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Questions regarding post-doctorate. Travel, duration, etc.?

  1. Aug 6, 2013 #1
    I am a non-traditional student (35yrs old). I have a daughter and a wife, and before I finish my degree (only on 2nd year), I will probably have another child as well. As such, the though of traveling around a lot for post-doctorate work is a bit unnerving. So, I was hoping that some of you familiar with the typical post-doctorate process could help answer some questions for me.

    - Can you typically continue on with your post-doctorate at your university, or do you usually have to travel somewhere else for it?

    - I have seen the duration of post-doctorates lasting 2-4 years. Is this about right?

    I am just wary because I know we won't be able to depend purely on pay from my post-doctorate, and since my wife is a teacher, relocating won't be easy. This isn't even considering that I don't want to have to put the children through changing schools time and time again. I'm trying to be as prepared as possible for this down the road and appreciate any information anyone can give me regarding what to expect.
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  3. Aug 6, 2013 #2

    George Jones

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    The second year of a B.S., or the second year of Ph.D.?

    I have heard of people doing postdocs at their Ph.D. institutions, but I have never heard of someone who stayed in the game not moving at some point. Also, I know several people who ended up on faculty at their B.S. institutions, but not without moving away (and away again, and ...) and back again (years later).

    Usually, several moves that often involve large distances are required.
  4. Aug 6, 2013 #3


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    I suspect the travel varies considerably by field and where you are when you start. In some instances, sure it is possible to continue on and do a post-doc where you do your PhD. But you're really at the mercy of what's available at the time you graduate. Academia isn't a profession like engineering where any given city will have dozens or more openings. Depending on what you specialize in there may only be a dozen institutions that do research in that area across the country and you have to count on them to have funding available for a post-doc at the time you graduate.

    So as long as you're not switching fields, you have the fact going for you that at least there is research going on at your school in your field. But the reality, in most cases, is that opportunities will lie elsewhere.

    Another option (at least in the Canadian system) is to apply for an external fellowship. If awarded one of these, you can basically go where you want, or at least, where you specified you wanted to go in the fellowship application.

    In most cases I'm not sure it's realistic to assume you won't have to travel. In fact, in many cases, it's a big enough assumption as it is that you'll be able to find a post-doc at all.

    As for time, 2-3 years is typical. And remember, you're generally expected to get something done in that time too.
  5. Aug 7, 2013 #4
    Thanks for the information. As far as my degree, sorry I didn't clarify, but I am only on my second year of undergrad, so I have a long way to go.

    I did know I would have to do some traveling eventually. I just wasn't sure how many times it might happen. I had heard of people who had moved numerous times over and over within a matter of a few years, but I believe those were individuals that kept jumping from one adjunct teaching position to another. Though I wouldn't mind teaching, I don't think moving all over to multiple adjunct positions like that would be practical. Besides, I would be fine with a research position without teaching as well, so I am trying to be as open to opportunities as I can.
  6. Aug 7, 2013 #5


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    It seems that you are worrying about a lot of things that are so far off, and so uncertain, that it isn't worth thinking that much about. Here's the stuff you have coming up almost right in front of you that you should consider:

    1. Finishing your undergraduate degree.

    2. Getting accepted into a graduate program. You don't even know if you'll get accepted where you are now. So already, the issue of having to travel will rear its head waaaay early on here even before you go into graduate school. It isn't automatic that you will get in where you did your undergraduate degree.

    3. Finishing your PhD. This isn't trivial nor automatic. There are at least 2 hurdles along the way that could trip you quite easily.

    4. Finding a postdoc. Your school does not automatically have a postdoc position opened. Postdoc position is a result of research grant money obtained by a faculty member. This means that it isn't available all the time, and isn't open to everyone (it is research-area specific). You will also have to compete with other applicants.

    In other words, you have a lot more uncertainty here waaaay before you even should start considering this aspect of your problem.

  7. Aug 7, 2013 #6
    Thanks Zapper. I know I am looking way ahead of myself at this point. It is just that as it is, I am currently at a state school, which means that to finish my BA, I will have to relocate to a university. Since I want to do the university in state to save money, I will most likely end up moving again for grad school (since I don't plan on grad school at FSU or UF here in FL). So, I am already pretty much guaranteed to have to move twice in the next few years, so I was just trying to prepare myself mentally for what may come after that. As far as finishing my degree, getting into grad school, etc., I am doing it all right from the ground up, so I have already covered those bases.
  8. Aug 7, 2013 #7


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    So then I'm confused with the original question that you started out with in this thread. Considering that you ARE anticipating moving, AND that you will have to go to different schools, etc., all way before you even get (assuming that you do get) to the stage of applying for a postdoc, then what's the issue with moving for a postdoc?

    I am just finding it hard to believe that you are putting so many carts before the horse. To get to the postdoc stage requires so many things to happen, things that aren't easy to accomplish. A graduate student thinking about postdoc work? That I can see. But a 2nd year undergraduate??! I'd worry first about doing well in that advanced undergraduate E&M class, if I were you!

  9. Aug 7, 2013 #8
    What are you getting a degree in? Physics?
  10. Aug 8, 2013 #9
    And you are currently planning for a phd? Have you seriously looked in to what this entails? If you take about an average amount of time, you'll be in your mid 40s by the time you finish your phd, and your late 40s after your postdoc period. When do you plan to save for retirement, for your kids college,etc? A phd + postdocs is basically a decade+ time out in your economic life- its pretty easy to bounce-back from that at 25, but your forties should be prime earning years.

    Your wife will be the primary earner while you are in gradschool, and then you'll ask her to uproot her career so you can chase some postdocs around the world? Is her career path flexible enough that she'll be able to make those moves? Most physics phds don't ever find full-time work doing physics, whats your plan if (after a few postdocs) no positions are open in your subfield?

    I guess what I'm suggesting is that if you have children to support, looking at moves for a postdoc should be pretty far down the line, behind all the other economic considerations.
  11. Aug 8, 2013 #10


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    ParticleGrl, that is overly pessimistic. The right post doc job could lead to a tenured, or, well paid research position in a much shorter period of time than you suggest. If you lack social skills, talent, or motivation, your scenario is certainly a possibilty.
  12. Aug 8, 2013 #11
    I dont think that is fair at all. Most physics PhDs never land a research position after graduating since the competition is so fierce. To blame them all for lacking skills, talent or motivation is overly dismissive and cynical.
  13. Aug 8, 2013 #12
    I'm glad ParticleGirl said what most people browsing this topic would be thinking. I think TC should focus on getting his undergraduate degree first
  14. Aug 8, 2013 #13
    The issue is that the more often we have to move, the more financially unstable we are likely to be. Those two moves alone will prove to be difficult, and the more of them we have, the more difficult it will continue to become. I am more concerned about my family and our financial status down the road than I am about planning the details of my future.

    Also, I am well aware that it isn't easy. The reason I said I have no worries is because of my personal capabilities. I didn't want to straight out say it because I know a lot of people see it as being cocky, but I have an extremely high IQ, am holding a 4.0 with ease, self-taught myself business management prior to this, and like I said, all of this has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid. There is no single doubt in my mind that I will not earn my PhD, barring any life-altering events that may obstruct me.
  15. Aug 8, 2013 #14
    Yes. Currently, high-energy astrophysics is what interests me most.
  16. Aug 8, 2013 #15
    You should be aware that high energy physics has a worse job market (and consequently requires more postdoc time, generally 5 or 6 years) then most other subfields of physics. It also (as a result) has lower pay.

    After my phd in high energy, I took a job bartending while I transitioned out of physics (I now do statistical work as a consultant) because bartending pays more than a high energy postdoc.

    If you look at my numbers, it was 6 years for a phd, and 3-4 of postdocs. Its pretty hard to speed that up very much. In some subfields, it takes longer. And sure the 'right' postdoc job can lead to a good position, but the 'wrong' postdoc job leaves you out of the field.

    I went to a top school for my phd, and for my cohort, the majority had left science due to lack-of-opportunity within 5 years of finishing their phd. Most did one postdoc and then left. I guess you could say that all of us that left lacked social-skills, or talent, or motivation but all of us are doing very well in our second careers.

    I would argue that the highly selected group who get in to good physics graduate schools are almost guaranteed to be talented and motivated. It seems unlikely to me that social skills are the deciding factor, but maybe I'm wrong.
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2013
  17. Aug 8, 2013 #16
    Thanks for pointing out pretty much all the things that dishearten me at this point. I really appreciate all the reminders of the things that are discouraging about my current situation...

    For starters, yes, I am well aware of the length of time to earn the degree. The only thing I wasn't sure about at this point was the post-doc process. Also, my previous field has been doing horrible since the recession. This isn't even considering I was completely miserable doing it. To top things off, despite having proven success as management in my previous field and amazing references to back me up, other fields wouldn't hire me because I lacked a college degree.

    It took me a lot of soul-searching to figure out what I wanted to do. Not all of us know in our younger years. I have pursued many, MANY things over the years, with a primary focus in business management. However, after months of soul-searching, career tests, personality tests, etc., I realized that I wanted to turn my lifelong hobby into a profession. Not only do I love the field, but every single one of my personality traits is perfectly matched for the field. It is a very long story as to why it took me this long to figure it out, but I can't change that now.

    The alternative to doing what I am doing is to stick in a profession that I can't stand, earning a mediocre income (because of all the budget cuts in the field), and passing up the opportunity to pursue a dream that took 35 years to finally become lucid.

    As far as what you asked about plans, like I already told zapper, I am not trying to plan out the details at this point. I am simply trying to get a general idea of what to expect down the road. I know very well it is going to be difficult. At the same time, the more time I have in advance to know about these things, the more effectively I can prepare.

    All of the things you mentioned in your posts are the things I'm concerned about. I am concerned that despite my passion about what I am pursuing, financial concerns might become a roadblock to me down the road.

    You also seemed to neglect mentioning stipends in grad school, so my wife won't be the sole provider. However, if we were to move for post-doc positions, I know that the pay for those positions alone will not be able to provide for us. So, I know the dilemma, hence why I started this topic; to see what my options might be down the road.
  18. Aug 8, 2013 #17
    Thanks for the information, and yes, I was aware of that as far as high-energy physics. That is why I am now taking a look into high-energy astrophysics. I am not sure if it will be much different or if the job market is just as bad for high-energy astrophysics as compared to high-energy physics, but I figured it can't hurt to explore it for now.

    I also know some students end up working in finance or other positions involving difficult mathematics. I know that there is no guarantee that I will end up finding a decent research or teaching/research position. Nonetheless, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't at least try.

    I have seen that condensed matter is a good field to pursue at this point, but it just doesn't interest me much. What I love most is quantum theory, but as far as sub-fields go, high-energy astrophysics is about as close to what I love most as it gets.

    I am curious, if high-energy astrophysics is just as bad right now, will it most likely still be so years from now when I finish my degree? I'm not sure what variables are at work there, so I am not sure on that one?
  19. Aug 8, 2013 #18
    Honestly at 35. I would get a more practical degree. Maybe an undergraduate in physics but from what I see currently a physics phd is a waste.
  20. Aug 8, 2013 #19
    There are lots of possibilities in between. I think people say something like "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Currently, most of my work day looks exactly like a physicists work day. I write code to manipulate data, I make models to predict future data, and I make fancy looking plots. If you have the temperament to work in physics, you probably have the temperament for doing all sorts of quantitative work. It might not be as exciting from a big-picture stand point, but the hours are shorter, the pay is better and the career is much more stable.

    Get your college degree, absolutely. Even major in physics, but make sure you take programming courses, lots of statistics, maybe some finance. Set yourself up for a plan B. That way if your family starts to bend under the stress of you putting in 80 hour work weeks (for ~20k a year) during graduate school, you have options.

    No one knows. Its very hard to predict trends in cutting edge research decades out. As the saying goes- predictions are hard, especially about the future.
  21. Aug 8, 2013 #20
    Well thanks again for the information and advice. A lot of what you mentioned about plan B is things I have considered. I will definitely keep them in mind in the years to come.
  22. Aug 8, 2013 #21


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    That kind of research is mainly funded by the government (US and others), and is subject to the vagaries of whatever budget deals get made every year in Washington. As you probably know, budget-cutters have a lot of influence right now.

    A fellow graduate student in my experimental HEP group in grad school in the 1980s landed a position at the Superconducting Supercollider after he finished his Ph.D. Congress cancelled it several years later, after the tunnel for it had already been dug in Texas. I lost touch with that guy so I don't know what he ended up doing after that.
  23. Aug 8, 2013 #22
    Thanks for the info. Yes, numerous people I have talked to, both on forums and personally, have dissuaded me from pursuing high-energy physics because of how bad it is now. Regardless, high-energy astrophysics is more of what I wanted anyway, and UF, which is one of the two schools I'm looking at for next year, actually combined their astrophysics and high-energy physics into one department. This really appeals to me, though I have to get a deeper look at exactly what opportunities would be there, in addition of course to whether or not the field is as competitive as high-energy physics.
  24. Aug 9, 2013 #23
    On that note, are you talking about getting into UF as an undergrad or grad? UF's astro department is highly selective, as are most grad departments in the US and particularly pure-astro ones, since most do not aim to take in more than 1-6 new grad students a year with some anomalies (that would be excluding über top-tiers like Caltech or others with big endowments, but even Berkley astro takes about 5 a year. Statistics here: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/archives/astrorost.htm . For physics departments(which include those that conduct astro research under the guise of a physics phd label: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/archives/physrost.htm).

    With the huge pools of applicants with perfect grades and relevant research experience a school like UF has to choose from, do not place your bets on getting into any specific grad school or even staying within your state if getting into a grad program is important for you, apply broadly.

    In the US, it is rare to do a post-doc at the same place where you do your phd, but I've seen a few cases of it when browsing through departments and their academics' CV's. I concur with most of what has been said. It will be hard, probably more than you have imagined, and there are many potential pitfalls that nobody is immune to. It's a very tough decision and you may very well end up going back to the jobs you had prior to your education or something slightly better (I think you've done really well, better than many with college degrees, so hats off to you). Sorry to not be able to provide a happier picture, but I'm also an older non-traditional student who got stuck between undergrad and grad school (didn't get in anywhere) and there are lots of people in my situation with even better applications. At least you have a (stable?) job right now.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2013
  25. Aug 9, 2013 #24
    Thanks for the information. I was considering UF for undergrad, possibly FSU as well. I am at a state school finishing my AA right now. I also know I won't have my pick of grad schools later on, hence why I'm anticipating at least 2 moves before I finish my degree.

    As far as stability, that was one of the biggest issues with my previous industry. There is no way I could go back to it, but at least getting a degree will open doors to other industries who literally couldn't hire me because the owner, human resources dept., etc., required a degree.

    I do appreciate the honesty. If people sugar-coat the scenario, it won't do me any good. It seems that a lot of it depends on the person. I have had some people say grad school was a nightmare, a waste of time, no job to be had afterwards, etc. Then, I have had others who tell me they found amazing jobs in their field, some who ended up in finance making a high 6-figure income right from the start, etc. The thing I was missing that most didn't talk about was the post-doc experience, hence why I made this thread.

    I guess only time will tell how I handle it, but from all I've seen so far, I can't see myself not enjoying learning it all. Definitely won't enjoy the sleepless nights or time away from family, but it is a means to an end.

    Anyway, I'm holding a 4.0, taking as many honors courses as possible, was president of our college's honors society last year, am president of the PTK chapter of our college this year, and am involved in various other things as well. I am doing all I can to improve my chances at getting accepted to grad schools. However, I remain realistic and know that I will have to apply to multiple grad schools to have a chance at getting into one of them.
  26. Aug 9, 2013 #25
    You don't hear a lot from post-docs because they are a tremendously small minority in the work force and it only lasts for a short time in one's career. They're busy doing research, attending conferences, hopping continents and hunting for their next contract/post-doc/first tenure track job since in 1-2 years they will be jobless again.

    I think a lot of people with advanced degrees will contest this line of reasoning, and so would I. I happen to think the journey is more important than the goal, especially when the journey for becoming a tenured academic is so long and uncertain. It is a very hard means to a very uncertain end; you better enjoy the hard, tedious and nerve-wracking parts of it most of the time or it will really burn you out. There is a prominent element of masochism involved.

    I don't know how your extra-curricular activities will look like in the eyes of a grad committee, most likely positive, but be aware that they are not a substitute for research experience. Also, you will want to start to think up a convincing case as to why you want to pursue a phd and refine + back up that statement with your activities in your undergrad, it'll make it much easier to write personal statements when the time comes to apply to graduate programs, if you still want to by then. Best of luck.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2013
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