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Programs How many papers should I publish during PhD to get a decent postdoc position?

  1. Feb 19, 2010 #1
    I will start a PhD in physics (high energy theory) this fall, probably in a British graduate school. How many papers should I publish during PhD to get a decent postdoc position? I know this is a vague question, but I just want to get a feeling for the level of competitiveness for an academic career after PhD. Also, does the reputation of the PhD granting institution have an impact?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 20, 2010 #2
    First thing...... And I want to write this in big bold letters so you get the point...


    The jobs are *SO* few that you will need to come up with some backup strategies while you are doing your Ph.D. You should get some training in something like C++ programming, science journalism, or community college teaching. *Those* are viable careers. Hoping for a research professorship is like betting on the lottery. The first order approximation to your chance of getting that sort of position is zero. (It's actually higher than zero, but zero is a good first order approximation.)

    One thing that you probably should do is to read the Chronicle of Higher Education http://www.chronicle.com/


    Quality is more important than quantity. What you want to do is to establish yourself as the world's leading authority in some niche field, so that when your CV goes across someone's desk, it's like "I've read his papers. Cool!!!!" You probably should come up with a steady stream of papers just so that you get used to publishing.

    The reputation of the institution is pretty much totally unimportant. The reputation of your advisor is crucial. What you'll quickly find is that you won't be identified as "Ph.D. from X university" but rather as "So and so's student." The main impact of the institution is indirect. If you have an institution with well funded facilities and good networking ability, this will help you put out better papers.
  4. Feb 20, 2010 #3
    I have a marginally related question: in the UK, the PhD typically takes 3 years, whereas in continental Europe and most other places it takes 4 years, and in the US 6 years (the latter students take more courses, but still spend a lot more time in academia). Presumably, the UK students will write less papers during their PhD than their continental or US mates. How then can they be competitive on the world postdoc market?

    If we take into account the fact that one has to apply for a postdoc position 1 year before they finish their PhD, this leaves the UK students only 2 years to produce any amount of papers!
    I'm asking this because I'm myself considering going to the UK for my PhD, in which case I'll be limited to 3 years by the scholarship rules.
  5. Feb 20, 2010 #4
    To cosmogirl:

    In USA it is 6 years (on average), because the first 1-2 years are classes.
    If a student comes directly from bachelor degree he is most likely not prepared enough in advance topics. However, some students come with a very strong MS degree or already did research elsewhere, they could finish PhD in 3-4 years, since they can start doing their research right away without classes.

    So as you can see it is similar to UK's MS + PhD. So if you think USA students have extra 2 years, you have them also in your MS.

    Hope this helps.
  6. Feb 20, 2010 #5
    Are the prospects for a Math PhD just as grim? I'd like to end up at a teaching institution eventually, and I know there's no way in hell I'll end up at Harvard and the like, but is academia really so crowded they won't even let teaching professors in?
  7. Feb 20, 2010 #6
    The first order approximation to your getting a position at a major university is zero. Yes you might do it, just like you might win the lottery, but it's foolish to make career plans assuming that you will.

    The big research universities care about research. Teaching is very secondary. The problem is that there are so few places that if you spend effort to improving your teaching skills, you make yourself totally uncompetitive as far as research.

    The good news is that there is a huge demand for teachers at the high school, community college, and to some extent at small liberal arts colleges. The problem is that in some cases that demand hasn't translated into decent incomes, and the other problem is that it's a whole different set of skills. Yes, you may understand differential topology, but can you deal with teaching Algebra I to someone that has a severe case of math phobia? This is important because if you really do want to work at a SLAC, then you have to acquire a very different set of skills.

    Also if you want a faculty position for the sake of getting a faculty position, it's better if you do a math education degree with the education department, since people that have gotten those don't seem to be having problem getting university jobs.

    The other thing is that you really ought to read the "Chronicle of Higher Education." One big advantage you have over me when I just started my Ph.D. is that the web exists. When I was starting my undergraduate, it was possible to hide how bad the problem was, but it isn't possible now.
  8. Feb 20, 2010 #7
    As for highschool, my dad is a highschool teacher, who's also taught community college. He's affected a few kids lives, but over the years I've watched that profession suck out his soul piece by piece.

    I was wondering if I should try and add on an education minor, or concentration, while I'm in undergrad. Also, it's not that I don't want to do research, it's just that I think I'd be happier at an institution like a small liberal arts college that values teaching equally, or even moreso than research.
  9. Feb 20, 2010 #8
    A lot real depends on the institution that you are in. A lot of people in the sciences have very strong prejudices against people in education departments, and one thing that I've seen is that someone that thinks badly of education departments, gets into some education course which is badly taught, and this merely reinforces those prejudices.

    One thing that will help a lot is if you get yourself into situations where you do have to teach. You'll quickly learn how hard it really is when conditions are less than ideal.
  10. Feb 20, 2010 #9
    I got to a small liberal arts college that encourages its students to go into fields that benefit the world, teaching is has high priority with research. I've heard of more than 1 assistant professor getting a tenure track position here because the students reported teaching skills better than the other applicants, this has lead me to believe that maybe there is still room out there for someone like me at a teaching college / university.

    Looking back over your post I'd like to stress that I don't WANT a position at a major school. I'd like to produce research, but I'm more concerned with getting a position at a college that is well enough known that I'll be teaching kids who have ability and love of learning. Certainly not all of them will, but I've noticed a lot more of those people here at my home institution than I ever did at any of the 4 prep schools that my father taught at while I was being raised.

    Also, does anyone had advice for a couple going down this path? My girlfriend is premed and I'm dreading the grad school application process because even if I get accepted to the program of my dreams, I refuse to go through another 4 to 6 years of long distance because she was rejected by the med schools in the area.
  11. Feb 21, 2010 #10
    Well then, you'll obviously have to either break up or stop being so unreasonable.
    You can't expect her to sacrifice her goals fully for yours to be optimized (NO med school for her so you can get your DREAM grad school?).
    Compromise if you can- that is, use symmetry. Sit in her shoes and say "I refuse to go through another 4 to 6 years of long distance because he rejected the grad schools in the area."
  12. Feb 21, 2010 #11
    I'm planning on compromise, I'm just asking if anyone has any pointers along this line of thought. Is it worth telling the graduate programs you apply to/get accepted into. Sorry if my original post sounded self centered, I'm well away of the dual of my problem. I'm just concerned about the nightmare situation of no overlap existing between the places we both get accepted. I don't even know what to do in that instance. What can I do if there is no compromise to be made. Should I even worry about this possibility or should I wait and see if it's an issue?
  13. Feb 21, 2010 #12


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    There's no point in worrying too much about it because it isn't an issue yet and may not ever be. Just keep the lines of communication open on the issue between you and your girlfriend and deal with the issues as they arise.
  14. Feb 22, 2010 #13
    Thanks for the reply, vtakhist, but it doesn't solve the problem. In the UK there's typically no masters, except for some 1-year taught courses. Some UK students start PhD right after their bachelors, and then they only have 3 years for the whole business.

    Anyway, back to the original question (though the discussion seems to have drifted away), I can tell you that some recent graduates from my department (astro) who got nice postdoc positions, and those who are about to finish their PhD have written about 5 to 9 papers. Typically a person writes one paper after his masters and the rest during his PhD.
  15. Feb 22, 2010 #14
    @ petergreat
    This is a vague question because your name can be on a paper which your not first author of and didn't do the majority of the work. Also, if your doing experimental work naturally your going to have fewer papers than someone running DFT simulations. IT also depends on the nature of your work. Some PhD students do lots of instrument building and repair work so they can run their experiments. Naturally these students will have fewer papers. If you want to run a paper-mill go into computer simulation.

    Obviously the jobs in academia are competitive to get into, but many PhDs (especially in my field of Materials Science) go into industry, work for national labs, or governmental work. Bottom line, there are jobs for PhDs outside of academia.

  16. Feb 22, 2010 #15


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    No, it doesn't. Which is why more and more students in the UK end up spending 4 years as PhD students. This is at partly to conform to the European norm, but mainly because 3 years is simply not enough time for many students, especially when working with complicated experiments where just building the setup can quite easily take 3 years.
  17. Feb 22, 2010 #16

    Andy Resnick

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    Wow... 5 to 9 papers is *much* higher than I've seen- my old department had a graduation requirement that 2 papers get published. For every single student, that second paper has been the rate-limiting step of graduation (average time, from pre-MS to PhD of 5 years).
  18. Feb 23, 2010 #17
    oops, sorry I derailed the post I'll leave it be ><
  19. Feb 23, 2010 #18


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    Yes, I wonder what counts as "papers" in this case. I realize that different areas of science have different "cultures" when it comes to publishing papers, but 5 to 9 sounds a bit unrealistic.
    Usually when people talk about papers they refer to publications where they were the first (or perphaps second) author, conference contributions and similar are also not counted (because they are rarely "properly" peer-reviewed and usually only appear in proceeding, there is a reason why conference papers go into their own section in academic CVs).

    I am currenty publishing about one paper per 18 months, which is a fairly good pace. But I've been doing this quite a while now (I finished my PhD in 2005 and have been a post-doc ever since) and I collaborate with several people (on several different projects) who produce samples that I measure (meaning I don't have to rely on a single source). It takes me about 12-24 months to gather enough data to write a paper, but this is with an experimental setup that I've been using a for a few years now and is very stable (I had to spend about 12 months troubleshooting the vaccum system when I first started)

    The PhD students I've worked with here in the UK (that are supposed to -but never do- finish in 3 years) are usually asked to publish one paper before writing their thesis, but not everyone does. I know someone who is now a post-doc who only co-authored a single paper during her PhD (she did write a couple of conference papers). The reason was simply that she was working on a project where she was supposed to measure samples that another PhD student was fabricating, and he never managed to fabricate a single working sample (which wasn't really his fault either, it turns out that the method he was asked to use does not actually work, i.e. the whole project was a dead end).
    She still managed to get a post-doc positon, the reason was simply that she is a very good experimental physicists and the work she did do (setting up and testing the measurement setup, which took the better part of her 3 years) was really good.

    Note that I am not saying this is an ideal situation, but it happens. There is no way to "plan" research in detail, sometimes things do not work as planned (and equipment breaks etc) and if you only have three years there is not always time to revert to a plan B.
    It doesn't matter how good you are, you do need a bit of luck in this line of work.
  20. Feb 23, 2010 #19
    I think this very much depends on the field you're working in. In String Theory, for example, it is really not that unusual to have around 5 papers published before graduation and some people really manage as much as 8-9 (even with a 3 year long PhD). But even in String Theory it depends pretty much on whether you work on something more phenomenological (usually a more rapid pace of publishing) or something like topological strings (difficult). I guess the same holds for other research areas as well.

    I agree with the point that people having just a 3 year PhD have a disadvantage against the others regarding the postdoc competition.
  21. Feb 23, 2010 #20
    As has been said, it's highly dependent upon the philosophy of the advisor and department. Some are very careful. I actually know one Ph.D student who had his first first author paper published in Nature like 3 or 4 years in. Obviously that is going to be worth a lot more than 5 papers published in Physical Review W.
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