Planning ahead

I got a lot of flack on Twitter these days for stating that you better skip post-doc positions when possible. With that I meant that you better start planning ahead, when considering unstable research employment, and aiming for more stable employment of any kind (tenure track or otherwise).

Using UK data it has been shown (figure below) that less than 1% of the PhD candidates find employment as tenured researchers. A minority flows back to permanent research positions (less than 5%) while the rest has to look for work in industry, or outside the sciences altogether. When embarking on or applying for post-doc positions this is not stressed enough. There is this rosy feeling that, yes, you will make it, while all statistics point in the opposite direction. Statistically you are more likely to fail than to succeed.

It is also well documented that early career scientist earn less wages than their peers in industry, resulting in a difference of up to $200K in earning potential! Then there is the potential issue of abuse (due to power inbalances), which can contribute to (mental) health issues, while at the same time unionization or worker protection is slow to spread, while contracts get shorter or more common. Arguably you can think of the current trends as the uberization of research. Luckily some of these issues are very US centric. For example, most EU researchers will have government sponsored (affordable) healthcare and social security to back them up in case of unemployment, and strong worker protection by default. The latter leaves (financial) room to re-position yourself in the job market, and dampening periods of unemployment.

All this being said, it does not mean that you should not try to get a post-doc. However, not taking these intrinsic costs into consideration might come back to bite you big time financially but also in other more subtle ways (especially in the US). A failure to inform prospective PhDs of these costs, focussing only on how to acquire unstable employment, is being dishonest and might do the majority of them a disservice. When discussing how to get a post-doc a parallel discussion should be held of options outside academia, which more often than not are more financially secure and likely as rewarding. When considering the post-doc route I suggest it is prudent to take stock of the above and have a defined exit strategy which does not include academic employment and set expectations accordingly.

For example, I value my contacts with busines/NGOs, which provide interesting applied research opportunities through consulting. Not only does this provide translational research opportunities, it also shows that I’m aware of business dealings and know how to move in both academic and business circles. I also make sure to keep up with data science and provide demonstrable applications and code applied to my lines of research. With data science a hot topic in industry this provides me an easy out which according to the statistics above is more likely than not.

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