This question came up at a recent Post-Doctoral Fellowship Workshop where I was invited to speak about international post-doctoral opportunities. Indeed, the discussion that followed made it quite clear that post-doctoral positions can no longer be counted on to be the temporary holding place for a few years until you get a foot into the tenure-treadmill.

Applying for a post-doc at the end of a PhD may seem like a no-brainer for many early-career academics. It used to be that you do your PhD, then you do a post-doc and then you get that prized tenure-track position at a university. But the structural changes that have been happening in academia over the last decade or so have made this path a lot less linear and a lot more uncertain.

Given the changes in the university sector (in general), I would like to answer the question: why should one do a post-doc?

A post-doc buys you time

If you really want to be an academic and you haven’t been able to secure a tenure-track position (i.e. Assistant Prof), a post-doc can be a holding place for you until you get there. Tenure-track positions are becoming more scarce, in part because there’s just more PhDs out there now and fewer positions available. Universities also increasingly want to internationalise, which means it is a lot less common for PhD graduates to get an Assistant Professorship at their own university. The post-doc, therefore, is a time for you to build up your CV and publication record, give more presentations to get more known in the field, and if you’re lucky, get some grant application experience.

You really love research

Most tenure-track positions involve a lot of teaching and administrative work. So even though most offers will say you will be given time for research, the reality is that the time you don’t spend teaching is time you spend doing admin or simply trying to get in the right head space to write a paper or grant application. So if you’re not quite ready for that and you prefer to do research, then a post-doc is probably the way to go as these positions are primarily research-based. Some post-docs will allow you to teach on the side depending on your relationship with your supervisor and also the terms of contract that you have negotiated.

Universities and Research Institutes

Universities are not the only habitats for academics to thrive. Research Institutes and Think Tanks are also places where researchers and academics can pursue their passion and have a pathway for career progression. I only realised this later when I was applying for tenure-track positions and getting rejected again and again after making it to the interview stage. The feedback I was given countless times was that I had a really strong CV and an outstanding publication record. There were no flaws in my applications.

I JUST WASN’T THE RIGHT FIT.

For a long time I couldn’t quite understand why I “wasn’t a good fit”. Indeed, I was even encouraged by members of the selection committee to apply for many of these positions. How can they then tell me later that I’m not a good fit? But I’ve come to realise, suspect, that it is, at least in part, because I am most interested in research that seeks to find solutions to problems and not just to understand and describe the problem using theory.

So if you’re interested in policy-oriented questions and research that seeks to explore and experiment with solutions and interventions, then perhaps a research institute or think tank is more your kind of place instead of a university. And that doesn’t make you any less of an academic.

Prof. or no Prof., no problem

The career progression track for academics at a research institute and think tank is different from a university. In the latter you will typically spend about 5-7 years to get from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. Many people never make it to Full Professor for the rest of their academic career.

In a research institute or Think Tank, you typically go from Research Associate to Research Fellow to Senior Research Fellow and then the head of department or division. Some Think Tanks do a lot of consultancy type research for government agencies or even industries. So there’s also a pathway out of academia through these types of institutions.

Downsides of a post-doc

There certainly are downsides to doing a post-doc, which I will summarise here and pick them up again in greater detail in a later post.

For one, post-docs are fixed-term contracts typically between 1 to 3 years. This really isn’t great for life stability, relationships, family and planning for the future. But if you’re at a stage in your life where you’re up for an adventure, a post-doc is possibly the best way to get one while getting paid well for it (or at least better than a PhD stipend). Second, a post-doc may not buy you that much time in reality. Three years goes by faster than you think when you’re starting up with a new project while finishing up legacy publications from the last project, and preparing for the next job application.

Also, you need to be aware that as a post-doc, you may not have access to the type big grants that will get you the tenure track position. Some national funding agencies have policies that favour faculty members as the Principal Investigator, which means you could end up doing most of the work for a grant application that will be submitted under someone else’s name. This is fine if you have an awesome collaborator whom you can trust. But I’ve also heard many horror stories of things going seriously awry. This is also a topic I will pick up on in a later post.

Everyone is climbing

All of that said, I would like to end on a more positive note. All my post-doctoral experiences have lead me to places I never imagined I would go to live, much less work. I have, through that, acquired a unique first-hand knowledge of different departmental cultures, funding landscapes, politics and academic challenges from two continents.

Many of us didn’t choose to do a post-doc. We landed there because we couldn’t get a tenure-track position. And while I felt bad about it for the longest time, I now realise that perhaps I am really not a good fit for a faculty position and I’m ok with that. There’s more than one place for academics and more than one pathway to progress as an academic. In Chinese, we have a saying:

一山必有一山高

For every tall mountain, there is one that is higher.

When you’re trying to finish that PhD, a post-doc seems unattainable. When you’re coming close to the end of your post-doc, tenure-track seems unattainable. And if you are lucky enough to be on a tenure-track position, getting tenure may seem unattainable and even more unbearable if you have to go back to applying for post-docs after. Sometimes I find solace in the knowledge that my struggle is not unique. I do not climb alone. Many others are climbing with me and there are many different paths to the peak.

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