Why is the Postdoc So Stressful?

Why is a postdoc so stressfulToday we’re following-up on Friday’s post (A degree of stress), in which we observed a trend towards elevated levels of stress during our postdocs.  Although the trend emerged from only a small sample size, it seemed to be striking enough to warrant further consideration.  Namely, why is the postdoc so stressful and what, if anything, can we do to alleviate it?

It’s clear that we all have specific personal circumstances that will frame our lives, our decisions and our goals.  We’re interested in identifying factors that may be universal sources of stress for all postdocs.  Building upon our discussions with colleagues and user comments, we’ve highlighted three major sources of pain.  These are all related and would be represent different sides of the same coin – if a coin had three sides…

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Uncertainty

Graduate school is certainly filled with uncertainty.  But deep down, there is a feeling that we all know we’re going to get out…eventually.  It may not be with that all-star paper we had dreamed of, but we’ll get out.  Furthermore, most people are not getting huge papers as grad students, so not getting one doesn’t put us too far behind.

The postdoc, however, is the time when we’re expected to be most productive.  All excuses are gone and it’s time to push the project forward…now.  Unlike the graduate days, that underlying feeling of security knowing everything is going to work out is now gone.  Plenty of people don’t have good postdocs.  There are no guarantees we won’t be one of them.  The problem is, the jobs don’t go to those people – they go to the ones that published… which brings us to #2.

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Pressure to perform and publish

The postdoc is not a period most of us want to be in long.  It’s low pay with high uncertainty.  The only way out of the postdoc is to publish.  That’s not entirely true, but for the most part, we know that if we want to be competitive on the job market, we will need a strong publication record.  And it seems with every passing day, the bar for publication gets higher.  With few exceptions, no longer will a novel crystal structure be a Nature cover.  Now it must be accompanied by biochemical and functional data.  Depending on the conclusions of the paper, a reviewer may even require the dreaded “in vivo” experiment…  As a result, projects seem to be getting longer as are postdocs.  After 5 years in a lab, we know we need a monster paper to justify the time spent there.  Otherwise, we’re looking for jobs that we may not want, or even be competitive for.  Therefore, getting a project moving as quickly as possible is absolutely essential for a timely exit.

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Money

This is a factor that becomes increasingly important as time moves on.  As graduate students, we’re comfortable living with roommates, eating Ramen noodles and denying ourselves occasional pleasures (like a vacation).  Graduate school is a loose extension of the college mentality – we’re in training and it’s just temporary.  The payoff will come…

Then we begin our postdoc again with the knowledge that this is temporary and the payoff will come.  That “payoff” means a job, with a check. As postdocs, we’re generally in our early- to mid-30’s and we have a new set of issues to deal with.  Decisions like getting marriage, having kids, settling down and owning a house all start to be part of the equation.  Each one of those choices becomes significantly more difficult when we’re still living paycheck to paycheck.  (Feel free to reread the Uncertainty and Pressure to publish sections again now…)

In the final chapter of this post, we will look at what we might be able to do about these.

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But first:  Do any of these resonate with your own personal experience?  Are there other significant factors that we’ve omitted?  Are there specific measures for how we can start to improve the system?

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2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Career-related from Grad School to Job | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    […] Why is the Postdoc So Stressful? – you’ve already got your PhD- isn’t it all downhill from here? With the degree come a new set of challenges to be prepared for […]

  2. factsays

    wrote on July 24, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Its a nice read and the contents are very well written. But the one thing that every Postdoc goes thru in life is the amount of stress and pressure given to them by their bosses ( professors). Some bosses are total losers and under-performers in their own lives and take out the frustrations in their postdocs. Postdocs are required to be in their labs even on weekends screwing their family time else no good project would be given to them, postdocs are often forced to work long hours whereas their bosses go out and have fun with friends !! And favoring someone over others for no reason is extremely common. The one thing that is needed is an official forum and board where complaints against bosses can be addressed anonymously and strict action taken against those bosses.

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