As a 5th-year grad student, I have spent a lot of time wondering what I'm going to do when I graduate this winter. I've spent the last 4-plus years pipetting, centrifuging, electrophoresing, grading exams, and feeding cell cultures. But I haven't spent nearly as much time as I'd like researching the next step: to postdoc or not to postdoc.

This is a bone of contention with many of my classmates. Not doing a postdoc makes you vulnerable to the accusation of being a "quitter." What, you're not going to do academic research? You can practically hear your thesis committee give you the Evil Eye, if that's at all possible. You're afraid of being shunned in a southwestern-Amish kind of way. You're afraid potential doors will slam in your face.

Then there's the flip side: If you don't do a postdoc, for whatever reasons (personal, financial, or merely being burned out from bench research), then what will you do next? Most pharmaceutical and biotech companies hire only postdocs for their senior or research scientist positions. The senior scientists or group leader positions sometimes require 3 to 4 years of experience on top of postdoc experience.

Do I need to stop doing research? Do I want to continue doing it? If yes, or no, then what?

It's a very personal decision, and one that I knew no one could tell me how to make. But since I've been wrestling with my scientific conscience (stay, go, stay, go), it can't hurt to share what I've learned. I decided that bench research was very agreeable for me personally, but it might not continue to be as agreeable when I'm 38 and starting a family or in the midst of having one. (I'm 28 now.) Bench research also has this annoying tendency, in the biomedical sciences at least, of being tied to a single physical location, usually at a university or company. This means that if you have a specialty that requires hard-to-find equipment or resources, you're tied to specific geographic region. (I've heard that crystallographers and primate studies people have a hard time relocating.)

Because I'm writing this essay about considering not doing a postdoc, it should be obvious that doubts about the academic career track have crossed my mind several times. The academic job market for scientists is in shadow; I didn't want to be in a position of doing a postdoc, sending out hundreds of faculty applications, and having to consider Nebraska (sorry, Nebraska, you're just not my style) for relocation. And that's if I'm lucky.

So I wrote up a list of the pros and cons for not doing a postdoc. Here's what it looked like:

Pro

  • More career choices

  • Don't have to worry about becoming a PI and grantwriting

  • Confront the real world of employment after finishing the 21st grade

  • Can try something different with career and not be limited to the PI track

  • Emotional relief if the postdoc option stresses me out (it does, because I'm burned out on 60-hour work weeks for minimal pay)

  • Cutting my losses now, I am less likely to be seen by potential employers as a postdoc who couldn't cut it and then decided to switch out of bench research

  • Would increase my base of real-world job skills

Con

  • Scarier range of career choices: What if I fail?

  • Eliminate PI option from career
    Risk losing my professional identity as a scientist

  • May not end up using all my scientific skills (so why go to grad school)

  • Emotional stress if I'm limiting myself (no potentially cool industry jobs that require a postdoc)

  • Am seen by potential employers as a "dabbler" who couldn't cut it in grad school

  • Lose the postdoc training experience

This was the general list that I'm comfortable sharing. Some of the issues I also included on the list, but am not showing, covered professional longevity (e.g., how long would my scientific skills remain cutting edge if I did do a postdoc or not), professional flexibility, job market supply and demand (very important!), dual-career and relocation issues, and childbearing.

The "what to do next" part was much harder than doing the soul-searching on my list. What would I do next? Get a job, right? What kind of job? Three months ago, I did a lot of research at my home computer, where I'm trying to finish my thesis. Using Next Wave, the HMSbeagle, Bio.com, and a couple other Web sites, I pulled together information on careers that didn't require a postdoc, but where a Ph.D. would either be useful, required, or at least not a hindrance. (I also discovered from corporate employment Web sites that a lot of companies don't want to hire Ph.D.s. I guess we're either too expensive or headstrong.) Here's my list:

  • Technical writing or editing

  • Biological survey jobs (bioprospecting and environmental surveys)

  • Clinical trials (especially if you have a biostatistics or public health background)

  • Technical services (Troubleshooters 'R Us)

  • Teaching students (high school)

  • Training other scientists (seminars and workshops)

  • Patent law or the general information protection area (but this seems to require experience, the patent bar, or connections, even if it doesn't require a postdoc)

  • Information science/computers/Web stuff (good if you already have the skills)

  • Lab management (thought this was cool, since I could still be in a lab, but you need to know people at companies because many of these types of jobs aren't listed)

  • Grants management (sounded OK, but not necessarily for me since I don't like reading grants, even my own advisor's)

  • Curriculum design (undergraduate level, mostly; includes lab courses)

  • Science communication (writing, television, radio, etc.)

Most of these jobs have minimal lab involvement, with the exception of lab management, lab course design, and technical services. That didn't come as a surprise to me. What did kind of irritate me was that there didn't seem to be a neat, tidy course for me to take. It's easy when all you have to do is decide where and what to do a postdoc in. It's so much more mind bending when you knock down a wall and say, "OK, what next?"

This was very threatening to my identity as a scientist. I had no idea of how to tackle the question with a concrete plan. I wanted to duck back into the lab (or my thesis) and spend another year tweaking stuff until I felt more confident. But I knew that this would be avoiding the issue and only a temporary fix.

Now, I'm in the process of trying to finish my thesis and tie up final experimental loose ends. For potential short-term jobs, I've decided to apply for curriculum design and lab management positions that are primarily, but not always, part time here in the southwest. I also plan to apply for full-time lab management jobs at lots of different technical companies (pharma, biotech, etc.) after I locate these hard-to-find positions through friends and friends of friends. And I also plan to look into technical service jobs at biological and medical supply companies.

And what about my eventual postgraduate career (different from my postgraduate job)? That's much harder, since I don't have any firm ideas yet. I guess I can only take one step at a time. I've decided that it's better to move on and be a little threatened about the future than not move on at all.