It’s a dark and scary time for a postdoc… If you thought the funding climate was bad, just take a look at the job market. I’ve been a teaching postdoc at a small liberal arts college for almost two years (which I’ll talk more about in a future post). It’s been a great job for me, but unlike most traditional postdocs, it comes with a contract with an end date. As that date approaches, I’m faced with choosing my next move, something much more frightening than the little ghouls on my doorstep.
I know what I want to do – and it isn’t another postdoc.
I chose my position based on the standard recommendations – I moved to a new institution and opted for research topics that were different from, but complementary to, my graduate work. This allowed me to expand my knowledge, network, and repertoire of techniques, and prepare for my own unique line of research. So now I’m ready! I have my research questions, the model system, the techniques, and the expertise to answer the questions. What can I gain from a second postdoc that is actually essential to my next step? I know – who wouldn’t want to move to another location for another temporary, low-paying job that doesn’t directly apply to their future goals, and postpone starting a stable career and home until past their mid-thirties?? But I really do want to move forward and get a faculty position where I can pursue my goals, and I know I am capable of doing it successfully. So why can’t I do that?
Yes, there are more academic job openings now than there have been in the last few years, BUT…
…because of the backlog of people who couldn’t get jobs when there were far fewer jobs, competition is tougher than ever. For example, the Psychology Job Wiki has listed more postings for tenure track positions in neuroscience each year since 2009. However, the number of PhDs continues to increase at a much faster rate. I see many Assistant Professor positions advertised that sound great for me, and in fact I meet all of the qualifications and know I can do the job. But I also know from being involved in faculty searches that the people who are applying for those jobs right now are far more qualified than I am. They have been postdocs for at least twice as long as me, have the high impact papers, and have independent funding. That is just more than I (or probably anyone who hasn’t made a deal with the devil) could do in less than two years, even if it was enough time to get the research experience I need.
Not only top tier publications but also independent funding are essential for faculty positions.
Even at the small liberal arts college where I work, virtually all of the candidates invited for interviews for assistant professor jobs had at least one long postdoc or often two postdocs, publications in top tier journals, and funding with which they could start their independent laboratory. Much to my surprise, teaching experience really did not seem to be a priority when applications were initially reviewed. This was something I went out of my way to get with this position, mostly because I enjoy teaching but also because I thought it would be helpful for getting a faculty position (since I didn’t have a chance to teach much in graduate school). That may still be true, particularly for a liberal arts college that emphasizes teaching, but the other factors seem to weigh much more heavily. This near-requirement of having funding in hand is relatively new and seems to be the item that sets the high bar for competition. A recent article in Science Careers highlights the rising standards at every step in the academic career path.
So what is a young scientist to do?
If I want to stay in academic research, I have no real choice – I have to do another postdoc: get more research experience, continue to publish, and most importantly have the time to apply for independent funding. To tell the truth, I feel like I could be satisfied going another direction altogether – for example, taking one of the many adjunct professor jobs being created instead of tenure-track positions. For now though, I want to keep my options open since I most want to do research and teach. If I get off the research track, I can’t get back on – so I guess I’m on this scary rollercoaster…
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