As I am still in the job hunt, one of the questions I am frequently asked nowadays is “Why aren’t you doing a postdoc?”, as if that is the only logical step after completing a PhD in the sciences. This is second to “So, you’re not looking to go into academia, then?”. Unfortunately, most people do not realize that the two questions are interconnected, due to the incredible competition for academic positions. Most universities these days will only look at your CV if you have received your PhD or completed a postdoctoral stay at a top-5 or top-10 university. This has been the norm in academia for a while now. Interestingly, even people in industry are recommending doing a postdoc in order to differentiate yourself from other PhD graduates. This only means one thing: There is a glut of people looking for jobs at the PhD level, NOT a shortage!
I made a conscious decision a long time ago not to do a postdoc after I finished my PhD. This was driven in part by several factors. One is due to my perception of scientific research. I have mentioned before that a lot of progress in scientific research is actually due to luck, which, especially when it results in a significant breakthrough, is retroactively misattributed to “hard work”, “intelligence”, “genius”, or “insight”. Some of the smartest, most intelligent, and most hard-working people I knew during the course of my PhD actually ended up with zero publications*. Of course, anecdotal evidence is not representative of the larger sample, but seeing the struggles of those friends of mine made me realize that ultimately research is nothing more than gambling. And this is a riskier type of gambling than what you do in Vegas, to boot. In Vegas, you gamble with money. As most people are wont to say, “money comes and goes, and losses are temporary”. I agree. Gambling with money is not such a big deal, because you can always earn it back. On the other hand, when you do research, you are gambling with time, that is, years of your life, which you can never get back! That is the major reason why I decided not to do a postdoc. When conducting research in graduate school, even if your stuff does not work out (which is extremely likely), you can still get the degree (either a MS, MA, or PhD) depending on when you decide to cash in your chips. During a postdoc, you have no such consolation prize or cushion to fall back on, and the outcome of your life is seemingly cast to the vagaries of the goddess Fortuna. I have known several postdoctoral scholars, and their future careers were seemingly independent of the success of their work during their postdoctoral appointment.
As an aside, I am always amused when people, especially the orthodox members of the Tamil Brahmin community to which I belong, strongly hint that I consider doing a postdoc. My amusement stems from the fact that these same people will never consider gambling in Vegas because it is “immoral”, but will have no qualms with recommending that I take on a far riskier gamble with years of my life.
Another reason is that it took 7 years to get my PhD, from start to finish. This was due in part to very unclear expectations from my advisor, and this is something that a lot of PhD students encounter. Towards the end of the degree, there is often a conflict of interest between the student and the advisor. The student wants to wrap up the degree and get out, while the advisor is reluctant to let the student do so, having invested a lot of time and (comparatively, not so much) money in the student. Plus, it is usually the case that the student is most productive towards the end of the PhD, as it takes time to learn the ropes – getting to know the field well, including what problems are worth going after (in terms of the effort:reward ratio), as well as gaining expertise in that particular field’s research methodology (whether experimental or theoretical). In any case, that friction of interest between the two parties can sometimes lead to undesired consequences, such as an unnecessary extension of the time to degree. I still vividly recall that after my thesis defense, in the private discussion with my thesis committee afterwards, the professors remarked that my work was very impressive not just in quality, but also in quantity, with the volume of work I had written up suitable for two theses!
I am still utterly nonplussed to this day.
I will admit that I am burned out from academia after having been in a PhD program for 7 years. If I had been able to finish my PhD in 5 years or less, then yes, I would have the energy and motivation to go to a postdoctoral appointment. But apparently, these feelings are not appropriate, and I should still be rearing to go back and work 80-90+ hour weeks as a postdoctoral fellow for a take-home salary less than what I made as a PhD student.
And finally, as far as the availability of jobs in the chemical and related industries in the US goes…they’re shrinking, the chemical industry is contracting here, and the writing has been on the wall for the last couple of years. I haven’t quite lost hope yet that I may be able to get a job in chemistry, but if it comes down it it, I am willing to retrain and leave the field. Doing a postdoc will cause me to lose flexibility should I need to leave chemistry in the future (which is looking increasingly likely).
So there you go. I hope this answers the question “Why aren’t you doing a postdoc?!?” to everyone’s satisfaction.
*On the flip side, I knew a member of our chemistry department who published 0 papers during his/her PhD and gave an extremely mediocre thesis defense (I say this because another professor who attended the defense and was not on the student’s committee, was tearing it apart for a good half an hour afterwards). Nonetheless, the student was allowed to graduate, and to everyone’s surprise, was able to secure an extremely competitive postdoctoral appointment at a Nobel Prize winner’s lab! A year later, another friend of mine, who was praised unanimously by everyone in our department as being a “rock star of organic chemistry”, was turned down by the very same professor when he/she applied for a postdoctoral position there, even though this student had published 10+ papers in excellent journals, including a couple of reviews and book chapters. Witnessing these events caused me to lose faith in the belief that academia is a meritocracy.