Life in Academia: Becoming a Post-Doc Researcher | 3D Cell Culture | Corning

Scientists choose different career paths for different reasons. What might be fulfilling to you might not be to someone else, and vice versa.

At least that's the takeaway of a roundup of recent studies exploring attitudes and aspirations about postdoctoral research published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The roundup provides some telling details on what life in academia as a postdoctoral researcher is really like, as well as scientists' motivations for living the postdoc life — financial trade-offs and all.

The Effects of Money and Mindsets

Some insights reflect career motivations from a strictly transactional perspective. For example, staying in academic research means missing out on higher-paying opportunities in the industry. According to one survey of more than 7,600 postdocs, the average postdoc earned between $39,000 and $55,000 — well below the $85,000 average of an entry-level pharma scientist.

But of course, it's not just about dollars and cents. The decision to become a postdoc — or not — also hinges on one's ethos. Regardless of the income potential or opportunity costs, many people choose academic research because of a mindset they hold dear — whether that's the ability to specialize in one key area of study, work within a community of like-minded researchers or avoid the cogs of corporate America. Working as a postdoc is also a unique opportunity to grow your skills before moving on to the next step — even if that next step isn't in academia at all.

However, some of the same traits that make a postdoc career attractive can also make it feel isolating, the AAAS reports. Postdoctoral researchers sometimes find themselves in an ambiguous middle ground: They've already earned their Ph.D., but they're not yet considered equal to their professional peers. The stigma — and how postdocs deal with it — can affect their prospects, long after their time as a postdoc is up.

The Unsung Heroes of Research

Beyond money and mindset, however, some postdoc researchers may choose the field solely because of the promise of working on cutting-edge concepts.

After all, academia is a hotbed of innovative research applications and an undersung trendsetter. The first uses of 3D cell culture and organoid research, for instance, were in academic settings, not industrial environments. And academic research continues to influence drug discovery; the journal Clinical and Translational Science reports that nearly 25 percent of FDA-approved drugs originated from academic institutions and biotech companies.

As those trends continue to earn the spotlight for their potential in applied research, pharma companies have taken notice. They're now more involved in the work, either through hands-on 3D research or through partnerships with academic institutions that reach across the aisle in the interest of generating knowledge.

Innovations eventually make their way into the industry — but if you're especially keen on getting in on the ground floor of emerging science, a postdoc might offer the exact experience you're looking for.

Launching Your Postdoc Pursuits

If you're thinking about pursuing a postdoc, start with some self-exploration about a year before you graduate — if not before. What kind of work do you hope to do? And with whom would you like to work? Consider your income needs, too. A higher-paying job might not be more lucrative in a big city: A postdoc in a major metropolis might pay more up front, but big-city postdoc salaries are, on average, worth about $7,000 less after accounting for the higher cost of living, the AAAC says.

Once you understand where you see yourself, you can better target your efforts to specific labs or researchers. Learn as much as you can about the key authors and labs in your interest area — and visit conferences to meet them in person, if you can.

Nurture relationships with those people when and how you can, share your zeal in the subject matter, and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities in academic research. As Georgetown University suggests, lab researchers scour poster sessions to connect with potential postdocs. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, it could make a world of difference in your prospects.

Whatever you do and however you do it, it's best to start early, before the role of your dreams gets scooped up. And stay flexible: Along the way, you might even decide that a postdoc isn't right for you. If that's the case, there are plenty of other opportunities outside of academia.

Pharma and academia aren't your only options. Life science suppliers, such as Corning Life Sciences, are looking for eager scientists just like you. Check out our current opportunities.