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Failed post docs?

  1. Oct 22, 2008 #1

    tgt

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    Anyone heard or know these people? What happened to them? Why did they fail? Failing as in not meeting the standard recquired for that position.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 22, 2008 #2

    f95toli

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    I am not sure you can "fail" as a post-doc. At least not as long as you show up at work etc and at least make an effort. Post-doc positions are 2-3 years, i.e. they are fairly short and the projects are so complicated that the work is not usually properly evaluted until at the end of that time.
    However, of course you can fail in the sense that you do not do well (i.e. do not publish anything etc) which in turn would mean that you won't be able to find a new position afterwards.

    (I am now near the end of my second post-doc and I am currently writing a proposal for a third)
     
  4. Oct 22, 2008 #3

    tgt

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    Which field are you in?

    By fail I mean not meeting the requirements such as not publishing as that would be the hardest part of the job?
     
  5. Oct 23, 2008 #4

    f95toli

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    I guess you could say I am in experimental device physics, to be more precise superconducting "quantum devices" (or whatever one should call it).
    But no one really expect you to publish anything until the second year anyway, getting new results worth publishing when you are starting from scratch takes time. Moreover, the actual publication procedure (writing the paper, submitting it, waiting for the editors to send it to a referee, wait for the referee, get comments, make changes, if necessary it send back to referee, get it back, make more changes, send to editor, get preprint, make changes, send it back to the editor, wait for it to be published) usually take a few months as well.
    Hence, yes you can "fail" but I doubt anyone would notice during the actual post-doc period.

    I have never actually heard of anyone being fired from a 2-year post-doc position, although I know people who have left early for various reasons (usually family related)
     
  6. Oct 23, 2008 #5

    Moonbear

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    If someone isn't successful in a post-doc position (there's no such thing as "failing"), one of two things will happen. Either, they will take a second post-doc position somewhere else to get a better experience (and this can turn into a third, fourth, etc., ad infinitum if they don't give up), or they will decide they do not have what it takes to be an independent scientist and choose a different career path where publications and research are not as important, or where it doesn't need to be as self-directed.
     
  7. Oct 24, 2008 #6

    tgt

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    starting from scratch? Aren't you meant to do post doc in a related area to your Phd?
     
  8. Oct 24, 2008 #7

    tgt

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    Would it be harder to find a third, fourth post doc? Does doing more post docs mean they haven't been successful enough? Since post doc periods are short and offers are hard to come by, what would they do in between finding post doc positions?
     
  9. Oct 25, 2008 #8

    Moonbear

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    Eventually, it'll get harder. But there's often more tolerance for people to be unsuccessful at the post-doc stage than at the young faculty stage.

    They aren't necessarily short. Post-doc positions are usually 2 to 3 years, but can sometimes be extended longer. Of course, if you're doing terribly, your mentor might try to push you out quickly. You don't wait until you're leaving to start applying for the next position. It's unlikely someone would do so badly they get thrown out without having something else lined up next. Afterall, if you completed a Ph.D., you should have some reasonable level of competence that you really shouldn't be a complete disaster as a post-doc. The ONLY time I've ever heard of someone getting thrown out of a post-doc position was a case of a post-doc getting caught falsifying data.
     
  10. Oct 25, 2008 #9

    f95toli

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    It is often something related (although I know of people who have switched fields complettely). But it is usually a new research project meaning even if e.g. the methods are the same you can't use data etc from your previous project .
    When I start a new project it usually takes about a year or so to set up the experiment, design and fabricate the samples etc; so I am pretty happy if I get data worth publishing 12 months into a new project.

    Btw, note that when I talk about "post-doc" I am refering to post-grad positions with a 1-3 year fixed term contracts. My first post-doc position after my PhD was actually called a post-doc but at the moment I am actually a "research fellow" (but on a 15 month fixed term contact); the proposal I am writing at the moment is for a 3-year position as a "post-graduate research associate" .
    All of these would normally be refered to as post-docs; they have in common that I am not teaching, can't apply for my own research grants and am not allowed to supervise students.

    Also, there are different systems in different countries, there is e.g. no such thing as a "tenure track" here in England (or AFAIK anywhere else in Europe) and permanent positions are very rare; not even my former PhD supervisor (in Sweden) had a permanent postion at the time and she had her own research group (3 PhD students+1 Post-doc), she is now an associate professor but not even that is strickly speaking a permanent postion (she still has to find money to pay for her own salary).

    I can only tink of one case where someone has gone directly from his first post-doc to a permenent position at a university, and he found a position in Canada.
     
  11. Oct 25, 2008 #10

    tgt

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    Can you explain more. What are some examples?
     
  12. Oct 25, 2008 #11

    tgt

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    young faculty as in lecturer? That's still not tenure?

    Could it happen that the supervisor for the Phd gave you too much help and so even after finishing a Phd, the person isn't competent enough?
     
  13. Oct 25, 2008 #12

    Moonbear

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    Not lecturer. Assistant professor. That would be tenure-track, but before you get tenure.

    That's why you have to defend your dissertation to a committee, and meet with that committee regularly. That provides some checks and balances that the supervisor isn't doing too much or too little. The level of training does vary from lab to lab though, which is the whole point of having post-docs in between obtaining a Ph.D. and getting a job as an independent researcher...it gives you more experience with another project and without the distractions of taking classes, so you can focus on your research skills. And, it's not that unusual that someone does two post-docs, especially if they came from a weaker department for their degree. Sometimes people do more than two just because they can't find a faculty position and need more time. That doesn't necessarily mean they did poorly as post-docs though; it's sometimes a reflection of the economy. I would expect to see that happen again in the next few years that people do a lot of post-docs before taking faculty positions or leaving academia entirely, because with the economy looking so bad, there will probably be less hiring being done for a while.
     
  14. Oct 26, 2008 #13

    f95toli

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    I think we are getting a bit OT here but....

    The Swedish system (which is similar to the systems in many other European countries) is a bit different to the system in the US. Most researchers are responsible for financing their own research, and that includes the cost of salaries (for themselves, post-docs, PhD students etc) and overheads (rent etc). Now, they CAN get some of the money needed to pay their own salary by teaching and doing other "university-related" activities but many do not actually teach very much (and quite a few do not teach at all).
    Hence, they need to find the money somewhere else, i.e. by applying for research grants from various funding agencies etc. In many ways it is like running a small business, you constantly have to attract "customers" (funding agencies) and get new projects. If you run out of money you are in serious trouble and you basically have to find work elsewhere.

    The only people with guaranteed salaries (and hence a permanent position in the usual sense of the word) nowadays are -as far as I know- the full professors but all that means is that the university will step in and pay their salary if they can't find money anywhere else; that is of course very rarely needed since people who have reached that stage are generally very good at finding money.

    Note that this sound worse than it is, people have reached the point in their carers (usually when they are about 35 or so) where they are allowed to supervise PhD students etc they tend to be pretty good at attracting new money, so for all practical purposes it is just an ordinary job (although this CAN change, a couple of years ago they changed the system in Germany and introduces a rule that people were only allowed to hold temporary positions for a maximum of ten years, this caused LOT of problems for many researchers, including some very good ones).

    There are of course exceptions to this rule (both in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe), in tends to be much easier to find permanent positions at more "teaching-oriented" universities, usually smaller universities with a relatively small staff but lots of students. But then you might end up teaching undergraduates 80-90% percent of your time meaning there is really no time to do research.

    The system here in England (where I am currently working) is slightly different to that in Sweden, the first permanent position is lecturer (which is equivalent to assistant professor in the US, but most people need to spend several years as research fellows before there is a point in even trying to get a lectureship.
     
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2008
  15. Oct 26, 2008 #14

    f95toli

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    Just a comment: There is more to being a successful researcher than being a "competent scientist"; you need to be able to find money somewhere meaning you need to understand the "business" (how to write applications etc, and this is something they don't teach you when you are a PhD student) but you also need some luck, sometimes the funding for certain research areas dries up completely and then it doesn't matter how good you are or where you have published; you won't be able to find a new job anywhere.
    Then your only choices are either to switch areas (can be tricky but it is possible) or simply try to find a job in industry.
     
  16. Oct 26, 2008 #15

    Moonbear

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    This is pretty similar to the US system. In the US, you do get a "start up" package when hired as an assistant professor that is meant to help you fund your research for about 3 years while you apply for your first full grants. After that, your research funding is through grants as well. How much of an assistant professor's salary comes from university funds and how much from grants is often negotiable though. Sometimes a full salary is guaranteed, but you have to realize that if you don't bring in grant funds, you won't get tenure and won't be staying. Sometimes they guarantee 70 or 75% and expect you to bring in the rest on grants. Once you get tenure (associate professor), you are guaranteed at least 9 months of your salary every year (this varies from school to school if it's 9 months or full salary guaranteed). But that doesn't guarantee you'll keep your lab space or be allowed to have students if you aren't funding your research program yourself. Where I am, if you go more than 2 years without funding, they take your lab away. Though, with funding being so tough to get right now, I think they're being a bit more lax about that rule and giving people an extra year or two to find money before shutting down their labs and giving them to someone else.

    Post-docs in the US can apply for their own research funding, but it's limited to smaller post-doctoral awards. Still, they're a very good thing to get, because it shows you can successfully write research grants and have some experience managing those funds. This helps when you apply for assistant professor positions, because they are more certain you will be successfully funded before your start-up money runs out and are worth the cost of hiring you.
     
  17. Oct 26, 2008 #16

    vanesch

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    Also, beware. "Postdoc" positions are sometimes just cheap and insecure labor, and the scientific content is not always guaranteed.
     
  18. Oct 26, 2008 #17
    As others have said, it could happen, but it isn't likely. Personally I see the length of time people spend as a postdoc as a measure of the health of both their major school of study and their specialty. The difference in average length of time spent as a postdoc has differed over time (becoming increasingly long as far too many PhD's were produced) and also differs by field.

    Although it's hard to get reliable numbers, the difference in average length of postdoc positions differs by at least a factor of two (and in my opinion maybe more likely a factor of 3) between astrophysics and condensed matter physics. This is probably not because astro peeps are necessarily weaker researchers, but instead because of the fewer number of places to go after being a postdoc.

    Personally I consider the existence of the postdoc position as an abhorrent aberration caused by the overproduction of PhD's and the repulsive tenure system.
     
  19. Oct 26, 2008 #18

    tgt

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    You mean post doc work can not always be trusted?
     
  20. Oct 26, 2008 #19

    tgt

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    Who are the people giving out grant money?
     
  21. Oct 26, 2008 #20

    f95toli

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    Mainly Government funded research agencies. In Sweden that would be e.g. the Swedish Science Councel (VR) and in the UK EPSRC. A lot of research in Europe is also funded directly by the EU framework Programs (which at the moment is FP6, now everyone is getting ready to apply for money from FP7).

    There are also other sources, e.g. various scholarships funded by the industry (such as the Marie Curié scholarship) and in some cases direct funding from various companies that want you to do research in areas they are interested in.

    In the US there are also a number of funding agencies (such as NSF) plus of course various defence/intelligence related organizations (DARPA, Army Research Office, NSA, the Air Force, IARPA etc) that fund a lot of the research in the US (at least in my field)
     
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