Recent estimates suggest that just somewhere between 6 and 15% of PhD students end up in tenured academic posts (Nature, 2011). Clearly, one of the major exit points is straight after the PhD. Many people chose to leave at this stage with an alternative career path mapped out or simply because academic research had not proved as fulfilling as they had hoped. The majority of those who stay beyond this point probably do so aspiring to eventually find a permanent position.
The next crucial time will be at the end of the first postdoc: it is even said that getting that second position is perhaps the most vulnerable stage in a scientist’s career. In particular, receiving independent funding, especially through a prestigious scheme run by a renowned body or institution, can be a real turning point.
But what of those who don’t make this lucky break? That’s the position I found myself in around two years ago. The little feedback I received from my applications, criticising lack of demonstrated mobility, left me sufficiently disheartened that I looked outside research for my next job. As the first postdoc who wasn’t awarded a fellowship after a long run of successful applicants from our group, I felt as though I had failed.
Two years to reflect on this response have led me to realise that I was a bit too hasty: I never really considered that I might still be a good candidate for a funded postdoc in another institution. When I finally plucked up the courage to get back in touch, the positive response from my former collaborators was amazing and I’m delighted that I’ll be back in the lab in January.
How common is my story though? Do postdocs coming to the end of their contracts receive enough support looking for the next job, in whichever profession it may lie? Does the support cover the real impact of changing direction? In most cases, to step outside of academia will also be to step back in terms of relevant experience, seniority and salary, which can all make for a very difficult time.
Is this also one of the points where we need to be mindful of unconscious bias between women and men? Are there considered to be more normatively acceptable alternatives for women finishing a first postdoc than for men? If I had been a man, would my pursuing an alternative path have been queried more by those around me? I realise that I certainly would have questioned it more myself.