What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

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What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Teresa » Tue Jan 11, 2005 4:06 pm

Hi all,

I recently decided that it is time to be on the job market now that I am starting the fifth year of a post-doc (I changed fields dramatically and was very burned out after grad school). I recently spoke to a friend of mine post-docing at MIT and their response was, "What? you have only been a post-doc for five years..."

My general impression with the job market right now is that there are a decent number of longer term post-docers out there that are very qualified, and who still have dreams of bigger things. Are the biases against longer term post-docs still reasonable? A very established professor once told me that the 'new' way of acedemic lab life will be big PIs with labs full of long term research 'instructors' or 'associates' that will be somewhat better compensated than in the previous system. Does anyone feel like this is evolving or are we just maintaining the survival of the fittest system of old?

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What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Andy » Tue Jan 11, 2005 4:46 pm


I am personally wary of the "long-term" postdoc idea. Of course big, established PI's (like the one you talked to) would absolutely LOVE it to have three or four senior postdocs in their lab working away under his or her grants. I've heard that such positions may be better compensated than in the past. But that remains to be seen, and salary level is but one component of a job. I can see how some people would be attracted to it. However, there are a lot of potential problems with "solving" the Ph.D. glut by giving people "long term postdoc" slots.


What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Paul » Tue Jan 11, 2005 5:44 pm


First... congrats on your job offers... with hundreds of people applying for each position, you know there are many people who are not even getting interviews. From my job search I have 4 interviews so far plus a few nibbles (people within my field have been asked for opinions about my work) from some other places. I'm just finishing my 7th year in postdoc... and with my 3 year postdoc grant running out it is very much time for me to leave.

In response to your, "You have to decide how long you want to postdoc, how many papers you want to have out when you apply for jobs, and design your project and expected papers BEFORE you start work."

Well... to me, it's very had to do science on a schedule... and even harder to know the number of papers, much less have them planed out before you even start the bench work in a new lab. The point of an (Academic) postdoc seems to be about learning some new stuff... perhaps even a new system, expanding your network of peers and then to creat some new science that you can take with you to start a new lab. The first two things I can see going in 2 or 3 years... but the creating science part takes time and luck.

What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Kim » Tue Jan 11, 2005 6:43 pm

Some famous PI do have postdocs there for long term (~20 years). These postdocs, in fact, have become the second boss in the lab. The PI were so busy and rarely in the lab. So those postdocs take charge of supervising and training PhD students who report directly to the postdoc, not PI.
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What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Madison » Tue Jan 11, 2005 6:49 pm

Dear Paul,
"The point of an (Academic) postdoc seems to be about learning some new stuff... perhaps even a new system, expanding your network of peers and then to creat some new science that you can take with you to start a new lab. The first two things I can see going in 2 or 3 years... but the creating science part takes time and luck."

I agree with you wholeheartedly about the postdoc being a chance to change gears, and learn new things. I myself changed fields - my grad work was biochemistry research in the otolaryngology field, and now I'm doing immunology. To do well as a postdoc you need to learn very quickly! You also have to produce publishable work while you are learning, which is hard. You have to work smart and use the brain a lot, and not just try to live and die by the next experiment. You have to always be focused on the big picture. The creating science has to happen during the 2-3 years, or you will have a hard time transitioning to independence. And yes, you have to be lucky.

After being in my new lab for 3 months, learning a lot but making very little progress, I went back to basics. I created a hypothesis - what did we think was going on? I developed a plan to prove it was happening. I actually sat down and wrote out a list of figures that I wanted to have in the paper - "this is what needs to be shown in order to convince me/others that my hypothesis is true". "I need an animal experiment showing X - fig. 1. I need confocal pictures showing x,y,z,s,t,w - fig.2." Then I set out to do these experiments. Because I knew what I wanted to do, I could do more than one part of the project at once, which helped keep me on schedule. Sure, things changed along the way - a lot! But this kept me focused, and goal-oriented. I had a time line - the paper had to be done by the end of year 2. Many times I didn't think I would make it, but ultimately the plan worked, enough experiments worked, and I could demonstrate my hypothesis. The paper was submitted for publication in the 23 month of my postdoc. Then, of course, it sat in review for 8 months, but c'est la vie!

As for my peer network, I didn't think about this much. Of course, after I had some good results I went to a few select (high-profile) meetings to give talks and present my ideas. By select, I mean that the "right" people (prominent faculty at other institutions) would hear me talk, and (hopefully!) get a good impression of me. . Everything was focused on promoting me, my research, and my ideas without turning into a royal snob. The idea is to be confident of yourself and your ideas. I have always been polite, but distant to those around me in lab. I don't hang out with people in lab, or go for coffee. I'm not well-liked, but I'm not hated either. I work my 45-50 hours a week, and then leave.

Now, if your goal is to have a stable job doing bench science, with perhaps responsibility for supervising 1-2 students, an instructor/research associate under a professor would be a good position to get, and doing a long postdoc would not hinder you in getting it. However, if you want to be a leader, faculty yourself, making the decisions, running the show, you have to hit the postdoc running, and be done in 3-4 years. It also helps to be young, and not tech for very long, if at all, before grad school. The reality is that there is a strong bias towards the "young hot shot"?, as opposed to the older, slower, steady producer. It may not be fair, but it is the system that we have, so if you want to play the game, you have to learn to exploit the system for your own gain.

I hope that this overly long post will be helpful to many people embarking on a postdoc. I have seen so many people that are talented, and could do well, but let themselves be controlled by others, or sit around and wait for a project to be handed to them, or who are just not independent and strong-willed enough to succeed. Many do experiments, and cobble together a paper after some time when they think they have enough data. This is just not the best way to do science -- having a plan from the beginning will ensure you get out of your postdoc what YOU want.

I have been able to write this because I'm currently stranded at an airport, trying to get home from another interview; Sorry for the excess verbosity.

Long Term Postdocs

Postby Andy » Tue Jan 11, 2005 7:02 pm


I know some people find rewarding positions. Some friends of mine have such positions in labs many of us have heard of. But there are drawbacks. Most of the time you are not controlling your own funding situation. I'm just saying it's not for everyone and not a way (by itself) to solve the Ph.D. glut.


Standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Emil Chuck » Wed Jan 12, 2005 10:57 am

A lot of Madison's advice is very true when it comes to how postdocs should be envisioned. It should be the entry-way to get the moment to start your faculty position, whatever your situation. It should be the way for someone trained in one area to get intense focused, supervised training in another. It should be a way for people who leave industry to get a foot back into the door for academia, or vice versa. It should be the way for people (note gender-neutrality) who take time off for personal reasons to re-enter the world of research or academia.

So with that in mind, Madison is very correct that for those people who are newly minted PhD's who want that tenure-track position, ideally you want to be in a position where you should have enough data by the end of your third or fourth year to be an excellent candidate for a career transition award or faculty position.

Unfortunately that model doesn't fit for everyone. For some people, the postdoctoral experience is so different because of a lack of mentorship from the department that one may be used to as a graduate student is difficult to adjust to. Sometimes the experiments are so high-risk-high-reward that unfortunately there is a significant delay in reporting results. Sometimes, people have children, or become injured, or become disillusioned. Sometimes the mentoring relationship which starts out so well collapses like a Hollywood marriage. Yes, it's a lot of luck to get into position for a tenure-track position, and I suppose the current system really rewards those who are flashes in the pan rather than those people who are more diligent and deliberate or have to experience a setback (though I think I have maybe an idealistic faith that search committees for faculty can take that into consideration).

I don't have the correct reference (and if someone has it, email it to me; Trevor Penning at Penn keeps mentioning the Pew Charitable Trusts on this, but I want a specific source), but over 75% of all postdocs who do an academic postdoc want a tenure-track position as a faculty person. The reality is only 20-25% of that cohort will succeed. In addition, there has been an expansion of non-tenure track research positions that many of the postdocs have to "settle for"* (there are studies about this that I do have information on).

In that vein, the reasons why one person would have to take a longer postdoc should be more for personal reasons: e.g., the faculty search wasn't successful the last time, or I wanted to delay my career progression for the sake of my significant companion. Whatever your reason, if you want a tenure-track position, you need to maintain a record of consistent production (quality or quantity) or interaction with the scientific research community as shown by your publications, scientific productivity, or networking.

* I don't mean to imply that non-tenure track research positions are somehow the "consolation" prize. There are many people who would be very well suited for these positions or research positions in industry. The "settling" aspect is solely a reference to a reality check that the standards for getting such a position may reward the "hot shot" over someone more long-term.
Emil Chuck
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What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Cory » Wed Jan 12, 2005 12:39 pm

If you do a 2-4 year postdoc, how many paper should you publish (minimum) to start applying for jobs?

Standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Teresa » Wed Jan 12, 2005 12:47 pm

There is definitely some excellent advice in these posts!

I agree with Emil, I am in a longer post-doc situation for a personal reason. I did the high power graduate school routine and knew exactly how to get ahead (as described in other posts), but I was so burned out and frankly did not like what I had to become to continue in that direction. If I had not fallen into the post-doc I have now I would have left science for sure. It is only now after 5 years that I have really recovered my desire to be in the system again. I realize the delay will likely hurt my chances, but it is what I had to do.

I also agree with Andy that long-term post-docs are not the best answer to the glut. It does help to keep many good scientists in the system but it leaves a lot of room for abuse. I think the only answer is more career option information before or at the beginning of graduate school. I realize most academics only know the road they followed, but encouraging students to examine other avenues should be allowed. I know that this is attitude is _not_ at all rewarded under the current produce or fail system that grades professors on how many students move into acedemia, etc...
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What is the standard time for a Postdoc?

Postby Nick » Wed Jan 12, 2005 12:55 pm

Cory - the answer to your question probably depends on the field slightly.

As Madison says above though - the impact factor of your work is the biggest thing - The quality of the science - the 'new thing' that you discover.

I have seen postdocs with one paper get faculty jobs simply because of the impact of their work.

I have also seen postdocs with 10's of papers get nowhere because each paper contains nothing of any real note.

So as with most things in life, quality not quantity.


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