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.