THE POSTDOC PREDICAMENT
By Rachel Skipper- Even for the best and brightest researchers, the pressure to conduct cutting-edge research, learn new skills, and navigate the ranks of academia is no easy task. Postdoctoral trainees do all of this and more, while seeking future employment in an extremely competitive job market. It’s a situation that we’re calling the ‘Postdoc Predicament.’
This predicament is not unique to our department or our university. Yet the anecdotes here paint a complex picture. Along with the rewarding process of conducting research and learning new skills, an underlying sense of uncertainty and anxiety is common, despite the many success stories that follow.
The large number of postdoctoral fellows who work in our department, 34 in all, is a sign of success, both theirs and ours. PBS faculty obtain prestigious grants that provide two or more years of training and financial support to young Ph.D. researchers, typically just out of graduate school. As department chair Bill Hetrick explains, “PBS is fortunate to attract and train extraordinary postdocs. As new Ph.D.’s, they bring cutting-edge knowledge about their specialty area and intellectual curiosity that ignites new lines of inquiry. The research mission of the department benefits greatly from their presence. In turn, the evidence suggests that our postdocs, by and large, benefit tremendously from their experiences in the department.”
During their training, postdocs likewise gain skills and expertise that they need to compete in tough job markets, where they will seek permanent positions following their postdoc training. Yet, there is a disproportionately large number of postdocs looking for a relatively low number of academic jobs.
Despite the fact that the job market for academics is tough, those who complete their postdoctoral training at IU and wish to pursue academic positions typically fare quite well. Previous PBS postdocs are working as professors at universities all over the country. You can find recent PBS postdoc Chris Harshaw at the University of New Orleans, Valerie Freeman at Oklahoma State University, Katie Boucher at the University of Indianapolis, and Umay Suanda at the University of Connecticut, to name just a few.
And yet the job search is undeniably stressful.
Though the postdocs in our department are extremely talented, the “rumor mill” surrounding the job market has created an environment in which postdocs constantly hear that they are unlikely to succeed. Postdocs read rants on internet forums about the struggles of finding a job. They are bombarded with articles like this one and this one and this one. They go to conferences, where they find panel discussions about the scarcity of jobs in academia. The list goes on.
One postdoc I interviewed described meeting her academic role models at a conference – people who are hard-working, productive, and talented – and realizing that even they are struggling to find jobs. “These are people who are super, super productive,” she explained. “I’ve been reading their papers for a long time, and I look up to them. I met them at a conference and realized that most of them are postdocs. They’re running out of money and have no idea what they’re going to do, because they have not been able to find a position. That was the first time I thought, woah, if these people can’t get a job, what hope do I have?”
While some choose to ignore the negativity, recognizing that top positions in any profession, whether in law, advertising or academia, are hard to come by, others become intimidated. One postdoc who has not yet entered the job market said that the prospect of displaying her hard work and accepting the barrage of rejections that are sure to follow makes her feel vulnerable and reluctant to even apply. “I’d rather do good work, even if there is less of it, than simply ‘publish, publish, publish,’ even if that translates into less success on the job market.”
No matter how intelligent and talented a person is, finding a job is difficult. Postdocs puzzle over what potential employers want, write extensive application letters, meticulously tailored for each job opening, present their research at job talks and interviews, only to be rejected over and over again. The postdocs I interviewed described the process as “demoralizing,” “overwhelming”, “intimidating,” and a “motivational challenge.” Yikes.
Clearly, the process of moving from a postdoctoral position to faculty employment isn’t an easy route. But it isn’t the only route. Nor is the academic job market the only job market.
Ajeng Puspitasari, for example, took a somewhat circuitous route to her career in academia. Nearing the end of her postdoctoral position in Professor Cara Lewis’s lab, she learned that Rogers Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin, which provides treatment for mental illness, was eager to begin conducting research. After interviewing at the hospital, she was offered a job as a research associate. The experience provided “a bridge between a postdoc and faculty position.” Indeed, while working as a research associate, Puspitasari was hired by the Mayo Clinic as an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and the clinical director for their new residential treatment facility for adults with severe mental illnesses. For her, the new position is ideal, full of options for continued research, teaching, and clinical work.
Sean Matthews also took a somewhat atypical career path. During his Ph.D. training, he realized that his interests were more aligned with a career in industry than in academia. Rather than pursuing a postdoc, he immediately entered the job market. He now works as a research engineer at the Thomson Reuters Center for Cognitive Computing, where he develops research tools that help lawyers and other legal professionals keep up to date with relevant case law. He explains that Ph.D.’s and postdocs can often find jobs that seem outside their area of expertise, but that tap into the skills used by academics. “I didn’t know anything about the legal field. But I can understand the problems and design experiments to test whether a particular solution will work. Employers are most interested in finding people who can look at a complicated problem, come up with a plan to solve it and know how to measure their progress.” That’s exactly what Ph.D.’s and postdocs are trained to do.
As this PBS Ph.D. and postdoc have demonstrated, less common career paths can also lead the way to faculty positions, or to careers in unexpected niches outside of academia.
A diverse skill set opens doors to a wide array of career opportunities.
Professor Linda Smith explains that PBS trains postdoctoral fellows “to be expert in specific domains, but also to be skilled in integrating across domains and levels, to think about complexity and why it matters, to have the skills and interests to collaborate with other researchers with different expertise.”
Andrea Koenigsberger, a current postdoc in Professor Olaf Sporns’ lab, shared her “favorite example” of our department’s interdisciplinary environment. She and others in her lab study brain networks, but recently put to use a model developed by IU social scientists who study how tweets spread through social media networks and become viral. Andrea and her colleagues used the Twitter model to study how signals in the brain spread throughout the brain network. “Because we talk to other researchers and get to know their interesting work, we can apply these ideas to our research.” The frequent cross-disciplinary interactions at IU lead to creative new insights.
In addition to the collaborative opportunities, IU postdocs have access to high-end research tools – computational resources, supercomputers, and open software – that many places don’t have.
Such is the case for postdoc Jeremy Borjon, who recently joined the labs of Linda Smith and Chen Yu, where he is working with non-invasive physiology sensors. “Chen and Linda are very ambitious and are pushing the boundaries of developmental studies,” he observes. “No one has really used these tools to study children in naturalistic settings.” Jeremy explains that gaining this experience could place him in a unique “niche,” which, combined with the excellent training, could make him a strong competitor on the job market.
Some postdocs also have partners, children, and older family members who depend on them. Taking the job means uprooting their families and leaving their support systems behind, with no promise of permanence on the horizon.
Successful postdocs have emphasized the importance of their support networks, which helped them through this stressful time.
Social psychologist Katie Boucher, who completed her postdoc in Professor Mary Murphy’s lab and her Ph.D. with Professor B. J. Rydell, said that her network of collaborators, mentors and peers in PBS helped motivate her during her time as a postdoc. “I had a really great support network as a graduate student and I sustained that network as a postdoc, which helped me deal with the stress of the job market. I also had faculty mentors willing to help me through the process. It was helpful to know that there were people trying to help me get the positions that I wanted.”
Not everyone, however, shares her experience. Others report feeling isolated: solitary, invisible, detached, even floating. And no doubt, they are indeed floating: between the world of the student and that of the professor, between apprenticeship and full employment, between impermanence and security, it is a challenging time – however likely they are to succeed in the end.
AUTHORS NOTE: As a graduate student anticipating a career in the sciences, it is hard not to notice some potentially easy fixes to this postdoc predicament. Changes, for example, as simple as including postdocs on the email listservs of grad students and faculty, which announce important workshops, lectures, mentoring or career opportunities. This would help connect them to people and opportunities, as would simply making a greater effort to include them in department conversations and events. Wewill alsocontinue to introduce you to them periodically hereas well. See the”Spotlight on PBS Postdocs” in this issue.