As I was finishing my PhD, I faced a dilemma that comes across the minds of many PhD graduates: To stay in academia or try to transition to an industry job.
In my case, I took the first option–even after being tempted with a few industry positions that paid more generous salaries.
A good friend that was in a more advanced stage in his career told me something that I verified to be very true: “As an academic postdoc, you can do whatever you want.” At that point I didn’t fully grasp what he meant, but with time I understood.
In the end, what drove me to academia was my inner curiosity, my desire to explore, to generate knowledge, relying on creativity and critical thinking. I thought I would prefer that over working on a more defined, pre-formatted project.
As an academic postdoc, you are usually given one or two projects to work on and your progress strongly depends on YOU. So, although your mentor is expected to provide you with overall guidance, you will be the driving force of those lines of research.
As you dive deeper in your field, you will accumulate a lot of knowledge and will begin to be considered an expert in your topic. You may establish collaborations that will grant you additional training and/or reagents, but in most cases you will hit the bench hard and push forward with the bulk of the work.
This highlights another feature of the work: One can sometimes feel a bit isolated. Either because you are spending long hours around that fancy machine getting “that picture” for a paper or a grant, or because you are barricaded in the library, writing that paper or grant. So, if you like constant interaction with other researchers and prefer to have your work coming together as a smaller piece of a bigger puzzle assembled by many hands, this type of work may not be for you.
On the other hand, most of the times the work is objective-based and not so dependent on a fixed time frame. That gives us flexibility that is hard to match in the private sector. With good time management skills and self discipline, you can accomplish a lot and you will be able to deviate from a regular business hours work schedule when you feel you need a brake and take a vacation.
In my case, I have fun doing academic science and that gets me through those long hours in the dark of the confocal microscopy room, and the swamps of paper and grant writing. At the end of the day, I work on a project that I own and which I am excited about, which I built from scratch, and is starting to give its fruits, allowing me to travel to conferences, show my results, and learn more and to immerse myself deeper in the academic community.
In summary, working as a postdoc in academia can be tough in many aspects, and the monetary compensation is not usually the best. However, you will have lots of freedom of thought, and a schedule flexibility that is hard to match. For me, that is the deal.