006 (gosh, has it really been so long ago?) I went into my postdoc willingly enough. I wouldn't say I was a particularly sophisticated decision maker when it came to developing my career, but I understood enough about how the game was played to make decisions that were, even in retrospect, pretty smart. For example, I upgraded institutions to a fancier locale, and selected a professor with an assload of funding from HHMI (perhaps the ultimate in sugar daddies for biomedical scientists). It was a good lab too - they'd published a bunch of tier one studies in the five years before I joined, in a variety of subjects.
Now, you can't possibly control all the variables that affect whether you will be a productive scientist, but what I've described is just about the best situation you can put yourself into. It was a little competitive to secure the spot, but I'd had a good enough PhD to hurdle the bar.
From this advantaged spot, things were going as planned, right? If I could just perform, I'd be set. A meritocracy. Nice.
There were two problems, however. One: I was terribly burned out as a researcher. When I arrived, I reached down to find some more fuel to propel me to a groundbreaking study, only to find that there wasn't anything left in the tank (you can perhaps detect some of that malaise in this post).
The second problem was that the lab suddenly started, from a scientific perspective, to suck. That star-crossed luck of working on the right project at the right time which drew me to the lab abruptly ended. In retrospect, it happened about six months before I walked in the door.
This happens everywhere, eventually. Every lab is going to have a golden period, as well as periods where things are fallow and gloomy. The net result: I was quickly transitioned from a motivated future professor to a burned out, hanging on research dood with the mindset of someone who was simply serving their time until the next thing. I wish I could have been more professional, but I was just going through the motions at this point.
My productivity in the lab was accordingly dismal. Out of the nearly three years I spent as a postdoc, I published exactly three papers with the new group. Two of them little more than courtesy inclusions for helping a colleague with his english (the scientific equivalent of a pity fuck) and in the other (the only study where I'd performed experiments that reached print) I was the fourth author. Fourth author means I was totally unimportant to the study. To amplify this futility, the paper was a total dud. Ten years on, it was cited by only two other groups, meaning that it was - and remains - essentially unnoticed. The amount of effort I poured into that piece-of-shit paper still pains me. Nevertheless, it's all I had to show from this period of my life.
If the meritocracy thing holds strong, I would likely be punished for these unremarkable results. No one would/should want to touch such a middling scientist for a bench research job. Professorial jobs were out for sure, although we'll never know as I never even bothered to apply (there was no way I was going to spend another minute in academia at that point).
I assumed my career options were accordingly limited. I was looking at "business" jobs, things where my nondescript scientific credentials would give me a way in, but where there was no expectation that I would wander into a lab and fuck everything up. Past that, I was thinking of scientific administration or some other boring shit, and past that, maybe teaching or working as a cam boy.
Here's where the story gets a little wild - it gets to be time to move on, and I start looking for jobs. To my great surprise, the only places that will interview me are for bench research jobs, similar to the one I have and have, at least in terms of productivity, performed so poorly at. The meritocracy has failed me!
While I am happy to not have to teach, this development actually creates a bit of a problem - I don't want a research job. I also don't want to work in academia, which is where most of these jobs seem to be. It occurs to me that I may be forever trapped doing bench research, which holds all the appeal of a barium enema.
Anyway, it took a little doing, but I land a job outside in academia in the pharma industry. BUT I'M STILL DOING BENCH SCIENCE. And I did it for eight more years. Only recently have I moved to a job that's a little distanced from the bench.
Although I benefited from this random development, it's a little maddening to think that the system I assumed existed did not.
The point, I think, is that there's a significant amount of chaos in the scientific job market. And that's not necessarily a bad thing if you're an underachiever. But what about the person who does everything right and gets lucky enough to produce a boatload of good data? The current crop of doctorates entering the job market are fighting for a small number of jobs. Most are likely to land only a single offer, and perhaps not even that, especially at research-oriented universities. If you don't match perfectly with some department out there, rest assured someone else will.
I don't want to lay this all at the altar of chaos. To be sure, who you are and what you do has at least an equal share in your fate.
To leave it on a positive note, here are my takeaways for the job hunters:
- Chaos can help if you're middle or rear of the pack and get lucky. Take some shots.
- Increase the chances of good chaos by applying to a lot of random jobs for which you are only peripherally qualified. This is also good from a risk management perspective.
- Whether or not people like you has more to do with your chances than your credentials.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.