Post-Docs, Backup Plans, and Risk Versus Uncertainty

Dr. Becca asks some career-related questions and the Mad Biologist has answers (given that it’s free to read this blog, take them for they’re worth….). Dr. Becca:

It recently occurred to me that I need to wrap my head around the possibility likelihood (???????) that I won’t get an offer this year.  I might not even get an interview.  And unlike eleven years ago, I’m not quite prepared to chuck the whole science thing and flee the country.  So…what’s the backup plan now?
….There’s another option, too–and I would really like your advice here–which is that I could be promoted to the “Instructor” position. The term itself is pretty meaningless, but I think most institutions have something comparable to this limbo-like title (funny, I used to refer to the post-doc as the limbo-like position) for people who have been post-docs for a while. I’d get a raise, and I’d be eligible to apply for more grants, both of which would be cool. But my question is this: does it make me look past my prime to have a title like this? Are search committees biased toward people who are genuine post-docs, or is the name irrelevant?


To answer the second part first, the Instructor title isn’t bad, although the title you want is “Research Professor.” Regarding the ‘age’ of a post-doc, I don’t think it’s the age as much as it’s the funding and publishing: if you demonstrate the ability to get funding and publish, you’re good to go.
But what I want to talk about is the whole notion of a backup plan. This has always bothered me, since it assumes that becoming an R01-funded researcher at an MRU is the highest achievement that a scientist could possibly achieve, and that everything else is second best. There’s a reason why so many think this: if you’re a post-doc, most (if not all) of your mentors and your peers are in academic, tenure-track science. They really wouldn’t be able to tell you if you could have a satisifying career in science outside of that very narrow and constricted path (answer: you can).
Which brings me to risk versus uncertainty. What Dr. Becca is asking about is taking risks. The thing about risk is that it is, within reason, quantifiable: you can ask colleagues and mentors for help, and you can digest that advice and develop a plan. I’ll throw this out for consideration, particularly if Dr. Becca wants to stay in NYC: she should consider taking uncertainties (if you’ll permit me this malapropism). Consider looking a little farther afield than the confines of the tenure track.
In my career, every time I took an uncertainty (as opposed to a risk), it’s worked out better than I thought. When I left the tenure track and went to work at a non-profit organization, my salary increased, I got to live in a great neighborhood in Boston, and, at times, the work was rewarding. Another uncertainty later, I’m now doing research that is far cooler and ‘cutting edge’ than I ever could have done trying to scrape by on modular R01s in the publish-or-perish system. And I actually have (some) time to have a life (and a blog!).
Something to consider is that there is a scientific life outside of the tenure-track system, and it can be rewarding.

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4 Responses to Post-Docs, Backup Plans, and Risk Versus Uncertainty

  1. mc says:

    I’m now doing research that is far cooler and ‘cutting edge’ than I ever could have done trying to scrape by on modular R01s in the publish-or-perish system. And I actually have (some) time to have a life (and a blog!).

    I am interested what job gives you this type of freedom…industry?

  2. Dr Becca says:

    Thanks for your response, Mike! I’d argue, though, that there’s a difference between thinking that a tenure track job is the highest possible achievement and having it be the number one thing you want to do. Absolutely, there are people who feel the former, but I hope I didn’t give the impression that I’d consider my life a failure if I took a different path. I just want to be in academia, plain and simple.
    You’re right, there are many jobs to be had outside of tenure track, and I have several friends from grad school and my post-doc world who’ve moved on to careers in publishing, industry, and law. They’re all incredibly happy, and they’re all making a heck of a lot more money than I am. While I haven’t ruled out such a move, staying in academia is the plan for now.

  3. sikiş izle says:

    call shenanigans. First, Dawkins also claims that he is “…not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists.

  4. … who’ve moved on to careers in publishing, industry, and law …
    Don’t forget government work too.

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