Recently Beth Halford over at C&EN wrote an article on the pains and gains of the postdoc life so I thought I would expand a little on my own experiences using my twin sister as a direct comparison to me…
The odds of becoming an identical twin are around three in one thousand and I am one of those lucky three. Throughout the twenty eight years of mine and my twin sister’s life we have constantly been compared to each other in looks, personality and brain power. Abigail is a trainee general practitioner (GP) which means that she has completed her medicine degree (5 years) and subsequent foundation training (2 years). I am an organic chemistry postdoc, having completed my MChem. undergraduate degree (4 years) and PhD (3.5 years) in chemistry. Considering that the training for our respective roles has been a very similar amount of time, you may or may not be surprised to find that our lives and career prospects are very different.
Abbie has recently given birth to her first child and a year before this she got married and bought her idyllic, village-based family home. This story is very similar to many of her doctor friends, most of who are married, have a mortgage and child. Her current salary is close to £50k a year for a five day a week, 8.30 am – 6pm job. On completion of her GP training (her chosen specialism), her salary will significantly increase, although her work responsibilities will also rise.
As background, In the UK, you do your degree, which is very competitive to get into, and then do two foundation years in a range of specialities. If this goes well, you then apply for your, sometimes very competitive, specialism. At this point there is a relatively small risk of not getting a job, especially in larger cities and for popular specialisms, but the odds of gaining a job are in your favour.
In comparison, I earn £28k a year and am on an eighteen month contract (1 year left) with no guarantee of employment on completion. My working hours can be very variable as research is unpredictable, with late nights or weekends not uncommon. My job is not only laboratory based, but also involves helping students, keeping the lab running smoothly, writing up publications and liaising with industrial partners. I currently live in rented accommodation with my postdoc boyfriend and we can not afford to buy a house or get married. In the last three years I have lived in three different cities and settling down is still not possible if I want a career in academia, which I am not sure that I do. My next step would require a prestigious fellowship, which are harder to come by than a clean NMR tube in a synthetic laboratory! So do I stick it out and hope that I get more publications which would give me a higher chance of a fellowship or do I head into industry?
There is also the issue of having children and, whilst my university does have decent maternity entitlement for fixed term staff, it would not necessarily be a good time in my career to have a child. There are many women that have succeeded in both becoming an academic and mother but the statistics show that only 20% of professors employed in 2011 were women.
I earn almost half what my sister earns even though we have spent the same number of years in training. My sister has deal with potentially life or death decisions every day and I applaud her ability to do this. Apart from the higher salary (and therefore larger shoe collection), her education and training allows her to be confident of getting a permanent position, having career progression options and a work-life balance. I feel my education and experience should have more value than is currently given to it, with industry and academia giving more financial incentive to stay in the research sector. I want to work hard and reach the higher echelons of my chosen profession whilst having job satisfaction and a work-life balance. These job requirements mean that it is becoming more likely that I will leave research and change career paths. For now though, I am happy as a postdoc and I will continue to work as hard as I can!