Managing Your Postdoc Year(s): Avoid These Mistakes (A Guest Post)

A few months ago I wrote a column in Chronicle Vitae about managing your time for a postdoc; the main point being, get your writing done!  A reader wrote to follow up and share her own story about failing to effectively manage her writing time on a prestigious three-year postdoc.  What it shows is that it’s not just essential to get your writing done, but to get it done with a constant eye to job market timelines.  The postdoc is not a glorious space of unbroken writing time; when you factor in slow academic publication processes and searches that commence a year in advance of employment, the postdoc is much shorter than it seems. The time has to be closely managed to ensure you leave the postdoc employed.  As this guest poster writes, “I believe that the multi-year postdoc as it’s referred to in US academia, is a blight upon my CV, as peers and more seniors weigh up my modest publication record against the three golden years I had at Oxford.”  Take care, readers!

In the early spring of 2010, I was awarded one of the coveted, prestigious junior research fellowships (JRFs, as it is known in Oxbridge) in Oxford, United Kingdom. It was my final semester at Duke, where I was wrapping up my dissertation. Needless to say, it was a grand and unique opportunity. It offered 3 years of unstructured research time, came with accommodation and SCR privileges (wining and dining rights in the senior common room, which only Fellows at Oxford and Cambridge have access to at their respective Colleges), and a modest stipend. Most importantly though, this particular JRF did not require any teaching and thus expected junior Fellows to devote their attention solely to research. The professed goal of these Fellowships were to help early career scholars to achieve a tenure track position. A dream come true, for a young aspiring scholar, but yet a double edged sword: if I failed to produce, it would count against me on the job market.

And double edged sword indeed did it prove to be. For various reasons I will explain, the publications were too few, and came too late, for the prestige of the Oxford JRF to help me on the market. I was lucky to secure a tenure track position within my first couple of weeks on the US job market, at a Research 1 university. Nevertheless, I believe that the multi-year postdoc as it’s referred to in US academia, is a blight upon my CV, as peers and more seniors weigh up my modest publication record against the three golden years I had at Oxford. Hindsight is perfect, so they say, and now I know the mistakes I made and the obstacles that proved daunting. Let my experience prove a cautionary tale.

My graduate program was elite, not CHYMPS, but in the top-10 and prior to 2008, did place students in top-30 R1 positions without publications or with just one revise resubmit. As an entering cohort, in 2004, we were told that our placement record was stellar, and that a good dissertation plus promising research agenda would be all we would need. Thus, although the resources were vast and seemingly endless (until 08), faculty well known and uber-productive, and methodological training top-notch, we weren’t taught or encouraged to publish. I myself had tried to launch projects with various colleagues, all of which had gone nowhere.

Thus, I arrived in October, 2010 to Oxford with no publication experience. I knew next to nothing about the publication process; to illustrate my ignorance: I did not know what a cover letter to the Editor would entail. I did not know ScholarOne, or any of the details that go into actual submission. I was *that* clueless. Suddenly I was left on my own, in my lodgings in Oxford, to go forth and publish. A mentorship program supposedly existed, but I never got any mentorship. Most other Fellows were from the UK system and were already safely ensconced within their networks and continued to work with their thesis advisers.

I had heard advice that I should seek ‘informal’ feedback on manuscripts, that is cold email academics working on similar topics and see if they’d provide feedback. This faulty advice meant that I waited 9 months for ‘informal’ feedback. In the interim, I revised a chapter of my dissertation to fit the format of the intended journal, not knowing that that is the last step, mostly done after copyright transfer to a journal. I also mistakenly transposed an artificial theoretical framework to make my piece publishable. All these unnecessary changes stemmed from the mistaken belief I’d acquired as a graduate student that scholars only got published by working diligently and for years on ‘masterpieces’. Maybe, back in the day.

In a nutshell, I spent exactly one calendar year to submit my first piece, which four months later resulted in a rejection that might have been avoided without the artificial theoretical transplant. I later published the piece in a similarly ranked top journal by going back to basics-to my original theoretical framework. I also chanced upon an excellent discussant at our annual conference, who provided on point feedback for another paper. That became my first and quickest publication. Instead of awaiting more feedback, I went just with her feedback, plus some advice regarding journal choice from other postdocs at Oxford.

I also did not calculate that the glorious 3 year post-doc in fact translated to 2 years before I’d be on the US market. My field peaks around October for tenure track jobs. It also goes without saying that I had no idea how journal submissions or timelines functioned. Little did I know that for fast-track journals, if all goes well, the time from submission to acceptance could be the same length of time to create a human being, and more for online first publication, and yet more for in print. A more typical scenario are 2-3 rejections before an acceptance, or approximately 2 years from first submission to an acceptance and possibly 3 or more for in print. Even more depressing cases have been reported by senior faculty of 7 years from submission to publication, with 7 rejections in the interim.

Meanwhile, for personal reasons I’d also decided to go on the UK market. Again, my strategy of sitting on manuscripts to get informal feedback proved suicidal for my chances on the UK. I am among the lucky few who now know the markets on both sides of the pond. Academic year ’12-13 unfortunately also coincided with the pre-REF (research excellence framework) for UK higher education. Early career scholars may be prorated down to 3 or 2 publications but the more is better logic meant that someone with a modest record had a probability of obtaining a job interview statistically indistinguishable from zero.

I also was torn between pursuing a book as opposed to publishing article length work. I knew even less about book publishing than about article submissions. Thus, without making a plan, I left the book question up in the air. Whilst my field is article driven, and more so for quantitative scholars, a book can sometimes be the cherry on top that distinguishes you from the application pile.

Without further ado then, from the things I did wrong here are my tips for the lucky few among you embarking on postdocs.

  • Plan the postdoc, as you would plan an intricate vacation. Have writing and research goals in mind that are not general but as specific as possible. Break them down according to semester or term (at Oxbridge, we had 8 week terms plus 6 week off term time), in the least. Then play your days so that you devote time to daily writing and then work on the other research relevant tasks-transcription, data coding, data compilation, analysis, the reading, you know the fun bits!
  • Submit, submit, and submit. Simply reading, taking notes, and writing are not enough if you ultimately do not have the output to show for it. As a colleague recently put it, academia is ruthless in that good intention and effort count for next to nothing; output is where it’s at. Another angle on this is the threat of being scooped. Talking about your research to colleagues and presenting at conferences places you at a vulnerable spot for these ideas to be harnessed and packaged by better funded, better known, and better placed scavengers to proceed ahead with them. In addition, great minds think alike, and you will never be able to prove the difference, if you do not act quickly and quietly. Remember that your job as a graduate student began as a consumer of ideas and by now you should be a producer.
  • Have goals: Similar to the above but on a slightly different note, decide if you will prioritize articles or book or both. This will depend on how your field works and what it values and on the length and nature of your postdoc. I am writing from the experience of a research-only postdoc. However, having taught a 2-2 load off the bat as an assistant professor, even if you have to teach, limit your hours from the outset. Otherwise, teaching will take up your life. You are warned.
  • Seek advice. If you are still in contact with your committee, their advice is invaluable. The informal reviewers, the journal reviewers, and colloquia attendees will not have the patience or time to read your material as closely as your advisor and committee members have. Also leverage the mentorship and networking opportunities provided by your postdoc. At Oxford, the College system has pros and cons in this regard. It provided no mentorship, and we’d be housed in Colleges where there might be one or two scholars in the same discipline and no one in your subfield. (Nuffield was an exception for the social sciences). Take initiative in emailing the departmental members, attending events, and introducing yourself, much as you would at a conference.
  • Know the market and know which market(s) you will be on: I also mistakenly thought I’d be able to get another cushy, if not three year, postdoctoral position. That was my fall back, maybe borne out of the graduate school environment where we were coddled and told all would be swell, given our elite pedigrees. I never thought VAPs or worse, adjuncts would be on the horizon. Thus, when I did eventually go on the market, R1 TTs plus few SLACs with research focus were all I applied to. Again, to reiterate the obvious, I was extremely lucky. There are institutions that still will look to fit and reward potential and there are cases in which the first or second choice candidates will fly off to greener pastures. I was up against that year’s market superstar, who eventually landed a CHYMPS postdoc and is now at Harvard but regardless, the first offer was made to me.
  • Coauthor cautiously, if at all:  Your solo work, especially as a recent graduate, comes first and foremost. I began 2+1 papers with someone in 2009; they are still not published. They will be some time, hopefully before I attain tenure, but had I depended on these pieces to be the career making articles, I’d most likely have zero on the CV right now. That is not to say do not coauthor but when you do, choose your projects and coauthors wisely. I was led astray on 7 (!) projects, some submission ready, others data work, others conference papers, that failed for various reasons that can be summed up by lack of commitment on their part for that project. Do not waste time on projects that are unpublishable, or relinquish those that could be, and do not overcommit to prospective coauthors who will not commit to you. Much like dating and relationships!
  • Do not volunteer for optional teaching. My postdoc was one of those with no requirements for teaching. Those who wanted to, taught tutorials within College. Unlike traditional classroom lecturing or seminars, these are akin to one to one or at most small group private tutorials, as the name specifies, where one goes over students’ papers and assignments for a course in your field. Make no mistake, while not requiring Powerpoint prep, lecture notes, or any of the usual tasks and minutiae inherent on ‘teaching prep’ in the US, these can be a time suck. One golden piece of advice I received was to avoid such commitments as pure research freedom would not come again. Teaching experience does look good on the CV but if you are aiming for the R1 world, it will only count at the margins.
  • And last but not least, have hobbies, or something else outside of academia that helps structure your time. In saying this, I go back to square 1 as in point 1. During what I now look back upon as the best three years of my adult life fitness became my passion. It will keep you sane, and also serve to divide up your days.

I would end with a congratulations to those of you fortunate enough to have postdocs in hand. Please remember that this is a golden opportunity that can come back to bite you. In fact, I’d venture to say that the more prestigious and cushier the postdoc, the more you will be penalized for failing to produce. That, was also a naïve assumption on my part –that the Oxford name would count for something. First off, foreign postdocs, be they Oxford, or Cambridge, or any other fancy name, are not well known in the US and their multi-year nature immediately raises a few well-placed questions (as happened to me on a phone interview with an elite private R1). Second, your postdoc is not your pedigree. It only counts insofar as you leverage it, by publishing first and foremost, and by networking, and making use of the resources provided (Data, libraries, gym). You are not permanent; even cases that are renewable are few and far between, much less cases of postdoc to permanent position (again there is an inverse relationship between the probability of such an occurrence and the prestige of the postdoc). To echo the above, again last but not least, enjoy the year(s) but do not enjoy them too much, as I did, to the extent that you turn a blind eye upon the looming job market.

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Managing Your Postdoc Year(s): Avoid These Mistakes (A Guest Post) — 32 Comments

  1. I’d also caution against the postdoc that includes collecting primary data. Around the time I was finishing my dissertation, a fantastic opportunity came up at my PhD university, but working with the med school. A federally funded project was just getting off the ground, and needed a project manager. The PI said that it would be easy enough to make it into a post-doc, which we did. In hindsight, this was a big mistake… the project management piece of the post-doc took up 150% of my time, and there was very little time for writing. Moreover, while it was slated for a year of primary data collection, there was data cleaning and other slowdowns, such that, the big papers set to come out of the grant haven’t come out yet. Luckily I moved on, but if I were still in the fellowship, I’d have virtually nothing to show for my time there.

    • Yes, I specifically avoided those postdocs that were set up like project management positions and/or that involved collection of primary data. At best, the primary data takes years to come in, during which time you are publishing little to nothing. At worst, you’re so swamped with doing the administrative work managing someone else’s projects (while they write grants and publish off their previous work) that you get nothing out.

    • I can only second this. I entered a Post-doc financed for an interim one year until I would submit (and ideally get) third-party funding for the coming years. Not only this ate up all my time but also the actual project that did get funded, which I ended up leading. It has been an incredibly time-consuming effort to lead a one-year (!) industry-partnered project with almost zero time to write. When you should be writing and transforming your data the least thing should be gathering and transforming more (other) data!

      One thing I am increasingly learning is the holy task of time management – something I did not learn properly when writing a PhD 24/7 with no breaks. I use the first hour or two (even only half an hour) in a day for my article, then I do other stuff. It gives a sense of worth, and all the other tasks are so much easier to do.

      I agree with the author that off time is just as important. Indeed, disciplining yourself to work may not be as hard as disciplinin yourself to take breaks and enjoy life. Remember: you are not your job, it’s one among many of your facets!

    • OMG that is my postdoc actually. I am in the middle of my third year, without any publications and have been trying since November to transition into the industry. Would you be open to sharing your contact to talk in private about your experience ?

  2. Well, my opinion of Oxford has now hit rock bottom. How did you land a fully paid postdoc program with no publication experience? Ok. Ignore that question. I don’t want to know.

    In any case, I consider a postdoc “the last resort”. It’s like a bombshelter in times of economic strife. You never go there unless you have to. And IF you have to because you really want to become a prof (the only valid reason) or as a refugee, you have to work like a beast! work as if Satan has possessed you!

    The reason is that every year you spend on a postdoc works twice against you in the job market. You waste time, and you amass unnecessary experience that makes you artifically more expensive to hire. It makes you literally radioactive.

    Oh, and I have a suggestion for a hobby: publishing in high profile journals and looking for a job! You’re tired? Write. You’re sad? write. You’re happy, write. and always submit and never pass a deadline. You can become tired once you find a job or tenure.

    This advice comes from someone that got out of that hole.

    And may the caffeine be with you!

    • I did a postdoc at Oxford and have spoken to many other Oxford postdocs. It’s true, people with postdoc experience compete against fresh candidates, who in the eyes of search committees have all this unrealized potential. I’ve seen people with several publications in decent journals who are Oxford postdocs lose the competition to finalists who come straight from grad school with no publications. So the postdoc is indeed, as Karen said in a related post, something to plan carefully.

      If you come from a poorly or unranked grad school (as I did), the Oxford postdoc can rub off some prestige. I think this helped me to secure my tenure-track position. I’ve also received several invitations to be a plenary speaker and to write for edited volumes (something to be considered with utmost care, as such publications don’t weigh heavily in one’s dossier).

      Moreover, all that research time allows you to publish in a way that would be impossible with a tenure track job. On my multi-year postdoc I got a book under contract (to appear next year) with a good university press and published 3 articles, including one in a top journal for my discipline). So the postdoc helps one to start good publication habits and increases the chance of a favorable tenure review (someone straight out of grad school needs to still learn the publication game within the start of the tenure clock).

    • I think this is very field specific. In my field, a postdoc is neither rock bottom nor a last resort – it’s the expected next step after a PhD. Very uncommonly these days do students get professor positions straight from grad school these days.

      • Where I am (Canada)particular postdocs are well known and the people I known and considered quite prestigious. I know several people who have had tenure track positions wait for them for a year while they did a postdoc. I do think, however, that what you produce in that time is the most critical thing of all. But postdocs where I am are considered an award, and a better place to land than sessional or contract work. They show your work is competitive and you are too.

  3. I felt a little confused reading this, because this scholar managed to get an extremely prestigious postdoc w/o any publications, says she wasn’t able to produce enough during this postdoc, but then landed a tenure track job at an R1 during her “first few weeks” on the US job market. This sounds like a fantastic success story to me?

    • Likewise. This post is maddening. Clearly the person went to ranked school where the gilded veneer and recommenders’ prestige is enough to carry one through the application process and safely into a nest like Oxford. To come out doe-y eyed then in a TT position, trafficking in “oh goodness” remarks and the subjunctive crystal ball that things might not have turned out so well smacks of her structural oblivion.

      • I agree. It was a bit contradictory: “I landed a R1 tenure track position without publications having come from an Oxford postdoctoral fellowship. Prestige like an Oxford postdoctoral fellowship doesn’t matter. Publications matter.”

        I am feeling a bit disillusioned now that I have publications, have a Ph.D. (not from a prestigious university) and am doing a postdoctoral fellowship. It seems prestige of institution matters more than anything else in obtaining a tenure track position these days. Why did I even get Ph.D. if it wasn’t at an upper-tier university? It seems it’s too late now, and I’ll never get a tenure track position at a university of my choice.

  4. Hello, I’m the OP. When I went on the market as a grad student at Duke, I was on chapter 2 of my dissertation and had nothing under review. I decided, along with my committee, to only apply for postdoctoral positions. Oxford was 1 of 2 positions I applied to outside of the US. To this day, I think about the fact I got the position a testament to miracles happening in life. When I despair, I think of it. I was clueless, at the time, about how dismal job prospects were. Only after I got to Oxford, did I attend a panel for finding jobs and getting published, and realize what a miracle I had chanced upon. I think that this particular committee for the postdoc rewarded good proposals and potential, without requiring pubs. I met one other JRF there, in a different field, who had arrived without pubs. Nuffield on the other hand, all hired people with prior publishing experience. Similarly, the R-1 I am at now, has made three hires in the past without pubs. They prioritized fit and potential. Hence they did not ‘penalize’ me for my modest CV and still made the offer to me. I am very lucky and ended up in a very supportive, collegial environment that still values research, whilst also being laidback about it. Again, two miracles. However, I agree with you about write, write, write but I still find it important to have hobbies:) and yes may the caffeine be with you.

    • Hi Nazla,

      I just found out about an open JRF at Oxford in my discipline (social psychology) and I was wondering whether you would be willing to give some advice about preparing the application, especially the short summary of current and proposed research that’s required. I would be really grateful for any tips! If there is a way to contact you directly, we can take this conversation outside the comments box.



    • But you were already at Duke, which was a name-brand school. It seems prestige (aka name brand) is really the most important factor of success–as it led to an Oxford postdoc, which led to an R1 TT position. How much hope is there for the rest of us who did not have the foresight (or money) to attend an expensive top tier university? Are we doomed to a lack of success in academia for life?

  5. You got a postdoc at Oxford with no publications and then a job in your first week on the market at an R1 with very few publications? I’d say it worked well for you. Many have finished PhDs with several to many publications, got postdocs that were also productive, yet still struggle to get offers or even interviews.

    I disagree with D above, at least for biological sciences. Postdocs can be hard to come by, and are absolutely necessary for R1 jobs and many teaching jobs. Of course, publishing frequently in high-quality journals is an absolute necessity, but don’t overlook opportunities to apply for independent funding while a postdoc. If you get a grant during that period, you can greatly enhance your employment prospects.

  6. To answer the folks who are sniping about how you got a post-doc without publications — I’m guessing that this is field dependent.

    In political science, it used to be normal for students to go on the market in the last year of their PhD, when they might have had several chapters of the dissertation drafted but not necessarily any peer-reviewed articles. There were several reasons for this, including that most dissertations were written as books and that students often worked independently rather than co-authoring papers with their advisors along the way. Anyways, this is changing now that the field is more quantitative and the market is more competitive. But I use this as an example of how, in some fields, you could land a prestigious post-doc or an interview for a faculty position based on your cover letter, recommendations, and (not-yet-published) writing samples.

  7. What about timing of publication during postdoc? I have heard that some places will only count those publications for tenure that have been published while on the tenure clock at their institution; i.e. those publications during the postdoc period will not be counted. Has anyone ever encountered this in fact or even in advice? I am beginning the final year of a postdoc having already secured a TT position next year and would like to strategize my publishing. Thanks!

    • Anything you send out now will be published next year at the earliest and have your tt institution’s name on it anyway, right? In my field, at least, there’s no way anything can go from submission to print publication in less than 9 months.

  8. I heard a similar success story of a fellow graduate student (female) who later landed a postdoc at prestigious institute without much publications. The inside scoop is she did intense networking with male committee members at hotels, inns etc. and landed the position.

  9. Would you recommend that one leave one of these multiyear postdocs early (whether in the US or the UK), if one received an offer of a tenure-track position at the end of year 1 or 2? Ie. is it worth sticking it out and pumping out as much writing as possible, in the hopes of getting a better offer at the end of the postdoc, or should one cut one’s losses and take a job early that isn’t ideal (but that is acceptable – it’s a permanent job after all…)?

  10. It is as if your story was mine. I am now in my second year of post-doc and feeling lost as ever. My first year I submitted 4 articles, one got published in a non-accredited journal. One has been accepted for publication and two have no fate. Today, I felt frustrated when a colleague was introduced proudly in the faculty meeting with an achievement of publishing his thesis as a book. My curiosity brought me to this webpage and your advice got my eye. Now I feel repentant, but the how to go about salvaging the time is a huge task. If only I got this valuable information a year ago, but let me hope it is never late. How did you overcome the feeling that you are not experienced in writing articles? Because as you mentioned, you like me, never had any encouragement before the postdoc appointment to publish! Regards,Becky.

  11. Wow! I just came across this post 2 years after it was originally published and there is lots to learn from this discussion. I’m just completing my thesis (disability studies) and I am thinking of applying for post-doc. But I have no publications yet. Any advice on writing a postdoc proposal under such circumstances?

  12. Becoming a postdoctoral fellow is a complete and total waste of time. If you are smart enough to earn a doctorate degree, you should be smart enough to know that taking a $40,000 a year job is a horrible decision.

    Some educated people think too much and end up not taking the right course of action. Once you get your PhD, get a real job! Forget being some wage slave after you get your doctorate. You were already a wage slave in grad school. Get out there and take a job in the industry and work, work, work to make real money.

    The sad thing is that people are doing multiple postdoc jobs. They are going years into working at jobs that pay less money than other people with only a bachelors degree. A $40,000 a year job is not the way forward, especially if you have student loans to pay back. Do not fall for the postdoc trap.

  13. Pingback: Post-doc priorities: “Laundry list” vs. “Research trumps all” « Answers 2 All

  14. Just found a contradiction:

    “You were already a wage slave in grad school.” <— very well said.

    ". Get out there and take a job in the industry and work, work, work to make real money." <—– ooops isn't 'work work work' slavery?

    Any 'job' is slavery. No matter if you are doing student work, postdoc or 'full time job'.

    You think Assistant Professor job is 'real' job, or say a full professor job is real job? They are all jobs… As long as you are 'earning' money, it's a job.

    I'd say you might want to figure out how to 'make' money, that might be better if 'student work' or 'postdoc work' seems allergic. Life isn't really rosy after getting deep inside academia, where ultimately you are working for the board of directors. Portion of your hard 'earned' grants go to them on which many salaried people survive.

    If 'work work work' is your style, better build a business and work for yourself, rather than for the academic mafia.

    Just my two cents.

  15. I don’t agree with you. In my discipline (physics), I have not seen a successful scientist without a post-doc. But I assume in Computer Science a job after PhD is normal. So it depends on the field your are in.

  16. Doing post-doc to my experience, was a rats race working on projects and publications to stay ahead. But who stayed ahead – it is not you, but your supervisor. But then why one do post-doc: simply because of their passion towards research, and ofcourse its a job that is paid.
    My advice to any PhD graduates will be to go directly to industry and find your way out from academia. Do take the statistics and you can find that the % of PhDs that finally reach the position of academic career (assistant prof, associate professor…) has been declining and must be <10%.
    First jump might be hard, but that hardship will really pay off. Go ahead, think properly and do networking, networking and networking and networking.

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