Did you spend too much time as a post-doc?

Four years ago, I wondered "if I would ever make the decision to look for a job outside science, and if so, if I would regret all the time and effort put into trying to get data, write papers and get grants?". Before I left science, now almost two years ago, I spent more than four years as a post-doc doing slice electrophysiology mostly. Since I left academia, I've never patched a cell anymore.

Most scientists at the company I work at have done a post-doc, but many of them shorter than the 4,5 years I've spent as a post-doc. And then of course there are people around my age in more commercial jobs that have no PhD or post-doc experience at all (and probably get paid quite a bit more than me because of having more experience) So looking back, one might wonder if I've spent too much time as a post-doc?

I've given this quite some thought recently, mostly because it sometimes feels unfair that people who have an equal amount of experience-years end up in different positions. And I realize that if I had known that I would have ended up where I am now, I may have been able to get there with a shorter route. However, I also realize how much I have learned during my post-doc that is still very useful now, like writing, leading people and also just the experience of living somewhere else for a while. And of course the notion that work is also enjoyable, not just a race to get to some end-goal. So even thought I was afraid I would regret my time as a post-doc if I wouldn't be able to stay in academia four years ago, looking back I wouldn't have done it much different.

What about you? If you have left academia, do you wish you had spent less time as a post-doc?

8 responses so far

  • ImDrB says:

    I also spent 4 years in a post-doctoral position, and mostly I feel that was too long. However, spending that long in that position solidified in my mind that I wanted to pursue a faculty appointment (I was wavering between academia and non-academia job searches), and the lessons I learned in personnel and resource management during that time made me feel prepared when I finally did land the faculty job.

    • babyattachmode says:

      To me four years in a post-doc position when you want a faculty position is not a lot, but I guess this may vary per field.

  • I'm about to write a blog post about some of the most successful ecologists, as judged by the ESA Early Career Fellow awards. But short point: most successful ecologists who go on to tenure-track jobs spend *at least* four years as a postdoc. But you can't know where you'll end up as a postdoc, so you couldn't have necessarily made a "better" decision then.

    As for me, I'm likely leaving academia, but I'm staying a postdoc for now because (1) it pays (just barely) enough to support my family; (2) it's amazingly flexible -- I'm mostly computer-based, not lab or field; and (3) I get to work with great people and it's fun. The last point means I'm generally a happy person. And number two is super important with small children. Right now I'm choosing flexibility over money, and I think it's a worthwhile tradeoff.

  • Socal dendrite says:

    Yes, but that's because I spent 7 years (!) as a postdoc (5 years in my first position, then 2 in a different lab). I did (mostly) enjoy it at the time, but now that I am out of academia I realize it would have been better to quit a bit earlier, say after 3 or 4 years. I see now how relatively old I am to be getting a foothold in a new career. But, hindsight is always 20:20, isn't it?

    • babyattachmode says:

      I know, it's so much easier to say that looking back you could have done things differently. Do you think it would have helped you if there was a cap on the time you can spend as a post-doc or a mandatory development plan or something like that?

      • Socal dendrite says:

        There was a 6 year limit, actually..! So, my last ~18 months in the second lab were as a "Senior Research Fellow", which came with a bit more money and a little more prestige. But I was essentially just an old, long-in-the-tooth postdoc trying to pick up a few new tricks 😉
        A mandatory development plan probably wouldn't have helped. I was quite involved in the postdoc association at my university and attended plenty of career events etc so it's not like I wasn't aware of issues/alternatives. I guess the time just slid by... my initial postdoc was in an area where it takes ages to get data so it was common for postdocs to stay for 4 - 7 years.
        There were a couple of other factors too: my husband got a tenure track job at the same institution (so I tried for a while to figure out a way to stay there in some capacity - it sort of worked, I do some part-time teaching there amongst other things). And I had a child (and some postpartum issues) towards the end of my postdoccing.
        But really, I think I just let myself get to comfy with the status quo, even though I knew it couldn't last forever.

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