You’re coming to the end of your PhD. You might even have handed the b*stard in. Maybe you’ve even survived your viva. You drop to the floor, let out a huge sigh of relief, wait for the trumpets to sound – but then:
“So, what are your post doc plans?”
(I’m sure some people doing a PhD would debate the above. They’d point out that they’ve been asked about their ‘plans for post doc’ since Year 1. Maybe even since the PhD interview itself.)
We held a sort of informal forum meeting yesterday, where a panel of research fellows (including me) tried to speak candidly to PhD students and junior researchers about the actual process of ‘doing’ a Post Doc – finding jobs, finding funding, looking for fellowships and so on. I hope people found it useful. I think it can be helpful though to take a step even further back, and to ask very fundamentally “Do I want to be a post doc?” The points below are the questions I think you should ask yourself if you’re in that position.
Now, to be clear: the very very first question you should ask is “Do I want to stay in academia?” Don’t take it as a given that you should. You could be conned into thinking that you’re now such a specialist that there aren’t any other jobs you could get (check out the stories on #altac on twitter to see there are other careers beyond a PhD.) You may also fall pray to the idea that as you’ve thrown the last 3 – at least – years into academia, you should stick it out and keep going. I feel like this is the lifeyears equivalent of throwing good money after bad, if you haven’t particularly enjoyed those 3 years at all.
So, first of all – can you see yourself working in a University? If you think the answer to this is “yes!” or “yeah, maybe” that’s when the questions below could come in handy, to think through what that means in more detail. Fundamentally though, you shouldn’t try to talk yourself into it if it’s not what you want, and don’t let anyone else talk you into it either.
1. Can you tolerate being on short term contracts?
In practical terms, as a post doc you are not employed by a University as such – you are employed on a specific grant, with a specific timescale. This is typically 1-2 years, but can be as low as 6 months and if you’re really lucky go up to about 4 or 5 years, say if you’re employed on a large programme grant. But at the end of this, you’re out of contract, and you’re on your own. In good departments, your colleagues or supervisors will support you to get another grant, so you can keep working. But grants are never a given, and most are rejected. In this sense a post doc is more like a freelancer – you’re paid to work on specific projects and there’s no safety net in-between. On your current job you’re almost always already busy working on the next grant, with an eye on your contract running out. Is this something you want to deal with?
I want to make very clear here that ‘tolerance’ is not some kind of test of strength (which is how it gets portrayed sometimes – “Can you stick it, sunshine? Not having a guaranteed job in 6 months? It’ll be the making of you!”). It’s also not an individual attribute – if you have a family, or caring responsibilities, then this kind of insecurity may just be infeasible. But you need to have realistically considered whether you’re willing to put up with the job insecurity that goes hand in hand with early career research work.
Obviously the financial insecurity part of this is a big concern. But it’s not just an issue of money. You could have a lovely patron who’ll keep you going between contracts and still be frustrated that you can’t establish yourself in a particular University or research area because you’re at the mercy of whatever jobs become available in whatever place. Other people I’ve known have quite enjoyed this aspect in that they actively move around to different locations each time, but for those who want to put down roots it can be problematic. Personally, I find the insecurity frustrating but tolerable. I’m relatively lucky in that I’ve only fallen through the gaps between short term contracts once and had a couple of months without pay. I’ve only had one major move (from Nottingham to Manchester) and it worked out very well for me. It’s definitely scary though how quickly savings can dry up though once you’re off the payroll.
2. Do you like ‘flexible working hours’?
Now, contrary to what people with fixed working hours assume, this doesn’t mean more time off/’working’ from home whilst actually playing computer games/starting late and leaving early etc. Flexible working in reality means you’re expected to do as much work as necessary to get the job done. This can mean giving up weekends if a grant is due, or having to drop everything if you get landed with a particular task that needs doing RIGHT NOW. Managing your workload independently can mean you over burden yourself and do more than you should, and there’s no such thing as overtime in academia. You’re also expected to make your own time to do additional (required) activities such as teaching. I’m expected to do a certain amount of teaching per semester, but I don’t get to recoup this in terms of additional days for research at the end of my contract or additional money.
On the positive side, I like managing my own workload and deciding (for the most part) what to do and when. I know people in fixed jobs have to do things like take a day off to go to the dentist which we would never do – we just make up that work later. Outside of teaching and department events, you can often work from home. The trick with that is knowing when to turn off and ‘go home’ psychologically.
This is the less tangible but perhaps more pernicious impact of ‘flexible working’ – it can be hard to put work aside, both mentally and physically (email has made it much easier to cheat on your weekend and spend time doing work). I don’t mind this aspect too much, when it involves thinking more about the bits of science or research that I find really interesting. In that sense I’m exceptionally fortunate to do something for a living that I’d do for a hobby anyway. The difficulty comes when you get stuck worrying about issues that you can’t control or feeling guilty about not doing work all the time. These are more personal, and I actually think a lot – if not most – academics struggle with them to an extent. I think if you’re someone who likes very clear borders for being ‘at work’, if you like regular hours and timetables, or if you struggle with motivating yourself to deal with deadlines without supervision, then a post doc or fellowship is definitely not for you.
If you like the idea of being your own boss when it comes to your timetable, and don’t mind changes in pace (I actually think I work more naturally with periods of intense action followed by slower refuelling periods – I know in temp jobs I used to find having the same hours/activities every day very dreary) then a research career could suit. If you’re the latter, but worried about getting overburdened, then I’d reassure you that this is a worry for a lot of us, and so there are sources of support, both offline and on, to help you remember to balance your priorities. You will however just have to cope with the fact that everybody and their dog thinks you work in your lounge pants for a few months a year and then get the really long summer holiday with the students.
3. Do you have an itchy brain?
I talked about this in my ‘qualities for a PhD student’ post and the same applies here, but ramped up another level. This is because in a post doc, and especially in a fellowship, you’re going to be expected to producing ideas and identifying new avenues of research. The itchy brain moves from “hmm, I really want to know more about that to…” to “I need to know something about this that no-one else can tell me”, because it hasn’t been done or hasn’t been considered – and it’s this gap that you then try to fill.
This is definitely more of an issue in fellowships (independent programmes of work/training) compared to working as a jobbing post doc on other studies. I actually think I worked longer hours on my early post doc positions, in terms of delivering studies and doing the leg work of trials, but these are quite task based and you can get quite efficient in having a routine. I think at fellowship level it becomes more a matter of intellectual energy (I know that makes me sound horribly pretentious, but I genuinely can’t think of a better way to put it!) It’s not “Do X before 5pm”, it’s “Think of/create/write X before 5pm”. For me, this is brilliant, and I vastly prefer it to the more task based work I used to do. For this reason, I actually consider that work ‘harder’ than the work I do now – because for me it was less interesting and so it took more energy to motivate myself and get it all done.
I can imagine some people might find this frustrating though, or want something more concrete. You need to be honest with yourself about the extent of your itchy brain and how much it will drive you on to new things, and how rewarding you’ll find it to get that itch scratched (this metaphor is getting… disturbing). I think in this sense a PhD is a very good testing zone for working out how much you feel the urge to pitch your own ideas, compared to how much you like being given direction or structure. If you’re going to embark on a post doc career, it really really helps to prefer the former.
4. Are you happy working for long term goals?(Some very long term. Like veeeerrrrryyyyy long term.)
I remember my driving instructor telling me that she used to work for a bank, and had done some kind of ‘work out your personality type’ training and realised she really valued tangible goals and task focused work with clear timelines. That had led her to instructing, which is a pretty neat choice – there’s a very concrete goal (pass the test) and you naturally work for specific periods on a specific task (with each new client you work through each stage of learning to drive, until they achieve the goal.)
I think she would have hated research. Projects take ages – and not just from the point of funding to the point of completion. There is prep beforehand, and lots of work afterwards. They often overlap in messy ways – you can be writing up the results of one study into a proposal for another study. The timelines shift due to all manner of issues. If you thought your PhD was long, I’m afraid to say it only gets worse. Once you’re working on broad themes or on a body of work, you can very rarely identify where one bit started and another ends.
Similarly, seeing concrete outputs of your work can take years. Often the concrete stuff isn’t necessarily what you’re interested in though – I think on a personal level goals are more along the lines of “Helping instigate changes in X”, “Becoming respected at Y”, “Achieving a deeper understanding of Z”. Personally, I’m happy with this. I guess I’m not much of a concrete thinker. For me, it’s about progress made overall, rather than any specific piece of work. I think if you’re considering a post doc, think about whether tangible outputs in a definite time frame are important to you. If yes, you might find a lot of post doc work frustrating rather than rewarding.
(NB. You are expected to define all these things as concrete outputs and explicit timelines in funding applications, and will most likely be expected to do so in a fellowship application. My points above relate more to the experience of being a researcher, not the skills you have to hone to fund being a researcher…)
Right. That’s my 4 big questions for deciding if you want a post-doc career in academia. Sorted?
Liking it really should be the deciding factor though. Liking it doesn’t necessarily mean liking all of it, or liking it all the time, or thinking some bits don’t need changing, but I think fundamentally enjoying research on some level is vital. The job market is highly competitive and there isn’t much in the way of additional bonuses, so you have to be keen to do it for its own sake and be willing to compete for it. In a way, fellowships are for those questionable folk like me, who genuinely can’t think of a more interesting way to spend their time. If that’s you, then go for it.