Careers, Guest blog

Guest Blog – Academic Life and the Problems of Perpetual Post-Docing

Blog from Dr Yvonne Couch

Reading Time: 8 minutes

For those of you old enough to remember the TV show Cybill you’ll know the next line is ‘and if you get it, won’t you tell me how’. I haven’t got it and I definitely can’t tell you how to get it, but I can tell you some things to think about. Our upcoming podcast series on the problems with being a perpetual post-doc cover some different perspectives on post-doc life but here’s a quick precis for you to eyeball.

Let’s start at PhD level. Remember your PhD is a training experience. A chance for you to learn how to do semi-independent research in a nice, sheltered environment so find a good one, with a good boss and a good crew that you get on with. You’ll learn how to write and how to ask questions. You’ll learn how to manage your time and how to multi-task. You’ll learn what you enjoy and what you don’t. But at the end of this training experience you can do whatever you want. You can take these skills and apply them to a job in medical writing, or science journalism, or pharma company research, or museum curation, or consulting, or you can go off and train as a clinician and take those skills into clinical work. But for those of you who wish to stay there are some things you need to be aware of and things you need to think about.

For your first post-doc the consensus seems to be treat it as a second training experience and find a good lab.

This time you’ll be less cossetted than during your PhD. You’ll be expected to make some of those bigger decisions yourself, to design more new experiments in a more efficient way. In fact there’s research out there that says a post-doc is three times more efficient than a PhD student. And this is the time you learn to be more efficient because suddenly the multi-tasking takes on a whole new dimension. If you had a super cushy PhD you might not have had students to look after in the lab so this is when you start getting them. This not only means taking some time out of your own work to teach them some lab skills, but also reading through their work and helping them develop the basic science skills you just spent 3 or 4 years honing.

Finding a good lab means the lab head has to have a permanent job and be a good mentor, and the lab needs to have a decent amount of capital. The chances of you finding both of these are slim but they are both important. A stable person above you has the time to help you apply for things, time to help you learn and time to support you whilst you learn to support others. A decent amount of capital allows you to make some mistakes whilst you learn to be more efficient. Because as well as keeping an eye on new students, as above, you need to be pushing your own papers, doing your own writing and keeping an extra eye on your own career. And you need to be thinking about whether any of this is for you. You’ll need to be thinking about whether you want to write that next grant, whether you have a niche that is independent from your supervisor, whether you have ideas which are unique. And if you don’t that’s fine too. You can now take this independent experience and go into any of the careers we’ve already mentioned. Or you can even go into the research support sector, where this kind of experience is invaluable to those academics who do stay and do need help. But for those of you who still wish to stay, this is where it gets hard… From here on in you’re kind of on your own. 

One of the conclusions we came to during the podcast was that all of this training used to be on the assumption that you were training for a job, that you’d do what a very lucky friend of mine did about 10 years ago and go 3-year undergrad, 3-year PhD, 3-year post-doc, lectureship. Boom. Sorted. Now it’s more like 3 or 4-year undergrad, masters, 3 or 4-year PhD, 1-year post-doc, 6-month post-doc, 3-year post-doc, 6-month post-doc. Panic.

There’s a really hipster life-coach theory that says your life is like a four-burner gas stove. One burner represents your career, one burner represents your family, one represents your health and one represents your friends. Apparently to be successful in life you need to switch off one and to be really successful you need to switch off two. So at this stage you need to prioritise what you want and which burners you’ll need to switch off. If you want to have friends and family and a degree of permanency in your life you need to be willing to admit that your career is likely to suffer because academia is no longer set up to support these things. If you want a career you either need to be willing to work crazy hours to keep up with ‘the competition’ and the institutional idea of success, or you need to be willing to move around the country, or even the globe, to take up other positions. Which is obviously not spectacularly compatible with having a family or with having very many good friends, frankly.

Academics enter the maze hoping to solve the puzzle – finding the centre and then finding your way out again. With some fear of uncertinity and getting lost along the way. So do you want to find the centre or are you happy with wondering around?

Which leaves you at the stage we’re all at right now. All of us on the podcast love the freedom we have, and hopefully that comes across. We love being our own boss and picking the direction of our research and being excited about our ideas and helping younger academics grow. Some of us even love writing grants and having ideas and sculpting papers. But it’s not sustainable. A senior academic, in a permanent position, told me after a grant rejection that we have to just ‘keep taking the tickets’. But how realistic is that? If I keep taking the tickets I’m risking my family, I’m risking not being able to pay vets bills, I’m risking not being able to pay for insurance, I’m risking my mortgage. And living like that is just not viable. It’s not good for my mental health. Some of the senior academics who say this are clinically trained. They give me these platitudes without realising they are fully trained for a career that has available jobs. If they take the tickets and fail they can still do the job they originally trained for. Aren’t we constantly told the NHS is screaming for more staff? If I take the tickets and fail I am unemployed. I have to go and find another career. And when you’re 10 years post-PhD that is a terrifying prospect.

But beyond my own personal woes this setup is not good for the science. I think we’ve shifted out of the mindset that you ‘have’ to move for your fellowship but for those of you who do choose to go to a different institution you’ve got probably 3 to 6 months of learning to walk all over again. Figuring out where all the kit is, which admin staff to buy cake for, who your new collaborators might be, how all the local rules and regulations work, where the COSHH forms are kept and how they apply to anything new you might want to do. If your fellowship is only 3 years this can really eat into your research time. And if, at the end of that, you have to move and do it all again then we’re starting to rack up years of wasted science time and hundreds of thousands of pounds of wasted research money.

Part of the reason we have a reproducibility crisis in science is because nobody has the time to do science well. To get another job we need to do big, shiny experiments that get into big, shiny journals so that people can give us more money to do this ad nauseum. If we want to test whether something someone else has done works in our hands, to confirm results, or even just to test the same hypothesis in a different way, we’re accused of not being novel, of wasting funds. Of not, as one grant reviewer for me put it, doing ‘high-risk, high-gain science’. But high-risk, high-gain science is, by its very nature, risky. And the risk is that none of it works. And the positivity bias in academia means that suddenly 3 years of your life has been ‘unproductive’ because nobody wants to publish any of your negative data. And then how do you get the next grant? The lottery for the next ticket suddenly has way worse odds than before, when you had shiny, positive data.

So if you’ve got all the way here, if you are a perpetual post-doc I can’t help you. And I’m really sorry about that because I wish I could. Universities can help you and funders can help you. But whether they want to is another question.

Dr Yvonne Couch


Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.



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