The past year's postdoc journal keepers face familiar dilemmas, writes Gene Russo.
The members of the punk-rock band The Clash surely didn't have science careers in mind when they wrote their 1982 song Should I Stay or Should I Go? Nevertheless, its sentiment resonates with thousands of fledgling scientists worldwide.
The question comes up routinely: should I stay in academia, where the competition is fierce and prospects are uncertain? Or should I venture out into the world of industry, or perhaps into a non-traditional science career, for a shot at better job security, job satisfaction and more pay? The postdocs who documented their career paths for last year's Naturejobs Postdoc Journal perfectly illustrated this dilemma (see http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/archive/postdocj/2009.html). The song's lyrics tell their tales.
If I go there will be trouble
Journal keeper Joanne Isaac left Australia and her postdoc position to follow her husband and his postdoc opportunity in Colorado. She has had trouble learning how not to be a postdoc. Isaac sometimes has felt frustrated, as she devoted most of her time to nurturing her toddler rather than her career. But she has started freelance science writing and has begun to appreciate the extra mum-time and the flexibility that this new-found profession affords. “While I baulk at using the old cliché 'like a phoenix from the ashes', it seems an apt description of my changing outlook,” she writes. Isaac says she has been heartened by the several e-mails she has received from postdocs facing similar career twists.
If I stay it will be double
Julia Boughner and Bryan Venters, meanwhile, still cling to dreams of success in academia, but fear that staying could be more problematic than moving on. Boughner knows full well the long odds; and the demands of her young family make success even harder to achieve. She spent a considerable amount of time this year examining alternatives such as consulting, science outreach and freelance science writing.
And despite having what he considers a productive year — he presented his work at a meeting, wrote a review and published a paper — and a largely enjoyable lab experience, Venters is leaning towards pursuing a job in industry or the government. Although he cherishes the collaborative academic environs, he longs for full-time employment. To be serious about an academic position, he figures he would need to spend another three or four years as a postdoc, and with the attendant personal and financial sacrifices.
I'll be here 'til the end of time
Sam Walcott also continues to work towards a job in academia, but his application process has been an exercise in frustration. His efforts have not been entirely useless — he says he has learned what sort of faculty positions to pursue, how to write a job application and how to approach an interview. But he worries that his funding will run out long before he receives that much-awaited offer.
Many postdocs share these journeys of self-discovery. Career decisions bring both discouragement and opportunity. But, as always, investigating all the options, no matter how nerve-wracking, offers the best chance of a successful move.
Related links in Nature Research
Fast Track: charting the course of your postdoc
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Russo, G. Career crises. Nature 463, 257 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7278-257a