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After a PhD, why do people generally do postdocs at universities rather than work in research firms or organizations?

Is it only because they want to become academicians?

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    There's nothing better in the world than having no responsibilities aside from research; if I could be a postdoc for life I just might be. Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 15:36

12 Answers 12

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Unlike the answer of lordy I need to mention something less positive.

In today's academic market, people do postdocs because they have no other good option if they want an academic career. A tenure track position would be the far better choice if it were only open. But, currently and recently, there have been too many people seeking too few regular positions. Therefore people take postdocs to try to get into a better position for a regular position. Or, simply to hang on for a few years.

Long ago, when I was a student, this wasn't the norm. There were very few postdocs and people usually moved from a doctoral program to a tenure-able position if they had any promise. I knew only one in a faculty of about fifty (with three times that many doctoral students). And even his case was special in some ways. The marketplace for faculty was very different.

Now, however, if you want to move from being a student to being a professor, a postdoc is considered essential since the old pathway is no longer as open as it once was.

Note that (US perspective), the Assistant Professorship was designed to be a fairly long (typically seven year) probationary period in which candidates can prove themselves in ways important to the institution, usually Research, Teaching, and Service. Now, however, it has become a 9 or more year process in which you have to prove yourself before you even get a chance to prove yourself.

I consider this a step backwards, because of the risk it puts on people, but I have no solution, other than massive influxes of money into education. That would be a good thing, IMO, but isn't likely.

Trying to use a research firm as a "fill in" to an academic career is very unlikely to be successful today, since very few firms do pure research as opposed to product oriented research. There are a few, but not many, and they are focused on only a few fields. Even a research slot at IBM is unlikely to bring you back to academia. Google, perhaps, but not many.

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    This is field specific. Its pretty much always been necessary to do a postdoc in life-sciences before getting a tenure-track position (in Europe at least, where PhDs are only 3-4 years) Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 12:06
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    The US academic marketplace was very different in the 50s/60s/70s primarily because of demographics (baby boomers) and the rapid increase in college attendance meant that universities staffed up rapidly to meet demand.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 12:31
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    OK boomer (sorry, couldn't resist that). One could debate extensively about whether or not it is a good thing that post-docs are now a pre-requisite for an academic career in most first-world countries. But that isn't the question: the original question was about individuals' motivations to do post-docs -- not about why academic career paths are structured as they are. As advice to an individual, this answer is about as helpful as "why get a job when it would be much better to win the lottery?". Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 6:26
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    @DavidLoeffler this answer is very helpful because it clearly writes why someone pursuing a career in academia has to do postdocs. It does not cover the whole spectra of postdocs'motivations, but it is adding a lot of informations.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 7:26
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    @lighthousekeeper the answer states "people do postdocs because they have no other good option if they want an academic career." your colleagues had other good options, good to them, but computing science is a niche expanding part of the academia ... exactly like US academic marketplace in the 50s/60s/70s was different than today (see Jon Custer comment academia.stackexchange.com/questions/188108/… )
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 7:57
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Another positive reason for doing a postdoc is simply that you love your subject and enjoy doing self-directed research.

As a student, you may have coursework as well as research. You are also more likely to be carefully directed by your supervisor. And above all else, you don't necessarily yet have the skills or experience to explore all the avenues you'd like to.

At a company, your work has to be focused towards the priorities of the company. Different companies will allow different amounts of freedom of direction to their employees, but at the end of the day, you need to be solving problems that are relevant to your employer.

As a professor you've got to worry about teaching, admin, committees, securing funding, supervision of students and postdocs etc. Actually doing research is rare as a tenure or tenure-track faculty, at least in experimental subjects.

In many ways postdoc is a golden mean - your are experienced and qualified enough to follow your ideas, but not encumbered by all the responsibility that comes later. You can come in each day, sit and your bench/desk/computer and just do the research you want to do.

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    This, plus the fact that, when I was a postdoc, the pay was pretty decent, although sadly it has subsequently badly failed to keep up with inflation. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 11:57
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    Plenty of postdoc positions come with teaching loads. Sometimes, multiple courses' worth, i.e. more than your generic R01 professor.
    – obscurans
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 4:35
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    @obscurans I suspect this is a field specific thing. It would be unheard of in my field for someone with a grant funded Posdoctoral Research Assistant position (PDRA, the official job title for University employed postdocs) or even more so a personal research fellowship, to have substantial teaching imposed on them - the funder wouldn't allow it (although some may volunteer for a small amount for experience). We don't call junior people employed to teach (funded from tuition fees) postdocs, we call them university teachers. Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 8:14
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There are several reasons to do a postdoc:

  • be author on more publications (which in turn means higher success rates for more senior academic positions (eg Assistant Professor) and/or grant money). In research firms it is not always possible to publish the results due to financial interests of the firm
  • get more scientific experience outside of the lab of your PhD supervisor
  • built up a network for your later scientific career

Generally doing a postdoc if one is not pursuing an academic career doesn't make very much sense (with rare exceptions). Especially if someone is doing a lot of consecutive postdocs the CV might even look a bit desperate and might even lower employability in industry.

EDIT: As pointed out by buffy below the chances of actually getting from a postdoc into a permanent academic position are rather slim nowadays. This is why I wrote "higher success rates for more senior academic positions" which in turn does not necessarily mean that you will have success.

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    There's more than academia and industry. For example, for research positions in government institutes (either research labs, or institutes that have research divisions), a postdoc may well be valuable as it is additional (research) experience. Therefore, I disagree that doing a postdoc if not pursuing an academic career doesn't make much sense.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 7:25
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    @gerrit At least round here Government Institutes function more or less as part of academia, to the extent that most people I know who work at one, refer to themselves as academics. Therefore when people say it doesn't make much sense to do a postdoc if they don't want to be an academic, they are including research institutes. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 9:09
  • @IanSudbery Semantics, but to me, academia inherently includes teaching. There are postdocs at NASA, NOAA, UK Met Office, etc. Are they in academia?
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 9:16
  • @gerrit Absolutely its semantics, and perhaps its right to be precise. But my point is not whether these people are technically academics or not, but that when people say "its only worth doing a postdoc if you want to stay in academia" probably intend to include such people. I have no idea if people at NASA or the Met Office regard themselves as academics, but people at NIH, the Sanger Institute, EMBL or Janelia Farm definitely do. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 9:52
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I'm going to copy and paraphrase from my answer here:

Because it's fun!

I did a PhD because it was fun, and I wasn't ready to quit after my PhD. By doing postdocs, I had the opportunity to spend time in various different countries around the world. A postdoc is not only an opportunity for another job that is more or less 100% research, but may also be another chance to explore the world. Want to spend 2–4 years in Japan, Australia, Spain, Canada, or Argentina? If the right postdoc opens up, here is your chance. Where visas are needed, they may be easier to get for temporary positions than permanent ones (US example J-1 vs. H-1B). Going into a permanent position and leaving after 2–4 years may be not appreciated, but for a postdoc it is expected. And the privileges of a PhD position apply too: do what you love, and with some luck getting paid for conference travel to amazing locations you would otherwise never visit.

If you want to postpone growing up a bit longer beyond doing the PhD, postdocs offer you the opportunity.


The other reason is that I wanted to do research, and almost all research positions are temporary, thus either actual post-doctoral positions, or post-docs in all but name.

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After a PhD, why do people generally do postdocs at universities rather than work in research firms or organizations?

I disagree with this premise, albeit with a sample size of 1. However, you question shows that many grad students do not know about non-academic research opportunities.

Many people such a myself do a postdoc working for a government research agency. Likewise, I know people who have done industry post docs. These post docs allow us to obtain the skills, credentials, and other background necessary to be research scientists.

Is it only because they want to become academicians?

Nope, many non-academic research jobs require research experience after a PhD to be qualified to lead large research projects.

Also, it's worth noting that government and industry post docs pay well compared to academic post docs. For example, I got full US Federal employee befits during my post doc as well as time in service for retirement benefits.

Edit: This is field specific, but examples exist across many fields. Here are examples of different non-academic positions:

These examples show how non-academic postdocs may be helpful for some people, given their career goals. But, if one does not want to lead a research group, they probably do not need a postdoc

Edit number 2: Given a recent Nature News career article, it looks like many people are not doing a post-doc. Basically, the job market has changed such at people can go straight to industry and do not need a post doc. And, more people do not see the appeal of an academic job that requires a post doc.

Thus, to re-answer your question:

After a PhD, why do people generally do postdocs at universities rather than work in research firms or organizations?

People increasingly are not doing postdocs at universities. Please see my linked article for why.

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    Whether these options are available depends heavily on the field. In some fields after your PhD you can do a postdoc at a university or a government research agency, get a teaching position or you can leave academia. Industry postdocs only exist in a few select fields.
    – quarague
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 18:15
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    I second this, and would like to add that a lot of engineering post-docs share this motivation. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 8:08
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    What is the difference between a post doc and any other research position at a company (e.g. Scientist II) that requires a PhD? Is it just nomenclature or is there a real difference? I know that 10 years ago I never heard of people in industry being referred to as postdocs (even if this was their first position after a PhD), now it seems more common. But is this just a change in the name of the position or has something else changed? Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 9:06
  • @quarague I agree, but there are non-academic postdocs for many fields, they can just be rare and extremely competitive. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 13:25
  • @IanSudbery My limited experience tells me sometimes it is simply a job title and reasons to pay the post doc less. However, my idealized definition of a postdoc in industry has (1) training as part of the position such as leading a research group and (2) some freedom for research direction. In reality and practice, you are correct. Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 13:28
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If you want to keep doing research in your field then you will quite often have to do postdocs. That's because these other research positions will ask for postdoc experience (or things that are effectively postdoc experience, such as "proven track record of publications in top venues").

Another reason is that the kind of work you want to do might not be available at industry research positions, because the funding system is different. It's not always the case, but especially in the commercial world, you might be asked to work only on things that are related to the company's products.

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To stay in the US, though it depends on who you are are talking about.

I'm in the US, and many of my friends and acquaintances are foreign post-doc students.

I would not be surprised if 9 in 10 of them, when asked why they continue their studies, would say, "to stay in the US", despite often severe burnout or low pay.

Many of them, despite years of academic experience and post-doc or multiple PhDs, are in, incredibly, precarious visa situations that prevent them from taking private sector jobs, and the last thing they want is to have to go back to, say, Iran or Vietnam, possibly for good. Staying in academia means keeping one's visa.

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    The same applies in EU and UK, perhaps elsewhere too.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 8:13
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There are very few firms offering post-docs in mathematics. Moreover, postdoc at universities offers teaching experience, which is very valuable if one wants a position in academia later.

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    +1 teaching experience ... Perhaps most STEM Ph.D.s who stay in academia finally end up in positions with substantial teaching duties; so obtaining teaching experience (now) will help you (down the road) when you don't get hired by the likes of Princeton or Cal Tech.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 0:42
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I'd like to chime in with @gerrit, but I personally disagree with the growing up (or not) aspect both in gerrit's and some other answers. To me, a postdoc is not about growing up (and much less about postponing to grow up):

When I was a fresh PhD student, on some occasion my professor made me realize that with my graduation (Diplom back then, before I started the PhD) came the full professional rights and duties.
I decided to adhere to that perspective: Diplom (or Master) means fully qualified professional. Not (yet) much experience or seniority, but definitively "professional adulthood".

The qualification "argument" IMHO is just a try at subduing people (e.g. wrt. wage level, [micro]management). Employers do this all over the world, just the mechanisms may be a bit different between industry and academia. But I definitively recommend to be grown up and take your stand there as academic postdoc the same as if you were in industry with the same amount of professional experience.


I did a bunch of postdocs*, and to me that was always working in my profession. In contrast, the next step in an academic career, becoming group leader, would have meant to change profession, at least partially, from researcher to manager. There is nothing wrong with doing this (I also teach, which I also count as another profession), but IMHO it's good to be aware of what is happening and to consciously decide what one wants to do professionally.

Colleagues did the step to manager without being aware, and found themselves being almost completely manager. Some have explicitly told me that they strongly miss doing research since managing research is not the same.

I also think that from a macroeconomic perspective the "prescribed" academic career (postdocs should go on to be group leaders) is a huge waste: the transition occurs roughly at a point where researchers have gained sufficient experience to become really efficient in their research profession. And then they go and become inexperienced (and untrained) managers...

So, one reason for "staying" postdoc is wanting to do research, together with the practical consideration that such a suitable position is available at what happens to be an academic institution (rather than industry or other organisation).


*postdoc as in being researcher on a project (with fixed time contract)

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I did 2 years of post-doc because it was the first form of employment I found after my PhD. I was hoping to be an academic, but prof jobs are fewer than PhDs. At least in my subject area. So, after 2 years, I went outside academe.

I knew a guy who was basically a permanent post-doc. He was in his late 40s, and there was no way he would ever be a prof. But he knew enough about his areas of study to keep getting contract work with profs in the department. And he was prepared to do teaching and mark papers and such. He got papers published regularly in collab with several profs in the department. And he seemed to be accepting of the level of income, which was substantially less than even a junior prof. It was not a situation I could have lived with, but he seemed to find it to be OK.

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  • which country? which subject? and which decade?
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 12:33
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You've asked a very good question which reminded me of several issues in academia very close to heart. There are lots of good answers here already. I would say the reason most PhDs do postdoc is because this is really the most readily available route to progressing their academic careers. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons of doing postdocs.

Pros

  1. A natural progression from PhD into postdoc where most early researchers can continue in their field of research (or even change their field of research)
  2. Great opportunity to work with other research teams and move around the world
  3. Academic freedom and opportunities to get more publications

Cons

  1. The path to an academic career is not very clearly mapped out which means it can take any number of years to get into a more permanent position
  2. Salary for postdocs is not great and if you continue doing several postdocs, your salary remains static over the years. Also, if you have a family and you wish to settle down, get a mortgage, etc-temporary postdoc positions isn't going to help with this
  3. Doing postdocs often involves moving around a bit which is best suited to a single (more difficult for a researcher with family commitments)
  4. After doing several postdocs, if you're unable to progress into a faculty position (or permanent role), you reach a dead end in your career. At this stage, industry may not be so welcoming.

Myself and my wife are both PhDs who have decided not to go down the postdoc route. We both genuinely love research and academia. My wife is a PhD in STEM who managed to get into a research role with a large institute of research (UK). I am fortunate enough to have a clinical career alongside my academic career which pays a lot more income and has the stability that postdocs lack. I have continued to do research in my own free time publishing when I can. Ideally, I would like to spend more time doing research but the low income and lack of career structure deters me from taking up a full time role in research. I have a young family too and having a career with stable income is very important to me at this stage of life. I really feel academics deserve better and a clearer career path will attract more talents.
In summary, yes most PhDs do postdocs but there are a number of PhDs who have also gone down non-postdoc routes.

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I'd say the reason is that they enjoy studying and enjoyed their degree and they would like to further it and "they want to study m0re".

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