How long is a postdoc?

I was awarded my PhD just under two and a half years ago; I’m a little under a year and a half into my first postdoc, and potentially have funding until the end of 2009. I’m working in a laboratory that is about to go through a major upgrade, which will give me lots of shiny new toys to play with, and increase the range of measurements I can make, and the speed that I can make them at, by orders of magnitude. I’m currently at the ‘optimistic but suspicious’ stage with the data I have so far – it’s saying some potentially interesting things, but I’m still not sure I’m not being fooled by evil magnetic overprints (if my PhD taught me anything, it’s that you should never blithely assume that the primary magnetic signal dates from the time the rocks formed, and if that’s true of 10 million year-old sequences, it’s no surprise that I’m treating my 3 billion year-old samples as guilty until proven innocent). I’m also trying to spin up a side project that will try a new approach to studying the inter-relations between magnetic mineralogy and magnetic behaviour, which could yield some pretty interesting results if it works the way I hope.
On the whole, then, things seem to be going fairly well at present. But I also need to consider my progress in terms of my future career goals, which (if I stay in academia) would see me in a more teaching-orientated position such as a lectureship or teaching fellowship. I’m fully aware that a solid research record is a necessary requirement if my applications for such positions is going to be seriously considered; but what I don’t really have a good feel for yet is how long I need to work as a postdoc (or perhaps more accurately, what sort of publication record I need) before I will be considered ‘established’ enough. I was recently told that five or six years would be a reasonable waiting period before I can climb to the next rung. I’m hoping that my pre-postdoc position as a lecturing lab technician will count in this calculation, but even then it looks like I still be waiting for a while. The question then becomes, how should I spend this period? Obviously, I need to publish; I need to try and broaden my research expertise; and I need to try and build my visibility within the research community. But what is the most effective way to do this? Should I stay in one place, which might allow a more consistent output but might limit my interactions with other scientists; or should I try to move around a bit between other labs to sample a greater variety of environments and approaches to research, but with all the disruption that comes with periodically uprooting myself?
A lot depends on circumstances, of course (for example, there’s no guarantee that I could find a research post in another lab even if I though it was a good idea), but knowing what the best path might be would still be useful. Perhaps some of you smart people, whether pre-, syn-, or post-postdoc, have some thoughts or relevent experiences to share. How long was your postdoc, or how long has it been so far? What experiences or achievements were, or are, important in making you competitive in the hunt for permanent or tenure-track positions? Do you think one or two long postdocs is better than multiple short ones? Does the present academic job market doom me to eternal postdocdom?

Categories: academic life

Comments (12)

  1. Propter Doc says:

    5-6 years? Were they out of their mind? Figure out how you want to spend your next few months as a postdoc but start applying for lectureships. There are so many Earth Scientist positions being advertised in the UK (assuming you want to apply there).
    I’d definately start applying for the next rung when you hit your third year of postdoc. I’d look around for a second postdoc in the country you want to get an academic position in because it will be easier to network and get to interviews. I’d try also to go to conferences in that country, present your work and try to get your name out there. The lenght of a postdoc is field specific but many of the Earth Scientists I’ve met recently have between 1 and 3 years. OK, so it isn’t Oxbridge, but its a decent place. Also decide where you’re going to pitch – high research expectations, or more teaching focussed. The latter may require less postdoc, the former more publications and prestige.
    My postdoc was just under 3 years, I applied for one academic position which I got, in a less research intensive place. It was difficult, applying in the UK from Canada and my partner chose to find a second postdoc in the UK as he wasn’t having as much success at applications (to higher research expectation places). He’s currently re-evaluating what type of department he wants to work in so I’d say that is a pretty fundamental decision.
    Sorry Chris, long rambly comment.

  2. PhysioProf says:

    Successful applicants for research-heavy tenure-track PI positions in the biosciences in the US almost always have at least 4-5 years of post-doctoral experience. Spending this time in one or, at most, two different labs is typical, and it is important to have been productive publication-wise in every lab you have spent time in. More than two different labs as a post-doc is definitely a red flag, absent some clear verifiable reason: Pi died, needed to move geographically for family reasons, etc.

  3. lorax says:

    You ask one of the unanswerable questions in the universe. The short answer is you will have your ultimate position when you get it. The issue is the job market and how your research area/skills fit into the job market. Pubs are an important marker, but are a fluid target. If you have 5-6 pubs in 3 years, that is much better than in 5 years. Also, quality matters more than quantity, but D’uh. Impact (not impact factor) is also important, though often overlooked. If you are publishing high quality papers that are essentially in the “more of the same” variety this does not have as much impact as a paper establishing a new approach to study a problem, a new way of thinking about a problem, etc. If you are doing what everyone else is doing (albeit in your specific area) you can not set yourself apart from your competitors. When you apply and go on the job search you need to leave the committees with an idea about what you will bring to the institution. Your specific research area will get you in the door, but how you approach science and think about things will get you an offer.
    There is a ton of luck involved, although to a large extent you can stack the deck in your favor. I got a faculty position about 8 years ago after 2 years of post-doc. This was not the norm nor am I some super-star, primarily this was being in the right place at the right time (this is the luck component and why I only got a few interviews). However, I also had a bigger view about my research area than the specific niche I was immersed in or at least I think I did and the projects I was involved with had broad ramifications (the stacking the deck component and why I got offers from every place I interviewed).
    If your current position allows you to develop these big picture skills then my advice is after a couple of pubs come out, you can get the blessing of your post-doctoral advisor, and you develop some outside letters of reference start applying. There’s no application fee and its simple to update letters of reference so apply to everything that is remotely relevant.
    If your current position does not allow you to develop these bigger picture skills, get a couple of pubs and then move to a post-doc that will.
    Good Luck!

  4. PhysioProf says:

    What lorax said, in every particular!

  5. This is quite sensitive to field or even sub-field.
    It also depends on the state of the job market – if an extra year in place or an extra short postdoc can keep you going until position(s) open up, then do it if you can.
    But, all thing being equal, one or two long postdocs are better than many short, if only because each transition costs productivity. I’d say people should only take short postdocs if they’re unique research opportunities (from facilities or research group personnel).
    However, unless you’re in an exceptional group with unique facilities, two medium postdocs are probably better than one very long, because you meet more different people.

  6. Jay says:

    I do not know about the intricacies and nuances of getting the teaching jobs. But I read that many are leaving the academic positions to take up exploration jobs. Is it wrong?.

  7. Alessia says:

    I tend to agree with lorax above, that getting a position is often about being in the right place at the right time, and having made enough of a splash in the previous years to be an interesting candidate.
    I started my current position (post-postdoc) after three years of postdoc in two different institutions. For me it was important to change places, because I wasn’t getting much out of the first one. Otherwise I would say get your head down and publish interesting stuff. Start applying after two years of post-doc, being fully prepared to do four years.

  8. che says:

    Check if your library has a copy of “A Ph.D. is not enough” by Peter J. Feibelman. It is a quick read and full of good, practical advice for post-docs and young academics.

  9. Silver Fox says:

    If you are asking these questions, it might be time to think of what you want, and see what doors are opening up here or there. There may be certain general “rules” or “paths” followed for geo-type and academic careers, but sometimes you can make your own way, your own path.

  10. Chris Rowan says:

    Thanks for the advice and recommendations, everyone – it’s always useful to get other perspectives on these issues.

  11. Kim says:

    In the geosciences, I’ve seen post-docs last for anything from -1 years (ABD hires, though fewer recently, and typically in teaching-intensive positions) to infinity. So, in addition to what other people have said, I would say to read the academic job listings, and see what’s out there. If you see a job that screams “THIS IS ME!!” to you, apply for it, whether you think you’ve done enough time as a post-doc or not.

  12. Old Bogus says:

    Sorry to be so late with a dash of ethnic humor but . . . I thought How Long was from China.