Polling the postdoctoral requirement

April 20, 2012

A question arose on the Twitts, to whit, how many years of postdoc training are required before getting a faculty level job. I’ll be flexible here, this is not just tenure track but let’s keep it to academic science and a professorial type equivalent appointment. Something that lets you apply for research grant funding and is not explicitly “training” or temporary or whatnot.

I am most curious about the trends over time. So I want to break this down by the year you were first appointed. Answer the appropriate poll for your case please.

First up, the youngsters:

Okay battle hardened, no-longer-noobians…your turn.

Okay oldsters, we know you all had it totally made in the shade when you were exiting graduate school….

No Responses Yet to “Polling the postdoctoral requirement”

  1. Joseph Says:

    It is a tough call between 2 and 3 years for an epidemiology post-doctoral fellow. Maybe other fields are different. But greater than 4 years feels like excessive for the possible benefits.


  2. ilovebraaains Says:

    I have heard that people do multiple post docs. I am a graduate student but still don’t quite understand how many postdocs people do. Do most people do multiple post docs or just one long post doc? Thanks!


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    It varies, ilovebraaaains. Three years is a touchstone duration, probably because of NRSA support limits, but this is hardly obligatory. Some people have 2-3 different labs, some stay in one for 5+ years…


  4. Crystal Voodoo Says:

    I’m a year and a half into postdoc #1 but from what I’m seeing biomedical is running 6-8 years before faculty appointment (assuming you can get an N,C,S pub).

    My current PI is heading the search committee for a faculty position at our fancy R1 school. There are over 300 applicants.


  5. Dev Says:

    Well, the poll data is consistent with the facts:

    -there’s less money available for research (and everything else).

    -less appointment positions (for who knows how many reasons)

    -technology and automation replaces people at every level (a wish and the living reality, but hopefully not the future)

    -the economy has been ineffective for decades and parallels this poll result and any other you conduct on any field. Including the degeneration of society.

    The results show variables in action vs a ‘should be variable’ made into a constant, or forced to vary contrary to what is needed.


  6. Widdowquinn Says:

    I don’t accept that a postdoc has some kind of ‘training’ status. If you’re a postdoc you’ve typically obtained a first degree, and completed an advanced, specialised degree that’s intended to train you in conducting research. Postdocs are skilled employees, doing a job that requires an advanced level of training. In fact, doing a job that should – in most cases – involve being at the leading edge of advancing human knowledge in that field. To consider a postdoc to be some kind of training role is to belittle the position, and the individual; if your boss considers their postdocs to be ‘trainees’ rather than scientists, you might want to consider working for a different boss.

    A faculty appointment is a different, more senior position. But don’t kid yourself that a postdoc is training for that position. No-one writes grants to ‘train postdocs’. They write grants to employ postdocs to conduct research.


  7. Dev Says:

    But there are other good questions that could be posed to the public with honest intentions. And nothing will get solved until there’s money available that matches the number of scientist available that want to really do science for a living. Not just show off.


  8. Dev Says:

    widdowquinn, look at the big picture, you are focused on a point that is valid but it won’t solve the main issue: the attrition socio economic model, local and world wide, it has little to do with good performance in science. But it is rather amazing that some good results are produced, and even more that some is put back into society.

    We are wasting our time not seeing that.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    widdowquinn whether you accept it or not, that’s the way academic science is currently structured.

    I have, as it happens, suggested a need for non-professorial but permanent positions for such folk. I even have suggested a way the NIH could accomplish such a thing at essentially zero-sum cost.


  10. femalephysioprof Says:

    Data from NIH suggests that the average time between PhD and first appointment to a tenure-track position is 5 years, but the distribution has a very long tail extending out to >9 years.


  11. Meghan Says:

    There are definitely field differences. I’d guess 3-4 years is typical in ecology right now.


  12. arrzey Says:

    As one who falls into the Old Fart category, it certainly has become longer over the last 15 years. But I also think this is very much a function of where/what the postdoc has done before. Someone coming from an comparative/evolutionary physiology background, where they *were* the PI on their thesis, and has 2-3 1rst author (or single auth!) papers, can even now get a job right out of the PhD, let alone with 1-2 yrs postdoc. On the other hand, folks who come from Big Lab Operations in Biomedical Sciences, often get plugged into a PhD project and need more time to figure out the independence part.

    Widdowquinn, postdocs on NRSA’s are trainees – NIH def. I don’t think its an insult to be a trainee. I’m a mentor on a junior faculty in my dept’s K23 award, and she is quite happy to be considered a trainee in some aspects of her professional life. Hell, if I could find someone who would consider me a trainee in their group, I’d jump at it. Being a trainee doesn’t mean you aren’t a skilled employee, but you may also still be being trained to be a faculty member (which a postdoc is not). A postdoc who is insulted at the idea of training or being called a trainee is someone who is likely to have a less than thoroughly successful experience.


  13. physioprof Says:

    “Big Lab Operations in Biomedical Sciences”



  14. Namnezia Says:

    @Widdowquinn I don’t know about you, but I learned a whole hell of a lot during my postdoctoral years and I certainly could not have done my current job with only the training I received in graduate school. My postdoc was most certainly training.


  15. Dave Says:

    As a post-doc who was thrown into an empty lab and told to get on with it, literally, I fantasize about being a trainee sometimes. I was totally willing to be the young guy who would listen to pretty much anything anyone would say to me and had to go out of my way to find those people outside my internal circle. Even now, as a young faculty in the same institute, I still feel there is a mentoring “hole” and a serious lack of what I consider to be good role models. While I think this can be a good thing in small doses, it definitely has it’s down sides. I want to surround myself with the best that I can and want to learn from them as much as possible……whether a post-doc, assistant prof, full prof. So, for those suggesting that it is an insult to be a trainee, I disagree completely.

    As for post-doc years, I think two “terms” or around 6 years total is becoming the norm in true biomedical research, but it is highly sub-field dependent (i.e. human vs animal vs cell culture).


  16. Joe Says:

    @Dave “As for post-doc years, I think two “terms” or around 6 years total is becoming the norm in true biomedical research…”

    OK. I fit into the old-fart category, so I may not know what is going on, but another 6 years of training after a 6 year PhD seems like a very long time. Post-doc salaries have gone up, so maybe it is possible to spend this much of your career as a post-doc without being destitute. Still, what fool would go into a career that expected 16 yrs of education and training (4yr BS, 6yr PhD, 6yr post-doc) before the first real job?


  17. Kate Says:

    My institution uses the postdoc status of “trainee” to offer as few benefits as possible in order to discourage postdocs from staying longer than they should. This view is widely (and begrudgingly) accepted amongst all of the postdocs I know here. This translates to a very family-unfriendly environment and an adequate-at-best quality of life for most. We all suck it up and deal with it because the institution has an excellent rep for producing future TT faculty. I guess it’s working because while I love my mentor, I can’t wait to GTFO of here.


  18. Dave Says:

    @Joe – I’m not saying that I am OK with it at all, but I just think that is the trend. I am in a medical school and it is fairly typical to see people on their second post-doc. It is true that post-doc salaries have increased, but still the typical non-US post-doc salary here is $30K….and this is Texas! I know of post-docs here who are being paid low $20’sK. Two friends of mine did their post-docs at UCLA and Harvard and they were both on $35K. As you can imagine the cost of living in those places is extremely high so, whilst they were not “destitute”, I’m not certain they were comfortable.


  19. Dave Says:


    “Still, what fool would go into a career that expected 16 yrs of education and training (4yr BS, 6yr PhD, 6yr post-doc) before the first real job?”

    The answer is: LOTS OF PEOPLE!


  20. hn Says:

    Starting NIH postdoc scale is now $39k. Several schools have now adopted the NIH scale as a minimum. Hopefully we will see more schools move in that direction.


  21. physioprof Says:

    Starting NIH postdoc scale is now $39k. Several schools have now adopted the NIH scale as a minimum. Hopefully we will see more schools move in that direction.

    I hope you understand the unavoidable consequence of the following combination of factors: (1) NIH inexorably raises the NRSA pay-scale, (2) institutions peg their required minimum post-doc salaries to the NRSA pay-scale, (3) NIH inexorably cuts research project grant budgets.


  22. FunkDoctorX Says:

    @physioprof: Yea, maybe it means you train less PhDs to reduce the glut and give a postdoc a decent salary. Here in the UK the minimum salary for postdocs is around 29K GBP, that’s about $45k. It’s comfortable and respectable, as it should be for a professional. Overall in the labs here there are more postdocs than PhD students, the grants are much smaller and somehow papers published in the UK get cited more on average than those from the US. Perhaps treating postdocs with dignity and giving them respect and a decent salary is worth the apparent “cost”.


  23. drugmonkey Says:

    FunkdocX- the citation rate is explained by their incestuous citing practices. Quite obvious. Also they seem to have some minimum-pub thing going on- it’s the only way I can explain the tremendous nearly annual production of repetitive review articles


  24. Dave Says:

    Having grown up in London, I can assure you that $29K is anything but comfortable there. It will barely pay for a parking space for crying out loud. You might be able to live in the burbs, but then you will probably pay close to 20% of your salary on train fares. Having done my PhD in the UK, I am also a little confused by your comment on the post-doc/PhD student ratio. I went to a top 10 school there and we probably had one post-doc for 6 – 8 PhD students.

    Let’s not get carried away comparing the two systems. A post-doc in the UK is far from the cushy position you make it out to be. It is still a temporary position, the pay is still poor (see above) and job prospects at the end are still low (albeit better than in the US). Yes, the pay relative to the PIs pay is better, but that is only because faculty pay there is absolutely horrible……ah but you didn’t mention that.

    My school here definitely does not enforce the NIH minimum. Not even close. PIs are free to pay whatever they want to whoever they want. Can’t see it changing.


  25. FunkDoctorX Says:

    @DM – You might be right considering that there appears to be more academic inbreeding here…

    @Dave – Well that is certainly fair for London, I wouldn’t want to live there on 29k, but that’s not where I live. For whatever reason at my institution there seems to be a lot more postdocs than PhDs, but perhaps that’s an anomaly or just this department? However, my PI has indicated to me that it is a lot easier/cheaper to have a postdoc than a PhD student.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that here in the UK you also are represented by a union and have access to a pension scheme for retirement benefits. I consider this to be a considerable benefit in the long run…


  26. postdoc Says:

    “Widdowquinn, postdocs on NRSA’s are trainees – NIH def. I don’t think its an insult to be a trainee.”

    I’m a NRSA postdoc, and there’s nothing to distinguish my situation or level of training from the non-NRSA postdocs in the lab or what I did before the NRSA. I just get many fewer benefits and a line to add to my CV. All the postdocs are simply trying to publish, attend conferences, and build their network. For NRSA fellows, there’s no travel or research support, so it’s actually harder for me to travel and do small projects than if I were paid off of a grant. The PI is understandably too busy to devote extensive resources to anyone, but the amount of attention paid to any postdoc has no relationship to his or her funding source. I don’t know what deliverables would ensure this is more of a “training” experience. It feels slightly euphemistic.


  27. MJCgenetics Says:

    I think the poll is flawed a bit. It doesn’t take X number of years to get a faculty position. It takes the ability to create a project that you can extrapolate over the next decade and that can propel you into an entire labs’ worth of work. It takes a NIH grant or institution or other funding source willing to fund that.

    That can take 2 years. Or it can take 6 years. But simply working as a postdoc for six years is not going to get you a faculty position. This is a major flaw in thinking of many post-docs these days. They think they need a fifty page CV before they even start thinking about applying for faculty. A good CV is very important, but far more important is having the inception of an entire lab’s projects, the ability to flesh it out and describe how it will evolve and develop, and the ability to get it funded.


  28. bioinformagician Says:

    I’m in bioinformatics. Considering a postdoc as a “trainee” is in general fine by me as it is after all not a full-fledged investigator position. But what is EXTREMELY demoralizing is that you may end up in a lab that has a Bioinformatics Analyst, with a 1.5-2 yr Masters degree (not even necessarily a thesis-based masters) and earning US$60-65k, yet working under the instructions of a postdoc who spent 5 or more yrs obtaining the phd and is earning less than US$40k!!! Almost always, none of the analysts’ skillsets cannot be done by the postdoc… So this discrepancy just because a postdoc is not a real job???


  29. jordan Says:

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