13 responses to “Why a Postdoc is basically needed in Academia”

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps

    I think I’m something like 0/10 on my last few grant proposals—and I’m an established researcher with 30 years of publications. I’ve basically given up on the field I was in and am retraining myself for a slightly different field.

    Make sure that you spend more of your time on research and teaching than on writing grant proposals—the grant proposal game seems now to be designed to prevent progress by keeping people away from actually doing research.

    I agree with you that too many institutions have made postdocs into semi-permanent underpaid positions. Like using contingent faculty for teaching, relying heavily on postdocs for research saves money in the short run while doing substantial damage to academia in the long run. It is a real shame that NIH favors spending money on postdocs over any other budgetary item (they hate spending money on lowly grad students, for example).

  2. GMP

    I have to both agree and disagree with you.

    Disagreement first: I got a tenure track position straight out of grad school. PhD 4.5 yrs, about 15 papers from PhD. I received two young investigator awards during my tenure track, one of them CAREER on my first try. However, my first CAREER try came in July after my 1st year, which I spent writing many, many proposals with collaborators, none of which were funded. My point is that your failure so far is actually pretty common, because it takes a while to develop the grant writing chops. It takes a while to understand what fundable ideas look like, how much preliminary work is needed, how to package it, etc. You just have to keep at it, keep writing, keep resubmitting, and before you know it you will be a federally funded PI! I don’t think my lack of postdoc influenced the funding decisions in my case.

    However, I agree with you that postdocs are very useful. In fact, I wish I had done a postdoc. The reason I wish I had done a postdoc is because I wish I had the time to just be a scientist for a little while longer and work on my craft, while someone else worries about the money. Sometime on the tenure track, I transitioned into more of a managerial role, writing grants and editing papers. I regret the deterioration of my technical skills and the lack of time to do work on my own; a postdoc is supposed to be the best time — you are competent and a master of your craft, but someone else is the sugardaddy. But no need to cry over spilled milk, especially because in reality was never really an option for me, primarily because hub and I were so terribly broke after raising a kid on student stipends that the only way out was a real job; also, because I really don’t like having people tell me what to do (hate having a boss; one reason why I can never work in industry).

  3. another no postdoc TT eng prof

    Hang in there. I’m close to submitting my tenure packet and was hired at a top engineering department without a postdoc. The first couple years were rough; start-up was steadily running out, lots (20+) of grant rejections. Got the CAREER on my third try. Got two additional very large grants immediately after. My advice: volunteer to sit on review panels. Nothing helps to improve grant writing than getting some experience on the other side. Many agencies will use reviewers who have not yet secured funding. The other important change was that I finally had a few pubs out from my independent laboratory. Those two things seemed to make all the difference.

    1. Chris Gammell

      This sounds like great advice, and I have no idea how academia works.

  4. DJ

    I’m in Ontario, Canada. The equivalent of YIAs is the Early Researcher Award (http://www.mri.gov.on.ca/english/programs/era/program.asp). And, lo and behold, one of the eligibility requirements is “No more than 10 years from having completed their first Doctor of Philosophy.” This would prevent the worst abuses such as the case of Candidate #1.

    The fact that the funding agencies have already thought of such things is easy to take for granted here in Canada. I never even noticed this issue until I read your post, although presumably if I had taken a position in the US, I would have learned the hard way.

  5. Eli Rabett

    Have you been debriefed by the program managers? Sometimes they can be helpful, but even if they are not, by talking calmly and respectfully with them you can build a personal relationship which can help you when you are on the funding line.

    Assuming the science is excellent, you also need to seriously polish the surrounding (bio sketch/post doc mentoring/broader impacts/facilities, /budget/budget justification/management plan/table of contents, etc. A senior faculty member or someone from the research office can help with this. It is important that reviewers find everything they expect immediately, without having to prospect for it

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  7. Dave

    Hi Gears,

    So you didn’t get a grant. If you are just out of school, as you pointed out, the competition may be stiff, even against other young investigators with more experience. At least you’re not competing against department heads like you would be otherwise.

    The fact is, those next 12 years are going to go by no matter whether you are doing a postdoc now, or forging your own path in your TT position. Then you will be the one with 16+ years experience. Make sure that those next 12 years count. If you are not great at writing grants, and are not great at politics, then you need to find a mentor. If you think you can benefit from the resources and guidance of someone who’s working on something great, you can do that now just as well as if you were doing a post-doc, assuming there’s someone at your institution you can learn from. If not, you may want to reconsider if staying will be great for your career.

    Write a grant or two with someone who *is* great at writing grants. You probably already did this in grad school, but if you have an opportunity to write one with a master, it’s a special learning experience. It’s a different skill set, and you should go in prepared to be humbled.

    You are where you are. *Nobody* can bestow you with experience–you have to live and do stuff to get it. If opportunity is water, then a postdoc may be bottled water (packaged and branded), and your way may be like drinking from the river, but it’s all water. You have 12 years less experience than the other guy. You will likely have all that in 12 years. Make them count.


    1. P-doc

      “If opportunity is water, then a postdoc may be bottled water (packaged and branded), and your way may be like drinking from the river, but it’s all water. ”

      The difference is that bottled water is generally safe…drinking from the river can give you diarrhea 🙂

      Im currently doing a postdoc and although I love it, I would gladly give it up for a taste of river water 🙂