First postdoc —> second postoc —> ?

This is a post that requests comments and advice from the readers.  The issue is the following: Student X finished her PhD in mathematics at a highly-ranked university.  Upon graduating, she was able to get a three-year postdoc position in a math department that emphasizes research, so that everything seemed to go well so far. As she was finishing her postdoc and searching for jobs, she had a couple of interviews but nothing very promising and then it was March and  X had no tenure-track job offers.  However, she had an offer to do a second postdoc at a different university for 2 more years.  Question #1: Is it a good idea to do a second postdoc if her plan is to get a tenure-track faculty position? In the absence of another option, obviously X took the second postdoc offer.  She thinks that,  at the end of her second postdoc, getting a faculty position at a highly-ranked research university will be very difficult.  She also likes teaching and has done some teaching as a postdoc; however, she thinks she should take action and get involved in activities that will appeal to undergraduate institutions and liberal arts colleges where teaching is emphasized more than the research (although research is also important).  Question #2: Is this a good plan and, if so, what type of activities should she get involved in as a postdoc so that her file looks attractive to undergraduate institutions the next time she applies for jobs?

It is my opinion that X is doing all the right things.  It has become common in the last few years to do more than one postdoc due to the difficult job market.  I don’t think that this is a negative on her file as long as there is clear progress in research and teaching.  Having said that, there is a rule of thumb out there that a faculty member is expected to be tenured about 8 years after their PhD (an old formula when a 2-year postdoc was the norm). This rule of thumb might be changing more slowly than reality.

The second question is the one I have trouble with. First, I thought that it is a great idea to try to expand one’s activities to become more appealing to a larger pool of potential employers. So, teaching new courses, designing a course, mentoring more students, and other activities that undergraduate institutions want to see should be sought.  Then, I thought that dedicating the required time to these activities will likely reduce the research production. The end result might be that a research institution will perceive a decline in research, which translates into a poor “trajectory” that can place the candidate out of contention for a job at a research university.   What is the best advice? I could say that one should get involved in more activities without affecting the research production, but this is unrealistic.

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5 Responses to First postdoc —> second postoc —> ?

  1. Mason Porter says:

    A relevant part of the consideration (for those choosing between a second postdoc and a faculty job) also concerns the identities of the two institutions. I did make the choice of a second postdoc instead of pursuing what likely would have led to job offers at institutions I wasn’t sure about. But my second postdoc was at a fancy school (Caltech) that is viewed as “better” than the school where I had my first postdoc (Georgia Tech), so I would think such a situatoon would make the decision much easier than if one were pondering postdocs at schools that were viewed as “the same”. I am using quotes as I am expression my perception as to how those institutions might be viewed by a faculty member who is outside of one’s research area who will be judging a candidate by other things rather than first-hand knowledge of research quality.

    Another thing is that the second postdoc should be viewed as somehow “different” (and ideally also “better”) than the first. In my case, my first postdoc was in math and my second one was in physics. One could similarly concentrate on different but overlapping subfields of mathematics and concentrate on different foci for research.

    One important difference in my postdocs is that my second one had no teaching duties, so I continued supervising undergraduate research and ramped up research because I no longer had teaching duties. But that is obviously a luxury of the situation I had.

    The basic reason I decided to do a second postdoc is that I figured that because it was at a fancier institution and there was no reason to think my portfolio would get worse (it ought to stay the same or go up), I decided I could either settle for something that I wasn’t sure I’d be happy with or try again 2 years later when my chances would be just as good. I decided on the latter, as I had interviewed at places I really did like but none of those worked out (so I was confident that I would get interviews at least at comparable places). That seems to really be the key decision, and if my offer for the second postdoc were at a “comparable” place rather than one I viewed as better (and which, I should also mention, was my undergraduate institution — so it *also* gave me a chance to go back home), then I think the decision would have been really tough.

    Incidentally, I was once requested to write a blog entry about how I got my first postdoc. You can find that entry at http://masonporter.blogspot.co.uk/2005/10/how-i-got-my-first-postdoc-by-request.html . I never wrote an entry on how I got my second one.

    So, in short, something should be somehow *different* about the second postdoc versus the first, but I think there is a lot of freedom as concerns what form such a difference takes.

    In my case, this was the right decision. I am in a much better place than had I not done a second postdoc. (Also, my first postdoc was for 3 years and the second was for 2, though in practice I stayed for the remainder of the last summer before my faculty job started.)

  2. D. S. says:

    I think this post raises important issues that are becoming more common today. The postdoc’s situation is reflective of a competitive job marketplace and a shift in culture.

    However, is her situation also reflective of the volume and quality of her research output as a postdoc? It is hard to judge the postdoc’s situation and give meaningful advice without knowing her research output. Perhaps it does not quite equal that of other postdocs in the job market? If this is the case, then perhaps she should change focus towards a teaching-based career.

    However, if she can honestly say that here research compares with that of other postdocs, then persistence and resilience is a virtue. In this case, doing a second postdoc can be ‘sold’ to potential employers in a positive light – it doesn’t have to be viewed as a negative – particularly since potential employers are probably just as aware of the competitivness in the job market as she is.

    I would also mention to her that getting a tenure-track faculty position in a university is not the ‘be all and end all’. There are many satisfying and rewarding career paths in industry and government for mathematicians, which she could consider looking into.

  3. K. K. says:

    The missing element from Question #2 is where the interests/passions of Student X lie. She can load up on teaching experience and student outreach activities to round out her CV, but they will be of no help if her cover letter and interview let out that she tolerates teaching as a necessary evil to get someone to fund her research career. Similarly, a strong research track record that is attained for the sole purpose of getting a tenure track job will lead to a lot of stress rather than contentment. The second postdoc (which I agree does not carry a negative stigma) is the perfect time to visit some different types of schools to see what the jobs are like, then tailor her activities to her interests.

    The teaching load and research stature of a department tell you very little about what it is like to work there and what they expect from job candidates. If Student X does some things that she is excited about, and does them very well, she is maximizing the odds of finding a good match.

  4. C. W. says:

    Indeed, as K.K. wrote, the missing information is critical: what is X’s preferred career trajectory? I’d guess that there are far more mid-level (in terms of prestige) institutions that expect faculty to do some research but also to teach well, develop curriculum, mentor undergraduates (in research and more broadly) and — gasp! — contribute broadly to the university, e.g. in areas that are cross-disciplinary or perhaps not directly related to mathematics at all. The best candidates for these institutions have research publications and an ongoing research agenda, and also have ideas and experiences for teaching, outreach, etc. What X does to continue improving her CV should be informed by the type of place she would find most attractive for her next position post post-docs.

  5. Sam says:

    I think it all depends largely on what one really wants. Be sure what you do and one got to decide based on what he/she wants in life. If you want to do A then go and do it, yes there’s a chance you may fail, but you may succeed too. Anything you want to do may not be simple enough to pursue but if you really want it, you will go for it anyway. Otherwise, one is sure to regret either way.
    Stay positive and follow your heart.

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