Plight of the Postdoc Revisited

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 20, 2009 1:06 am

* Read the less-than-comical reality here.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Education, Science Workforce

Comments (11)

Links to this Post

  1. Plight of the PhD | The Intersection | Discover Magazine | August 23, 2009
  1. I know a post-doc with a degree in biology who got a job three years ago, as a fire fighter. He seems pretty happy with it.

  2. The worst thing is that, because you have a PhD, people think you’re overqualified for a lot of jobs! Little do they know that education is negated by our lack of experience with the real world.

  3. Sci brings up an interesting and valid point.

    Candidates with PhDs are sometimes passed over in the hiring process outside of the ivory towers–sometimes simply because they are considered ‘too qualified’ and may ‘expect too much money.’

  4. I did a 16 month (yes, you read that right … 16 months) Post-Doc before landing myself a full-time government scientific research position (even turning down a tenure-track academia position in the process), doing exactly what I was trained to do as a graduate student (microbiology and molecular biology). Part of the problem is, either programs/mentors are not showing their students/Post-Docs where all the jobs are (you know, look to industry and government as well) or the graduate students/Post Docs are not taking their own careers into their hands as much as they should be.

  5. Sorbet

    My friend is a theoretical physicist and has been doing post-docs for eight years because she hasn’t found a position yet, and she is actually pretty good. For a long time the only other option for theoretical physicists was to become a quant in finance, but now…

  6. I was on the executive of the York University strike in Canada, which ended in February. We were teaching assistants and contract (“adjunct”) faculty, demanding job security for the contract faculty members. Most of us were either masters students or doctoral students that are disgusted by the shift away from tenure-track appointments in North America.

    Of course, the university didn’t bargain, and the Toronto media largely ignored the message, so we were legislated back to work by the provincial government. But at least somebody tries to fight the tide every so often.

  7. Walker

    demanding job security for the contract faculty members

    The problem isn’t job security for contract members. Yes, they have renewable contracts, but so does everyone else on the planet who is not in tenure track job. And if they do good jobs, they generally get to keep those jobs forever because the full faculty never want to teach those classes.

    No, the real problem is how little adjuncts are paid. That is just criminal.

  8. Walker

    My friend is a theoretical physicist and has been doing post-docs for eight years because she hasn’t found a position yet, and she is actually pretty good.

    Your PhD has a time-limit on it. The faculty hiring bar gets much higher the longer you are out. Yes, you can get a job 8 years out, but you essentially have to do something that revolutionizes the field.

    Sometimes, you just have to move on.

  9. Marc

    The stats in the article are a bit odd, and it’s difficult to extract from them what’s actually going on. In the physical sciences the norm for faculty is now 1-2 postdocs, typically 5 years past PhD, but this is almost always (75%+) of the time followed by tenure. Systems which hire newly minted PhDs as professors all suffer from one of two severe issues: very low tenure rates (see the humanities) or stacking up unproductive deadwood (see many European countries, like France, for examples of what happens when you award almost instant tenure at an early age.) I therefore don’t see the small number of faculty hires to young scientists as a problem; a more relevant one (which is quite real) is the proportion of PhDs who eventually get faculty jobs.

    I can’t speak to the biological sciences at all, but they seem organized around a very different setup – large grants, a pyramid structure with many people working with a single faculty member, and so on.

  10. Sorbet

    8: There was no problem per se with my friend’s record; she had won awards in grad school and had several publications in Phys. Rev. etc. But the job market is just inherently thin for highly theoretical fields, where being very good is seldom not enough and you have to be extraordinary.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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