How to Avoid the Postdoc Trap


Dear CareerDoctor,

I’m currently halfway through my first postdoc contract which is 3 years long. I’m hoping to stay in academia and want to become a lecturer, but I’m starting to worry about that really happening. A more senior postdoc now reaching the end of his current contract is about to leave my group after failing to secure a lecturing post and is struggling to continue as a researcher altogether as other, less experienced researchers are being recruited for all the other postdoc jobs he is now applying for! I can’t make sense of this–he is a great scientist and always works really hard.

As for myself, things aren’t really moving forward as quickly as I would hope, both in terms of my research and my development as an established researcher–what if the same happens to me? I’m already finding myself caught up in a routine and I am worried that I may be missing important opportunities to advance my career.

How do I avoid the postdoc trap?


Dear M.C.

I’m sorry to hear about your former colleague’s situation–sadly it is a very familiar tale. As postdocs move from one short-term contract to another, they can find it increasingly difficult to find posts that offer funding to more experienced researchers. I’ve even heard anecdotally of a trend whereby some institutions deliberately exclude senior postdocs from new grant proposals or postdoc positions to prevent them from working on contracts indefinitely.

The reasons for this are complex but they have to do with the fact that with each contract, postdocs move further up the salary scale, and with their employment conditions currently being revised, postdocs are now becoming eligible for redundancy payments (which increase for each year of employment) and other benefits previously restricted to permanent members of staff. There is also the perception within the scientific community that spending too long as a postdoc is a failure to move on in your career, no matter how good your publication record, and you will find it almost impossible to secure a lecturing post after a while.

But whatever the circumstances, the conclusion is the same–there is always a point when you reach the end of the postdoc road.

A particularly worrying element of this pattern is that the people who find themselves in this situation are usually strong researchers who are extremely devoted to their project (and have probably made personal sacrifices in order to work in academia). They may feel that being a fine researcher is enough, but in academia success is above all measured in terms of reputation–something that can’t be built up if you are glued to your lab bench. Of course, you need to get papers out, but you also need to begin to step out from your PI’s shadow and develop your own network if you are to be in the position of one day leading your own research group.

In my last column I described the typical academic career path and gave tips for long-term career success, which I will of course refer you to. Meanwhile, I’m going to focus on what you can do now to avoid the postdoc trap. In other words, how can you take control of your career and get it moving again?

First things first–you said that you are falling into a routine. You need to snap out of that! I’m not saying that you stop spending the bulk of your time doing research, because your knowledge and skills will obviously be your most important selling points whenever you’ll be applying for a new position, and these won’t be developed in any other way. What is important though, is that you stop floating along doing research and hoping that this will be enough. You need to start working on your career in the same way that you are working towards your research goals: in a planned and defined fashion. This is, of course, calling for better time management on your behalf–you need to analyse what you are really doing to ensure your precious time is being used constructively.

I’ve found a good tool for doing this on the Business Balls Web site (i.e., the time log under “time management tips”, but there are many other useful tips and I leave it up to you to discover which ones suit you the best). Start keeping a daily record of what you are doing, and make a point of spending a short time (no more than 30 minutes) every Monday morning identifying what you want to achieve in that week. Then on the Friday afternoon, reflect on whether you actually got these things done or not. If not, look back over your time logs and work out where that time went.

Be critical of yourself: Ask yourself if you are really working in the most effective way. Which of your activities are advancing your research and which are making a contribution to your career development? Is the balance right? There is an interesting article elsewhere on Next Wave which shares one successful scientist’s strategy for balancing work and career development.

Now that you’ve freed some of your time to regain control over your career, you need to work out what you should actually be doing in order to successfully apply for permanent academic posts in a few years’ time. Again, my previous column is packed with advice on that, and I’d also advise you to maybe look at job descriptions for lectureships in your field – these are now often available to download from Web sites of recruiting institutions. These job descriptions can help you form a set of career goals, but you should also talk with academics and researchers to develop a wider view of what it takes to be awarded a lectureship.

Now look at this list, and start to think about how you can achieve these goals. Something you’ll often find is that you’ll need to have secured your own funding by the time you apply–so now is certainly the time to start learning how to write grant proposals. Ways to do this include writing an application with your supervisor, but you can also seek advice from funding bodies (who are usually keen to talk to researchers and want to help them make more effective proposals) and research support units in the university.

Now break down these goals into small chunks–three things to do next week are the following:

By my reckoning, it should take you less than an hour to do all of these–if you give them priority. Then you need to identify the next small chunks:

Let’s think about another requirement you’ll need to have–a decent reputation in your field. Now, this won’t happen overnight, but here is what you can do to build it up slowly but surely:

Then, over the subsequent weeks, do the following:

Now, let’s not forget two of the most obvious criteria for a lectureship appointment: your publication record (which will of course contribute to your reputation) and your teaching experience. So first, you need to start (or continue) to write papers. An alternative development activity is to look at papers from the “other side”–that of the referee. Does your supervisor get swamped with requests to review articles? Might he be willing to delegate the reviewing of certain papers to you? Of course, he would need to convince the journal’s editorial board, and maybe himself, of your capability, so he might start with just asking you for anonymous comments as part of his own report. Another approach would be to ask journals directly to consider using you as a referee. If they turn down your offer, find out what experience or achievements they look for–then add these to your development list!

As for teaching, are there opportunities around you to give undergraduate tutorials or seminars? Does your institution run a teaching qualification for academic staff members (now mandatory for new staff members) and could you register for this? Whom could you ask for feedback on your teaching ability and technique?

Hopefully this gives you the idea. A few words of warning though: You may feel that the list of extra things for you to do is growing fast and most people find their good intentions squeezed out by what seem to be the more immediate demands in life. So you need to incorporate these tasks in a realistic manner and trust that your ability to take them forward will increase, and, above, all you need to protect the space and time you devote to reviewing and managing your career.

The answer to your question is therefore quite simple. If you want to increase your chances of securing an academic post, you need to work out what future recruiters will be looking for and start working towards achieving these things. Easier said than done, I know, but the time you will put aside every week to escape the postdoc trap may well be the best investment you’ll ever make in your career.

All the best in your career

The CareerDoctor

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