The Plight of the Post-Doc

12.06.2009

Time for a Backup Plan?

You know, when I applied to grad school, I wasn't certain I'd get in.  I had virtually no support system, having moved across the country after graduating college with no job, no apartment, no plan, really--just a goldfish, a laptop and a dream.  I volunteered a couple of mornings a week in a psychology lab, helping a grad student with a project I loathed.  The PI was never there, and when he was around he was so cold I was almost too intimidated to ask him for a recommendation letter.  The silver lining of the experience was that it helped me decide not to apply to psych programs, but to neuroscience ones.  After the last application went out, I thought to myself, "Self, what if we don't get in?  What then?" After careful thought, I decided that if no one wanted me I would move to Italy and pull espresso.  Seriously.  This was my backup plan.

It recently occurred to me that I need to wrap my head around the possibility likelihood (???????) that I won't get an offer this year.  I might not even get an interview.  And unlike eleven years ago, I'm not quite prepared to chuck the whole science thing and flee the country.  So...what's the backup plan now?

I sat down with my PI Thursday morning to discuss My Future, a conversation I now fully acknowledge I should have been having regularly for the last 3 years.* I told him that I wanted to do what I could to ensure that, should I not make anybody's short list this time around, I looked super hot next cycle.  We decided, to my delight, that I should teach.  I'm going to deliver several lectures for one of the graduate student core neuro classes next semester, and I'm so excited.  I love teaching, I'm a good public speaker...this is going to be really good for me.  I'm also going to take part in a side project of sorts, which should get my name on another paper--also good.

There's another option, too--and I would really like your advice here--which is that I could be promoted to the "Instructor" position.  The term itself is pretty meaningless, but I think most institutions have something comparable to this limbo-like title (funny, I used to refer to the post-doc as the limbo-like position) for people who have been post-docs for a while.  I'd get a raise, and I'd be eligible to apply for more grants, both of which would be cool.  But my question is this:  does it make me look past my prime to have a title like this?  Are search committees biased toward people who are genuine post-docs, or is the name irrelevant? 

I'm of course not giving up on the prospect of getting a job this cycle--I'll continue to check the job boards and apply to anything that seems even remotely up my alley.  I'm just being realistic, and honestly, it feels really good. You know, now that I think about it, all of these plans aren't really backup plans at all...they're more like forward-thinking plans.  Much better.

*I'm now realizing that having an NRSA made me a little...complacent.  My project was part of a large, 3-institution grant that made nearly limitless resources available to me, and I flitted happily from lab to lab like a honey bee in a flower bed, doing whatever experiments my heart desired.  It was awesome.  But while three years of funding may seem like a long time when you're first starting out, it is, as it turns out, not.  And with my NRSA having run its course and the main grant expiring next fall,  suddenly My Future is a lot less secure.

17 comments:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

But my question is this: does it make me look past my prime to have a title like this? Are search committees biased toward people who are genuine post-docs, or is the name irrelevant?

The title doesn't matter. All that matters is how long you've been a post-doc. The way things are right now, search committees at elite research universities generally view candidates with three years or less post-doc experience as requiring "further seasoning" and those with seven or more years as being "superannuated".

For those in the sweet spot of four-six years, number of first-author publications in relation to years of experience is a key parameter. For a four-year post-doc, even just a single very high profile first-author pub can be seen as good productivity. For a six-year post-doc with the same publication record, at a minimum, a question will be raised.

Of course, these are just generalities, and there can be situations that are very different. For example, in a recent search I participated in, one of the top-ranked candidates had been a post-doc for seven years and had only a single first-author publication to show for it. However, this was a very important publication, and it was clear that the post-doc nearly single-handedly had to develop several important technologies necessary to complete the work. This explained why it took so long.

LM said...

>The way things are right now, search committees at elite research universities generally view candidates with three years or less post-doc experience as requiring "further seasoning"

Seriously? Goddamn.

Arlenna said...

Being an instructor as a backup plan, and being able to apply for grants as a PI could be a good thing. In the search I'm involved in, we have been liking the people who have teaching experience, successful grantwriting experience (whether that means postdoc fellowships or more independent PI grants as instructors). But like CPP said, length of time in postdoc is a big factor: even some folks with funding, if they've been in their postdocs for too long without very many publications, we are not really considering them (since we have lots of other people who have lots of publications within a 3-6 year postdoc and fabulous letters).

drdrA said...

Instructor titles are fine, they are a reasonable backup plan. But they don't mean too much to search committees. And, unless they come with some genuine independence, they don't mean too much to review panels either...

PUI prof said...

If you end up falling in love with the teaching aspect, and decide you want to head for an institution where you would do a lot of that, be intentional.

PUIs/SLACs look for candidates that have shown that they love teaching, have good teaching evals, are interested in the science of pedagogy TOO, and have a research program that can be done with undergrad power.

Teaching at a PUI/SLAC is NOT a plan B to getting your R01 spot, its a different track.

p.s. It took me a few years to learn that being clear and interesting as a public speaker is a very small aspect of being a good teacher. Just like for experimentalists, it has to do a lot with reading of the primary literature (pedagogical), making a clear plan, planning details carefully, and following through efficiently and accurately.

Sorry, that wasn't the advice you asked for. Throw it out if you don't care. Thanks for your blog. We lurkers are rooting for you!

gnuma said...

Damn, I wish I would've been up on the 4-6yr post-doc sweet spot. I might have made some different choices last year! Good luck to you, it's tough to go through the job market grind, and I did not like it (or handle it well stress-wise) at all.

Candid Engineer said...

Not surprisingly, I have no advice to offer on this topic- but I'm glad that you have a back-up plan- because if nothing else, it will provide some peace of mind.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

All of this is really great advice, everyone, thanks so much for your comments and support!

@CPP I'm in the sweet spot!! Now if only my most important publication would get accepted, I may actually have a fighting chance...

@PUI prof please always give your advice, even if I don't ask for it! What you've said is quite helpful, actually, and I've been thinking about the very same things recently, now that I know teaching is in my future.

Keep it coming!

Mike said...

First, teaching is a great way to add to your CV, epecially if you plan to apply to a more teaching-focused institution.

Second, about the "sweet spot" number of postdoc years - I just want to point out that it varies by discipline. I'm not pointing this out as much for Becca (because I get the impression that CPP has a good knowledge of her field) as I am for people in other fields.

Anonymous said...

GO FOR IT!
1. You need to show progression so the new title is great even. At Harvard advanced postdocs are Instructors so you are comparable. Even if it wasn't a competitive position you earned it in some way, were selected for it, (or not but the progs you are applying to won't know the difference) which is better than a 4th year postdoc!
2. You need the (non-tenure track research or whatever) faculty status to apply for R21s and R01s. Check.
3. Teaching experience *IS* worth something despite what the heavy hitters say. You'll be able to answer xyz questions about what courses you can develop for the new school etc..

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you can get a job in the states with 5 papers.

Generic Propecia said...

Hola,Ha hecho un trabajo muy bueno. Hay muchas personas en busca de eso ahora van a encontrar suficientes fuentes por tus consejos.espera para obtener más consejos acerca de que

ビラミューン said...

Hey, Great post **

Careprost said...

Gracias por compartir este artículo knowledge.Excellently por escrito, si tan sólo todos los bloggers que ofrece el mismo nivel de contenido como, el Internet sería un lugar mucho mejor. Por favor, sigue así!!

Silagra said...

Great information you got here. I've been reading about this topic for one week now for my papers in school and thank God I found it here in your blog. I had a great time reading this.

Cialis said...

I wonder how you got so good. This is really a fascinating blog, lots of stuff that I can get into. One thing I just want to say is that your Blog is so perfect!

SEO Services India said...

It makes me feel so surprise.I never know there is such a wonderful place that I can find what I need,

Post a Comment