An Agonizing Decision

As of May 31, Kyle had two very attractive job offers in front of him, both of which he had negotiated. While he had submitted a few more applications earlier in the month, as he hadn’t heard back from them yet it seemed that he would just be deciding between the postdoc and the real job at the start-up. Kyle asked to take another week to make his decision, which the postdoc advisor agreed to.


This was basically an embarrassment of riches situation. We hardly did anything in our non-work time throughout the whole week other than think about, talk about, and research this decision. Kyle is a very slow, deliberate decision-maker. Even though these two options were both great, it was really hard for Kyle to actually choose, especially because he didn’t want to let anyone down.


These are the factors we considered:


The Original Reasoning


Our plan had originally been for Kyle to do a (real) postdoc because he had always been told that it was necessary to do a postdoc to be able to be hired in industry in the biomedical sciences. At least, I thought that was Kyle’s reason. When Kyle managed to get an offer from a company with only a year of (non-real) postdoc experience for a job doing exactly what he wants to do long-term, I thought he should skip the postdoc and accept the offer. (I soured on postdocs in general after I read The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited this past spring.) But Kyle apparently had a second reason for wanting to do a postdoc – the love of research in his field and the opportunity to gain additional, more diversified training. And as reasons go, that is a great one for doing a postdoc! It was pretty difficult for him to wrap his mind around the idea of not doing a postdoc after assuming for so many years that he would.


Career Goals


In some ways, this was the key decision Kyle needed to make in this process. If he wanted to pursue a tenure-track academic position, he really should take the postdoc. Once you go into industry you can “never” go back to academia. Kyle has never been die-hard about becoming an academic, but he didn’t want to close that door, either. But if his goal was go to into industry, why not realize that goal right away? As excellent as the training might be in a postdoc, work experience would probably be better for getting the next job. Also, I’ve always heard that start-up work experience in particular is incredibly valuable because your development is so fast and broad.


The Work


In both jobs, Kyle would be able to work in his field on problems of interest. He would use his existing skills and also gain new skills. The mentorship and training would almost certainly be better with the postdoc, because that’s what its purpose is. However, Kyle really enjoys working in a team, to which the nature of private sector work is better suited; academic work tends to be quite solitary. The slight advantage here would go to the real job because of the types of problems Kyle would get to work on.




Even though he has a B.S. in biology, Kyle’s dissertation work was all computational. He was interested in getting “back to the bench.” The postdoc position would allow him a 70/30 split between computational and wet-lab work, while the real job was supposed to be all computational. However, Kyle was able to negotiate for 10% of his time to be spent being trained in and carrying out wet-lab experiments.




In academia, credit for work is given in a (ideally) straightforward manner: authorship on papers and sometimes patents. Kyle would definitely build his publication record at in the postdoc. In industry, some companies allow publishing, patents, and conference presentations, while others do not. Kyle would not be able to publish original research at the start-up, but he would be able to attend a few conferences and be listed on patents. It’s difficult to consider leaving behind the currency of the academic world!


The Prestige


The postdoc advisor’s university is considered by many to be the pinnacle institution for academic research. This is the kind of place that gets uncomfortable to name-drop (we learned).


At first I didn’t see why anyone would care that much about the university a postdoc advisor works for (after all, Kyle wouldn’t receive a degree from this university). I’m not really into brand names in education, and I thought Kyle wasn’t either. After all, we both chose to go to a college that no one has ever heard of. It was nice to get a degree from our PhD institution, which also has a brand name, and I consider it to be on par with the other dozen-ish top universities in the country for research. But apparently a lot of people think the postdoc university is a cut above that!


When we told people Kyle had an offer for a postdoc at this university, they would almost invariably respond, “Ohhhhh, [university name]. Wow, great.” Kyle was even told that having that university on his CV for his postdoc training would give him an incredible networking advantage for future jobs and allow him to easily land an academic position. Again, this was a little hard for me to believe.


For the real job, since it is a start-up no one has ever heard of it. In Kyle’s field, it spun out of the best-known lab and the foundational papers were published in Science, but it’s still not going to get him anywhere on name recognition ever with the general public or anytime soon within his field.


The Politics


Kyle has a great professional relationship with his PhD advisor (his current boss) and respects him a lot. His advisor made no bones about his preference that Kyle take the postdoc offer, going so far as to give Kyle advice on housing near the university and commuting options on multiple occasions (the university is his alma mater). There were several reasons, one of which was the common academia-is-better-than-industry refrain. It was hardly conceivable for Kyle that he would go against his current advisor’s wishes with respect to this decision.


Job Security


The postdoc offered very high job security because the lab is well-funded. Kyle would work there for 3-4 years, and the postdoc advisor would help him get his next position. The start-up is, of course, a start-up. It’s been around for a number of years and is in an expansion phase (obviously), but job security is much lower in industry than academia at this level, and the company may very well close at some point.


The Location


Both jobs are in major coastal cities (yay!), but neither in southern California (boo!). The postdoc is on the East Coast and the real job is on the West Coast. We’re not thrilled about the weather in either location, but the postdoc city would be more trying weather-wise. We have friends who live in both locations who were able to give us insight into how it is to live in each city. For job opportunities for me, both would be fine, but the postdoc city has the advantage, both for my business (flying East to West is definitely easier than flying West to East, and there are more universities on the East Coast) and for jobs in the fields I’m interested in that are related to my PhD work. The cost of living is similar (high) between the two cities, with the postdoc city being slightly more expensive.


Money Money Money Money


Of course, the start-up salary is higher than the postdoc salary. Naturally. That’s what we expected. Kyle’s base salary is for the start-up is about twice what he makes now (about three times what either of us earned toward the end of grad school), plus there is a vesting schedule for a small amount of equity and the possibility of yearly cash or equity bonuses. (We had to do a lot of research fast to even understand the offer!)


The postdoc salary is actually slightly less than he makes now. In fact, after adjusting for the cost of living and additional taxes, Kyle’s pay from this postdoc would be less than his pay as a grad student.


I’ll be really honest here. I was surprised by my reaction to the two salary offers. I know I’m a personal finance blogger and all, but I’ve generally felt that I don’t care that much about earning lots of money. We lived comfortably on our two grad student stipends, and would be fine living that way for the rest of our lives. I’ve always focused more on using what we do earn well rather than earning more. I had assumed for years that Kyle would be doing a postdoc next and I was well aware of the amount of money he would earn in that kind of position.


Kyle actually received the real job offer at 1:30 AM while he was on a red-eye back from the interview. I knew he hadn’t heard anything by the time he got on his flight, so right before I went to sleep I checked his email to see if they had sent him anything. I thought, “It would be so funny if I knew whether or not he got an offer before he did, because he’s out of communication range on his flight.” But that’s exactly what happened!


crying for joy

tears of joy

I saw that he had an email from the start-up CEO with “offer” in the subject line. I opened and read the email. I saw the salary offer, immediately burst into tears, and thanked God for it. I’m not much of a crier so I shocked myself with my reaction. I just thought, “He’s made it. We won’t have to struggle any more.” I wasn’t even aware that I felt that we were struggling!


I took a selfie and emailed it to Kyle with a congratulatory message expressing I was crying out of joy so he would see it when he landed.


I thought I had steeled myself to accept a postdoc salary, so my visceral reaction of relief when I saw the real job salary really surprised me.


After thinking and talking about it more, I realized that if Kyle took the postdoc offer I would have to look for a full-time job and keep my business as a side pursuit. Even my optimistic earnings projections for the next year would not be sufficient to maintain anything close to our current lifestyle in our new city. If he took the real job offer, I would at least be able to give my business a full-time shot. Even if I earned no money, we would be more than fine.


The Final Decision


Kyle agonized over this decision for the full week leading up to the postdoc advisor’s deadline. He talked with each of our sets of parents multiple times as well as friends, acquaintances, and former colleagues who had any kind of input on the two cities or the choice of academia vs. industry. We had multiple heart-to-hearts. Kyle seemed to be in a total deadlock as the deadline drew near. Finally, on the last day possible, he made a decision. He turned down the postdoc and accepted the real job!


In the time since Kyle made this decision, we have further negotiated his contract (lawyer time!) and started making arrangements for our move in the latter half of July. Kyle also finally heard back from the two other companies he applied to in the form of invitations to interview! While the job he accepted is definitely the best fit for him, it was nice to get that confirmation that he could get past the HR screening process at other companies without having done a postdoc. 🙂


All that to say… We are moving to Seattle!!


Do you make decisions easily or with much difficulty? What factors did you consider during you last job transition? How heavily do you weigh salary in choosing a position? Do you have any (positive or negative) thoughts about Seattle?


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29 Responses to "An Agonizing Decision"

  1. Julia says:

    My home city! Congrats to Kyle! You are moving there at the best time of year! Also, real incomes make future financial forecasting so much more fun than with Ph.D. stipends and post-doc salaries… 😉

    1. Emily says:

      I have surprisingly been not that excited about planning our expenses in Seattle… I did draft a budget just to figure out what range of prices we could afford on a rental, but it stopped there. My income is a huge variable so I’m trying to budget everything from Kyle’s income alone. Of course, Kyle only signed the contract yesterday, so it’s still very new that we are SURE that we’re going there. I’ll take another stab at it before we start moving and maybe I will be more excited at that time around. I’m sure I’ll be into it by the time he actually receives his first paycheck. 🙂

  2. Kelly says:

    Congrats! I’m sure you’ll love Seattle. Has a similar vibe to here with cool restaurants and music in the park, etc. A VERY chill and laid back place. If you like sushi, I have a great recommendation for a place from last time I was there.

    And funnily enough, I spent ~15 total days there between October and April in the last year, and it only rained once or twice! The rest of the time was beautiful and sunny. So I think Seattle-ites are making some of it up 🙂

    1. Emily says:

      We are looking forward to the chill attitude!

      We have visited Seattle about six times between the two of us and I think it’s only rained on one day of one trip! But we’ve always been in the summer. So I’m not sure if Reports Have Been Exaggerated or we and you just got lucky! One of my friends moved there last summer from Durham and he said this past year was particularly and, he heard, unusually non-rainy.

  3. Fiby says:


    Funny how sometimes we don’t realize our true feelings eh?

    ” If he took the real job offer, I would at least be able to give my business a full-time shot. Even if I earned no money, we would be more than fine.”

    That’s huge! I wonder how much weight Kyle put on that into the decision.

    1. Emily says:

      I think at first he wasn’t paying attention to the salary aspect because we had assumed that he would be at a postdoc level of income for so long. But then when we started considering more that I want to attempt this business and what we want out of the next few years of our life, the salary came more into play. Doing the math and figuring out he would be taking such a large effective income cut for the postdoc also hurt. But mostly the ultimate decision for Kyle came down to the nature of the job and the career path aspects. After all, he would get to this salary level after the postdoc, anyway.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Seattle!!!! Once you’re settled, you’ll either have to hop on the train or I will!

    1. Emily says:

      That would be fun! We’ve never been to Portland. Is it like the TV show? 😉

  5. Congratulations!

    I don’t think I’ve been in a situation where either I had multiple great offers or one of the offers didn’t clearly dominate all of the others.

    1. Emily says:

      I think that choosing among two or more real jobs or two or more postdocs would have been easier than this. Both of these jobs were really good fits for Kyle, but they were also so different from one another. It was easy enough for him to choose not to pursue the interview offers he got later on because he knew they weren’t quite as good a fit.

  6. Jenna says:

    Congratulations!!! This sounds like just a great move. I’m so excited for you both.

    “After thinking and talking about it more, I realized that if Kyle took the postdoc offer I would have to look for a full-time job and keep my business as a side pursuit. Even my optimistic earnings projections for the next year would not be sufficient to maintain anything close to our current lifestyle in our new city. If he took the real job offer, I would at least be able to give my business a full-time shot. Even if I earned no money, we would be more than fine.”

    We had this same conversation and realization. It’s very interesting to see the same analysis from other couple.

    1. Emily says:

      That is interesting! I don’t think we would have looked at this the same way a year ago, before I got a taste of self-employment.

      Was your husband choosing between a postdoc and a real job or a faulty position and a real job?

  7. Alicia says:

    Exciting. 🙂 I just got caught up on the job offers posts, and I am familiar with the debate of industry and academia. I turned down a postdoc and then ended up in a blend of I dustrially-sponsored academia. Works out well, and the pays way better than the 40k postdoc 🙂

    I think Seattle is a great city. I’ve only been once but I truly enjoyed it. Definitely a good place to move cross country for. Way to go on the two offers, Kyle!

    1. Emily says:

      Yeeeeeah the postdoc pay was NOT pretty in the high cost-of-living city. I think this start-up will be a good transition for Kyle as it will feel like the good parts of academia plus the good parts of industry (I hope!). The other jobs he got interviews for were definitely more corporate-y.

  8. Lauren says:

    Congrats! How exciting!

    1. Emily says:

      Thank you! We are definitely going to miss Durham, but are excited for the change.

  9. Kyle chose the real job. I hope he made the right decision, Emily. Good luck!

    1. Emily says:

      We’re growing more confident about the decision as time passes – so I think he did!

  10. Gretchen says:

    Congrats Emily and Kyle! I have been kind of removed from the blog world recently, but was so happy to see this news when I checked in today. You guys deserve this!

    1. Emily says:

      Thank you, Gretchen! We are very excited about the new job and new city.

  11. I think this sounds like a good decision — I’m not going to say “the best” because you lay out reasons why the postdoc would also have been good. But frankly, postdoc salaries are APPALLING and three or four more years of living on less than a grad student salary (adjusted for COL)? Nope. It’s just exploitative. Also, Seattle’s really cool and hopefully you’ll be able to figure out a place to live that won’t be too expensive (costs have been rocketing up there, sigh.)

    1. Emily says:

      When Kyle grumbled a bit about the postdoc salary to his current boss, he was told that institution is notorious for underpaying its employees. The prestige alone puts food on the table, right?

      We have a cap on rent for our search (reasonable for Kyle’s income alone) and have been finding some decent places, I think. We’ll be able to tell better when we see them in person, of course! Most of our targeted search area is in a non-hip neighborhood, so that is helping keep rents down.

  12. […] month was pretty weird for us personally because of Kyle’s agonizing decision, but fairly straightforward financially. We kept within our budgeted spending for our monthly […]

  13. Dylan says:

    This resonates with me personally on many levels… although my partner and I are at different stages of our career than you and Kyle, I am drawing many connections in my head between the decision you made together recently and the decision we made together recently. I can relate how torturous it must have felt, and how drawn out and lengthy the decision making process must have been. I imagine that we will have to make a similar decision for the two of us here in the future, perhaps a couple years down the road. In the mean time, I am going to keep reading these posts from you – golden nuggets!

    1. Emily says:

      Thank you for this comment! It’s the first time we’ve had to make a major career decision together (in grad school for sooooooo long!) so it was a new dynamic for us. Talking it over with outside parties who had insight helped so much and I definitely recommend that.

  14. SP says:

    Congratulations you guys!

    Good luck in your next adventure!

    1. Emily says:

      Thank you! It really does feel like an adventure.

  15. […] we did move here for a job, it wasn’t a job that is typical for or unique to this city. Kyle’s job is here because the lab the company spun out of is here. If this company folds and Kyle […]

  16. […] summer, when Kyle got his first real job and we moved from Durham to Seattle, both our income and our expenses increased. While we thought […]

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