The Time of a Postdoc

How long should someone stay as a postdoc anywhere?

These are harsh times for academy and my advice has been the same for years: jump off this boat as soon as possible; maybe just after the PhD; maybe even before.

But if you’re going to try your luck, chances are you will start as a postdoc.

A postdoc position is great for the young researcher to develop their skills as a semi-independent researcher. (Well, not much different from grad student’s time, isn’t?)

However, with the disturbing imbalance between the large number of PhDs awarded and the few tenured academic positions created, a postdoc position became a limbo, where souls timelessly starve without knowing their fate.

This is a global trend that may even be reinforced by local policies. German academic system, for instance, is in self-destruction mode: universities there hire junior professors for six, seven years without possibility of tenure. They squeeze young researchers’ brains at their most productive age, and then spit them out afterwards.

The cynic cruelty of the German academic system could make an Asian sweatshop foreman blush; it’s amazing to see it going on unpunished in the heart of the European Union.

UK with their lecturers and France with their “chargés de recherche” and “maîtres de conférence” have, in principle, a much fairer academic system, with worthy entry levels.

In France, in fact, there is a serious worry about precarious work contracts. The main funding agency there, the ANR, even computes a “taux de précarité” (vulnerability rate) for all projects submitted to them. This rate—which is roughly the ratio between temporary people (postdocs essentially) and the total number of researchers involved in the project—shouldn’t be bigger than 30%.

We should stop for a moment to appreciate that: France has tenured academic entry levels and controls the temporary-to-permanent researchers’ rate. This probably makes the French the most civilized and human academic system in the world.

Of course there are consequences.

Research groups in France won’t ever be as large as those we see in Germany, USA, or China; with a single professor adulated by a dozen (temporary) minions. That’s fair, albeit not very productive: French researchers will still be evaluated and compared to their German, American, and Chinese colleagues. But this is a story for another post…

Another consequence is that postdoc grants in France are often limited to one year. (Remember the “taux de précarité”? Basically, when a French professor applies for a three-years project, they can ask for only 30% of their time for a postdoc, which means one year grant.)

And that finally brings me to the topic of this post: how long should someone stay as a postdoc in a single group?

One year is certainly too short. The postdoc comes, it takes a while to adapt to the new environment, often to the new country; and they have to read the literature for the new project, and change their mind-set from the former group to the new one. When they realize, one year is over. They rush to write a paper to not leave empty-handed. It may be an emotionally exhausting, financially costly, and professionally frustrating experience.

(ANR may be wasting resources with their “one-year grants.” The agency certainly must keep track of the vulnerability rate, but they should look for a more productive way to enforce their goals.)

A two-years grant starts to be fine. After the adaptation stress of the first year, the young researcher may focus on their project. But as the second year finishes, the postdoc moves to another place, possibly another postdoc term. They have to leave behind a lot of good stuff that was just starting to happen. At the moment that they become the most productive, they have to start over.

A three-years grant is great! The postdoc has time to fully develop their project. To squeeze every drop of data into a sweet new paper. They can even start to save some money, now that all moving expenses are finally over.

What about a fourth year extension? Well, that’s a bummer.

Despite the comfort of sitting in the same lab, Mathew effect starts to take its toll. The postdoc discovers that no one really knows them. Their papers are their “boss’ papers.” By this time, the researcher (not so young anymore) should have their own brand. Should be recognized by their peers as a new player in the court. But by sitting under the shadows of the same boss, they may just fail to be invited into the game.

Then, three years is the deal: enough time to productively explore a research project, but without hiding under someone else’s shadow.

I admit, these are quite unsubstantiated opinions. Other people may tell you different stories. Funny enough, I could myself tell a different story… Well, not today.

For now, just don’t forget: if you’re a postdoc, clock is ticking against you. Don’t make yourself too comfortable.



Categories: Productivity, Science Policy

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. I’d say up to three years if you want to stay in academia and write papers, as short as possible if you don’t.

  2. Normally 2-3 years for psychology postdocs, sometimes longer in some cases. Those not planning to pursue a career in academia probably do not need to do a postdoc at all.

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