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Is the Postdocalypse an Opportunity in Disguise?

A postdoctoral scholar (“postdoc”) is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.(1)

While the life of the humble biomedical postdoc was never a walk in the park, It used to be that the long hours toiling away for little pay or recognition would eventually lead to a decent chance that one day they’d be able to launch their own lab and do the science that they really wanted to do. Maybe, if they were really lucky, become a tenured Professor.

Sadly, this reality is fading away. And what used to be seen as a respite after finishing a PhD in order to learn a new skill, is now turning into a decade long holding pattern for many brilliant young minds. The reason for this is pretty straightforward, public funding for research grants have stagnated, with the NIH budget, the primary funder of Biomedical research, not even keeping up with inflation over the past decade.


As for the grants that do get disbursed, those are going to an older and older crowd. With the average age of an R01 grant increasing (2). Your chances of becoming a Principal Investigator before you’re 40 are pretty dismal. Even more so if your work is too far outside the bounds of what’s currently popular.



I’d also argue that the increase in the percentage of money Universities are spending on Administration vs Research or Teaching (see figure below from this study) is also cutting into critical science funding, which you can read about here.



Whatever the cause, the sad result of this situation, which some people have aptly named #postdocalypse, is that a depressing percentage of highly skilled researchers are being forced to take non-research related positions. This is not just a soul crushing thing for the researchers who have spent almost a decade developing their craft, forgoing great financial reward and taking on massive student debt all for the ability to contribute to pushing scientific boundaries. It’s bad for us as a society, without continuing scientific progress.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be the end of the world….



I’m going to put forth a crazy hypothesis, that Bio/Med PostDocs are perfectly suited to become Biotech Entrepreneurs. Now you may be thinking, “Woah now Jacob! Companies focus on Applied Research, not Basic Research!”….. and you’d be right. Except at the end of the day, Science is Science. And technological progress pushes scientific progress which pushes technological progress. It’s one awesome positive feedback loop. And in today’s funding environment, if your lab happens to be a profit generating company, you have a lot more freedom over what you research than most NSF/NIH funded labs.  But that’s a discussion for another day. 

For now, lets look at 4 Reasons Why Todays PostDocs are Tomorrow’s CEOs.  At the minimum, the average post doc has:

  • Grant writing experience: If you can write a successful NIH/NSF grant, a business plan is a piece of cake.
  • Solved a worthwhile problem: Compared to most app startups that are solving problems that can barely be called a problem.
  • Built a network: Research is not a solitary endeavor. To be successful, you had to have worked with your fellow colleagues, your PI, navigated the bureaucracies of your institution, all while trying really hard not to infect, mutate, blow up themselves accidentally.
  • Ability to endure long hours and minimal pay for future earnings all for an expected future payout:   Are you starting to see the parallels?

In addition to all that, I’d go as far as to say that even if a postdoc’s specific expertise is in an area that’s not directly translatable into a viable technology, all the skills they acquired will benefit them greatly in starting up a company in another area.

To close, I’m not saying only post docs or that one must even have a PhD to successfully start and run a biotech company. And I’m certainly not saying starting a company is easier than academia. But if you are a postdoc and you’re worried about your future, maybe there’s an option that ends with you doing the work you’re passionate about without having to compromise.

Is that such a crazy idea? What other skills do postdocs have that’d make them good entrepreneurs?

Announcing BRIGHT IDEAS at Brightwork

Hold onto your socks Houston! Have we got some exciting things in store for you.

Brightwork’s mission is to get more people working as Indie Scientists and launching Science startups. Primarily we do this by replacing the initial startup costs associated with science startups with a monthly fee.  It’s far easier to pay $450 to test out an idea for a month as opposed to raising $50k just to see if something has legs. We’re already 2X more affordable than any other shared lab in the country[see Nature] but we’re not ready to stop there. Starting Jan 1, 2014 we will be kicking off the Bright Ideas Accelerator at Brightwork.

Bright Ideas is not your typical accelerator. There are lots of peeps around town who will help you once you’ve got a little bit of traction. But if you literally just have an idea or god forbid just a passion to work on something nonspecific you’re pretty much on your own. We know how hard it can be starting something in Houston, Brightwork almost moved to Berkeley and only happened here because we were pretty stubborn in our belief that Houston has buckets of untapped potential. And so…

If you have an idea, project or prototype:

Apply right here and if you’re accepted  we’ll hook you up with a lab, equipment and give you a practical knowledge of important things like business, funding, science and prototyping [in exchange for a minimal stake(5%) in the idea]. The program is designed to be an intense and challenging 3 months.

If you don’t have an Idea:

We’ll be spinning up a number of “in house” projects in 2014. So if you are looking to be apart of an exciting project, apply here and where it asks for you to describe your project, instead describe the type of projects you’d like to be apart of.

Plus some extras for the rest of Houston:

  • To make it easier to start, everyone’s first month of CoWork/CoResearch is now only $200.
  • Monthly Survey Hacks: Biodesign, GeoPhysics, Drones, more to be announced.
  • Regular Science Show & Tell‘s
  • Monthly “Brilliant Minds” Speaker Series: Houston’s got lots of brilliant peope doing amazing things, we want you to know about them.
  • Plus oodles of workshops and classes 

If you have any questions, queries, quizzes, get in touch.