I recommend to most students that even if they are doing an academic job search, they apply for post docs as well. It is hard to know what will happen in the market in a particular year, and much like an undergraduate safety school, knowing that you could go to a post doc if you don’t get an academic position is extremely helpful. But post docs aren’t simply back up plans. For many students, post docs are the best choice after grad school. Here are some suggestions for figuring out if a post doc is right for you:
How strong is your record? The most obvious question. If you are finishing grad school with few publications, you will need a post doc to be competitive. If you have a very strong record of publications (and, a huge plus, external funding), then you may be able to land a tenure line position without doing a post doc first.
What are your career goals? If your career goal is a tenure line position at a top research university, then having a couple of years more to improve your publication and grant-getting record, to demonstrate a more independent line of research, and to gain additional experiences before launching a truly independent career can be useful. If your career goal is a teaching position, than staying in graduate school for an extra year to gain more teaching experience might be a better CV builder. And if your goal is an alt-academic career, at, for instance, an applied research institute, then a post doc might not be the best use of time.
How ideal of a job do you want? If your goal is to find your dream job and stay there forever, then 2 years at a post doc might help you better position yourself. If your goal is to get into a tenure line position as soon as possible, to have a higher income quickly, or to not have to move twice in the next 3 years, then you may want to apply for tenure line positions broadly to see where you land.
What are your geographic and/or family constraints? Constraints could lean you either one way or another. If you feel like you can’t move multiple times in the next couple of years because of a spouse’s job or children’s needs, you might want to skip a post doc and take a job right after grad school. Alternatively, if you know your long term goal is a job in a particular region of the country, limiting your search, you may need a post doc, both to wait for the right job to become available, and to make yourself competitive for it.
There are a few other reasons that you might want a post doc, even if you could land a top tenure line job right now:
Post docs increase your network. You have your mentor, dissertation committee, and other faculty and colleagues at your graduate school program. But if you do a post doc, you substantially increase your lifelong network with a new set of colleagues and collaborators. Each senior person tends to have a relatively large network, and if a post doc doubles yours, that’s can be a substantial difference. I’ve seen at conferences that people who did post docs generally have much larger networks.
Improve your record. As described, post docs provide time to add publications and grants to your CV. Even if you could land a tenure line position right now, extending your record before doing so does not only help you get the right job, it helps your record when you go up for tenure.
Publish from your dissertation. Many post doc positions will provide time to write up your dissertation work in addition to joining new projects.
Breathing room. Are you ready to launch into a tenure line position where you truly need to balance research, teaching, and service? Perhaps you are. But if not, a post doc gives you a period where you can almost exclusively focus on research.
Post docs may be the emerging adulthood of the academic career. You are not a mentee in the same way that you were in graduate school, but you have not yet fully launched an independent career. During emerging adulthood, assuming adequate resources, individuals have more leisure time than during any other period of development. Emerging adulthood is an excellent time for identity exploration with fewer consequences than one would have in adulthood. Similarly, post docs provide a period where exploration is less costly than in a tenure line position with 6 years on the clock. Post docs are a bridge period between graduate school and independent researcher.
In my last year of graduate school, I went on 4 interviews for tenure line positions. I became nervous, and started applying for post docs. Soon after I went on my first (and only) post doc interview. I did a there and back in one day, leaving on the 6:00 AM flight, having meetings all day, and flying back on the last flight of the day. I came home a bit discouraged, in that I felt ready to be a grownup, and it was clear to me on the interview that I would be expected to be, well, an emerging adult. And when I returned home, I had a message to call the department head at Penn State, who offered me my current position the next day. I was elated that I would not have to do a post doc and would instead get to, well, be a grownup.
I do not regret my decision or my career trajectory. And yet, it was a rough couple of years, and in sharp contrast to a good friend from grad school, who also interviewed for both academic and postdoctoral positions, and chose to do a post doc. In my first year I taught 3 classes (2 preps; 400 students total), served on a search committee, supervised graduate and undergraduate research, worked to publish my dissertation, worked to start a new program of research, all while living in a small college town as a 30-year-old single woman. Simultaneously, my friend worked to publish his dissertation, worked on a new program of research, and lived in Toronto where he had plenty of time to enjoy city life. In the end, we both ended up where we wanted to be, we just took different paths there. Neither one was right or wrong, but I was frequently jealous of him in those 2 years.
So, should you do a post doc? Only you know, and there probably isn’t one right answer for you. Just remember – becoming an adult is great in many ways, but many of us wouldn’t mind extending the years before a bit more if we could do it all over again.
“The post Should you do a post doc? was first published on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on April 11, 2016.”