PhD students are often asked what they like to do after graduate school. Since the beginning, my answer has always been something in the realm of science communication. Sure, I have flip-flopped between being an MSL, a medical writer, and working in science policy — but I’ve always stayed steadfast that my post-PhD job will play towards my strengths: critical thinking, presenting, and writing. At first, I mostly received encouraging responses to my career goals. I felt special, like I had my life together with a solid plan of where I wanted my PhD to take me. A couple years into my PhD, that perception changed, when I met the “post-doc bullies”.
Post-doc bullies might be a confusing term, they are not post-docs who bully, they are people who bully you into doing a post-doc. Post-doc bullies believe a PhD is not worth pursuing if a post-doc is not the next step. They also share a perspective that academic research careers are paramount, and that choosing otherwise is a lesser option. They might say an alternative career is a “sell out.”
In the current economy where industry hires as many PhDs as academia, perhaps it’s time we stand up to these post-doc bullies and have alternative opinions be heard. This blogpost is not a condemnation about doing a post-doc. If a post-doc is in the cards for you, get after it! Chase your goals. I advocate for putting a stop to pushing ideals on the next generation of scientists and recognize them for the individuals that they are.
Perhaps the worst trait that some post-doc bullies have is the perception that they know better, more specifically, they know what’s best for you (the audacity!). I’ve been talked to in this condescending manner a few times, “trust me I’ve been in academia for so many years, you haven’t been a scientist long enough to understand.” To this I concede, I am younger than most (all?) established academic scientists, and yes, I have less experience than them too.
When I’m told this, I second-guess myself, even doubt the research and networking I’ve done for my career. When someone says, "I know better because I’m older," they are using their position to make you question your own reasoning. They are making you feel ignorant so they can win the argument.
How do you combat gaslighting career advice? Don’t take the gas-lighter head on. First, recognize that you are being gaslighted, their attempts to make you feel stupid is an attempt to appear superior. Recognizing this behavior will allow yourself to alleviate your uncertainty and hold true to your beliefs. If the gas-lighter is your PI, speak to your committee members or other mentors who support your choice. Always remember, your thoughts and opinions are valid.
Most post-doc bullies believe the only option post-PhD is to post-doc. Academia or – well, there is no “or”. This philosophy negates the fact that scientists are firstly, humans and thereby unique.
I am a person first and a scientist fifth (wife, daughter, sister, and friend precede scientist). As an individual, I have expectations in my life that do not align well with a post-doc. Some scientists may love the culture of academia, while others look forward to a new work environment. Advising every PhD student to do a post-doc assumes that other factors aren’t pertinent to a career choice, utterly dehumanizing the scientist.
In conversations with cookie-cutters I first ask myself if the argument is worth my time and effort. It usually isn’t. But, if you decide to argue, take the high road. Congratulate them for making their choice and highlight that you are a different person from them. Explain why the post-doc option is not right for you. If all else fails, explain that academia does not make you happy and you want to find a job that makes you happy. They can’t argue with that, although some may try.
Skewed perceptions of time
Many post-doc bullies will argue that a few years in a post doc is not much of a difference in the long run. “Building a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t be impatient.” This point is something I agree with from time to time. After-all, I made this same argument to convince myself to pursue a PhD.
However, I inherently do not understand what is wrong with wanting a well-paying job in your late 20s/ early 30s. When I graduate, I will have a B.S, M.S, PhD, and two years of industry experience. Why should I accept a job with a $50,000/ year salary? I was offered a job with that salary without my M.S and PhD in 2015. I want to pay off my student loans, buy a house, and raise a family. I want to retire at 65. Unfortunately, a $50,0000 salary cuts into my financial well-being, and makes my personal goals, which I elevate above my career goals, harder to attain. I am happy to bring up these points in arguments against post-doc bullies because I am not ashamed to have prioritized my personal life over my professional life.
Most often, a post-doc bully does not have a good understanding of the job landscape for STEM PhDs. Fortunately, arguing with a post-doc bully with outdated facts is the easiest, all you have to do is update them:
Post-doc bully: You won’t make as much money if you skip your post-doc.
Rebuttal: PhDs who skip the post-doc make almost a quarter-million dollars more in the first 15 years of their professional career than their post-doc counterparts.
Post-doc bully: You can’t get a job with a post-doc.
Rebuttal: No. This is not true. In fact, a recent independent survey said 40% of PhDs began their post-graduate school career in a position that did not require a post-doc.
Post-doc bully: Play it safe, do the post-doc first, then do industry.
Rebuttal: Some argue that doing a post-doc might make you less marketable for industry. If you truly want to play it safe, try an industry post-doc.
Post-doc bully: You can’t come back into academia if you don’t do a post-doc.
Rebuttal: Not completely true. If industry doesn’t work out, there are avenues back to academia. It’s the road less traveled, but not impossible.
Disclaimer: Not all post-doc bullies are malicious. Some truly believe the post-doc route is the way to go. When faced with a post-doc bully, you might not be able to dissuade them. And that’s ok, we are entitled to our own opinions. I respect the pro-post-doc attitude as long as team post-doc lend non-post-doc proponents equal respect.