“I had imagined postdoctoral life as a sort of priesthood, the blissful apotheosis of a life dedicated to knowledge. In top-notch universities, a postdoc in theoretical physics had no mundane obligations — no teaching, no administration, no fixed hours. What remained was transcendental.You were hired for your research talent. All you had to do was find something conceptually worthwhile that interested you and then work on it. All that mattered was what you achieved. It was simple, but the stakes were high. No one I knew thought much about getting rich or about what they would earn. Everyone hoped to achieve something numinously great and was willing to work an entire lifetime at it. We looked down on professors who ceased “doing physics” once they achieved tenure. As we got older, we took solace in the stories of people who made great discoveries after the age of thirty. It was very different from Wall Street, where I heard twenty-something traders talk about “their number,” the amount of money they figured they needed to be able to quit, certain that they would never have to work again.
Reality, of course, was different. […]
Postdoc life was an atavism, a relic of a time long past. Postdoctoral research positions had been created to provide a brief interlude between being a graduate student and becoming a professor. But Americans’post-Sputnik view of science as the moral equivalent of war had produced a bubble of young scientists that, now tenured, occupied all the available faculty positions; they would not retire in less than thirty years.Faculty need students, and so aspiring physicists continued to enter the head of the PhD pipeline, but when they emerged at the tail, there was almost nowhere to go. Postdoc positions temporarily filled the void.They lasted about two years and paid little.They worked well for universities, though, for they got to sample a new bunch of young research physicists each year, and could pick an exceptional one for the rare faculty position that became available.
It was less pleasant for the average postdoc.You started each two-year position in the fall with a one-year grace period, during which time you tried to begin, complete, and publish some interesting research, so that by the fall of the second year you could apply for another postdoc position in another lab or department somewhere else in the world. Mitchell Feigenbaum, famous for his contributions to chaos theory,described it aptly:“These two-year positions made serious work almost impossible. After one year you had to start worrying about where you could go next.” If you were unlucky enough to have only a one-year postdoc position, which was not uncommon, then you had no respite;you had to start applying for your next job as soon as you began the cur-rent one.The only way out — other than abandoning academic physics entirely — was to write a paper so acclaimed that you would be offered one of the few faculty positions available.
Some of my PhD friends, passionate and desperate enough to stay in physics even if they were paid nothing, became “freebies,” people who had found no job anywhere and then asked for and received a desk and rudimentary research facilities with no pay at a top-ranked institution.Their aim was to get into a stimulating environment, make good contacts, and then do a piece of work that would get them a paying job. from My life as a Quant by Derman