I have been involved in conducting basic research for the past eight years, which includes five years of PhD and over 2 years of postdoctoral training. After investing all these years in academia, one question that comes to the mind of almost all researchers is “when will I finally have a stable and secure career?”
In these days of economic recession and sky-high competition for grants, academia does not offer much promise to young researchers like us. So, in answer to this question, I have started considering a job outside academia.
By the time you do your postdoc, most of us have a family, so one has to undergo lot of hardship to survive with a meager postdoctorate salary which usually ranges between a yearly $38,000-50,000 depending upon the institute and the location. Also, most postdocs do not have any defined paid vacations or medical leaves. The number of work hours totally depends on your employer, which usually includes working on weekends and even on national holidays! Unlike industry employees, most institutes hiring postdocs do not have any 401(k) investing plan.
Now, let’s follow the future career path for a postdoctorate candidate. After a couple of years of postdoctoral research, the obvious next step is applying for a grant and getting an Assistant Professor position in a university. These sequences of career events were easy to achieve back in the eighties and nineties, when there were plenty of grants for young researchers and the number of young investigators were much lower.
But in these days of economic downturn, the ratio of grants available to the number of young researchers is very low, especially because of the overwhelming number of PhD graduates emerging every year from the universities around the United States and also the PhDs from other countries coming to the USA. So, getting a grant and being accepted as an assistant professor is a formidable challenge, a hurdle which only few among us with exceptional brilliance, merit, dedication and perseverance, can overcome.
The struggle does not end even after one lands an assistant professor position. Normally, universities will appoint on a tenure-track basis. A fresh assistant professor gets five years, within which one has to do highly productive research and acquire sufficient grants from funding agencies in order to become a permanently tenured associate professor. This includes hiring graduate students, lab technicians and, if money permits, even postdocs. One needs to train and motivate them so that they can contribute significantly to the project and do productive work. Also, the projects one has chosen should yield promising results in order to convince granting agencies to fund the research. All these require enormous hard-work and dedicating lot of time to your lab.
The situation is even more tense for researchers who are not a citizen or a permanent resident of the USA. In order to work in this country, they need to have a valid working visa (J1 or H1B). These visas have an expiry date, usually 5-6 years. So, your goal would be to get into a permanent job within these few permitted years. A permanent job means you can (if you decide) spend the rest of your life working for your employer or institution or industry. Also, your employer can apply for permanent residency status, popularly known as a “Green Card” for you. A permanent residency status frees you from all the limitations working-visa holders are bound with. It also opens up the chance of getting a job in several renowned and high paying companies who are reluctant to sponsor visas for non-residents.
The trend for many postdocs is to apply for industrial positions. Industrial positions are considered permanent positions. Most medium to large scale pharmaceutical and biotech industries will be willing to sponsor the payments involved in applying for a permanent status or “green card.” What these industries look for within candidates are a given set of skills, which one needs to acquire during PhD and postdoctoral research.
Once you are hired as a scientist in a Biopharma company, the road lying ahead is quite predictable. After couple of years of experience, you will be promoted to a senior scientist or principal scientist position. Also, unlike academic postdocs or even newly appointed assistant professor position, the salary is significantly higher. Most Biotech firms offer scientists salary ranging from $70,000-80,000 per year, which can go up to a yearly $120,000 or above once you are promoted to a Senior/Principal scientist position.
Unlike academia, these positions come with an attractive benefit package which includes health insurance coverage for entire family, 401(K) and paid vacations. The challenge in working in industry is that one has to gradually move into a more managerial position rather than continuing being a bench scientist. Most industries encourage and even sponsor their employees to get an executive MBA degree in order to further secure your position in the company.
Bottom-line, if one decides to be in academia, he/she should be really a researcher by “heart and soul,” which means, salary, hours of work, vacations and other factors should be secondary compared to the main goal, which is the area of research one is involved with. No matter how much competition is out there and no matter how frugal and skeptical granting agencies have become these days, if you are a “Born Researcher,” nothing can stop you from establishing a successful lab and ultimately becoming a recognized and respected investigator.