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  • Jasmine Janes

Do postdocs have a use by date?

You’re at a conference volunteering at a career information session for graduates and postgraduates. You sit as part of a panel of ‘experts’ informing those brave/eager souls who approach your table (after a beer for courage of course). Your topic – moving for international graduate and postdoctoral positions. During the course of the evening one of your ‘expert’ peers asks how long it has been since you finished your PhD. You reply. Your peer informs you quite loudly that this is far too long and you should quit academia*.

In February this year, @GordPennycook started a Twitter thread asking people how far they had moved for academia. Quit a few people responded with details of how many postdocs they had moved for. When I contributed to the conversation I received a reply from a graduate student saying ‘That’s a lot of postdocs’. I stated that I had just started my third postdoc.

So how long is too long? Do postdocs actually have a use by date? If so, is it based on physical age, number of years since PhD or number of postdoc contracts? Is this use by date the same everywhere? And where do these ‘times’ come from?

Had someone somewhere along the way neglected to tell me I might be close to ‘expired’?

Looking into this topic, I have found some pretty interesting and varied opinions. The article at Next Scientist seems to suggest that if you are not in the top 10% of your peers through graduate school then you probably shouldn’t even bother trying to do a postdoc. This seems a little harsh to me. Like everything in life, there can be good Phd’s and bad ones. You may be capable of being in the top 10% but circumstances/relationships surrounding your graduate studies might have prevented this. Does this mean that you should be out on the street, so to speak? Conversely, you might not typically have been in the top 10% but an amazing project, resources and support helped boost you there. Let’s not forget that the ‘top 10%’ will change in quality from year to year anyway. Most importantly, how will you necessarily know if you are in the top 10%? Especially when faculty job applications are a very global market.

Some of these points were raised in a really honest and heartfelt posting on Times Higher Education. Another really good point raised here is perseverance. Myself and a lot of my friends/colleagues have been given the (somewhat) routine speech, once you start applying for faculty positions, that if you just ‘hang in there’ something will come up. This is probably true, but how long can people afford to wait?

Perhaps the five-year postdoc rule that some universities** have serves a purpose here. It likely forces the postdoc’s hand into assessing their options carefully. If they don’t have a faculty job by then, it seems the options left are to acquire a position as a Research Associate (expensive to the PI), keep applying and crossing fingers (mentally and financially expensive for the postdoc), or retire from ‘academia’ gracefully (find other employment). On the other hand, there are institutions*** that don’t have this rule, allowing for the Peter Pan postdoc to continue working away in peace so long as they maintain productivity.

Interestingly, the responses to @GordPennycook, for those that stated specific positions, indicated that 32 people with faculty positions (permanent Assistant Prof or Lecturer) had done one postdoc, seven people hadn’t done a postdoc at all, and six had done more than one postdoc. The majority of these respondents were based in North America. The information certainly didn’t allow one to gauge what type of institution respondents ended up at (i.e. R1 vs R3) or when these people gained employment (i.e. was it in the past 5-10 years in a PhD-flooded market?). Were they the only people that saw that thread or were they the ones that felt comfortable posting their history?

There are many factors that influence people’s decisions and preferences regarding postdoctoral length. These range from level of personal satisfaction in the work to personal life outside of work to availability of faculty jobs. I know of many current and previous postdocs who fit into all categories. There are those who get faculty jobs within a year or two post-PhD and those who get a position after 10+ years. There are people who start PhD’s much later in life and are therefore older as a postdoc. Some people decide they don't like the academic lifestyle and voluntarily leave, and there are some who feel forced out of the market because of a lack of jobs and/or the five-year postdoc rule at certain institutions.

Given the range in ages and experiences with which people seem to get jobs, and the fact that some universities allow eternal postdocs (provided there is funding and the aforementioned productivity), perhaps there is no use by date. Besides, should there be? Isn’t it up to the individual to decide if they want to continue as a postdoc or not? Whether it’s so they can remain on the academic job market or because they just want to do good research without the administrative pressures, surely if there is a postdoc position and they are one of the best people for the job, who really cares how old they are?

So, in today's increasing push for diversity and equality, do postdocs have a use by date? If so, when do we expire and who gets to decide?

* I was in my second postdoc. I was six years out of my PhD and had also worked for around two of those years outside of academia, in government.

** I know that some universities in North America apply this five-year rule. Essentially, if you have been a postdoc for five years total you will no longer be eligible to be employed at a postdoc level anymore. This could be great in the sense that you have to be bumped up the pay scale, but often it isn’t because PI’s can’t afford that pay scale.

*** A lot of universities in other countries essentially allow perpetual postdocs.

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