The American Postdoc Experience
by Dr. Sylvia Yip
In the previous issue of SciMy Magazine, Sylvia shared her experiences in exploring alternative careers whilst working as a postdoctoral researcher. In this article, she delves into her genuine opinions on postdoctoral training in the US.
Soon enough, I was to find the working life to be very overwhelming and daunting. Now as a working person, I could no longer expect the level of support students enjoyed. I felt as though I was thrown into the sea, yet need to understand immediately how social security number1, credit score2, medical insurance, driver’s license, taxes, visa conditions, employee benefits work – matters that rarely ever cross a student’s mind.
The most challenging part of being a US postdoc, in my view, is to understand quickly how the grad school3 system and academia work in this country, what a postdoc traditionally meant and what it means now. A US graduate student typically spends 5-7 years to earn a PhD degree, which is quite significantly longer than the period it takes for Asian, Australian, UK and European PhD candidates to complete their program. Unless one is in Switzerland or Australia, postdocs are paid poorly. The compensation is low that it’s almost a stipend. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) standard, the minimum stipend of an entry level postdoc in 2012 is US$39,2641.
To avoid the ‘forever postdoc’ syndrome, many US institutions like Emory have limited postdoctoral training to no more than five years. Five years is a long time, but keep in mind that funding situations are so fragile that it’s not uncommon at all for a principal investigator4 (PI) to ask a postdoc to find another job within three months. For that to happen to an international postdoc, the odds are all against him or her.
Firstly, the postdoc has been admitted into US as a researcher so finding any non-research job is likely to violate the visa conditions. Secondly, being on a visa, the postdoc’s eligibility for grant applications is extremely limited. Thirdly, postdocs have highly specialised but not necessarily transferable skills – a postdoc specialising in evolutionary biology might not be favoured in a cancer research lab.
The mission of a postdoctoral training, traditionally, is to prepare a junior scientist for academia and independent research i.e. to have his or her own lab and funding in the future. However, not every PhD holder is interested in conducting independent research. Some are interested in academic research (under a PI), industrial research or numerous other non-research career paths that put a science PhD to good use e.g. scientific writing, science policy, consultancy, intellectual property, technology transfer or other relevant sectors. Postdocs and PhD holders have many career path options, especially in the US, yet all postdoctoral training tell them is to ‘publish or perish’5. From an economic point of view, it doesn’t make sense that every PhD holder or postdoc should strive for a tenure-track6 assistant professorship: there is a clear lopsided supply/demand imbalance that attributes to the ‘forever postdoc’ syndrome.
Postdoctoral researchers, apart from facing funding issues, sometimes end up having to do several trainings in different labs. Unlike professions like law and accountancy where prior experience matters and contributes to the career path, postdocs might not continue with their unfinished research from the previous lab(s).
As I pen this article for Scientific Malaysian, I am hopefully months away from a new job and a new career – intellectual property. I am currently heavily involved in non-profit organisations that aim to bridge the gap between academia and industry and to seek positive changes for postdocs, PhD holders and grad students in US – I hope to share these experiences in an upcoming article for the next issue of Scientific Malaysian magazine
 Social security number: A nine-digit number issued to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and temporary (working) residents under section 205(c)(2) of the Social Security Act, codified as 42 U.S.C. § 405(c)(2) . The number is issued to an individual by the Social Security Administration, an independent agency of the United States government. Its primary purpose is to track individuals for Social Security purposes.
 Credit score: A numerical expression based on a statistical analysis of a person’s credit files, to represent the creditworthiness of that person. A credit score is primarily based on credit report information typically sourced from credit bureaus.
 The grad school: In the US, a school that awards advanced academic degrees i.e. Master’s degrees and PhD degrees with the general requirement that students must have earned a previous
 Principal investigator: The lead scientist or engineer for a particular well-defined science (or other research) project, such as a laboratory study or clinical trial. It is often used as a synonym for “head of the laboratory” or “research group leader”.
 ‘Publish or perish’: A phrase coined to describe the pressure in academia to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or enhance one’s career.
 Tenure-track: Refers to life tenure in a job and specifically to a senior academic’s contractual right not to have his or her position terminated without just cause.
About the Author:
Sylvia Hsu-Chen Yip was born in Ipoh, Malaysia. She holds a BSc (Biochemistry) from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and a PhD (Chemistry) from Australian National University. At Emory University, Atlanta, she continued her postdoctoral research while simultaneously pursuing an internship at the university’s technology transfer office. Sylvia now resides in Washington DC where she works as a patent agent in a boutique intellectual property law firm, representing clients to obtain patents in biotech/pharma/chemical technological arenas. Outside her profession, Sylvia serves in the national committee of Women in Bio (WIB), a non-profit organisation for women in life sciences. Sylvia can be reached at [email protected]. Find out more by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/chopin1810sy/