Tuesday, September 14, 2010

on what not to do (as a postdoc)

more and more i feel like a criminal .. or, at least, someone guilty of some academic wrongdoing. when i look at what i've done as a postdoc, i wince slightly.

despite successfully obtained a 3-year postdoc two years ago, i haven't made the most of it.

straight to the point, i don't look very good on paper -- not enough accepted research articles -- which in the game of the job market, is crucial.

more and more i feel like i should "lay low" for a while .. maybe take a second postdoc position somewhere in europe (if i can convince anyone to hire me) and wait a few more years until my manuscripts become accepted.

maybe, then, my chances become better for a job that isn't all teaching, and with some hope of research time.

i remember attending "how to get a job" seminars when i was a graduate student; in fact, it may have been among the crucial things that got me a job. on the other side of things, for two years in a row i sat in a panel to tell current graduate students how to (and how not to) obtain a postdoc position.

nobody, however, ever told me what (not) to do during the years as a research postdoc.

it is always suspicious to take advice from successful people, because other factors may be at work.

knowing my current circumstance, however, i feel qualified to say what not to do as a postdoc; at best, it only means that whoever listens/reads the following and acts upon it will be better qualified for the ordeal that is the current job search.

being this time of year, perhaps those of you in your final year of your ph.d. might find some relevance in what i say.

so here goes:
  1. for graduate students about to start a postdoc: if you haven't done so already, cut papers from your ph.d. as soon as possible. it doesn't matter if you haven't finalized your thesis. do it anyway: having papers is always better than not having papers.

    one strength in taking a postdoc position is to learn something new and sufficiently different from the topics of your dissertation. the reason is simple: though your postdoctoral mentor may be very helpful, it shows that you are capable of learning a new topic in a mostly independent fashion. a good research university is not going to hire anyone who shows no promise as an independent researcher. [1]

    the more time you spend working on old topics, the less time you have for new topics that you can learn (and from which you can start new projects). i made this mistake in my first year as a postdoc; there were two projects from my graduate career that needed to be finished. had i started a year earlier the projects from my second year, the papers would have been accepted by now.

    (the number of research papers counts.)

  2. related to the previous theme, there is no excuse for not submitting a paper if it is "good enough."

    this, i think, is part of the fallacy that "your thesis should be earth-shattering, so it must be perfect." honestly, perfection doesn't matter: if it truly mattered, then one wouldn't see so many badly-written papers in the literature.

    so if you have results, write them up. in your own self-interest, worry about your legacy later. when you're young you can afford to write technical papers that are hard to read. besides, if your writing is really that bad, then you'll hear it from the referee of the journal to which you submitted your paper.

    (if it gets past the referee, then it's fine.)

  3. this is a corollary to the first two warnings, but: it's tempting to take a break, to take it easy after months and months of finalizing your thesis.


    to clarify, i don't mean that you should never take time off. take two weeks off after you submit the final version of your thesis; it could be a longer holiday, but i wouldn't go over a month. let me be clear about this: to allay the itch, do absolutely nothing.

    when you start your postdoc, though: be ready to hit the ground running. be ready to work just as hard as the last month that you were finalizing your thesis. imagine scenes from vietnam war films: you should be like that, but mathematically so.

    if you have a few papers in the bag by your second year, then sure: take it easier. in general, though, the writing will never stop, the pace will never slow down .. until you get tenure, or so i hear. (-:

    (your ph.d. is not the end: it is only the beginning.)
perhaps i could write more, but this post is long enough. if other things come to mind, then perhaps i'll write a part ii.

on a barely related note, nobody ever comments on these posts anymore. if you want to hear more about what not to do, write a comment and ask.

[1] this doesn't mean that you should be as independent as possible, as a postdoc. this position comes with a mentor, and everyone understands that. besides, in joint papers everyone depends on their co-author for some expertise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks..I am in my third year and am very frustrated. Wish I'd stumbled on this earlier.