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I'm a senior grad student struggling with existential angst. I'm fed up with my advisor, to the point of fantasizing about quitting my PhD. I likely don't want to become a professor. But at the same time, I still love my field of study (in the biosciences), I like research, and I have a postdoc lined up starting next year at a great institution working on a project that I am really excited about. Also, due to conflicts with my advisor, I am really worried I won't be able to graduate in time to take this postdoc job. My questions are:

  1. Is it still worth doing a postdoc? Another way of asking is: have other people set out to do postdocs with the clear intention of not becoming a professor? I don't mind the low pay and I'm excited about the topic, so my guess is yes... but I'm worried it might hurt my chances of getting a job in industry or elsewhere afterwards (not sure what I do want to do instead though).

  2. Would it be a terrible idea to TELL my current advisor that I don't want a career in academia in the long run, but still want to do a postdoc? I feel that it might help with the current impossible standards he/she is holding me to, and hence speed up graduation. But, I'm worried that both my current and postdoc advisor will assume it means I won't take science as seriously, and hence won't do a good job as a postdoc.

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    You should also consider the funding side of things. I took a postdoc job over a professor position because the field I am in is very expensive and the money structure is awkward. I can easily get an academic job as a professor at this point with a good line on funding thanks to the postdoc. (however, I'm having a good time, so we'll see when that happens) – b degnan Apr 27 '17 at 12:47
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    If you don't become a professor what do you want to do? I work in a government lab and most of our PhDs have post docs before they get hired. Sometimes industry R&D positions require post docs as well. – Richard Erickson Apr 27 '17 at 17:14
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1) If you are truly interested in the work, then yes, it can be worth doing. A post doc could also be a path to a long term non-professor role in academia, though those positions are quite rare and are definitely undercompensated. You should probably be aware, though, that your time as a post doc isn't likely to count much as "experience" in the non-academic fields unless the work is very closely related to an industry.

2) I have certainly heard stories of students that were pushed through by their advisors/departments at their request after not expressing interest in academia, so maybe this could help you - personally I think that's silly and isn't how PhDs should work at all, but reality doesn't always match the ideal. Have you done enough to earn a PhD in your department? It isn't clear what exactly your conflicts are with your advisor, and whether you are being held back when you should be allowed to graduate or if you have not been productive enough to have earned the degree.

It's also hard to give you advice on this because your current situation with your advisor suggests there isn't a lot of confidence that your advisor has your best interests at heart. That said, at least in the US where I have experience, the reality is that most PhDs in the biological sciences will not get professor jobs, regardless of their desires: the math simply isn't in favor of it when each professor graduates multiple students and yet universities aren't growing exponentially. A good advisor should understand that reality and take some interest in preparing students for whatever they want their post-PhD career to be like. In that context, I wouldn't really be interested in having a PhD or postdoc advisor who could not accept that reality, and from the advisor's standpoint I would expect the same level of productivity out of graduate students and post docs regardless of their career goals, except for being honest with them about the caliber of work that is required for those goals.

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You love your field and you love research. Your post suggests that you don't view your advisor as a good professional role model, which is turning you off to academia. However, professors' personalities vary wildly. If you like research, like your field, are excited about the post-doc but dislike your current advisor, it seems that giving it all up now may be premature. You might start the post-doc and it reignites your interest in becoming a professor.

No, I wouldn't tell the post-doc colleagues or your current advisor about your disinterest in becoming a professor if you are deciding to go through the post-doc. In many/most fields, post-doc positions are designed to train you for academia, so some may see mentoring you as a waste of their time, unless you are in a field where post-docs normally go into industry (not sure which fields that do that, though). My suggestion...getting a post-doc is hard. They are competitive. If you still love other aspects of what you're doing, stick it out through the post-doc and make your decision after a year. Some people just get tired (or disgruntled with) their advisors after a year or two. It's normal. Hope this helps!

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    I disagree somewhat about the waste of time (for the advisor), at least in the field of biosciences: post docs are more advanced than graduate students so typically take less mentoring effort (and really don't cost much more: a research assistant might make a lot less but their tuition also comes out of their advisor's budget). Also the OP already has a post doc lined up. Again, this is a lot different in the biosciences vs other fields. Fellowships for post docs are definitely competitive, but not as much research associate positions. – Bryan Krause Apr 27 '17 at 2:15
  • Bryan, I definitely agree with you about how post-docs are high skilled and need less mentoring. What I meant was that they are often (not always) designed to further train academics, so some advisors may prefer to provide extra support to those going into academia. Sorry for the confusion. I edited my response to clarify it (though you still may disagree with what I wrote). – Nicole Ruggiano Apr 27 '17 at 2:26
  • I like the softer statement, +1. – Bryan Krause Apr 27 '17 at 2:30
  • Maybe I was conjuring memories of snarky advisers from long ago when I wrote the first version. LOL! – Nicole Ruggiano Apr 27 '17 at 14:31
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If you look at the numbers, plenty of postdocs who do want to be professors don't get what they want. So it's not unreasonable to spend some some as a postdoc before leaving academia.

Postdoc life is very different to the late stages of a PhD and is almost invariably in the form of short contracts. If the employment uncertainty doesn't put you off, if you can get a postdoc position easily, and if it's doing something you enjoy, you're in a good position. You can use the time to get publications and build contacts in the field, while taking stock of whether you want to continue in academia. That's a lot of ifs.

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This is a complex, two-part question, so before I take a whack at it, let me first say: if you love research, and you love your field, and are good at what you do, I expect you should be a benefit to a research group whether or not you are planning on becoming a professor.

  1. Is it worth doing a postdoc? Take the opportunity cost seriously! If you could already get an industry position doing research you like, doing a postdoc lets you gain skills, do a different topic for a while - at the cost of much lower pay and delaying your industry start for a few years. (And moving!) Industries vary, so talk with someone whose job you'd like to see how they view postdocs. I certainly have not heard anything about liking former postdocs less - as long as you are still OK starting at an entry level!

  2. Should you tell your current or future advisor? I would definitely not tell your future advisor immediately until you have a better sense for how they treat postdocs in general, or see how current postdocs who leave for industry are handled. I am not sure if telling your current advisor will help matters. This will depend a lot on why you and your advisor are clashing. Conflict at the late stages of the PhD is pretty common - even with good advisors - as you and your advisor start to develop different priorities and tastes about science. Unless your advisor has been explicitly saying something like "it is critical that you do X to get a faculty job/for your future career," I wouldn't expect telling them you're going to industry to help. Side note: even if they say this, don't necessarily trust them, especially if X is "publish this paper in a glamour journal." This is important for a trainee aiming for academia... but also very important for the professor. Even if the professor has the best intentions for mentoring people, their interests and your interests are better-aligned when the trainee is aiming at academia!

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About whether to tell your advisor about your intention not to go into academia: In general I'd say yes, this is a good thing to do. Knowing what a student's or postdoc's actual aims are helps an advisor provide good advice, and helps tailor projects to things that would be useful. A recent Ph.D. student of mine was not keen on trying for an academic career, looked for a postdoc position with ties to industry, and was very straightforward about this; it turned out very well. In addition, advisors do worry a lot about the difficulty of placing people in academic tracks, and it can take pressure off to know that a student or postdoc doesn't want that path.

However, I don't know if this general advice applies in your case, since it sounds like your relationship with your Ph.D. advisor is not a good one. If you haven't already discussed your future plans with your future postdoc advisor -- something that should be done prior to accepting a postdoc position, by the way -- you really should. It would be weird to do this without also talking to your Ph.D. advisor, but that's what I would recommend.

This gets, however to the more important question: #1. What is your goal in doing a postdoc? It's fine not to have the goal of being a professor. It's good, however, have some goal. It's great that there's a particular project that you're fond of, but to me this is insufficient. There are lots of wonderful topics in science and technology; perhaps you could find one that both excites you and that sets you on a rewarding longer-term path. Or, think of particular aspects of the postdoc you've lined up -- experimental techniques, potential collaborations, etc. -- that set you up for something beyond. Congratulations, by the way, on being close to finishing, and on getting a postdoc position. Both are real achievements! Since you're passionate about your postdoctoral research topic, I'm sure you'll be valued by your future group, by the way.

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In bioinformatics, I've known several people who did academic-focused postdocs who then went on to industry careers--some in biologically focused fields such as drug development, others in "data science" positions for Google and the like that had nothing to do with biology, but certainly made use of their analytical skills. You don't say specifically what field you're in, so I don't know how much this observation applies, but it seems to me that having good research experience on your CV is never a bad thing.

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