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Difference between post-doc and real job for an academic

  1. Aug 30, 2010 #1
    Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    So let's say that I wanted to do land a faculty position a few years (2-4?) after getting my PhD. These days, it seems that doing a post-doc is the de facto prerequisite to achieving that goal. Well my question is: why/is this preferred over doing a "real job" for an equivalent amount of time?

    Obviously, the "real job" would be research oriented; say, maybe at an industry or government lab. If that were the case, wouldn't the fact that you are doing (hopefully) meaningful research beyond your dissertation serve the same purpose as doing a post-doc? Is there really anything special about having the title "post-doc" and still making less than you're worth for a few more years?
     
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  3. Aug 30, 2010 #2
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    Firstly, I wouldn't imply to any degree that a post-doc is somehow not a 'real job'...

    Secondly, the post-doc position involves essentially the same work as a permanent faculty position. Think of it like a trial run for the community, rather than for that particular university. You'll get a fixed contract for some number of years, and during that time you have the chance to prove you can make some meaningful research output. The university on the other hand, they get a researcher that's in a transition phase of sorts - you will be guided to an extent by a professor (as in, they will be your boss - you will be part of their research group). So, it's a win-win for both sides. The post-doc is happy because they are building up experience, and potentially learning a new field from their PhD and the professor is happy because they've been able to add someone to their research team.

    The reason that this is 'preferred' over an equivalent time in industry is obvious. Industry jobs might involve research - but it's a completely different set up. Imagine suggesting that someone with the dream of being a professional basketball player spend all their time playing volleyball. Academia has many hoops, and research is run a very different way to industry. Many industry roles will prevent you from publishing the full extent of your work, for instance. That, plus the kind of people that want to find a tenured position in academia tend to want to work in academia - so they take the post-doc first. The kind of people that go into industry will do so either because they want to work in industry, or don't/couldn't want to work in academia. They're different career paths.
     
  4. Aug 30, 2010 #3

    phyzguy

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    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    I do know several people who followed the career path you're talking about, i.e.

    PhD
    Work in industry for 2-10 years
    Land an academic position

    However, these people were mostly in engineering, not physics. In engineering, universities value ties with industry more than in the pure sciences (I think). However, I do know one person who followed this path in physics, so it is not out of the question.
     
  5. Aug 30, 2010 #4
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    In academic engineering, lots of work is done in collaboration with or as a specific contract for industry.
     
  6. Aug 30, 2010 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    This was essentially the path I took. Post-docs were never part of my career: no job security, constant relocation, horrible pay and benefits.
     
  7. Sep 3, 2010 #6
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    Thanks for the thoughts everybody!

    I suppose I should have specified that I was thinking more along the lines of engineering departments. I know that it's not uncommon for well-established people in the industry labs to transition to academia, but that's usually after they've made quite a decent name for themselves - often immediately being hired as a full professor.

    phyzguy (Post #3), following up from what I just said, it would seem to me that the jump from industry to academia would be closer to 10 years than 2 years; hence the advantage of doing a post-doc if you really want to get a professorship ASAP. For the people you know, do you know if it is indeed closer to 10 years than 2 years?

    Andy (Post # 5), if you don't mind answering (if you do, feel free to ignore this), how long were you in the industry before switching? Was an academic job always your original intent or did it just happen to pop up along the way?
     
  8. Sep 3, 2010 #7

    phyzguy

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    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    You're right, it was generally closer to 10 years, but I do know one person who made the jump after only a few years (2-4, I don't remember exactly) .
     
  9. Sep 3, 2010 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    I was employed as a contractor (which some people consider different than industry) for 6 years before moving back to academia. My first contractor job was with the Air Force and lasted 1 year, the next was with NASA and lasted 5 years. Then I got an NIH grant and became non-tenure track faculty for 4 years, and now I am tenure-track. Each time I took a job, it was with the intention of staying as long as possible- finding a job sucks, so I didn't want to take a job *knowing* it would only last a year or two.

    There's a lot of blurring between academic, government, and industrial research jobs: they often support one another (with federal dollars), and it's not uncommon for academics to have side projects with industry and the government. Similarly, 'civilians' can often obtain adjunct teaching gigs at colleges- something to consider, to see how much you enjoy or don't enjoy teaching.

    I'm not sure it was "always an original intent" to land a tenure-track appointment, but I always enjoyed doing research and working in a lab.

    Let me be clear about something- none of these steps 'just happened'. I was exceedingly lucky to get the NIH award. Likewise, my jobs at NASA and the USAF. Getting a job- any research job- is very difficult, and at each job, I was primarily interested in the quality of the work- not the specific topic.

    One last thought- I greatly value my time in industry. In academia, if an experiment doesn't work... oh well, try something else. In industry, if your multi-million dollar project fails, your whole team is in deep doo-doo: as a result, the people who are successful at industrial R&D are amazingly brilliant people who can (apparently) do anything. I worked with people who (it seemed) knew *everything*, and could come up with a solution effortlessly. I learned all kinds of amazing tricks and skills that I still use to set up and perform experiments.
     
  10. Sep 3, 2010 #9

    ZapperZ

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    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    A postdoc position is where you are on your own for the first time. While you have a supervisor who has a general say in the area that you work in, what you do is essentially left to you and your creativity. You now have the power to pursue your ideas and propose things to do. In fact, in many cases, you are urged to find research funding which typically follows you to a new institution should you move.

    Most universities, especially the more prestigious ones, want someone who has shown the ability to create his/her own ideas/research work, AND, who can attract funding. Both of these are not apparent when you pursue your Ph.D because your Advisor has a huge influence and he/she was the one who had the funding. So the difference between a postdoc and an academic, tenure-track position is that the former is where you show your capability as a professional, the other is where they expect you to exercise your proven professional skills.

    Zz.
     
  11. Sep 5, 2010 #10
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    Thanks again for all the remarks! It's good stuff consider for deciding what path to take.
     
  12. Sep 6, 2010 #11
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    Because the people that make the decisions went through post-docs, and if you didn't go through the same process that they did, they really have no idea what to do with you. The basic currency in academia is publication record, and if you are in industry you don't have it.
     
  13. Sep 6, 2010 #12
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    Curiously, I know of a few people that did the same thing. One thing that would be interesting is to do some statistics to find out what the career paths of people actually were. I do know that career advice for Ph.D.'s stinks, and it wouldn't surprise me to find out that the fraction of people that faculty positions through non-post-doc routes is actually quite a bit higher than usually thought.
     
  14. Sep 6, 2010 #13
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    One thing to make clear is that post-docs only exist because there aren't enough faculty positions to go around. Originally (in the 1960's) post-docs were intended as an ad-hoc step for permanent employment, and if there were enough permanent positions available there wouldn't be any need for them at all.

    Something that happens historically is that one way that an economy deals with a lack of jobs is to make people "mature" less quickly.

    It's not obvious why it should be a different set up. Academia has been set up to make it difficult to move between academia and industry, but it's not clear to be that this has social value and is not merely the result of the fact that academia doesn't have positions.

    There is a difference between understanding a system and justifying it. Basically academia does not have enough positions for applicants, so they force people to jump through hoops to get the jobs. This doesn't mean that the hoops have much in the way of social value.

    I don't think they really are. First of all, most people with post-docs will end up in industry anyway. If they can't find a permanent faculty position, they'll be forced into industry, and if they do find permanent faculty positions, then they'll likely be doing a huge amount of consulting. People also move in the other direction. There are some areas in academia where industry experience is useful and in some cases essential. I do know of a good number of people with physics Ph.D.'s that work as part-time lecturers in academia (usually in mathematical finance departments).
     
  15. Sep 6, 2010 #14
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    Something that I think is true is that people from the more prestigious universities tend to have much more similar backgrounds than people from less prestigious universities. One definition of "prestige" is that if you have it, then you set the standards for what everyone else does.

    So if you have people from the prestige universities all get post-docs and start massive amounts of publication, that's considered "normal" even though most people don't end up doing it and most people can't end up doing it. One thing that is the case about people that don't go the post-doc route is that they tend to end up working in "non-prestige" places.

    One other thing is that a lot of Ph.D.'s try to avoid industry out of a mistaken impression that academia is where you get all of the creative and scientific freedom, and if you work in a big corporation you'll be spending your life being told what to do and going through crazy bureaucratic hoops. One thing that you find out is that people in academia have to go through crazy bureaucratic hoops too.

    And it's all about money.....
     
  16. Sep 7, 2010 #15

    Vanadium 50

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    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    I don't think this is the case, and I think again, your bitterness is getting the best of you.

    First, there were very few times when one often went straight into faculty positions - one was at the end of WW2 when colleges were expanding explosively, and the other was the post-Sputnik boom. It's odd how people think those two periods were somehow normal and the rest of the time was somehow an aberration.

    Second, and more importantly, your theory makes testable predictions, predictions that falsify it. It would predict that if I look at fields where there are enough permanent positions, I would find no postdoc level positions. Consider medicine, where the number of MDs produced is at or even below the number of positions for licensed physicians. Nonetheless, internships are mandatory and residencies are common. Conversely, it would predict that if I look at fields where there is even more of a shortage of permanent positions, like philosophy, I would find more and longer postdocs. But while philosophy postdocs do exist, they are far from as common as they are in the sciences.
     
  17. Sep 7, 2010 #16
    Re: Difference between post-doc and "real job" for an academic

    If you increased the number of permanent faculty positions by factors of five, then the scientific system would not come crashing down. My point is that the limiting factor in post-doc has nothing to do with the need to provide extra training to post-docs and everything to do with the lack of permanent positions. If you had the permanent positions available, then you'd have roughly the same science output.

    Also I should define what I mean by "enough" positions. If humanity decided to spend $1 trillion to establish colonies on Io, I think the number of physics positions would increase by factors of 20.

    There's a good reason for this. Most people that got into the system, got in when there is a boom. If there is a bust, then people don't get into the system. Also the post-war period and the Sputnik period was when a lot of the infrastructure of science was designed.

    In any case, the point is that during those two periods, the quality of science didn't decline, and in fact, one could argue that the quality of science increased during these periods of rapid hiring. The other thing is that even though the periods are brief, they have a lot of impact in the form of historical mythology.

    Also, one statement that I am making is that the way things worked in the 1960's, is the way things *should* work. Personally, I think that we should make a global decision to colonize the solar system, and if this happened, then I don't think there would be a lack of permanent positions for astrophysicists. After seeing the sorry mess that is NASA, what I'd like to do is to try to convince the President of China to give a "we're going to Mars" speech.

    That's two data points. You can add lawyers and MBA's both of which make it in without internships, and finance where you don't have many postdocs. However, in all of these cases, the thing that determines whether you have postdocs or not is economic necessity, and not "quality" issues.

    The example of physics I think illustrates my point. In the cause of physics, you are keeping the institutional structure fixed, and then the independent variable is the number of permanent positions, and it seems to me that the presence or absence of post-doc depends pretty heavily on whether the permanent positions are available.
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2010
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