The price and value of doing a postdoc

A pessimist would say: "nothing like comparing yourself to your peers who went into marketing straight after an MSc to doubt the value of spending nearly a decade in academia." Similarly, Science Magazine has a recent article on the price of doing a postdoc where they calculate that:

"On average, they give up about one-fifth of their earning potential in the first 15 years after finishing their doctorates—which, for those who end up in industry, amounts to $239,970."

Having spend 4 years in the US (3 years as postdoc and 1 year as non-TT faculty), I have definitely made economic sacrifices compared to peers who stayed in the homecountry, and especially to those who left academia after an Msc or Phd. Not just the difference in income between academia and outside (which by the way is a much larger difference in the US than in EU). But also think of moving costs that weren't compensated: moving back to the homecountry we were both postdocs again and the university compensated us for 500 euros total. The costs of moving an entire family across the Atlantic was at least 10 times and maybe 20 times that much.  We spent a good portion of our savings on moving costs and I'm sure we're not the only academic family to do that. Also, not paying for retirement savings for 3 years, and having a tiny foreign retirement account that will cost about the sum of what is in there to move it here. I realize it is a privilege to be able to spend money on choosing a career that is not financially optimal and at the same time that means that academia might miss out on people who are not able to do that. But then again, shouldn't we all go to school for whatever job it is where you sell shady mortgages and get filthy rich? That's not what life is all about, is it?

I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here. Looking back, it was a great period of being able to focus solely on the scientific projects I was working on, without course work and the pressure to graduate that happens during a PhD and all the other stuff that comes with a more advanced scientific career either inside or outside academia. Also - to me at least -, it was a uniquely flexible time for having babies, being sleep deprived and pumping milk. Also, it was great to be able to live in a different country for a while. But I guess I could have done that while working for a company who would have paid for my moving expenses.

I'm not quite sure what the answer is here. I've asked before if you felt you spent too much time as a postdoc, but I guess the bigger dilemma here is how to deal with all these people that are in academic postdoc positions without the prospect of all landing permanent positions...? And what is the value of doing a postdoc if afterwards you leave academia?


11 responses so far

  • Kix says:

    My experience in the same city in the US as where you stayed was very fruitful in a lot of dimensions but the financial one. Still, I would do it again if I could. I became a different human being after this experience (in the positive way). I was able to understand what matters to me or not, I was able to pursue a dream career even if at the end, I knew that I was unsure about whether I would be able to stay in academia or not once I returned to Europe. I met a lot of extremely interesting people inside and outside of academia.

    Why should I ever regret it?

    At the end of the day, nobody will look at your account but at what you did in your life.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I fully agree with you. With the side note that it is a pretty privileged place to be able to choose 'life experience' over money and I don't think everyone would choose the same way.

  • Doctor_PMS says:

    It can't be all about numbers! It's all about experience and personal growth. Even if you're not going to stay in academia, I believe doing a postdoc is a good way to learn several skills that will make a difference later in life.

  • Anon says:

    That's the key though "several skills." The way some postdocs are used isn't about imparting skills. More granular trajectory data is needed.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I agree, if you're spending years as a pipetting monkey then you may not gather those skills. But that's a bit your own responsibility if you ask me...

  • Nat says:

    Would the lack of a post-doc have affected your potential employment in industry? Would you have had to enter at a different level, or would it have been less likely you were hired in the first place?

    • babyattachmode says:

      I definitely got this particular job because of my experience as a postdoc abroad (both the postdoc aspect but also the having been abroad aspect I think). But for any job I might transition in after this, I'm not so sure a postdoc is absolutely necessary.

      • Nat says:

        Yeah, I agree that postdocs aren't usually totally necessary. But my sense is that the postdoc is looked upon as a useful experience. It allows you to solidify and extend your expertise in different areas. And also, perhaps especially for positions which are not thought appropriate for a brand spanking new PhD. for example, positions where you are supervising other people. That usually only comes with experience, gotten either in industry or a postdoc.

        Of course, gaining that experience in industry might be a better idea work/life and bank account-wise. 🙂 Still, I wouldn't trade my postdoc. Without that experience-all the good and all the bad- I wouldn't be who I am.

  • EPJ says:

    "I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here."

    I am sure that post docs have not the same experience, because of the issues of project type they join to work on, and because of the maturation state of the ongoing project(s), add to that the place and the PI coordinating it (philosophy and pressures being received at the time the postdoc joins that lab).

    "I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here"

    Basically I agree in that the value differs from that of going through PhD. Both could be considered like an interface experience, in the PD case the course work is replaced by some more responsibilities in dealing with other people as well as your own work and that of others. But the fate of PDs is another issue.

    EU people as well as outsiders from other places tend to have a good experience, and say so, and contrast to the locals the family experiences. Which somehow doesn't translate with the US counterpart. I don't know why that is the case, and there's usually no time to understand it.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Mmhh so what you're saying is that EU postdocs in the US generally have a better experience then their US peers? Any data to back up that statement?

      • EPJ says:

        I think it is good/positive that they say so, and that people are either reminded or made aware of some critical differences like that.

        You just have to look around you and notice it, that is data, and you people saying it are reporting it. There are facts, spoken ones, analyzed ones, but things like that in an environment of science fall into the range of just talk, or gratitude, particularly when there are other pressures that matter too. So congrats for your righteous experience.

Leave a Reply