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I am currently a PhD student who will graduate in July. I am currently applying for academic postdocs, with the goal of taking a tenure-track job at the end of my postdoc position. In my field (operations research), most of the postdoc positions are for one year with a possibility of extension to two and sometimes three years.

If I am given the choice, should I spend one year as a postdoc, or two? Would I be able to make a significant contribution to a research project if I were to only work as a postdoc for a year?

Currently, I am leaning towards a two year postdoc. If I were to only spend one year as a postdoc, I feel that it is a rather short period of time in which to start and finish a research project. If I spend two years as a postdoc, then I would be applying for tenure-track jobs one year later, and I am also hopeful that at that point, I would have done some research which I could submit in my job application in addition to my existing PhD work.

What advice would you have for me?

Edited in response to question in comments

As David Z mentioned, in my field, a postdoc appointment is for a fixed term (typically one or two years, or one year with a possibility of extention).

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AFAIK postdoc is the term used to describe the work done after the PhD and before obtaining a tenure-track job, while you apply for those jobs. So it ends when you get such a job, not earlier nor later. Am I wrong? –  Trylks Jun 10 at 15:33
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Where I am, you need at least two two years postdocs, and at least one in a foreign country, before being eligible for permanent positions. And it is not unheard of people undertaking more than two. –  Davidmh Jun 10 at 16:02
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@Trylks from what I've heard, there is probably a cultural difference between fields here: in some fields, a postdoc position is open-ended and is expected to last until the postdoc obtains a faculty job, and in other fields, postdocs are fixed-term positions used as a stepping stone to a faculty job. I guess the OP is in one of the latter type of fields. –  David Z Jun 10 at 18:21
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I find it a little hard to believe that there are many postdocs out there that are truly unlimited. I was a postdoc at McGill University, and I remember sitting in on an information session and being told that there was a strict five year limit for all postdocs employed there. I just checked my own institution (UGA) and I learned: "The maximum term of appointment for a postdoctoral research appointee at this institution is five years. This limit is based on federal guidelines and the tenet that postdoctoral research appointments are primarily for training, which has a natural duration." –  Pete L. Clark Jun 11 at 0:17
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@PeteL.Clark Interesting to hear that there is actually such a limit, since I have not before heard of postdoc positions that did not have a set duration from the start (even when an extension is possible, they always state how much extension is possible). Instead, most places I have seen have the requirement that ones "PhD age" should be at most (3/4/5) years in order to be able to apply for the position. –  Tobias Kildetoft Jun 11 at 8:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Two.

A typical postdoc starts in August, and faculty application deadlines start in November. So for purposes of applying for faculty positions, a one-year postdoc is really only three months long. A two-year postdoc gives you five times as much time to strengthen your faculty application!

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That would depend on country and field. –  gerrit Jun 18 at 20:59

One year is not very long. You will lose some time at the start while you settle in and get 'set up' for doing research; you will lose more time at the end as you make preparations to move on. You also need to factor in time spent on securing your 'next job'. I would therefore strongly encourage you to take a two-year position rather than a one-year position, all else being equal.

Remember, it's generally much easier to resign a position before the money runs out than it is to secure an extension!

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Your goal is to get a faculty position somewhere, assumably :-)

Given that, at least the field I work in, you need publications and a good record of academic research. This might be slightly different in other fields. If you can get a few papers out and prove yourself then 1 year might be sufficient. If the PI is good then stay a second year to make yourself even better.

Again, I think it comes down to what it will take to get a faculty position.

Your best bet might be to talk to some current post-docs in your research area as they might have the best advice as it will likely depend on your specific research area and conventions there.

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As this question may receive more attention over time - and it deserves that - I'd like to add a more wider scope to it.

There are reasons why one year is fine for a post-doc. For example, if you are going to work in a very similar area as you did your PhD in and since then it may take only little time to familiarise yourself with the research. If you are staying in the same country, settling in will be minimal. It might also be that you are working on a very concise subject and a year would completely suffice. You might also think about doing another post-doc somewhere else, then you probably want to consider a shorter period, as it allows you intensify your professional network.
You should always also keep in mind, that a post-doc might not work out as you expected it. Going for only one year is a safe bet then. In most cases however, since you are a professional, there will be workaround for this problem.

There are probably many more reasons to choose the longer period. Most of them were already mentioned by avid. Sometimes doing a post-doc is leaving the comfort zone, i.e. you are working much more freely than during a PhD and probably working on something completely new. Settling in is probably the biggest worry you will have. You may be wasting a lot of time in that procedure - very much depending on where you go, there might be a lot of paperwork involved. If you are planning on going abroad, this may take ages. When I started my post-doc I had about a month before I actually could start with my research. It might also take time to get yourself acquainted with the local infrastructure and/ or command structure.
When you finally started your research there might occur other problems along the line. Distractions you cannot plan, for example you might have more responsibility in many more related fields. Most likely PhD students and undergraduates of your new research group will ask your advice often. If you are the only post-doc, you are the go to guy, when your advisor is not around.

Another point to consider is cooperations with other groups, writing manuscripts, attending conferences, developing new research proposals, maybe write a grant application, prepare for your future plans. But apart from this all, a key role in the beginning will also be socialising, become part of the group, member of the faculty/ institute. (I underestimated that a lot when I started - there was a lot of "shake-hands" involved.)
During a post-doc, you should be able to develop yourself, your methods, your profiles. You are already a contributing member of the science community, keeping that up is a lot of work. That all only works if you are comfortable with your surroundings and make the best time you can possibly have. One year might have flown by, without you realising that.

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One observation: "settling in" is not just about personal life/official bureaucracy (although that is important and time-consuming) - it takes time to get to know your new colleagues and to develop a good working relationship. Also, don't necessarily assume that you'll get immediate access to all resources you need: I've heard stories of people waiting a month for a computer, because no-one thought to place the order before they started. Experimentalists may have to attend an induction course before being allowed to do lab work. Etc, etc. –  avid Jun 11 at 11:11

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