Post-Doctoral Fellowships: Even More Grad School-y than Grad School

I never wanted to do a post-doctoral fellowship.  Despite the title of my book, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, there was a lot I liked about grad school.  And a post-doc just sounded like everything I hated about grad school (long hours, low pay, no respect, no defined end date) and none of the parts I liked (classes, teaching opportunities, camaraderie with classmates, beer).

But in my field, Molecular Biology, it’s practically a given that you’ll either (a) do a post-doc or (b) abandon the field entirely and live on an art commune in Montana.  Granted, there are different kinds of post-docs—academic post-docs, industrial post-docs—but every research job seemed to require an additional 2-6 years beyond the Ph.D., toiling at the bench 12 hours a day, the only reward being an annual salary of $30,000 instead of $26,000.

I started asking everyone I knew:  “Is there a way to…skip the post-doc?”  It was like asking whether I could skip brushing my teeth.  Yes, um, technically, I could do it—but I’d only be hurting myself.

As graduation neared, I found a job at a small biotech company, where I’ve now worked for more than five years.  The company was small enough, they told me, that they couldn’t really hire me as a post-doc because I’d be the only post-doc at the company.  So they’d hire me under the ambiguous but not-a-post-doc title “Scientist,” and hey presto, I skipped the post-doc.

Don’t get me wrong; I can certainly see the value of a post-doctoral fellowship.  It’s a transitional time to develop the necessary skills you’ll need as a scientist—overseeing your own project, learning important research techniques, writing grants, and, most importantly, familiarizing yourself enough with an entire field to identify the next problems that need to be solved.

But I’m still secretly glad I didn’t do one.

About the author: Adam Ruben is a writer, comedian, storyteller, and molecular biologist. For over a decade, he has performed at clubs, colleges, and private venues across the country, including at some of the best-known storytelling shows and comedy clubs. He is the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School (Random House, 2010), a satirical guide to the low points and, well, lower points of post-baccalaureate education.