A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at a national conference about postdoctoral fellows in this country, and our lack of academic career progression. Now that I'm doing the final preparations for my academic interview, I am looking for a reason to take a break, and one of the comments during the discussion period keeps nagging away in my grey matter. One of the postdocs who attended my presentation commented that in general, mentors and other academics are unreasonably optimistic about the career opportunities of current postdocs in academia. That no one seems willing or able to say what many postdocs need to hear - your CV isn't strong enough to make the transition to academia, thus you need to be looking elsewhere.
I had never thought of it that way, but in my experience it is true. Are academics too nice? Are they uninformed or delusional about the opportunities within their own field? Are they afraid that being honest with their postdocs will result in their 'leaving them in the lurch' to move into alternate careers? I think all those are in play.
Whatever the reason, the result is the same. A largely uninformed and oblivious senior graduate student and early postdoc population, and a largely disillusioned senior postdoc population. When I quote the (outdated) statistic that less than 20% of graduating PhDs will become academics, I am nearly always met with shock, and then skepticism. I can nearly hear the wheels turning - Well, that might be right, but certainly I will be able to get that position.... Let's be realistic, if you have 10 postdocs in your department, it means that AT BEST, 2 will be successful in securing the academic position. That's a little simplistic, I know because many graduating PhD's do not go into a postdoc phase thus self select themselves out - and no good statistics exists on how many POSTDOCS are able to secure the positions they seek. But its still a minority.
So, how do you know if you don't make the cut? Often you decide that on your own, usually based on lack of success in the academic search. A really awesome mentor would tell you , "Look, you're a solid researcher, but you do not have the CV to make that transition right now. Either you publish X number of first authored pubs, or you need to make other career plans". Sounds harsh, right? No more harsh than X number of academic applications without a single interview, each one chipping away at your self confidence. I have read that the greatest indicator of your potential success in securing an academic position is being short listed for other positions. If you get the interviews, eventually you will likely get a position. If not, you need to look elsewhere. But that process can take YEARS.
Thus, I would advocate for this.... Mentors, you need to be cruel to be kind.