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For the past year I have been doing a postdoc in a Neuroscience lab, the position advertised was for computer science.

For the first year, the work was mostly related to my discipline, but my PI's funding got cut and now he has been pushing me to write and do experiments in an area that is entirely out of my expertise or even my field (electrodeposition/ impedance characterization). To be honest, I do not like the area, and was not written anywhere neither in the job posting or the offer letter.

I got a postdoc offer in a different University, and have already accepted, but my PI is pushing me to delay my start date or even come back over the summer to finish these experiments and the paper. (Probably at my own expense, the position is in a different US state)

As I would like to apply for a Tenure track position after the coming Postdoc, I would like to know how much can this affect my chances, would a publication in a field that is not even remotely similar to my own (Machine Learning) can hurt me more than help me?

I've tried to think on ways to turn it around so I can come with a feasible explanation on how is a paper on that topic even going to help build my ML expertise, but so far I have come with nothing.

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Related question specific to cstheory. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 19 at 18:56

4 Answers 4

A legitimate scholarly publication can only help you (although it might not help much). If you're really worried you can always just leave it off your cv.

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You cannot leave a paper off your CV –  Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 19 at 18:57
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@ArtemKaznatcheev: You can leave things off of a CV if you don't think they're relevant or helpful, but you cannot take credit for something that you didn't actually do. I don't list a bunch of technical reports I wrote at my previous job—but some schools of thought say those should be listed. But they're not relevant to anything I do anymore, so there's no point in cluttering my CV with them. –  aeismail Feb 19 at 19:06
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I agree that you can leave things off your CV. As usual, there are nuances involved: if you are employed as an academic in subject X and a while back you wrote a paper in unrelated subject Y, then that paper is just not a part of your professional identity, and I think everyone would accept that. For a clearly defined subject like mathematics which has a globally available database of papers, leaving a paper in your current subject off your CV seems shadier. I think you can still do it but that it would be appropriate to mark the list as "selected publications". –  Pete L. Clark Feb 19 at 23:22

I agree with vadim's answer above:

A legitimate scholarly publication can only help you.

As for the concern about the 'helpfulness' of a paper in an unrelated field, I would tend to see it as a positive thing, showing that you are not restricted to working/thinking in/knowing about one area only. You have proven that you are capable of scholarly research in a tangential area; this should help rather than hinder your TT search. Of course, you may find that some possible positions will be unappealing to you if you really hate electrodeposition/ impedance characterization. If that possibility is a large concern to you, then you might consider leaving the paper out of your CV.

However, I do not believe that leaving the paper out of your CV would be a good solution, unless the paper is also of very poor quality, in which case the point above does not apply and you really don't want to use this experience when searching for tenure track jobs. If the current project is of poor quality, you may be better off moving on to the next, more compatible post-doc, and also politely declining your (current) supervisor's offer to continue/finish the project you are working on now.

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Interdisciplinary research, especially at the interface between copmuter science and biology, is pretty hot at the moment. In that sense, a paper in neuroscience could even be helpful, especially if you later want to apply machine learning to that kind of area.1 The down-side is that doing these experiments takes time, which is time you could spend doing something else.

If it wasn't for the fact that you already have another job lined up, I'd say you should weigh up the possible advantages (increased experience of possible applications of your ML research) against the obvious disadvantages (time spent away from your core expertise). However, since you do have another job lined up, just go for that. Tell your current PI that you appreciate his efforts to keep you in a job even after his funding got cut but that the work he has for you just isn't your cup of tea. You're under no obligation to come back and finish the experiments (and, hey, if push comes to shove, your new employer can't give you that much time off, right?) and, since you're not an expert in that area anyway, your current PI can probably find somebody who can finish them better than you could.


1 If even makes sense... As you can probably tell, I know next to nothing about machine learning and even less about neuroscience.

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My feeling is that a publication in a totally different field will simply be ignored and certainly wouldn't help, unless the job you're applying for is specifically interdisciplinary and across departments.

A publication in a different subfield can help or hurt depending on its quality (and somewhat on how you're selling yourself).

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I don't really see why a publication in a different subfield would hurt. Could you elaborate on that? –  Pete L. Clark Feb 20 at 4:01
    
To clarify: papers in another field probably won't help or hurt because it's likely that nobody on the hiring committee can evaluate them. On the other hand, papers in your field, but a different subfield, could hurt if they are bad papers (just like papers in your own subfield). Also, having papers in a different subfield could hurt you "sell" yourself as being in one area, when your publication record may say otherwise. It of course should go without saying that a good paper in your field, but a different subfield, can and usually will help your application. –  Lev Reyzin Feb 20 at 16:50

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