The Sassy Scientist – Postdoc Purgatory

The Sassy Scientist – Postdoc Purgatory

Postdoc appointments: the forgotten terrace of Purgatory. Where researchers are sentenced to linger till either a position opens in the Heaven of permanent contracts, or they realise that, after all, they are not interested anymore. This terrace is composed of different levels of various length. Nobody knows how many levels there are and how long they are, or should be. Raul asks:

What is the ideal length of a postdoc contract?

Dear Raul,

Let’s get it right out there: the ideal length of a postdoc contract is how long it takes you to land the next position.

I appreciate this answer might be interpreted as a vague and cryptic prophecy-like riddle, so let’s be more quantitative. Normally you are asked to relocate to a different city or to another country. This means months and months of very important and totally sensible administrative crap work. Let me also assume that you will bring with you some leftovers from your PhD project or previous postdoc (who doesn’t?), so that you will juggle two or more projects for a good six months. If you signed up for a one-year contract, it’s already high time for you to look for your next postdoc or fellowship call, leaving you with no time to work on the stuff you are actually paid for and you have no new material to write a proposal on. So, clearly you don’t want to sign up for a contract of one year or less.

But can a postdoc be too long? That depends: are you the kind of researcher that already has their own identity at the first year of PhD and will continue do the same thing till retirement? This is not the post for me to tell you how bizarre you are, so I will stick to your original question and say: there probably isn’t an upper limit to the length of your postdoc. However, you may be a normal person afraid that putting all your eggs in one basket is a good recipe for failure, so you may want to account for two or three postdocs in which you work on slightly different things. In this case you may consider that 6 years in one place is a tad too much. Think about it: if you end up not liking your research or your colleagues anymore, you probably want to get the hell out of there in a couple of years. Either way, you are still looking at 6 to 12 months of more pain to find your next postdoc.

At the end of the day, you need time to find your next post. Even if you are aiming to land a permanent contract at the end of your postdoc, that requires writing up your research statement + teaching statement + outreach statement, gaining 30 years of experience at your 30 years of age, going to interviews, sacrificing a goat to the Allfather, Odin, and negotiating your contract. Time-consuming stuff. On top of that, you need to factor in some time (say, no less than one year?) in which you actually do some science and publish some papers, without which your science is worthless not receiving the recognition it deserves.

So, as an addendum to the initial answer I propose, the ideal time you need to find your next postdoc or fixed appointment and work on some science during a postdoc contract is no less than 2, but no more than 5 years.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written while wandering barefoot on level 3 of the terrace of Postdocs

PS2: Please send shoes

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