Congrats, you have gone through it all. You passed qual. exams, taken courses, done research, published one or two articles, and written and defended your thesis. But now what is waiting for you down the road? at the corner? After going through a PhD, one’s age is most likely 30 years old on average, add (
or take) 3 years. At this age, one has to be more careful about career plans, because one is not 22 y anymore and cannot just enroll in a new program to stay longer in school and delay the inevitable. Some may have family responsibilities as well! At this stage, there are some options (luckily)! These maybe divided into two categories: academic and non-academic. Academic by all means is going the postdoc way, and the other option is anything else. The 2nd option is wide open but yet very limited and depends on your field and how much demand there is for it. For example, a PhD chemist may find work in a pharmaceutical company, a PhD physicist in IBM or wall street, a PhD math/computer scientist in wall street or Google…etc. But these are limited options and only 30% of PhDs go this way and the rest go the postdoc route.
The postdoc route is just like that. It is supposed to be post-doctoral studies! Because after all these years in academia, you are not mature enough to do research on your own, or teach, or do anything!!! You still need the guidance of a faculty member like a pupil. That faculty member might as well be younger than you, but age doesn’t really matter. The difference is that he is a superstar (likely got his PhD from a top school, with a known PI superstar, and published in Nature and Science, or similar journals). Despite a PhD, in the eyes of bureaucrats, you are still not fit enough to stand on your own. You need to slave more, and this is for REAL now. As a postdoc, you are payed an average salary of 39000$ in north American universities, and less than that anywhere else, except in Switzerland, Australia and Saudi Arabia where postdocs can earn a decent wage. For that meager salary, you work and live in the office like there is no tomorrow (by choice). You work weekends and late hours in the night (by choice) to get some results. Taking holidays is frowned upon, and may delay you from saving humanity with your next breakthrough that is about to happen anytime soon in the next 2 years. Long hours coupled with tremendous stress to publish or perish would crash any soul. After 2-3 years in the same lab, it is about time to pack your bags and go somewhere else. This time it could be anywhere in the world, you just need more experience, because in the eyes of bureaucrats you JUST don’t have enough yet. You leave everything behind and start somewhere new; most likely at an age of 32-33 years. And let me tell you, it is not pretty anymore. At this age, it is harder to make friends, settle down, learn the new language, adapt to a new place. But the worst of all is the feeling of being behind. Your plan for your life is starting to crumble.
Years pass by, and this feeling starts sinking in slowly, but the quest to publish or perish must still be alive. You cannot just give up everything now at the age of almost 35 y, can you? But you cannot go any further now, or can you? Clearly, if you were a superstar (99% of PhDs are not), you could have been hired full time years ago. Most postdocs at this stage aim for a faculty position and only few of these are open. And of these, most are very specific, you may need to wait long until a position in your area of expertise opens up, in some 2nd tier university in the middle of nowhere, for ~70000$ salary, with a 5 years probation period to get tenure or get fired (again publish or perish). It is by all means a very unattractive position and salary, yet the demand for it is very high because there are so many PhDs waiting for an opening for years. You begin to ask yourself, is it really worth it? A this stage, new feelings come to life, desperation and resentment. You start asking yourself, how on earth have I not seen this coming? how on earth have I wasted 10 years of my life chasing something that is not even that attractive or worth chasing. Finally you realize that you have to pack your bags and go where you are appreciated more. You are almost middle aged, and yet no job, no house, not-settled down, and for some not even partner/friends! In short, Pathetic.
PS: The numbers quoted here are average numbers from several reliable sources. The postdoc route as described here is very typical and is almost the norm as told by many post-docs.