Should I do a postdoc, or just get a job?
February 11, 2020 11:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm wrapping up my PhD this summer (woohoo!) and need to figure out my next steps. I don't want to stay in academia - I've realized I need more separation from my work and a better work-life balance than academia can offer. However, I just won a fairly prestigious postdoc fellowship award. Should I do it?

I don't expect anyone here to have the "right" answer, but I could use some outside input. Here's some additional context:

- I would be moving back to my previous (high cost of living) city in Canada, where I worked in my field (environmental engineering) and have a fairly large network.
- I could get a job in consulting easily, which would pay more than a postdoc position. However, I don't particularly want to work in consulting, either (I've done this before and don't love it)
- What I really would prefer to do is to work within the municipal government in an engineering policy capacity, or continue to do research at one of the ministries (Health or Environment). It's hard to get into these jobs, though, and I'm not sure if I can secure one before my expected move.
- My partner is switching careers as well, so we'll likely have low income for a while.
- The postdoc pay will be bad (around $45K/year). We could make this work for a year but it will suck, especially because we're thinking of trying for a kid sometime soon?
- Speaking of which, I am a kinda old PhD grad (will be done at 34) and I don't know if I should be delaying my "grownup" job again by another year at this point.
- I need to confirm my acceptance of the fellowship within a week (I have already ignored it for a week and a half)
- I have two professors at the local university who have confirmed they would take me on if I got the fellowship. I really like them both, and I'll get to do some interesting work with them; learning new skills and using a bunch of things I picked up in my PhD. I haven't told them I got the fellowship yet. I don't want to reneg after letting them know I'll be on board, but I also think this might kind of come with the territory of postdocs?

My main reasons for accepting would be: it's better to have a job confirmed than no job, and that I think the postdoc might give me a better foot-in-the-door to my preferred career than just going back to my old consulting job. However, I'm nervous about accepting and then either a better opportunity, or my "dream job, becomes available.

Any advice, AskMe?
posted by Paper rabies to Work & Money (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You'll need time to move, get settled, and start building your local networks further. And your ideal position isn't going to bear fruit immediately in any case. Government jobs can take 3+ months to onboard you from interview to offer to start date even if you're the first pick in the first job you see -- there's extreme lag in HR in the civil service. While you're searching for ultimate job, you'll be working in the field, getting another feather for your resume, and making more connections.

I don't think there's any doubt you should take the fellowship, honestly.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:56 AM on February 11, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Postdocs are where you get paid to continue your research so that you have time to get a job. In short, your postdoc job is to get a job. Given your current job options don't sound especially promising, the post-doc sounds like your avenue to get the job you want. Hence, on preview, I agree with seanmpuckett - there's not really much to the discussion here.

When you start your post-doc, start looking for jobs immediately. Your advisors will provide a contract or a timeline for the entire post-doc. However, if you are not going into academia, the post-doc is effectively meaningless after you find a job you actually want. Hence, you should be prepared to leave the post-doc immediately upon finding a job you like. You will absolutely not be the first person to do this, and although your advisors might not like it, it won't be the first time or last time they have a post-doc leave early.
posted by saeculorum at 12:00 PM on February 11, 2020 [20 favorites]

Absolutely do an academic post-doc.

It's generally understood that you'll be job-searching after getting settled in and you've got a few project lined up.

Use the opportunity improve your network with visiting speakers, aim to attend as many conferences as you're able (you'll want to present) and try to connect with Health Canada types.

It sounds like you won't be switching universities for the post-doc (but switching PIs) - not the greatest. The usual route is to identify a postdoc position that complements the job that you ultimately want. If the two local PIs are doing research in such an area, it's not the end of the world to not switch universities.

The fellowship is for - 2 years? Use that as a soft deadline to line up your industrial/ government job. If you aren't completely useless, most PIs (grant money permissive) will keep you on as a research associate for a little while after it runs out.

Government jobs take forever for the paperwork etc. to go through.

If you're not a stats wizard already, wouldn't hurt to try to get some (more) formal stats training during the post-doc.

All the best to you!
posted by porpoise at 12:08 PM on February 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Being employed beats being unemployed. Take the postdoc. Prioritize career development - take advantage of all communication/stats/policy training opportunities you can get your hands on.

As far as starting and leaving before your contract stipulates, be sure to read the fine print on your fellowship. Some fellowships require that you complete the term or you have to pay back the salary.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:11 PM on February 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think the postdoc might give me a better foot-in-the-door to my preferred career than just going back to my old consulting job

It's not my field, mine is humanities, but I can tell you I look more askance at job applicants who have only done their doctorate than job applicants who have done something beyond their home institution. So I think it's an advantage.
posted by Miko at 12:18 PM on February 11, 2020

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I will be switching universities for this postdoc. I am presently in the US but am Canadian. I've never worked with these professors before, but know them informally through my network (by "local university", I meant in the city I want to move back to).

Also, as a further question - there are postdocs and research associate positions (also temporary two-year contracts) that I can apply to with the ministries themselves, but I hadn't yet because I needed to be closer to my graduation date to do so. Is it still worth trying for these positions, or should I just wait until I'm settled?
posted by Paper rabies at 12:18 PM on February 11, 2020

Best answer: I don't know your field/location. Which side the grass is greener on depends strongly on those. So just some general points about the decision to leave academia from the peanut gallery.

The tl;dr is this is often pretty good advice for people ready to leave academia.

If you're sure you want to leave academia, you need have a compelling reason to take a postdoc. This is because doing a postdoc is almost always a financial opportunity cost for someone with a PhD. It's often quite a big one. Suppose you could earn $75k outside academia. That 2 year postdoc earning $25k less will quite literally cost you $50k. That might be worth it, but only if you have a compelling reason to stick around.

"I don't currently have a job lined up" is a common reason to drift into a postdoc, but it's not a great reason. You suspect it would be very hard to find a job. I'm slightly skeptical of the average academic's understanding of the job market. Have you started looking for work outside academia? There are more jobs outside academia than inside. They're different. They might not have the formal application process you've been socialized to feel comfortable in. That's scary. But unless your field is very unusual, there are certainly more of them. Give it a shot!

FWIW, I accepted a postdoc after I had already made the decision to leave academia to switch to a more applied field where my technical background was somewhat relevant. I took the postdoc (which was irrelevant to my planned careeer) because the specific work was fun (it had a large teaching component) and it was an opportunity to live somewhere I wouldn't otherwise be able to because of visa issues. It was a non-prestigious postdoc at a very prestigious institution. The brand name recognition of the institution has had > 0 value to my subsequent career, but not a lot > 0. These aren't the only reasons to do a postdoc when you know you're leaving academia, but I give them as examples of what I think might be good reasons to do one.
Also, as a further question - there are postdocs and research associate positions (also temporary two-year contracts) that I can apply to with the ministries themselves, but I hadn't yet because I needed to be closer to my graduation date to do so. Is it still worth trying for these positions, or should I just wait until I'm settled?
Friend! You should stop applying for academic jobs and focus your efforts on what you want to do! If these are those (not sure what "with the ministries means") then great. But if they're not then you're putting off the inevitable and investing time and emotional energy in jobs you don't actually want, because they seem familiar. For someone who knows they want to leave academia, postdocs are seductive, but it's like volunteering to stay in a room with a carbon monoxide leak. It feels warm and cozy, but it's not good for you. Get going!

p.s. If you have an exploding deadline and there are no financial penalties associated with withdrawing from the postdoc then sure, accept it while you figure this out.
posted by caek at 12:38 PM on February 11, 2020 [11 favorites]

One of the reasons to take a postdoc is to get references who can speak about you as an employee, not just as a student. It may be worth it, if you feel that these potential collaborators will write you good letters of reference.
posted by 445supermag at 12:46 PM on February 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

The opportunity of not having any job at all is much, much higher than the opportunity cot of taking the postdoc vs. a presently imaginary higher paying gig. If the postdoc is somewhere you can stand to be, take it and start looking for a higher paying job right away.

I wish I'd taken that approach in much the same situation as you.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:20 PM on February 11, 2020

Best answer: An academic post-doc where you are funded by a general fellowship (as opposed to a particular PI's grant) is in many ways about the most freedom you can ever have in a job. Without something actually in the hand in the next week, I would definitely say take it.

However, I'm nervous about accepting and then either a better opportunity, or my "dream job, becomes available.

IMO (as a tenured professor at a research university) as you suggest this definitely comes with the territory for postdocs, who are usually good enough to be at least mildly competitive on various kinds of job markets besides the postdoc one, or stronger. And it's just a job, they can't keep you prisoner if you want to leave it.

(If you're aiming for a government job in Canada, it's going to be a lot easier to be there, especially if this high-cost-of-living city happens to be Ottawa.)
posted by advil at 2:30 PM on February 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I did a government postdoc as an ”old” PhD graduate (I was 32 when I graduated) and it was worthwhile. I proceeded to get a job in consulting after 1.5 years of postdoc. (I could have stayed up to 3 years, but there was no contract requiring me to do so.) The postdoc research experience & publications really did give me a boost to getting a “real” job (especially since I did a poor job at publishing during my PhD).

It does sound like you will be in a better position to get the “real” job you really want after a postdoc. You can always go back into consulting if you need to.

You may want to see if you can schedule an informal, informational chat with someone in your desired “real” job to see if they generally prefer to hire people with a postdoc on their CV vs. straight out of grad school.
posted by snowmentality at 2:35 PM on February 11, 2020

My only caution would be to read the fine print on the fellowship award documents (not sure all the answerers above have twigged that this is not just a job offer but a financial award?) - sometimes if you start the position but do not complete the minimum time in the position you take (and don't leave for another academic position), they have clauses that will require you to pay the fellowship money you have been paid until that point back. In your position I would go so far as to contact the grant officer and clarify what might happen if for any reason you left your postdoc appointment early.
posted by aiglet at 2:37 PM on February 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I knew I wanted to leave academia and did a 2 year postdoc, it was higher paying than yours but not by much, but it bridged the gap between the two nicely. A funded post doc should give you a fairly good work/life balance that might be helpful for starting a family unless your advisor is terrible, and I think here in Canada grad students and post docs have newly expanded benefits wrt paid maternity leave, if your campus has good childcare options it might not be a bad place to start a family even if you aren't putting your career into high gear (I had my son during my phd and it was hard but made turning things up in my career a few years later easier than if I'd had a baby or toddler versus a school-aged child). If you have some sort of tuition credits (not sure how US --> Canada taxes work), you might be able to stretch your post doc pay farther than you think as well (via paying less taxes for a couple of years).

Have you looked into programs like MITACS? There are some good post docs that bridge the gap between academia and industry and can be a nice way to transition out of academia, they pay better than most post docs too.

My degree was in psychology and the downside for me is that having a funded postdoc on my CV/resume made me look even more over-qualified for certain roles, and I got further stuck in a certain niche (but I am now employed in industry and doing less of the academic work that I wanted to get away from).

Definitely read the fine print of the contract, it's not unusual for people to leave post docs when they get jobs, and yes you should absolutely be applying for research associate any type of job you are interested in, but in your shoes I would probably take it given that you like the topic and it's in the location you want to move back to.
posted by lafemma at 3:39 PM on February 11, 2020

Response by poster: I wanted to offer a belated follow-up to this question - thank you to everyone for weighing in and providing a range of advice (all good), and especially for the real talk from caek :)

I spoke with my future advisor and was very up-front with my future plans (including that I would be looking for non academic jobs even before I started) and he was very, very supportive. And as luck would have it, a unicorn job came up that matched my qualifications and would position me in my preferred field... and I just got offered the job today! A happy ending, and I can say goodbye to academia on my terms.
posted by Paper rabies at 4:51 PM on April 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

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