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Post-docs: is it worth the gamble?

  1. Dec 29, 2008 #1


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    Having recently submitted my thesis in the field of theoretical physics (high energy physisc), it is time to decide whether to continue the (only) path into academia via the traditional post-docs gamble. Yeah, I see it as a gamble because not many end up getting a faculty (or stable) job after a few cycles, and when you quit then, you may be already too old to make an impact in other career paths (worst case scenario).

    Needless to say, the 2-3 years nature of post-docs means that one must jump around regularly, spending huge amount on re-location and often detrimental to relationships.

    So, is it really worth the gamble? given that this field is extremely competitive, my chances of getting a faculty job in 6-7 years from now seems minimal.

    If you have been there, done it before and know what it is like to be "floating around", I would be glad to hear your experiences and stories before making my own decision.

    cheers :smile:
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  3. Dec 29, 2008 #2


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    It completely depends on (i) how strong of a desire you have to follow what you originally set out to do, (ii) how "desirable" is the specific area in high energy physics that you have an expertise in, and (iii) your academic "pedigree".

    The last 2 will determine your chances of getting an employment after you've done your postdoc, and you should not be surprised if you end up doing more than 1 postdoc before you settle down with a job. I've seen many theorists postdoc in our division that went on to do a second postdoc elsewhere before getting their academic positions. So the journey here can be quite arduous.

    When I was considering what to do when I was about to be done with my PhD, I had a huge decision to make. I had a job offer from Applied Materials, and a postdoc offer at Brookhaven. The former had a nice starting salary, while the other is considerably lower and only guaranteed a 2-year appointment. I would think that any "sane" person wouldn't have had to even think of going for the job offer. However, I went the other way and opted for the postdoc due to my overwhelming desire to really do cutting-edge science research, even if it meant that I had to sacrifice getting a quick start on a career and a more comfortable life.

    We all have come to such "fork-in-the-road" situation where the only person who can make such a decision is the person with the "fork". You have to prioritize your desire, your needs, your situation, and decide based on those.

  4. Dec 29, 2008 #3

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    There's not much we can say about your prospects. We don't know the quality of your papers - just that you have a Batman avatar.:smile:

    I would suggest the following: look at the fraction of postdocs who end up with permanent jobs in your field. Say it's 30%. Then ask yourself if you are in the top 30% (or whatever) - you should have a good idea of where you fall in this range based on the papers you've written, the conferences you've attended, and schools like TASI.
  5. Dec 29, 2008 #4


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    I thank you both for your comments.

    Indeed, you don't know the quality of my papers, and I don't know whether they are good enough either. Besides, like they say, you never stop learning. And how fast I can keep up with things may also determine whether I have what it takes to advance to the next level in the future. That's why I called it a gamble. And that's why I didn't actually ask for concrete advises as to how to decide, I was only looking for ancedotal evidences and see what different ways there are to success or failure.

    I understand life as a post-doc may be tough and not always as rewarding as one may hope, given the two failed projects during my phD, which I must add were not due to my own faults, but just badluck, I know that there is a huge degree of uncertainty one cannot control. :frown:

    too bad when you are getting older, there are more things to worry about that just a job.

    thanks again.
  6. Dec 30, 2008 #5
    here I can give a good advice...allwais focus on 1 thing...don't oscilate betwin your post-doc and something else,like a job,or family,or a hoby...think of it like this:you are a ball in the center of a fotball terain,and you have 2 gates where you want to strike(remember,you are a ball,you just want to mark,not mark specificaly)you should stand there and think...am I going for the exams or not?then,whatever gate you chose,go for it...don't go near 1 gate,then change your mind and run to the other and so on,because you will end up in no gate!
  7. Dec 30, 2008 #6


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    I see what you mean. after analysing my situation a bit more, I see that there are two likely possibilities

    1) leave this path right now and bulid a new career somewhere else
    2) continue this path until I cannot find any more post-docs/faculty offers (perhaps after a few cycle, if I am even that lucky) and then fall back to the "real world".
  8. Dec 30, 2008 #7
    These aren't two options. The second is one option, and the first is an almost infinite number of options. It's like saying "I only have two choices: to buy this car, or to buy some other car."

    The quality of the careers you consider elsewhere will seriously impact your decision making. You might be surprised at what is available. . . and what isn't.
  9. Dec 31, 2008 #8


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    You can't realistically expect people to ignore all other aspects of their lives in order to pursue post-doctoral work. I would argue that in general, people who lead balanced lives are much more productive, and much happier than those who live for work.

    I would also add that if it weren't for the money issue, I would have been happy to have remained a post-doc for the rest of my life - minimal teaching responsibilities, minimal committees, minimal (in my case) routine clinical duties, almost all of my time was dedicated to research and on most days I went home at a reasonable hour.

    The disadvantages as I see them are that post-docs are generally short-term contracts, with minimal benefits and low pay. But I think this has to be balanced with the fact that in the "real world" the average person changes careers something like six times before retiring - so really most people can be seen as short-term contractors anyway.
  10. Dec 31, 2008 #9


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    I said that there are two options only in the sense that..
    1) I make my own decision to pack my bag now and leave physics academia
    2) I am forced out because no one offers me a job (may be after 1-2 contracts)

    one of my concern is really whether option 2) would mean that by then I would be too old to start a new career and be successful in it.

    of course, we don't know what it is gonna happen in the future, I may get lucky, or I may not and there is nothing I can do to predict or prevent what would eventuate. True, I went down this PhD path almost without second thought (of the consequences) since it is what I've always wanted to achieve (and I really enjoyed the process). But perhaps once you get older, you may not want to take too much risks any more??
  11. Jan 1, 2009 #10
    I'm at a similar point in life, although my thesis will be submitted somewhere before next summer. Right now i'm leaning heavily to getting a physics-related job instead of research. The higher payment, steady hours (for most jobs anyway), smaller limitation on locations and no insecurity about whether you're good enough a researcher or not are the reasons. In addition to that, my field is experimental physics and not theoretical. The advantage is that experimental is easier to than theoretical physics for me, but the big disadvantage is that often you have to share accelerators or other essential equipment with other groups for financial reasons, meaning some days you have to work 16 hours while at other times you simply have to wait.

    Interesting story, how did it work out after the 2-year appointment was over?
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