Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby Maureen » Fri Nov 04, 2005 11:56 am

I have been very happy with most of the advice given here on this forum and have gotten many ideas I would never have thought of before.. But I have one complaint of late.

I have seen a central theme in this fourm, that many regulars think that two postdocs is just part of the norm. I personally don't know any of my postdoctoral collegues or faculty who think this.

I think you should never go into a postdoc thinking this is "just my first postdoc". Why separate a learning new methods postdoc, from a career developing postdoc? Why wouldn't you combine these skill/career developments into a single postdoc? Thinking you will need to do two postdocs means people end up settling for less.

I honestly don't know too many people who did two postdocs without it being an absolute necessity (i.e really bad boss, lack of funding, trailing spouse, highly specialized field where there are too few jobs, etc...). And I have had 4 friends in the last two years get faculty jobs at good institutions from a single 5yr postdoc.

My advice to new graduates: set yourself up right the first time! Don't drag it out any longer than necessary. And don't PLAN on doing a second postdoc.

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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby Emil Chuck » Fri Nov 04, 2005 12:20 pm

Okay, you're right with your rant on that. I did say to go with a highly focused postdoc of short duration. Nevertheless, I think there is a tendency now to have multiple postdocs in the biomedical sciences because no one really knows any better. The years-in-postdoc are creeping up for physical sciences, but there's no way we want to promote adjuncting forever (even though people do that). I agree that a postdoctoral fellowship can be great to catapult a career towards a certain direction, even help those who have been out of work [family reasons] to get back into research.

But I have done two postdocs myself over 7 years and have known a number of others who have done two for their own reasons. Whether we get fac jobs remains to be seen (but I won't be one of them).
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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby Dave Jensen » Fri Nov 04, 2005 12:34 pm


I agree wholeheartedly with your rant. There are far too many people actually building in two postdocs to their career plan. What a mistake. We should be working towards finding a way to get in and out of this training period in three years or less.

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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby James1 » Fri Nov 04, 2005 12:46 pm

NIH and other agencies should stop funding postdoc fellowships for people beyond 3 years post graduation.
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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby Kelly » Fri Nov 04, 2005 1:29 pm

I agree in theory that one post-doc should be enough and as a trainee, one should plan very carefully to make that a reality. The exception to this is if there is actually something one wants to learn.

The unfortunate truth however, is that "when" post-doc ends is largely determined by "when" one gets a job. People don't generally do extended post-doc because they want to; it's because they didn't get a faculty position. I know people who were ready for independence with no post-doc (seriously). Others can do 10 years of post-doc and not be independence worthy. Stopping funding isn't the solution: this isn't going to create more jobs.

Trainees should be aware that after more than 6 years of post-doc, people start raising eyebrows. Avoid this as much as possible.

The only real solution I can suggest is look early, very early. Since hiring is largely based on fit, you increase your chances of finding a fit by on-going applications. As I have written before, as soon as you have a well-defined research question, the skills to implement a program and 1 yes 1 post-doc paper start applying for jobs.

A big publication list, funding and extended post-doc does not drive hiring; it is about fit. Nothing else matters (including big name supervisors) if there are very few positions interested in your research question. Apply, apply, apply.
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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby MPB » Fri Nov 04, 2005 1:48 pm

I have rarely, if ever, seen anyone do a second post-doc and wind up in a good position. I'm sure it has happened. But more often, those people (and I was one of them) wind up in non-tenure track "research professor" dead ends. I think that people need to develop a focus much earlier than is often the case, and refine that focus relentlessly during grad school and one post-doc. A second post-doc, IMO, is a sign that someone has got off on the wrong track and has little hope of ever landing a top-quality academic position.

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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby John Mastro » Fri Nov 04, 2005 2:02 pm

I would like to contribute a 40 page rant of my own here,, and will perhaps do later.. but I want to put in a few comments..
1) there are not enough jobs around for the PhDs in life sciences
2) There are plenty of PhDs who are not planning and implementing good career plan (I was one)
3) There are plenty of PIs who are hiring Phds not to train but to use the surplus Phds as a pair of hands.. this may be an institutional thing yesterday a 40ish year old post doc on his 2nd, asked a group in the lab "Can you think of any post doc from this Center who has gone on to get a ok faculty position? " Noone could think of anyone..
John Mastro

Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby Kelly » Fri Nov 04, 2005 3:59 pm

I agree the time to go job hunting is early and one needs a clear plan/research focus. But even if everyone that wanted at least an academic position did this, there would not be enough jobs for people coming out that have had good performance. There is a lot of luck in the job getting.

When you can get a job is very dependent on what jobs are available when you are looking. Neural computation people had their choice 6 years ago; this year I have seen maybe 5 jobs. Same with synaptic plasticity; lots of jobs years ago, not so many now. Most job ads in neuro this year are development.

People who study invertebrates are in significant trouble: funding is down for areas not directly related to health research so most places aren't even considering invertebrate models for research intensive positions (we eliminated every invertebrate person from our search right at the beginning; directly into the thanks for your application bin).

Sure, some people fail to plan, some likely didn't make a realistic choice in the first place. But there are a lot of really good people out there sitting in post-doc in a holding pattern (pointless really and we need to tell post-docs this) because they really didn't understand how the job business works.

We need to ACTIVELY educate people while they are in PhD about just how difficult, just how much luck is involved in getting an academic position, just how low the odds are. THEN, we need to help them identify their skills and alter our own training process so that it is in line with these realities. Professional doctorates are a solution but this needs to come early in the PhD options.

I do agree that we need to be forthcoming with post-docs that the odds of getting at least an academic job are pretty low and go down after more than 5 maybe 6 years of post-doc and 10 or more years post-PhD is almost a death blow. One really needs to get in and through PhD into the best post-doc and out in 5 years. I tell people if things aren't going real well after year 1, they need to be thinking move. If things haven't turned around by end of year 2, they need to be gone and have 3 years of stellar post-doc somewhere else.

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Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby Tapani » Fri Nov 04, 2005 6:11 pm

Kelly: You are absolutely right! I had a really bad postdoc experience in an unproductive lab. I did consider quitting after the 1st year, but if you have an employer-sponsored J1 visa, it's like a bad marriage, with no easy options. Needless to say, I got no career advice or any professional training in this "training position".

Plan to do TWO postdocs??? (a rant)

Postby Kelly » Sat Nov 05, 2005 3:14 pm

I think one of the major changes in message we need for people in training is that time is very important.

The people who generally get faculty jobs within a reasonable time (4-5 years of post-doc) are those with either no slips, small slips or slips from which they quickly recovered.

It is very difficult as a young person to know when it is time to make a change. Our trainee paradigm in some ways "rewards" at least verbally the gutting it out, stick with it philosphy: keep trying on that project that has generated no data in 12 months or a method that only works 50% of the time, leaving the most unproductive and/or miserable post-doc is a failure. If evidenced by nothing else, we read this in our forum; people 6-8 years in PhD due to bum projects, post-docs with concerns about when/if to leave after short intervals.

One really can't have too many mistakes in this training interval. Be decisive in your choices. I have written about my 6 month rule in projects but many trainess still get stuck in the guilt-game of supervisors making it like if a project isn't working it must be the fault of the trainee somehow. It doesn't matter for you; if project/situation is not working move on. Do not let the days bleed into weeks and weeks into a year. I think this might be one of the biggest differences in mind set between industry and academics (although I could be dead wrong about industry): they make chocies about direction and what is going somewhere and what isn't pretty quickly. As a trainee in academics apply the principle that you too are creating a product which must be market-ready in a reasonable time frame: that product is you.
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