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Is a Postdoc Worth it?

samzenpus posted about 5 months ago | from the take-it-easy dept.

Education 233

Jim_Austin writes "In a very funny column, Adam Ruben reviews the disadvantages and, well, the disadvantages of doing a postdoc, noting that 'The term "postdoc" refers both to the position and to the person who occupies it. (In this sense, it's much like the term "bar mitzvah.") So you can be a postdoc, but you can also do a postdoc.'"

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233 comments

Horse already left the barn (-1, Troll)

xtal (49134) | about 5 months ago | (#45520193)

If grad school has at best a questionable return, how could a postdoc - indentured servitude, slavery - be any better an idea?

The exceptional at anything will do fine, including academics. By definition, odds are you're not exceptional in a given talent pool, even one that's two or three deviations out.

Have a concrete plan to feed yourself. Or save the schooling for retirement, after you've saved up enough to live on. Digging yourself a hundred thousand dollar hole isn't a great idea right out of the gate.

Academics used to be the playground of the elite (and the exceptional, with a patron). That's been forgotten..

Re:Horse already left the barn (5, Informative)

ScottyB (13347) | about 5 months ago | (#45520315)

...

Have a concrete plan to feed yourself. Or save the schooling for retirement, after you've saved up enough to live on. Digging yourself a hundred thousand dollar hole isn't a great idea right out of the gate.

...

They're talking about science and engineering postdocs in the article, not humanities. Science and engineering postdocs are paid, just not very well, and science and engineering graduate students are also paid as well as having their tuition covered, so the point about debt is moot. Grad school and such in these disciplines is mostly about opportunity cost (years in your 20s potentially squandered) and potentially limiting your future career opportunities depending on your field and/or continued desire to remain in the academy.

Re:Horse already left the barn (4, Informative)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520571)

Science and engineering postdocs are paid, just not very well

Do a search on STEM postdoc job ads - $50k is considered very generous. No, you won't starve, some people get by on less (though usually in low cost-of-living places rather than the high CoL areas where the better universities typically are). $50k/yr is about $24/hr assuming 40 hr weeks, but that's a ridiculous assumption. A goof-off postdoc probably does at least 60 hrs/wk, so that's $16/hr if you were paid on straight time. Hourly workers are supposed to get time and a half for OT, so an hourly worker doing 60 hrs/wk would pull in $50k if they worked 60 hrs/wk and had a base rate of $13.74/hr. How long after high school to get a Ph.D.? It varies quite a bit, but say 8-9 years on average. No big deal. Personally I don't understand why, however lazy and unmotivated Americans are, there aren't more of them clamoring for postdocs, when for a little education they can rake in big bucks like that.

Re:Horse already left the barn (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45521137)

Some pay more; it depends on the field and the place you work. At the national lab level, STEM postdocs don't make *less* than $60k/year, fellowships can bump that value up a bit.

But yah, postdoc spots at most universities pay terrible.

Re:Horse already left the barn (1)

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) | about 5 months ago | (#45520711)

They're talking about science and engineering postdocs in the article, not humanities. Science and engineering postdocs are paid, just not very well,

I could be wrong here, but I'm pretty sure the definition of "postdoc" includes some sort of pay. (I suppose there might be some strange European situations where you only get room and board, or something....) I've never heard of a postdoc in the humanities that didn't pay something. In fact, many postdocs in the humanities (Mellon fellows, etc.) pay as well as postdocs in the sciences, though they tend to be more competitive. Some humanities postdocs may pay very little, but if you're not getting paid anything, I don't think you have a postdoc. Maybe you have an "apprenticeship" or maybe you're a "volunteer," but I don't think even humanities programs tend to employ research fellows with no pay.

and science and engineering graduate students are also paid as well as having their tuition covered,

True, though the top-tier humanities schools also cover tuition for graduate students, often with stipends as well.

I'm also reasonably certain that there are plenty of colleges in the U.S. that would gladly take your money to earn a master's degree in chemistry or something. Most Ph.D. programs in sciences and engineering have at least tuition waivers (if not stipends), but lots of schools -- even top-tier ones -- will allow a student to pay for a master's degree.

so the point about debt is moot.

Perhaps I read the GP wrong, but I think there is also a concern about graduate school debt and the effect it may have on subsequent choices. If you go into debt in graduate school, it puts even more pressure on you to be able to get a job immediately out of graduate school, so you can pay off loans. Often the most reasonable choice is a post-doc, which barely lets you earn enough to live on, particularly with debt to pay off. It's all a bad cycle.

Moral of the story still is: don't go into debt to go to graduate school, unless you're getting a credential (professional degree) or something that will raise your salary in a job or profession you're already in. If you're not talented enough to get into the graduate schools in your field that will give you a free ride, chances are you'll never be able to get a job in academia. And yes, that includes the humanities.

And yes, debt can happen to people in the sciences for graduate school, even with a tuition waiver. Grad school stipends are sometimes quite minimal (even smaller than postdoc pay), and I know a few people who had their way "paid" through graduate school in the sciences, but ended up coming out with tens of thousands of dollars in debt... either in loans or credit cards or whatever.

So... no, the point about debt is NOT moot.

Re:Horse already left the barn (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 5 months ago | (#45520783)

From the "You should only care about money dept."

Re:Horse already left the barn (4, Informative)

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) | about 5 months ago | (#45520969)

From the "You should only care about money dept."

Umm, no -- from the be realistic about your life dept.

If you're independently wealthy and just want a Ph.D. in English lit. or art history, by all means, go for it and pay the $150k or whatever! If you're retired or have money to burn or whatever, I applaud your effort to become more educated. Seriously, I really do. I wish more people who had the means did such things with their money.

But as someone who actually has degrees in fields that are NOT considered "lucrative," because I deliberately decided to do something I enjoy, rather than earn the most money I could... I think I have plenty of experience to give advice here.

And being realistic is not the same as "only caring about money." If there were a higher demand for Ph.D.'s in the field you love, there would be more opportunities for "full rides" for graduate school in your field. If you aren't talented enough to get one of those, the chances that you will subsequently land a nice tenure-track job somewhere are very low.

I know people with Ivy League Ph.D.'s in the humanities who graduated half a decade ago, have a number of publications in top journals, have teaching experience, and they STILL can't find a decent tenure-track job. If you're paying $100k to get your crappy graduate degree from Upper Bucksnort University, you really think you have a chance?!?

I'm not trying to quash anyone's dreams, but you need to ask yourself what you're getting for that $100k+ investment, other than a boatload of debt.

By all means, keep the dream: go out and get a job, save up some cash, and then if when you're 35 or 40 or whatever, go back and get that Ph.D. with the money you saved -- if you still really want to. I admire people like that a great deal.

But shelling out for graduate school when it won't help you be able to do what you want to do anyway, and it could actually HURT your future by having crippling debt and branding you as "overcredentialed" as you try to find a realistic job.

P.S. Yes, I have a job in what I wanted to do, and no, I do not have any debt from graduate school. But I know a few people who do have ridiculous debt from graduate school, have no job or some crappy job that isn't anything that they ever wanted to do, and are struggling to get out of debt... there's no chance that they will ever get a decent academic job.

Re:Horse already left the barn (2)

nomadic (141991) | about 5 months ago | (#45521107)

Do that many people pay for their PhDs? I'm not paying for mine; I wouldn't do it if I had to (racked up enough debt from law school). I look at it as a low-pay but enjoyable job that I can live on for a few years before trying the tenure-track-job lotto.

Re:Horse already left the barn (2)

timeOday (582209) | about 5 months ago | (#45520371)

I partially agree... there are some fields where a postdoc or two is mandatory, and thus not an indication that you're failing to launch. But then, yes, there are fields where a postdoc (or especially a second postdoc) means you're probably just holding out hope for too long.

Try to find people who exemplify whatever success you are seeking in your own field, and ask about their experiences. (Of course there's always a slim chance you'll break the mold...)

Re:Horse already left the barn (4, Insightful)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520419)

If grad school has at best a questionable return, how could a postdoc - indentured servitude, slavery - be any better an idea?

In plain English, it's cheap labor. As I understand it, once upon a time in America, somebody reasonably good who got their Ph.D. could move to a faculty position fairly quickly. Not tenured at first of course, but likely tenure track. When we started getting more Ph.D.'s than we needed, they invented the post-doc. String 'em along, get lots of cheap labor, and every once in a while give somebody a faculty position so the rest could dream. But hey, everybody knows we've got a STEM shortage, right?

Back in the 80's the NSF pushed for a big increase in student visas. They noted that it would probably push down the salaries of Ph.D.'s, though I'm sure that wasn't a motivation.

Re:Horse already left the barn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520765)

There never has, nor will be, a shortage of mathematically and scientifically minded individuals. They drive the economy, and can do it mostly single-handedly.

Re:Horse already left the barn (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520865)

They drive the economy, and can do it mostly single-handedly.

Dream on. I'm a plumber who set up a small business and makes 200k US with a lowly apprenticeship (and an associate's in mechanical engineering, just for shits). I'm also an investor. I'll make more than many of you doctorates ever will, and there are many like me in the trades who actually do work instead of masturbate mentally.

Re:Horse already left the barn (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520923)

I've got a great idea for a new online game: "Droll humor or actual idiot - you decide".

Re:Horse already left the barn (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520891)

There never has, nor will be, a shortage of mathematically and scientifically minded individuals.

If people who can earn Ph.D.'s in math or science are a dime a dozen, then why the demand for lots of visas for grad students and postdocs?

They drive the economy, and can do it mostly single-handedly.

Then you'd think they could earn a decent living doing it.

Re:Horse already left the barn (0)

weilawei (897823) | about 5 months ago | (#45521039)

Because someone in 200k USD of debt and used to a 1st world lifestyle generally doesn't want to work for slum wages, whereas if you import someone used to the 3rd world, slum wages look amazing. See Hans Rosling's talks for many similar points on populations.

Re:Horse already left the barn (1)

roman_mir (125474) | about 5 months ago | (#45521191)

In plain English, it's cheap labor.

- and just like with any other product or service, the cheaper it is, the more of it is consumed, the cheaper the labour, the more of it can be bought and used productively.

Wages are prices, cheaper labour = cheaper prices and it's a good thing for the economy.

Postdoc Required Everywhere (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520213)

Unfortunately, for my field, a postdoc is required for just about everything outside of industry. Even teaching position at community colleges want postdoc. And since there is a flood of people with them already, they can be picky and get them.

To me, the increasing use of them is a sign of oversupply of interested people and not enough 'real' jobs for them. We are beginning to see very long postdoc times (during which the postdoc isn't actually rolling in money...)

Re:Postdoc Required Everywhere (1)

qbzzt (11136) | about 5 months ago | (#45520297)

As you said, it looks like an oversupply of interested people. If I were you, I'd try to get into a different field or industry.

Re:Postdoc Required Everywhere (4, Informative)

jythie (914043) | about 5 months ago | (#45520299)

Yeah, postdoc stuff really seems to either be mandatory or irrelevant (bordering on a negative), with very little in between. Either way, if one is looking for money, they are the wrong way to go. Postdocs are generally for people really passionate about a subject, not people who just want a well paying job.

Re:Postdoc Required Everywhere (1)

mspohr (589790) | about 5 months ago | (#45520469)

A postdoc to teach at a community college?
Our local community college is staffed with M.S. and M.A. (and no PhD's or postdocs).

Re:Postdoc Required Everywhere (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520737)

Looking around recent appointments at my own institution and at the career progression of a good number of friends who did PhDs at the same time as me, across most of the physical and biological sciences, you don't get academic positions without 4 to 7 years of postdoctoral research experience. (There are exceptions to this at both ends of the scale but they are either brilliant/lucky or unlucky/slow at taking the hint.) Since a post-doc appointment is usually 1 or 2 years, this is either a continual process of relocating you and your loved ones from one side of the world to the other, or a wonderful opportunity to live in new places and experience new cultures. Such short term appointments also mean that you practically start applying for your next job shortly after you've started the previous one -- that's not good for the productivity or for the stress levels.

[full disclosure: it was 5 years to my first (non-tenured) academic position after my PhD; 9 years to a tenured position]

Summary blows it on quip choice, frankly. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520225)

"Despite its masculine undertones, the term "postdoctoral fellow" is actually gender-neutral. This has led to much confusion when female doctoral students have told their friends or family, "I’m planning to become a fellow."

No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520241)

I did a postdoc. After several 3 month contracts I started looking a bit more broadly (was in bioinformatics/statistics). By chance I saw a job for a street light bulb changer. They got a 3 year contract, a couple of percent more pay and about 20 days per year more holiday. So I went into SEO for remortgage websites and tripled my salary.

Re:No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520367)

In other words, you found an opportunity and filled it. The slashtards will despise you as a filthy Capitalist, but I commend you for being a rational actor.

Re:No. (2)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520621)

We don't need rational actors in America. What we need are people willing to work hard for delayed gratification (possibly postmortem). Just ask anyone like Tom Friedman. Then follow Tom's example - marry a billionaire.

My experience (4, Interesting)

Kell Bengal (711123) | about 5 months ago | (#45520255)

My post-doc was the most grueling and difficult thing I've ever done. Two and a half years of crushingly long days, hard deadlines and uncertain future. I guess I got my faculty job out of it (and traded up to the same thing again for another 5 years before tenure review)... so I guess it's worth it?

Now I'm left wondering if tenure is even worth the struggle at the end. Bear in mind, tenure in Australia is not a "secure job for life" as people in the US seem to think it is. We're actually having a lot of difficulty convincing newly minted grads to come and do PhDs when they see all the junior faculty are deeply bitter, cynical and exhausted. But hey, I build robots for a living, so I tell myself when I see those same grads getting jobs that pay more than mine does with zero years experience..

Yeah .... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520341)

We're actually having a lot of difficulty convincing newly minted grads to come and do PhDs when they see all the junior faculty are deeply bitter, cynical and exhausted.

Well, the perk of banging undergrads now gets you fired.

WTF is the point in doing ANY uni level teaching anymore?

Life sucks! The richer get richer. The World economy is going to shit! And college professors can't bang co-eds anymore!

I'm going to write a Russian style novel now - a thousand pages - all handwritten!

And then die knowing some poor poor fucking high school or undergrad student will have to read the fucking thing and look for all the symbolism and BS. I'm gonna go out of my way make all the "symbolism" be based on some Aztecan God!

Ahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Re:Yeah .... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520951)

You sir, are my hero.

Uncertainty is the killer (4, Informative)

amaurea (2900163) | about 5 months ago | (#45520495)

I'm doing a postdoc right now, and while I don't mind the 60 hour weeks, the uncertainty is what gets at me. After a long education one basically becomes a vagabond, drifting from university to university, never knowing where one will be working in 3 years' time. And the last year of each postdoc is spent writing applications for other places. In my home country, there are 1-2 available permanent positions every decade or so in my field, each of which typically has more than 100 applicants from all over the world. Getting one of those is pretty unlikely, to put it mildly. So I'll have to choose between permanently moving far away from friends and family, or leave my field of research. Unless I'm better than all the 100+ other applicants.

The postdoc situation is a symptom of there beeing too little resources invested in science compared to the number of people who want to do science. Instead, society is investing resources in things like moving imagniary money around really fast (yes, high frequency trading and other finance is a big employer of drop-outs from my field - they can emply more people, and pay much higher salaries, despite their detrimental effect on society). Yes, I am a bit bitter.

Re:Uncertainty is the killer (-1, Flamebait)

0123456 (636235) | about 5 months ago | (#45520563)

The postdoc situation is a symptom of there beeing too little resources invested in science compared to the number of people who want to do science.

No, it's a symptom of far too many people wanting a comfy job in an ivory tower where they never really have to achieve much.

Re:Uncertainty is the killer (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520671)

No, it's a symptom of far too many people wanting a comfy job in an ivory tower where they never really have to achieve much.

Wow, best description of a postdoc position I've ever heard. Not like our hard working and underpaid CEO's, are they?

Re:Uncertainty is the killer (0)

geekoid (135745) | about 5 months ago | (#45520813)

Fuck you. You don't know anything about science or acadamia.

Do you know who use the term 'Ivory tower'? Middle of the road people who will never do anything and their only defense is an Ad Hom.

Re:Uncertainty is the killer (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45521011)

Yeah like find a treatment for AIDS that saved millions of lives like my thesis advisor did. And on the side invented the science of protenomics. Clearly such people are just looking for a comfy job.

Fucking Idiot.

Re:Uncertainty is the killer (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520895)

The career progression for early career researchers is crap at best. Governments and funding bodies have come up with all sorts of ways of making it sound like a good thing (e.g. the EU likes to have "Human Resources Mobility") but that doesn't make up for the gnawing "I don't know how we are going to pay the bills in a couple of months time" feeling.

It's even worse if you have a partner who is also playing the same game. If your contracts don't end at the same time, moving to a new country to take up the next position is really difficult. If they do end at the same time then the financial uncertainty is multiplied. Data show that the partners of male academics have a fairly typical spread of occupations, while female researchers have a disporportionately high representation of academics for partners. It appears that this is one of the significant contributors to female researchers giving up on this for the bad joke it is (they are obviously brighter and see that it's more sensible to get out) and why there can have been quite good gender balance at PhD level for many years but there is still poor gender balance at academic level including amongst recent appointees.

I can understand the "bitter" feeling. Been there, done that. Now I have a permanent position, I'm starting to shed that... I'm actually thinking about doing science again rather than just writing job applications about the projects that I'd love to do but can't. I'm starting to relax, I'm certainly a lot less stressed and as a result I'm being much more creative and doing much better science too. At some stage, I'll realise that I've replaced the job application treadmill with the grant writing treadmill... but one step at a time.

Chin up, old chap... you'll get there.

Re:My experience (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520567)

On the plus side, if you've been a good lecturer in a difficult subject, you might just get those newly-minted grads offering you some really sweet consulting jobs in a few years. To my surprise, I've had this happen to me a number of times as a side-effect of teaching Finite Element Analysis. ;-)

Re:My experience (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520693)

Glad you got the work, but I'd think FEA has lots of direct industry applications. What about more esoteric, but still important, areas?

Re:My experience (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520605)

Don't worry, about your first-year-out graduates earning more than you... one of my PhD students took up a post-doc in Australia and was earning almost twice what I was earning as a UK academic. Lovely.

Re:My experience (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520647)

My postdoc (done in the US in physics) was kind of gruelling, but I didn't really mind so much because I was doing stuff that I really enjoyed. It definitely paid off for me, getting the job I wanted (though, I didn't expect to end up in Switzerland, which is a long way from my native Australia). What I appreciate now is that a postdoc is about proving that you can work without supervision or direction. This means thinking up your own ideas and following through on them. If you aren't brimming with ideas and an excitement to get stuck into them by the end of your postdoc then you aren't cut out for academia.

Re:My experience (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45521035)

On the other hand, if you're brimming with ideas and an excitement to get stuck into them, then by the end of your postdoc prepare for some disappointment. Surprise! You didn't get another postdoc!

No matter how good you are, there are topics that don't get you through. There is pure bad luck which means you don't get through. I don't know what it's like in other fields, but in my field, you're looking at approximately 25% max of PhD students from good institutions are able to find a postdoc. Are 75% of them willing to leave or useless? Nope. Many of them are either or both of those, but many are simply unable to find a job in academia. Then at the end of the first postdoc, about 50% of those who have survived, and perhaps more, are shown the door. Were these people who weren't "brimming with ideas" or unwilling "to get stuck into them"? Nope. Of course, some were, but most of the others are just victims of shitty fucking luck. Not enough jobs, not enough brown-nosing, not enough slurping at a pointless seam of nothingness which is currently fashionable for no apparent reason (I'm looking at you, cosmology. Braneworlds? Endless permutations on inflationary model-building, which is a field that was dead in 1989? Endless studies into higher- and higher-order statistics of inflation when we can't even see a fucking bispectrum on the CMB? Horava-Lifshitz gravity? Seriously? Fuck off is this shit important), not enough "networking", and -- far more important than any of that -- plain bad timing and bad luck. Then of the people who did get that second post-doc, 50% of them don't make a third. Probably more. I don't know about your field, but in mine, you need a third postdoc which may or may not be a five-year fellowship / tenure-track. In many cases the fourth fellowship is the tenure-track. The days of going from PhD to junior faculty are very long gone. And in the meantime, you've put your personal life under serious strain, which is frequently terminal to any relationships that were in it, and earned peanuts.

On the other hand, so long as you can either make relationships work or aren't fucked about them, it's the perfect job. The working culture - outside of the US, where they seem to expect you to piss blood for peanuts - is lovely. If you deliver the results (in the form of publishable papers), no-one gives the slightest fuck where you are or what you're doing. Not in the department for three weeks solid? So long as you didn't have a meeting set up with your employer, no-one will care or, indeed, notice. Taking a three-month research visit to Berkely? Not only will no-one care, they'll even pay for you to do it. Don't feel like working more than three hours today? Not only will people not notice if you go home and play Call of Duty, they'll actively encourage you to, because there's nothing more useless than a knackered postdoc unable to work. What's the point in that? They can't do anything creative, they can't even focus on the maths. If they stop publishing, that's when it's an issue.

It's basically horses for courses. If you like traveling, by which I mean constantly moving country, and if you don't care about money, and if you like the idea of the job freedom that comes with a postdoc - and genuinely care about the work, because otherwise you really are wasting you time - it's the life of Reilly. On the other hand, if you've even the slightest hankering for stability, you're going to be very unhappy for a very long time, and if you're the kind (like me, and I've been on both ends of the luck, and it's offended me when I've won out at least as much as when I've lost) to get pissed off with the crapshoot nature of it it's probably better to go into industry where at least everyone knows it's a political game and no-one gives a fuck. Academia is in some ways a horrible place where many people genuinely do give a fuck but have no power to change things for you, and the rest are egotistical pricks with an astonishingly inflated sense of their own achievement.

(Probably myself included.)

Low-salary 95K/year postdoc was well worth it (2, Interesting)

jmcbain (1233044) | about 5 months ago | (#45520269)

When I graduated with my CS PhD back in the early 2000's, I couldn't find a single job due to some combination of the dot-com bust and my being not ready for industry. I was lucky enough to get a postdoc position with IBM Research. The salary was average (only $95K/year) compared to software engineers, but the experience was great. My manager hid all politics from me, and I wasn't subject to the rigors of performance reviews. Ten years later, I've had a relatively decent career, and having IBM Research on my resume sure does look good.

Re:Low-salary 95K/year postdoc was well worth it (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 5 months ago | (#45520465)

Wow. In Molecular Biology in the late 80's (before I bolted into medicine), post docs were making 35K tops. Wonder what it is now, but I don't think it's anywhere near 95K. Hell, that's more than my professor made.

Re:Low-salary 95K/year postdoc was well worth it (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520475)

$95k/yr doesn't sound "low salary" to a lot of folks. I'll be getting a physics postdoc position soon --- at least a typical ~$45k/yr salary looks pretty good compared to half that for several years as a graduate student. Hey, I'll finally break into the median national wage range! Within another decade, I could even be earning $70k/yr. Fortunately, "big bucks" wasn't what I've ever been after going in to experimental physics, since --- even with a PhD from a top-ranked university --- career pay prospects aren't exactly stunning (unless you're too stupid and/or greedy for academics, and drop out into industry/finance).

Re:Low-salary 95K/year postdoc was well worth it (1)

Lumpy (12016) | about 5 months ago | (#45520625)

It does when you get that job with nearly $200,000 in debt hanging over your head. $4000+ a month student loan payments make that $95K a year salary look like peanuts it forces you to live as if you were making $40K a year. And if you are screwed and end up working in insane places like California, DC, or NYC for that paltry $95K you are living in a slum as housing prices are criminally high.

No student loan debt from grad school (3, Informative)

jmcbain (1233044) | about 5 months ago | (#45520775)

Graduate students in STEM fields typically do not accumulate student loan debt from grad school. In fact, many STEM U.S. grad students work and get paid as TAs or as RAs (research assistants). From talking to dozens of other CS PhDs, the pay is about 23K/year (which is about what I got). That amount is enough to get by when you're a PhD student.

Re:Low-salary 95K/year postdoc was well worth it (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520835)

If you went to grad school in an science/engineering field (the subject of the article) and got $200K of debt, then you are dumb. No, really, dumb. You didn't qualify for any major scholarship. You didn't take on an adviser with funding. The state and federal government said that you didn't qualify to go to grad school. But you went anyways! And borrowed as much as you could to do it!

Re:Low-salary 95K/year postdoc was well worth it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520849)

Forcing you to live like you were making 40k/year?

How is that bad? Between the wife and I, we bring home around 130k. Our yearly expenses are less than 30k, including the mortgage. Everything else goes in savings/investments. Happily, no children, so that helps.

Betteridge's law of headlines (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520283)

No.

(Brought to you by a postdoc.)

Re:Betteridge's law of headlines (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520423)

I agree, brought to you by a very happy person working in industry 1 year out from his postodc.

Like WANTING to be gay or lesbian (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520333)

Now I can understand wanting to be lesbian, to an extent, but gay? Why would you want that?

Re:Like WANTING to be gay or lesbian (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520753)

>Now I can understand wanting to be lesbian, to an extent, but gay? Why would you want that?

What are you talking about? Lesbians *are* gay.

I realize by 'gay' you meant 'male homosexual' but that word doesn't meant that. We do have other terms for 'male homosexual' like 'stool pusher', but they're considered colloquial.

Re:Like WANTING to be gay or lesbian (1)

nomadic (141991) | about 5 months ago | (#45521169)

Do you know how easy it is to find sex if you're gay? A gay friend has remarked on several occasions how bad he feels for straight men having trouble getting sex.

Post docs (3, Interesting)

paxprobellum (2521464) | about 5 months ago | (#45520385)

Postdocs aren't all bad. I'm convinced that the issue with academia is that everyone thinks they are outstanding. As a result, postdocs that have a rough time of it blame the postdoc, not themselves. In other words, I made a decent wage and had normal hours. YMMV.

Re:Post docs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520455)

"postdocs that have a rough time of it blame the postdoc"

or they blame their boyfriends.

Re:Post docs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520627)

Me too. The point is that the milage of others DOES vary. On average, the milage truly sucks. Yet average, non-outstanding, run-of-the-mill post-docs are still doing important work for little pay and long hours compared with other jobs. THAT is the issue; not that the top 15% or so of post-doc positions are great.

When I got my PhD.. (1, Flamebait)

toonces33 (841696) | about 5 months ago | (#45520391)

The people going the post-doc route either hoped to become faculty at a University somewhere, or were foreign nationals who needed a green card, and the universities were the only ones willing to do the paperwork. Then again, sometimes the Universities would string the post-doc along and only put in a half-hearted effort on the green card.

Re:When I got my PhD.. (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 5 months ago | (#45520533)

Must depend on the field. In Molecular Biology you might get a low end industry job without a post doc. Anything else, not a chance. Kind of like medicine - while it's technically possible to get a job without a internship (essentially a one year post doc position) and a residency, you won't like the job (some Indian reservation in the badlands of West Nowhere).

YMMV of course. It would be interesting to break it down by major fields.

Re:When I got my PhD.. (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520749)

Kind of like medicine

No. Go through the grueling years of residency any you're pretty much guaranteed a good paying job for life (for some specialties, it's spectacularly paid). Do you get that sort of certainty in molecular bio?

Re:When I got my PhD.. (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 5 months ago | (#45520887)

"pretty much guaranteed a good paying job for life
no actually, you aren't.
The median payu for family practice is $138,000.00, before insurances and other costs, and you need to continue you education.
If you want to break it down to an hourly basis, you looking at 60+ hours a week pract, and anouth bunch of hours keeping current.

The could go up to 200K in 6 years.

And if something goes wrong, well then, good luck.

Re:When I got my PhD.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45521147)

Cry us a river, Medical Boy. Are you kidding me? $138k would be a fucking brilliant average in molecular biology. $90k would be great! CE points for GPs are a joke compared with the amount of literature a post-doc has to digest (yes, smart-ass, I work with neurosurgeons, I KNOW these things!). And you want to talk about actual employment prospects? YES, a job as GP is a GUARANTEE compared with a tenured position!

My Dad Said No (3, Interesting)

retroworks (652802) | about 5 months ago | (#45520395)

He was a Ph.D, taught at University of Arkansas. Told me it definitely depended on the field, and that even a Doctorate in some fields (Business) was considered a bit questionable. But he said the number of people who get postdoc's is based on the number of people who A=(can't figure out what they want to do) + B=(can't find a job), more than C=(fields that need post-doctorates). So I looked at my dad, and quit at a Masters.

Re:My Dad Said No (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520677)

... the number of people who get postdoc's is based on the number of people who A=(can't figure out what they want to do) + B=(can't find a job), more than C=(fields that need post-doctorates).

Who needs a job when someone will pay me for doing my hobby? This is what a successful career in academia is like.

Re:My Dad Said No (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520879)

You have a gross misunderstanding of what a career in academia is like. Unless your hobby includes teaching classes and writing grant proposals.

Re:My Dad Said No (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45521025)

Haha... THIS! ROTFLMAO... then rocking back and forth clutching my knees... :-)

Re:My Dad Said No (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45521007)

Who needs a job when someone will pay me for doing my hobby? This is what a successful career in academia is like.

And as a university administrator, we're onto you. I personally have a hand in ensuring that those positions are exceedingly rare.

Yes it is. (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520421)

There was an interesting editorial in Nature back in 2005 commenting on how postdocs earn barely more than a janitor at Harvard.
http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/v37/n7/full/ng0705-653.html

With the economy having gone south and the inevitable funding cuts that has brought about, the situation is even worse now.

I moved halfway around the world for my postdoc (from Australia to the US), for a job that pays approximately half what I'd get in Australia. (Postdocs in the US are paid far less than Postdocs in Australia. Maybe that's why there are so many Postdocs in the US. They can hire more of them for the same amount of money.)

Sometimes, I do wonder what I'm doing here. And then I remember how I have a job that I absolutely love. That I can go home every evening looking forward to going to work the next day. And when I am reminded of that, I think how incredibly lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing. And if I have to accept lower pay and the lack of job stability as a trade-off, I am perfectly willing to do so.

This doesn't mean that I think Postdocs are getting a great deal, of course. We know we aren't. But we never got into this profession for the money anyway.

Knowing all that I know now, would I still have gone through all those years of grad school and gotten my PhD and moved halfway around the planet for a postdoc? Was it all worth it? I believe I'd say yes.

Seems pretty accurate (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520445)

Think of it as a year-long or two-year-long work contract. That's it. It's a way to get some experience, put food on the table, and figure out what the hell you are going to do when it ends. In my case it was 4 years of employment in a series of contracts before getting a "real job" elsewhere with some permanence to it. I enjoyed my time as a postdoc, but when other opportunities came up, I gave them my notice and left.

The article is sarcastic and funny mainly because some people put in all those years of effort and mistakenly think a PhD or postdoc magically "graduates" into a real professor position eventually. Nope. You're entirely on your own to figure out how to make that happen, if ever. But after ~10 years of post-secondary education you better be able to take on a career challenge like that or you are guaranteeing you will be one of those 6/7ths that don't go on to be a professor. It's a tough path. It does work sometimes, but you have to focus on making your CV stand out from the others. A postdoc gives you time to do that if you are well-motivated and organized. The worst is if you are so intensely devoted to the short-term tasks of your degree and postdoc that you don't think about the longer-term goal and how to build towards it. You should be thinking about employment all the way through, otherwise you're in for a big shock at the end.

I wanted to go into academia once... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520499)

When I was younger, I wanted to go into academia. The idea of devoting a lifetime to pushing back the boundaries of science, even if only in some small way, appealed to me.

Looking back on it, and hearing the stories, I wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea. (Ignoring the fact that I'm far too stupid to qualify anyway.) Why do people do this to themselves?

cost benefit (1)

Pirulo (621010) | about 5 months ago | (#45520507)

If you are asking /. you might not be convinced, or worse, not passionate about it.
What other thing you desire or better yet, you really need, can be attained with the same amount of money, time and sacrifice that you'd pour in a postdoc?
Most people do not realize there's better ways to invest in time, money and sacrifice.
Some need to pay for the education and be chased with deadlines to learn and/or get something done.
If you must go for formal education, I personally find more benefit in studying something new I don't have a remote clue about.

Rarely (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520529)

Unfortunately you can rately "do a postdoc" as they tend to be too preoccupied with their research to engage in fornication.

Short version (3, Insightful)

Compuser (14899) | about 5 months ago | (#45520531)

Long article to say: postdoc is a lot of work for low pay and iffy career prospects.

Well duh.

On the flip side, if you are doing it, chances are "a lot of work" is a plus not a minus. As Aldous Huxley said: "An intellectual is a person who's found one thing that's more interesting than sex." Yes, the pay is low but you get to use someone else's money to fund your research. If you want to worry about science and not administrative issues then postdoc days are the golden days.

Re:Short version (1)

ebno-10db (1459097) | about 5 months ago | (#45520777)

If you want to worry about science and not administrative issues then postdoc days are the golden days.

Who needs money? You can live on science!

Re:Short version (2)

Compuser (14899) | about 5 months ago | (#45521127)

I did a five year postdoc. The money is not bad. Above poverty level. If all you do is go to lab, go home to sleep and go to the lab then this is plenty. If you you do _anything_ besides the above two then you are doing it wrong. I put in 100 hours per week for five years with no breaks or holidays and I have a good reputation and a faculty job now. I would have been happy with the former alone.

Re:Short version (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520851)

Intellectual curiosity isn't really the deficit here. The problem is more one of security and mental health than job satisfaction.

Imagine doing your normal job (assuming your normal job isn't a post-doc position), but ALWAYS having a fixed-term hanging over you. In anywhere from four months to three years, you know that you'll be looking for work. Not work with a different client, or a different company down the street (trust me, it's NOT AT ALL like consulting!), but in a different state or country, where you'll have to uproot yourself and any significant others simply in order to continue your career. Your next job might involve a pay-cut, or work that's only tangentially related to your actual interests. You know that you're in a "funnel of attrition", where dropping out is the normal thing to do (all your colleagues are doing it).

You might reach a point where you can't quite find a job that really fits your interests. So, you decide to live off your meagre savings for a few months while you cook something up with a potential new employer elsewhere. This stretches out to become a year of scrimping along, while you accept one-off teaching and industry consulting work in order to pay the bills. Then finally the Good Position comes through, and you're all set! But only for 24 months; then you're on the road again doing the same thing all over.

See how these "golden days" can be a continual pit of worry and stress?

It IS! (1)

Lumpy (12016) | about 5 months ago | (#45520565)

If you like crippling debt and no better chances at employment. If you are going into the education field and hope to become a tenured professor, then you need to do it. Otherwise it's just pissing away your money and time.

Even to become one of NASA's top scientists you dont need it.

I don't know but... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520617)

I had a cousin who was a genius, at least in chemistry. After he got his BS in chemistry, he went into the army where he was assigned to the chemical weapons area. He was so knowledgeable in chemistry (started with a chemistry set during grade school) that everywhere he went, he had to have two marines carrying 45s protecting him. After his 4 years, he went back the college to get a masters and doctorate in chemistry. He was then recruited by Stanford University to teach chemistry. He then got a post doctorate, then a post post doctorate, and I think a post post post doctorate in chemistry. He knew so much more than all of his professors that he continuously encountered jealously and hatred from them. They stuck him into a room running some kind of machine. He was said to be rather upset at this because is was monotonous and boring work. He was supposed to get a professorship several times, but the jealously of the other professors prevented this from ever happening. I was surprised to discover on the web that he had died at the age of 50. He had apparently been on SSI disability, so I am guessing that his work in the army chemical weapons area caused him to get cancer or some other deadly disease.
All his education was basically for nothing, except for his own need and personal satisfaction.

"Bar Mitzvah"? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520619)

he term "postdoc" refers both to the position and to the person who occupies it. (In this sense, it's much like the term "bar mitzvah.")

I've been Jewish for a long time -- since before I was born -- and I've never heard of the Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah) celebrant called a "Bar Mitzvah". Usually we say "Bar Mitzvah boy" or "Bat Mitzvah girl", or something similar.

I'm not strictly observant, but I think I would have heard that usage by now ...

Re:"Bar Mitzvah"? (1)

margeman2k3 (1933034) | about 5 months ago | (#45520965)

That usage is pretty common in more observant communities.
The phrase basically translates to "child of the commandment" (or "subject of the law" according to some rabbis), so it's grammatically correct to refer to the celebrant as "a bar mitzvah".

Be a Gentleman Scientist (5, Interesting)

Okian Warrior (537106) | about 5 months ago | (#45520631)

I recently finished a book where the author analyzes the entire process of getting a PhD in physics. For various reasons, it's not at all worthwhile. You will never be in a position to realize your dream of doing interesting research or becoming a professor. I'll let others describe the various problems, but they're fairly self-evident.

So let's think out of the box. Is there a way to do interesting research without the PhD?

It turns out there's a ton of interesting things being done by home experimentation nowadays. Actually, this used to be common - a gentleman scientist [wikipedia.org] was someone with an independent income who tinkered with home research. Many had quite elaborate laboratories [wikipedia.org] and discovered useful things.

If you want to be a researcher, you could approach the problem intellectually. Establish a steady income from which you can support yourself and family, allocate some time and money to setting up a lab, and do your own research.

Ben Krasnow [blogspot.com] built an electron microscope (!), and is experimenting with vapor-phase deposition of conductive traces. Robert Murray Smith [youtube.com] makes graphene and conductive ink, Brad Graham [lucidscience.com] built a rock disaggregator (which is, incidentally, totally frightening), Lindsay Wilson [imajeenyus.com] built an untrasonic drill, Timothy Ferriss [fourhourbody.com] is scientifically studying of nutrition, I am trying to detect dark matter (no link - sorry)

... the list goes on and on.

Lots of people are doing interesting research at home with a modest budget. If you can give up the big questions (Higgs Boson, Penicillin replacement, Egyptian archaeology), there's a wide swath of interesting areas just waiting to be explored.

Re:Be a Gentleman Scientist (1)

femtobyte (710429) | about 5 months ago | (#45520949)

I am trying to detect dark matter (no link - sorry)

No link? At least say what type of detection method (and corresponding range of DM possibilities) you're using! Is there a particular section of parameter space that you think you can access that's not solidly covered by existing academic DM experiments? Sounds like fun in any case.

Of course, these days, even getting "a steady income from which you can support yourself and family" can be a difficult task --- landing a "dream job" professor position from "within the system" is hard, but so can be getting a tolerable job that provides enough for both family and major hobby time/money commitments.

Re:Be a Gentleman Scientist (1)

Okian Warrior (537106) | about 5 months ago | (#45521105)

No link? At least say what type of detection method (and corresponding range of DM possibilities) you're using! Is there a particular section of parameter space that you think you can access that's not solidly covered by existing academic DM experiments? Sounds like fun in any case.

Nope, sorry - not this one. It's a "lottery ticket". It's looking for something that isn't forbidden by current theory, but unlikely to be true. It requires a careful analysis to see that it doesn't violate basic principles, so I don't want to be judged before I have data. My analysis might be wrong in any event.

If I get results, maybe. Publishing takes time and has no benefit.

Re:Be a Gentleman Scientist (1)

femtobyte (710429) | about 5 months ago | (#45521211)

Make sure you publish if you get negative results, too --- that's just as important, and puts you on equal ground with all the mega-multi-million-dollar big dark matter experiments that also haven't found anything yet. Ruling out previously untested possibilities is a worthwhile task, and just about the most that any dark matter researcher can realistically hope for. And, if you think publishing "has no benefit," why are you doing this anyway? There's no monetary payback to the experimenter, but isn't doing science and expanding human knowledge the reward in itself that makes "wasting time" on a hobby project worthwhile? Good luck, and have fun.

Re:Be a Gentleman Scientist (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 5 months ago | (#45520963)

Everything you list was, at best, derivative.

Cool, but nothing new.
What NEW thing are being done by a lone inventory? hint: Nothing.

Some post docs are hot (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#45520635)

Use your own judgement. If she's your wife, then 100% yes!

In natural sciences - YES! (2)

trackedvehicle (1972844) | about 5 months ago | (#45520797)

I don't know or understand all the negativity regarding doing a postdoc or a PhD - I personally am having a blast doing my PhD! I do research in materials science, and while the money is not spectacular, I enjoy myself immensely. And you know, at the end of the day that's really what matters. Maybe the ones who complain are doing postdocs in economics, political or social sciences, humanities... or some other subject that to me does indeed sound boring... I don't know. I can only say that for me it has been rewarding and I would be more than happy to recommend it to anyone with a passion for what they study. I must mention that I have no study debt - in Finland higher education is free for all, so we don't worry about paying back tuition fees and such. Life is good :)

Why scientists do postdocs (1)

tmark (230091) | about 5 months ago | (#45520877)

Most of the ones I've known (from when I was in grad school and then from when I worked at a major biotech) do postdocs in order to build their research portfolio. If you want to a faculty research (not teaching) position in science, you need publications. These require research. Research requires time and money and in this day and age, the time typically spent in grad school is not enough to do a lot of top-quality research. And, grad school time is often spent teach undergrads, doing coursework, etc - whereas postdocs can usually afford to spend all their working hours on research.

So yes, postdocs aren't paid well, but most of that is because the position itself typically funds work that the postdoc needs and *wants* to do. It's a symbiotic relationship between PI and postdoc.

There are always, of course, the stars who are good enough to get research positions straight out of grad school. I've known a few.

Engineer POV (1)

Eloking (877834) | about 5 months ago | (#45520915)

Post-Doc?

Hell does even a Doc worth it? Even there is a Master even worth the years of experience lost?

I guess it depend of the career.

Post Doc in STEM is the capacitor/buffer (2)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about 5 months ago | (#45520931)

The PhD in science, engineering and technology gets to be super specialized. The supply and demand do not synch up well. When you start your PhD in "unstructured tetrahedral mesh generation using advancing front technique for complex 3D domains" you are not very sure there will be a job in the field five years down the line. If there is a job, you will hurry and finish up. If not, you will delay, change the topics, to find a field with better job prospects. If you are too far along to change the thesis title, and your field suddenly goes cold, you finish the PhD, while away time in post doc, acquiring skills in related fields, ready to jump when some job comes by. Usually both PhDs and post docs get paid decent, but not industry standard, wages, in STEM (what is it now? 24 to 30K for PhD candidate and 36 to 48 K for post doc?). So you will have decent standard of living, completely flexible working hours (you can choose to divide the 24 hour day into any chunks adding up to18 for the lab and any chunks adding up to six for sleeping, cooking, eating, shaving and bathing).

When the economy gets hot, and you ditch mesh generation altogether and jump to computational electromagnetics. While doing the jump be careful not to collide with the Computational electromagnetics PhD jumping to mesh generation ;-)

For Fun/Experience? Yes! For Money? No! (4, Interesting)

drolli (522659) | about 5 months ago | (#45520993)

I did 4 years of Postdoc (in Japan). It was fun, in Japan the payment for Postdocs is ok, and i worked in a field i liked to work in since i was 16years old. I contributed to some publications (10 Impact points per year) and did some really nice experiments. To me it felt like playing with the most expensive lego bricks which i ever was allowed to play with. I had the priviledge to see parts of the world which i would not have dramt about when before my masters thesis. I met some interesting, peculiar, and exceptional people (coauthors from ~12 nationalities).

OTOH, it was hard work (>80h per week average, in critical times >400h/month), strange habits, uncertainity, and a lack of decent positions after it.

I got out of it, to a technical consulting company. I earn less than the people who started 10 years younger, but somehow doing a phd/postdoc kept me young and agile. I am now more or less resistant to stress (did not feel it since i started the job), am used to pick up new things at a high pace.

I can only say: i did it, it was fun and broadened my view. My PhD and postdoc thought me that persistence in following something you want to do leads to success. I managed to get rid of my attenton span problems. I quit as postdoc when it stopped being fun and when i did not see decent positions around, i left science. I dont regret having done my postdoc, i did not regret for a single day leaving it.There was a time when a very different path in my life would have been very possible. I proably also would not have regret it.

Remarks: you have to have a compatible partner or risk a series of relationships. IMHO the only point where i really seen from behind could have spent some attention on. I also saw people not being able to handle the pressure. I saw people doing postdocs until they where older than 40 because they became too anxious or to incompetent in other things to leave. I saw people fuckign up their lifes for good. People not good enough to get any decend publicaitons, but valuable in the lab, hoping that the professor who kept them forever in a dependent relationship would give them the life-long position as assitant. I habe seen people growing old faster than they should and people breaking down. I have heard of people becoming so fristrated that they sabbotaged the co-workers experiments.

So my advice is: do it als long as you do it for fun. Dont get addicted.

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