Behind the lab coats

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As graduation day looms ever closer for final year students, Chemistry postdoc Jessica Breen tells LS Science what a career in research actually entails.

What actually is a postdoc?

Usually, a scientist will spend three to four years doing their PhD research and then, if they survive the process, they either leave science altogether, move to an industrial position, become a teacher or stay in the academic world and become a postdoctoral research assistant (PDRA) or “postdoc”.  People will often do a two or three postdocs and then attempt to get their first full academic position. On the other hand, some people just do one or two postdocs to gain new skills and then leave academia altogether.

The role of a postdoc is to carry out research, whilst often being the senior scientist within a laboratory. This means that postdocs help students in the lab whilst trying, often unsuccessfully, to get new and ground-breaking results of their own, under the supervision of a principal investigator (PI). To become a successful academic, you need publications in world class, peer reviewed journals. Some people can be very lucky and get great results with limited effort, conversely, some people can work ninety hour weeks and never get top notch results. Unfortunately, academia is a “publish or perish” environment, and although you may be a very talented scientist, you need publications on your CV to get an academic job. To demonstrate the difficulty in getting that elusive academic job, statistics show that, in the US, only 20% of postdocs progress to an academic position (tenure track).

My average day, as a postdoc, starts at 9am by completing admin type jobs including: reading emails and new publications (with coffee). I then head into the lab to work on experiments. As well as setting up actual chemical reactions, chemists also do a lot of analysis to monitor reactions and identify compounds so much of the day is spent analysing data. Over the day various PhD and masters students will ask questions, for example about their experimental set up, which I will try to answer or send them in the direction of someone who will know the answer. I also frequently prepare reports and presentations for supervisors and/or industry collaborators and write drafts of publications, often with a large cup of coffee in hand. At least once a week I will also attend our research group meeting where different lab members will present an update on their research. My day usually ends at around 6pm, but I work occasional weekends and there will be times when I work later into the evening (e.g. 8-9pm) when an experiment or deadline requires it.

The upsides..

One advantage of the postdoc life is being able to improve both your scientific technique and transferable skills. There are also plenty of opportunities to teach students, both, in and out of the lab. Another benefit is the opportunity to travel. Most postdocs attend international conferences where you have the opportunity to mingle with a huge range of scientists, from industrialists to big name professors.

Another benefit to the postdoc life is the flexible working hours, although this isn’t true for every lab or institution, particularly those in the US.  The work is also varied, with most time spent in the lab, but also some time spent writing publications and teaching.

And the downsides..

The major downside of the postdoc life is the short term contract nature of the work, with contracts typically in the range of one to three years. This is a particularly difficult scenario if you are in a relationship, if you want to buy a house or have children. For some, the short term nature of the work is a positive factor as it allows you to work and live abroad for a short time.

The short term contracts also mean that you are always looking for your next position and/or applying for prestigious fellowships. Fellowships are bursaries supplied to only the best postdocs. Fellowships are particularly favoured as they pay very well. In general, the salary for postdocs is not great, considering the amount of training required (say, compared with a medical doctor).

Some people also find the life in between a student and full academic member of staff difficult.  The Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry carried out research into the experiences and career intentions of postdocs and they found that only 40% of postdocs felt like staff. As the article suggests, postdocs should “be represented on relevant departmental committees” as this would allow postdocs to feel more like significant members of staff.

So why should you go into research?

The main reason the bulk of us go into scientific research in the first place is to make the world a better place, as corny as that sounds. Whether we do research into disease, drugs or climate change, we all want our research to improve the lives of others. Knowing that the research we do every could benefit others is what keeps us researching, no matter what the downsides of the job are.

My recommendations to anyone entering into the postdoc life is to take as many opportunities as you can to learn new skills, from lab work to teaching, so that you can take this experience to  future employers, not just academic institutions. I would also recommend meeting and networking with as many people as possible, both from industry and academia, as you never know which direction you’ll end up taking.

Jessica Breen

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