Along with “when shall I start a family?” this is the top question I get asked when working in universities.
Beware anyone who gives you a magic answer to this! We are in the same territory as “how long is a piece of string?”. But don’t despair The Nerd Coach has some guidance!
Are you drifting?
Postdoctoral drift begins slowly. You might have finished a PhD and started a postdoc as the natural thing to do next. Are you coming to the end of your contract and your PI offers you a contract extension. The end of your contract looms and you jump at the next available postdoc job because everyone has to eat and pay the rent. One unconscious step may be forgiven. Two or more and you start looking more like a member of the zombie army than the intelligent, highly skilled person you are!
Postdoctoral drift results from simply not stopping and reflecting at the right time. Why is it essential you try to avoid it? The empathic answer is the saddest postdoc tales of woe come from those who have drifted from one short term contract to another. The practical answer is postdoc contracts are so short that if you don’t have time to drift. You need to be focused on those personal success metrics from day 1.
Focus on the metrics, not the job
OK, hold the panic about ‘I need a job”. As a PhD plus you are bright, talented and capable of planning a project. Let’s make your career that project. Do you have a vision of the type of role you want to be doing in 5 years? It doesn’t have to be a very specific job (but if it is your planning just got easier!). What skills and experiences will you need then that you don’t have now?
Finding out is easy. Take your existing CV (because it is up to date?!). Grab a job description of some of the roles you would like to explore. If you are unsure pick several – most will have skills in common. Now realistically work out where the gaps are. In my experience the gaps are usually funding experience and papers for academic jobs and management and financial/business awareness for non academic jobs. The great news is a postdoc can give you these things. But only if you pick carefully. A very short postdoc contract won’t give you time to publish. A project where it is just you and your PI will offer very little management experience (guiding students, technicians or collaborators). All things money and funding require a boss who will share authority and responsibility.
One, two, too many?
If you thought choosing first postdoc needed care and attention, double your efforts for the next postdoc! Understanding your success metrics are still important but you will be closer to that 5 year vision! The key questions to ask yourself are:
- What will this next postdoc realistically add to my CV?
- Do those things move me forward in my career?
- Am I fully aware of my options beyond academia?
The latter point is cosy blanket syndrome. We may moan about academia but we know how it works and have our own ‘cosy’ spot marked out. Looking at options outside the academic bubble is challenging. But do you know what? I have worked with plenty of postdocs who are not only still alive (!) but thriving having taken a step into the ‘beyond’.
The key to answering how many postdocs is to stop and think. But not as you hand back your university pass when your contract ends! It takes six months realistically to get a job. It is also a job to get a job. Book some time out with your future self. Set aside time to plan that next step proactively.
Make sure you are not drifting on a postdoctoral life raft but you are strapped into the driving seat of a postdoctoral speedboat!