Lifecycle of a postdoc

I know from the questions I get asked by friends and family that a lot of people have a bit of difficulty getting their heads around how academia really works.  Particularly bizarre to them is the lifecycle of projects.

While research in a field is often envisaged as a constant struggle towards a better answer to a problem, in reality it occurs more in fits and starts.  Those pulses are the product of the short term projects which research funding usually supports, and while these ensure that science keeps to some notion of a schedule, it enforces a degree of short term thinking, as well as instability.  I think postdocs in particular suffer from this.   After completing your PhD, it is (within most science subjects at least) standard practice to take up 2 or 3 postdoc positions.  These are (usually) entirely research focussed, with the idea of broadening your research portfolio and experience before taking up a full time academic post.

The general timescale for a project is this:

  • 1. a principal investigator (PI) comes up with a research idea.  They put together a grant proposal and submit it to a funding body such as NERC. Usually this grant proposal will have provision to pay for a postdoc researcher or two, and maybe a PhD student or two, as well as a percentage of the PI’s time for the length of the project.  The projects timescale will have been carefully laid out in the initial proposal, probably with Ghantt charts and milestones. Submission and decision making can take 6-12 months.
  • 2. Assuming the funding proposal is accepted, there will be a negotiation period (~ 6 months) where the details are hammered out with the PI and research funding body, and recruitment of the designated positions can occur.  If the submission is rejected, then the PI will generally revamp the submission and either resubmit in the next funding round (these come around every 6 – 12 months), or try and submit it to another potential funding body.
  • 3. Once the postdocs and PhD’s are recruited, the project will start up, and run for its designated time.  After a year or so of data gathering the project will start generating publications.  The PI may well be running multiple projects, so it is generally the postdocs keeping each individual project going.
  • 4. At the end of the project final reports are made to the funding body, and the postdocs head off to join new projects, the PhD students will have (hopefully!) finished, and the PI will move onto their next project.  Everyone goes their separate ways.

The advantages of this system are many; you can recruit precisely the skills you need, run the project, and move on.  It enables people to move around and experience different research environments, it encourages collaboration and the dissemination of ideas, and it keeps projects running within reasonable time frames so nothing gets too out of hand.

However, there are a number of disadvantages as well.  Perhaps that highest up the list is one I have heard discussed amongst postdocs frequently, and that is the complete lack of job security.

Most projects run for between 18 and 36 months.  6 – 12 months from the end of one project you really need to be neck deep in finding the next one to go to.  Many postdocs are incredibly specialised so finding one that is suitable to a particular persons skillset can be challenging.  It also requires a huge amount of flexibility.  If there’s 4 labs in the world who specialise in what you do, you need to be able to move about if you want to get anywhere.

There is also a very real uncertainty in funding for research.  There is no guarantee that there will be work available at the end of a PhD, or after your next postdoc.  When you consider that you’re almost certainly already over 30, I can’t help thinking that there’s a number of retention issues felt in academia which have their heart in this instability.

And it’s not just the instability for yourself.  Many postdocs I know are in long-term realtionships and marriages.  If your partner has a career of their own, jumping around the world on the basis of 18-36 month temporary contracts is not the most appealing way of proposing that they might like to change job.

It’s quite odd, as a 32 year old, talking to your old university friends who are often nearly a decade into their careers, settled and buying houses, when you see the complete incomprehension in their eyes as you explain that you don’t know if you’ll be able to come along to some event in 6 – 9 months time, as you have no idea which country you’ll be living in.

Don’t get me wrong – the potential to travel and do cool things is brilliant.  I love research, I love geology, and I love the fact that what I do changes.  But there’s a part of me would really love to know what I’m going to be doing in September.

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About Pete Rowley

Earth Science researcher. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and watching films with Angelina in them. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
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