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Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Thu Oct 13, 2016 7:00 am
by Aisha
I have been working as a postdoc for nearly four years in molecular biology and have another couple of years remaining in my contract. This is my first postdoc and I have already published a couple of papers as a first author, with more potentially high impact papers in the pipeline. I intend to look for faculty positions at the end of the next year when I will have published a few more papers.

My question is, how long is too long as a postdoc if your final goal is to be a faculty? In the event that I do not land up a job by the end of the current postdoc, is it wise to take up another postdoc? Am I waiting too long before I start applying?

I will be interested in the views of people on this forum.

Thanks very much in advance!

Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Thu Oct 13, 2016 5:11 pm
by Dave Jensen

Thanks -- great question. We have a number of old pro's here who are on the academic career track and I'll wait for them to reply, because I'd like to hear their responses. I'm also asked about this all the time.

My response always comes through my experience OUTSIDE of academia, where at 5-6 years of postdoc, you're already starting to lose some luster in the job-seeking game. At 7+ years of postdoc, companies actively turn away because they think you've "become an academic."

I know your goal is academia and I don't want to distract you from that. Just remember the odds, and perhaps consider a secondary plan -- a Plan B. If that's the case, than you do not want to fulfill your six years and begin looking then. You should be actively in the job market (for jobs outside of academia) at the four year point.


Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Thu Oct 13, 2016 9:55 pm
by M.A.
I don't think there is a strict "cut-off for time in a postdoc" before landing a faculty position. Perhaps more important factors are: have you had a chance to develop a well-thought-our plan for your future lab? Do you have any external funding? Do you have concrete plans for how you are going to get the funding? Some of the funding types (K99-R00) impose time limits on postdoctoral training.

Personally, I spend about 6 years as a postdoc but my second postdoctoral position was "soft money, non-tenure track faculty", which allowed me to apply for grants. As a result, I came to my faculty position with a sizable external grant, which was very helpful, and a lot of experience in grant writing. This is not a requirement (many high-profile places will hire promising young faculty based on their research question and potential alone, without funding) but it can very helpful for some candidates.

I serve on faculty search committees and unless someone spent 7-8 years or more in postdoctoral positions, I will likely not think twice about the time in postdoc.

Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Fri Oct 14, 2016 9:06 am
by Dave Jensen
Thank you so much M.A. for your reply -- it is the great commentary that I was hoping for.

Now, I can see the conundrum that some people face. You want to have a Plan B, and to keep your options open, but the temptation would be there for a "wait and see" approach after year 4 or 5 of postdoc. You might get an offer for a Research Scientist role in a company at that point, but as I said that option will go away quickly -- and yet, because of the timing with "years of postdoc," a person may decide to turn down that offer because Plan A is a faculty role. They'll invest another year or two . . .

Then, when the smoke clears on that one at 7 years, where to next?


Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Fri Oct 14, 2016 2:36 pm
by RSD
I would suggest that there is not a "too long" cutoff. I've seen and known individuals who became faculty after extended (8+ year) postdocs, either through the standard hiring route or through promotion via non-tenure track to tenure track faculty. I think in all cases a person who brings a strong publication record and good science can be hired regardless of postdoc tenure.

That said, I think anyone lingering in a postdoc for more than 5-6 years should honestly and thoroughly evaluate why they have not yet developed an independent research plan/platform capable of landing a faculty position, and how close you are to developing that platform. Will another year or two of postdoc work get you over the hill?

Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Fri Oct 14, 2016 7:58 pm
by Rich Lemert
Rather than obsess over "how long do I need to post-doc," people should always be actively trying to ensure that the experience is a short as possible. At least once a year, starting about a year before getting their PhD, they should evaluate their potential marketability and determine what they should do over the next 6-12 months to improve it.

This does not mean that you will necessarily be submitting full-fledged applications while still completing your studies. This may be reasonable in some fields and for some types of jobs, but it's obviously not reasonable for many of the careers sought be participants in this forum.

What it does mean is that you will search out feedback from potential hiring authorities as to your credentials and upcoming plans. At first this might just involve informal discussions over a cup of coffee at a conference (that old bugaboo "networking"), but you will likely develop a more formal process as the years go by.

Remember that you don't necessarily decide when you're ready for a permanent position - the marketplace does. If you make automatic plans for another post-doc, you are forcing the decision and taking it away from the marketplace - most likely to your disadvantage.

Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Sat Oct 15, 2016 5:17 pm
by PG
This is an interesting discussion. For industry positions I can see an advantage of maybe two years in a postdoc showing productivity in a new lab working for a new supervisor. Doing 3 years instead of two is not a negative but also not a lot better than a two year postdoc. As others have said if you add more years it will at some Point start becoming a negative.

If for academic positions there isnt something as too long when do you start seeing diminishing returns from additional time spent as a postdoc? Of course there will be exceptions for example when someone works with a difficult Project for years and then suddenly makes a major breakthrough but that is probably a rather rare event.

Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Mon Oct 17, 2016 6:43 am
by Aisha
Thank you Dave, M.A, RSD, Rich and PG for the well thought out replies.

The idea of a plan B is certainly there, but Dave your second reply where you highlighted the "wait and see" approach was the reply I was looking for.

Essentially, what I can glean from the discussion so far is that it is either now or never if I must look for industry positions. Alternatively I can still chase the coveted faculty post but that comes at the risk of losing out on the industry front. In other words, it makes sense for plan B to be the practical plan A.

I will wait for what others have to further add to this discussion.

Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Mon Oct 17, 2016 9:03 am
by Craig B.
To reiterate a point that M.A. brought up--it's important to be mindful of early career funding deadlines that may be looming in front of you. You can't submit a NIH K99/R00 award once you're four years past your terminal degree. You loose NIH ESI status after ten years. If you plan on revising and resubmitting an application, you should plan on having said application submitted at years three and nine, respectively.

External funding isn't required to get a faculty job, but you can't argue with the fact that it helps find a job and is often required for long-term success in academics. Having a plan to pursue funding for you and your future research group early in your postdoctoral experience is smart planning, given the effect that time can have on your "early career scientist" luster with funding agencies.

Regarding your specific situation, Aisha--it sounds like you have a plan with your current position and a few years to execute it. If you think you are an attractive candidate for a faculty position next year, try. At the same time, pursue plan "B" so that you will be sure that you have a position that isn't a second postdoc by the time your current funding dries up.

Re: Postdoc - how long is too long

PostPosted: Tue Oct 18, 2016 11:11 am
by PG
Its really never now or never for moving to industry it is just that moving to industry from a postdoc will start to become more complicated. It is very possible to move to industry from a more advanced academic position and there are plenty of examples of professors and other senior academic scientists that have made that move.