5

Recently there have been a couple of questions generating discussion on the level of personal commitment required for PhD positions and what kind of personal sacrifices students should be willing to make if they want to do a PhD. I wanted to ask similar questions but as someone thinking about pursuing a postdoc.

I love doing research. I love the freedom to think about projects that I find interesting and chipping away at them piece by piece. I also love university/research environments and having the resources to constantly be learning. The thing is, more than a year ago, I had a period of burnout and poor mental/physical health that I am still recovering from (actively, with the help of therapists etc). Part of this recovery is that I can no longer work as hard and for as long as I previously could. I sometimes struggle with 8 hour work days. While I am now much better than I was, I don't know how long it will take before I can again function at my best. Possibly it will take at least several more years. Given this, I don't plan on ever applying for a professor position since I think I physically will be unable to handle the tenure track years. But I was hoping to stick around in academia for as long as I can doing postdocs (in my area, doing at least two postdocs is common prior to applying for tenure-track) to keep doing what I love. Luckily during this time, money is not likely to be much of an issue, and probably when people stop hiring me after I've done too many postdocs, I will look for a more boring job.

In terms of my research output, I have had remarkable luck in the projects I have been working on, and have been producing results despite reduced effort. I still have a few years before I'm due to finish my PhD, but currently, I may finish as a competitive candidate for a postdoc. The question I'm now mulling over is whether I should be applying for one when the time comes. Will it be unfair to the PI who hires me to insist on a work-life balance? Will it be dishonest to take up postdoc positions if I do not intend to go further in academia (and taking them away from candidates who might)? Is it even realistic to expect to be able to do a postdoc with (on average) ~8 hour days? I'm also considering the possibility of taking a few months to a year off between PhD and postdoc to more intensively work on my recovery, but I've heard that these breaks might make me look bad as a candidate -- just how bad would this be?

If it is ok to apply, would it be dishonest to not reveal to the PI that I do not intend to stay in academia? Also at what point in the hiring process ideally would a conversation about expectations take place?

  • 1
    Note that there are single postdocs with kids who manage to so this. So in principle, it should be possible (as it should be). – user111388 Jul 10 at 20:40
  • 1
    You should not work for your employer's benefit. Work for your own benefit or for society's benefit. If your employer expects unreasonable working hours, you should expect unreasonable compensation. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 11 at 3:53
  • 1
    Just wanted to mention, when I started my postdoc it was the PI that hired me that insisted I have a work-life balance. Not strict 8-hour days, but things like insisting that I take a Monday off if I had a work weekend due to a deadline :) – penelope Jul 14 at 10:14
2

I have had remarkable luck in the projects I have been working on, and have been producing results despite reduced effort. I still have a few years before I'm due to finish my PhD, but currently, I may finish as a competitive candidate for a postdoc.

Don't do yourself down. Sounds like you are pretty good! And it sounds like you have been productive despite reduced working hours - keep that up and people will be happy to have you as a postdoc.

Will it be dishonest to take up postdoc positions if I do not intend to go further in academia

No. Its completely fine to do a postdoc without an intention of staying to become a professor.

Will it be unfair to the PI who hires me to insist on a work-life balance? ... Is it even realistic to expect to be able to do a postdoc with (on average) ~8 hour days?

It can be perfectly possible to do a postdoc and only work 8 hours a day in a normal week. Whether its possible will depend to some extent on the project - some projects have experiments that just require more than 8 hours a day to complete and there is no way around it. How easy it will be will depend on the PI, so my biggest advice is choose your PI very carefully. That said most PIs will be more than happy if you are working efficiently and producing the research irrespective of the hours you work. The most productive postdoc I ever knew came in at 9, went home at 5:30 and didn't work weekends, unless it was their turn to care for the flies, or they needed to start a protocol that took 6 days (but only 30 minutes on the first day).

Another thing you might look for, given that it sounds like productivity wise your PhD went well, is a fellowship such that the funding that supports your position is for you and not for the project. If you have your own funding, then how much you work is no skin off anyones nose other than your own, and anything you do for your host lab is just a bonus.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thank you for addressing my questions, and also for the tip on fellowships. I didn't realize there were ones that went towards the position and not the project -- will definitely do some more research! – The Hagen Jul 14 at 19:01
5

Every position is different. Every PI is different. Every field is different. In math you can probably set your schedule to suit yourself. In some lab sciences with demanding PIs it isn't so easy. But a few points to consider:

First it is fair to explore your working conditions before you start, though it may be a bit risky. If you can manage a visit, you may be able to get a sense of it from other post docs at the institution. But you can also just ask for expectations. You aren't required to damage your health, but some PIs don't know where to draw the line.

Next, you may find that the burnout you experienced and your need for a reduced schedule doesn't continue into the future and it might just go away. Lots of people have such a period, some in the middle of their studies and some shortly after. But a change of scenery, literally, might have a positive effect.

Don't worry about the future too much. Your situation, health, and attitudes may change. But a positive post doc experience could go a long way to helping. Many professors work long hours, but it is because they truly love to do the work. It ceases to be a job and becomes an avocation. What could be better than to be paid to think?

If you take time off, make sure you can explain it as something other than recovery. Have a flexible plan for your return if you decide to do that, and find something to do that keeps you from getting rusty. If you come back, you want to seem enthusiastic about it to anyone who reviews your CV and SoP.

| improve this answer | |
3

I would say that the expected level of commitment of a postdoc is extremely high.

The expected level of a PhD student is very high. Being a postdoc brings you even closer to the "top" in the pyramid of academic life, hence it is extremely high.

Notice that this has not much to do with your PI or your postdoc host. It is you who should expect to be extremely committed in order to be competitive. Your host may be already established, if you are not extremely committed he/she may be somewhat disappointed, but it is you who is going to pay the price and need to end your academic career.

| improve this answer | |
  • But currently I'm not expecting to be able to advance up the academic ladder much more because of health reasons, therefore I'm not aiming to be competitive after my postdoc(s). I'm only hoping to do a postdoc to be able to do research for a few more years (as opposed to quitting after my PhD, which would be the other choice, given my current outlook). Would your advice be to look for established hosts to minimize the damage to their careers? – The Hagen Jul 10 at 20:39
  • The prize which is for the OP appearently lower then the price of their mental health. – user111388 Jul 10 at 20:39
  • @TheHagen, in that case, you can indeed relax and not work that hard during you postdoc. You might want to work with someone that you know will not be too harsh on working hours. I would guess that an established researcher on average will be more understanding, but you have to find out yourself about it. – Dilworth Jul 10 at 23:14
3

First, at the risk of stating the obvious, a postdoc position is a standard work contract. It happens to involve research work in academia, and it is true that there is often (not always) a culture of competitiveness and high expectations associated to it. But like any work contract you are only required to do the job that you are officially paid for, and pressure by a PI to do more than that is moral harassment, plain and simple (and it's illegal in most countries). Sure, it's quite common for postdocs to put in more hours than required, and some PIs might even expect that, but this is definitely up to you and nobody else.

So no, it's definitely not unfair or dishonest to take a postdoc position without intending to work more than what the contract says. Same thing for the intent to stay in academia: it's a temporary contract, not a marriage! If the institution wants their researchers to stay, they should at least offer permanent contracts. Additionally the vast majority of people who do a postdoc don't end up with a permanent position in academia, and many of them know from the start that they want a job in industry, they just want the postdoc on their resume.

Certainly there are places where the high level of competitiveness would make it hard for you to keep a healthy work-life balance. But this is not the case everywhere, there are very decent institutions and PIs who are perfectly ok with postdocs doing their research work like normal human beings. I've been a postdoc for 14 years, in the same institution for the last 10 years and apparently my work, while not especially impressive, is judged good enough for my contract to be renewed every time. I've been on a 75% part-time for the last three years by choice, simply because I prefer to have some time to myself rather than a full-time salary. So yes, it is possible to be a postdoc and keep your sanity too ;)

| improve this answer | |
0

To add to the previous answers, most people in postdoc positions are there with the goal of being a future faculty member at some university level (not necessarily research-intensive, lots of teaching-focused schools now require postdoctoral training for their hires). If you truly believe there is ZERO chance you want an academic position of any kind, a postdoctoral position at a university may not be the best fit for you.

There are industrial postdocs that might fit your needs/interests better. You'll still be doing research, but without the same publication pressure and attendant 100-hour weeks, and there will be a natural transition to a "regular" job if things go well.

| improve this answer | |
  • Good answer. But in general I think one should not use US jargon like "R1" without explaining it. Such terms are merely local to the US, and most readers wouldn't be familiar with them. – Dilworth Jul 11 at 17:14
  • 1
    thanks for the input - edited to remove R1 – roger-reject Jul 12 at 4:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.