I came across the #researchrealities tag on twitter and it broke my heart to read these honest feelings that fellow scientists are facing all over the world. I have to say first of all that I can completely relate and have probably felt that way too at some point.
While being a graduate student and being a postdoctoral fellow may appear to be the same…failure, long hours, no work/life balance, low pay. The main difference between postdocs and graduate students is that as a graduate student, when you complete your dissertation, you get a degree. Everyone who fulfills their requirements, gets a PhD. Many postdocs are left asking..”What do we get after our training period is over?” I think the emotions most postdocs experience at different stages of their training are :
For me, it’s Holy Crap! I left a very good job in a company I loved to pursue a PhD. Now I have a PhD and I’ve applied for so many jobs only to be told in some cases that I’m over qualified. For some it’s: ” I have a PhD, but even if i want to stay in academia, there are no assistant professor positions for me”. There may be more postdocs than available positions in academia and industry combined. Additionally, besides being experts in critical thinking, problem solving and project management, we have little training in the soft skills that are critical for career advancement. The pay is so low and the hours are so long, that there is little time to balance a life and a family. Can you even afford to start a family on your income?
The frustration can come from years of failed experiments, not because you are incompetent (although this might be the case), but because scientific research is difficult. I swear, if someone else asks me why we haven’t found a cure for cancer, or tells me that they think the pharmaceutical industry has a cure but is keeping it a secret to make money selling chemotherapy drugs (No Uber driver!! just stop talking!…*side eye*), I might just lose it. It’s hard ok ?! An experiment might work one day and not work the next day for no apparent reason. As a postdoc, you feel more competent than you did as a graduate student, and not being able to determine why this happens can be demoralizing.
What’s the point really? When your experiments do work and you submit a manuscript for publication, the journal may not like your work, the reviewers will decimate every minute detail (thanks Reviewer #3!). Your carefully written grant proposal doesn’t get chosen because it’s not on the “hot new topic”that everyone is excited about this year. Blah, blah blah..Genomics..Blah blah blah…Big Data..Blah blah blah Immunotherapy! If everyone is chasing the latest scientific fad..who is working on the actual data-driven science?
What’s the point really? Does anyone really care about my research? Why are we being “trained” for positions that don’t exist?
As a postdoctoral fellow, when you complete your training…in most cases, you get nothing. You are a highly educated, overqualified technician with little to no prospects for a sustainable career in academia. By the time most postdocs realize this, it’s often to late and it leaves you feeling bitter and uninspired.
I have a deep respect for scientists because I think no one goes into science to make money. No one stays in science because it’s the best most fulfilling thing we’ve ever done in our lives. We go into science because we want to change the world, we want to save lives, we want to leave a legacy. When you are constantly being pressured to produce data for grants and publications to make your PI look good so they can apply for more grants, you often feel that your own advancement as a scientist is being diminished and discouraged.
I’m sure there are other feelings…some good, some bad. To quote the nature editorial published last week: “Extreme competition means that researchers have little time for anything not tied directly to getting ahead. This makes them conservative, rather than ambitious.” The most frightening of all is the fact that these scientists who often feel afraid, frustrated, disillusioned, hopeless and overwhelmed are the ones charged with discovering new cures for diseases.