Image: chemist, via National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)
After six years of graduate school, I got pretty good, I think, at explaining my research in evolutionary genetics to friends, family, strangers sitting beside me on an airplane, and anyone else who made the mistake of expressing an interest. What I didn’t anticipate was that when I finally finished my Ph.D., I would have to start explaining my actual job description.
“I’m what’s called a ‘postdoc,’” I find myself saying regularly these days. And then I flounder. I usually make a point of mentioning that I’ve finished my doctorate. (Don’t want to be mistaken for a grad student, now!) Then I’ll explain that I don’t have a faculty appointment: “No, I’m not a professor but I do work for one.” I might say that I’m a “senior member of the lab.” I’ll explain that all I do is research — and then admit that I’ve taken a couple leaves of absence to teach.
“A ‘postdoc’ is a temporary position awarded in academe, industry, a nonprofit organization, or government primarily for gaining additional education and training in research,” says a helpful bit of explanatory text provided on a page of the National Science Foundation’s “Survey of Doctoral Recipients.” There, in the survey text, was a unifying theme for my experience as a postdoc: training.
I took my first postdoctoral position specifically because it required me to learn how to work with genome-scale genetic data, collected for a plant that grows easily and quickly in a greenhouse — a major shift from my dissertation research, which was based on a handful of genetic markers and a long-lived, finicky species.
In the process of learning what can (and can’t) be done with gigabytes of genetic data and greenhouse experiments, I’ve supervised undergraduate research assistants, I’ve written grant proposals of a kind you could use to fund a lab, and I’ve taken on teaching responsibilities that gave me a better sense for how to construct and manage a course of my own. I’ve leveraged the blogging I did in grad school for some baby steps into the world of popular science writing. I’ve even built a nights-and-weekends side project into something worthy of entries on my CV and publications list.
In the four years since I finished my doctorate, I’ve done at least another Ph.D.’s-worth of work on questions that, back in graduate school, I would never have thought I could tackle. I’ve been lucky — I landed a good postdoc on an interesting project with a mentor who gave me freedom to pursue just about anything I thought would be valuable. That is all exactly what I would want to do running my own lab as a principal investigator, with a faculty appointment. And isn’t that what I’m “training” to do, after all?
I certainly hope so. In the background of all my other postdoctoral activities, I also have been practicing the art of applying for faculty positions. At the start of the fall semester, when the first submission deadlines ripen, it feels like I spend more of my time thinking about finding the next job than actually doing my current one. (I’m writing this very column in the midst of that first flurry of applications.) Over the years I’ve thought and rethought the standard package of cover letter, CV, research statement, and teaching philosophy to describe hypothetical programs of scholarship I would pursue on dozens of different campuses. All of that effort, to date, has earned me exactly two on-campus interviews.
I’m not panicking — yet. I’m still only approaching the level of productivity and experience for an average newly hired professor in evolutionary biology, as described in a paper published earlier this year by François Brischoux and Frédéric Angelier: about 20 peer-reviewed papers, almost eight years since publication of the first one.
I was warned about the academic job market almost from the moment I applied to graduate school, and I know how population dynamics work. If an average research professor trains, say, 6 to 12 graduate students over his or her career, and there hasn’t been a six-to-12-fold increase in the number of research professorships in the same period — well, let’s just say that Thomas Malthus might as well be sitting on every faculty hiring committee.
I am almost entirely unqualified to offer a metaphor from professional sports, but this one seems apt: A postdoc is training to be a professor in the same sense that a minor-league baseball player is training for a spot on a major-league roster. Many will play the game, few will make the leap to the next stage. In the meantime, life in the minors is pretty good, if you’re the kind of person who’s played enough baseball to make it even that far.
I’m doing work I enjoy — almost exactly what I’d have told you that scientists did, had you asked me when I was about 12. Yet it has its costs, too. As I enter my mid-30s, it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact that I could probably have worked my way to more certain prospects of advancement and financial security in the private sector. Also, in fullest disclosure, I have the (ahem) advantage of lacking family or romantic ties as I move from one contingent-on-grant-funding position to another. I cannot imagine how I’d manage with a partner and children to consider.
How many more times can I step up to the plate with my CV in hand, to take my chances at a run around the bases of application, interviews, and offer?
At least once more. I’ve just moved to a second postdoc — in a new lab at a new university in a new city — to apply what I’ve learned in six years of graduate school and four years of postdoctoral research in some exciting new ways. There are other things I could be doing, and I’m taking them more seriously with each passing year. But I like what I do in academic research, and I think it’s worth doing. If nothing else, a postdoc should be an expression of love for the pursuit of knowledge. Times being what they are, it must also be an expression of hope.