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I'm currently a theoretical/mathematical physics PhD student in Brazil. I still have little more than a year until my PhD finishes, and as far as tradition goes, it's soon time to look for a post-doc position somewhere.

Brazil has recently suffered a coup d'état, with its legitimate president being replaced by a puppet. One of his most significant measures was to reduce science funding to almost zero, guaranteeing the best Brazilian researches would leave the country. In the end, staying here is unfeasible for a scientist, which means I'll be applying to Europe. I am also an European citizen, which means I can stay there for as long as I want.

Now, I'm also a very active climber. Climbing pretty much shapes my life in almost every sense. I love travelling and I'm used to spending almost nothing so that I can climb as much as possible. I was talking to a friend today about a plan of going for as many post-doc positions in Europe as I can, preferably near places I can climb, and keep my routine of climbing & doing physics - that is, I want to avoid dealing with the mess a fixed position comes with: classes, bureaucracy, etc. In the end he said that this plan would not work after the third or fourth post-doc: I would become too expensive to hire due to accumulated degrees, and people would only find hiring me advantageous if I were extremely good. The point is that he himself went for 5 post-docs, and I know people who went even further. They quit because were offered a fixed position and took it... But can I live like that "forever"?

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    Very risky. Some people do this, and they can cling from position to position. But unless you are so good that you can expect this to sustain you until retirement (which will not be that glorious, either - postdocs do not earn so much, in general), you need to be prepared to end up jobless in your 50s. – Captain Emacs Apr 26 '18 at 1:45
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    I'm on my fourth. At some point, you hit a limit (FAPESP with 36-48 months, Canadian institutions can only hire you before the 5 year anniversary of your defence, etc). There's always a limit because long-term postdocs are sometimes viewed as "exploitation jobs". From my experience in France, I would expect Europe to be even more regulated in this sense, but I don't really know. – Fábio Dias Apr 26 '18 at 2:20
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    In addition to the above points, there is the possibility that ageing may reduce how much/often you climb; it may not be as big a priority some years down. – user153812 Apr 26 '18 at 5:21
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    You don't accumulate degrees during a postdoc position. After a while on a chain of postdocs, you might even be perceived as slightly less competent, as hiring committees may wonder why you haven't landed a tenured or tenure-track position yet. – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 26 '18 at 6:04
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    Germany has a 12-year total limitation, I think (possibly including PhD position, even). – Captain Emacs Apr 26 '18 at 18:53
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It will be very difficult to do so. Several European countries have rules about how long someone can be employed in "government" positions without a permanent contract. For instance, in Germany, if you do not have a unbefristete (permanent) contract after a given time, you are required to leave university employment. Other countries almost certainly have similar rules, as mentioned in the comments.

Now, there are positions above the postdoc level where one can remain indefinitely. For instance, in Germany, there are positions like the Akademischer Rat or Oberingenieur or außerplanmäßige Professor, who act in a secondary role supporting the head of an institute. Such positions involve substantially more administrative work than a postdoc normally encounters, but are also not subject to the time limitations. In other countries, such as the US, you can have "soft-money" positions that go by titles such as "research assistant professor" that are not formal tenure-track positions, and are dependent on the supervising faculty and the RAP raising sufficient funds to "pay for itself." I know multiple people who have had careers in such positions.

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    if you don't have a (permanent) contract after a given time, you are required to leave university employment - technically, the uni would have to give you a permanent (entfristete) position, which they don't want to. The law was supposed to protect employees from a chain of precarious temporary contracts, but its effect is the opposite. – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 26 '18 at 6:13
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    @henning: Thanks for the reminder. That's why they effectively force you out. – aeismail Apr 26 '18 at 6:16
  • I think OP cannot hold that post, you need C2 german language fluency for that professions – SSimon Apr 26 '18 at 6:17
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    Not necessarily, and usually for qualified applicants there's a grace period to establish such skills. But the point is to mention that there are options; whether the OP actually qualifies is a different issue altogether. – aeismail Apr 26 '18 at 6:35
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    @aeismail American undergraduate courses are taught in English by non-tenured employees all the time, so I don’t see how that’s a significantly different use-case unless I’m misunderstanding you. – Stella Biderman Apr 26 '18 at 17:43
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Can I live off post-docs?

I disagree with the other answers, based on my own experience my answer is yes. However it's unusual and it has some negative sides.

I have been a postdoc in France and Ireland for 12 years, working in three different academic institutions.

Let's not kid ourselves: the other answers are correct in saying that this is a bad career path (assuming you want a real academic career), and the uncertainty about still having a job next year is not ideal in everyday life. Additionally, usually the salary scale for a postdoc will not progress a lot (I assume that this depends on the country).

However there is a strong need for skilled researchers on a temporary basis in many places. It is true that many countries in Europe have limits on the number of years you can stay on a temporary contract, but (1) not all of them and (2) some institutions simply turn a blind eye on the legislation. Since you seem to be ok with regularly moving from one place to another, it looks like this wouldn't be an obstacle in your case.

Research wise, it's hard to have your own long term research plan and make it progress this way. On the other hand, you have less administrative and teaching duties, so more time to do actual research.

And in case you are bored with this one day, normally it wouldn't be too hard to have job offers from the private sector.

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No, please don't even think about it.

Some fields do need and have longer median postdoctoral times and stints (e.g. 2 postdocs are common in the biological sciences), but it is essentially career destroying if you're shuffling around from one postdoc to the other.

There are many reasons.

(I) Depreciation of one's academic worth with time when one lingers on in a postdoctoral role is very real.

(II) Any cool work that you do as a postdoc, or great papers that you write (with the rare exception of pure math, where authorship works differently) is invariably credited to the PI of the research group you're postdocing with.

(III) If you want a pure "scientist" job without the rest of the hassle that being a faculty member entails, how about applying for permanent positions at research institutions? That would be the equivalent of places like NIST, GFDL or Brookhaven or other National Labs in the US. It also pays way better than a postdoc.

(IV) Lastly, anecdotes about "career" postdocs are none too encouraging. Here is one: A brilliant researcher "X" worked with a famous PI, Prof. "Y" as a postdoc. "X" was technically amazing, and could set up certain difficult experiments and measurements like no one else.

It was very useful for "Y" to have "X" around, so he did. "X" had a great time, stayed on with "Y" as a postdoc, and got co-authorship on papers written in top journals. Unfortunately, "X" got so comfortable in her position that she did not realize the clock was ticking away.

Until one fine day, when Prof. "Y" decided to switch research areas completely, and told a rather middle-aged "X" to find a new position elsewhere.

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    (II) is not necessarily true. (I) does not make sense, except in humanities fields where permanent positions are typically offered only to new PhDs. I don't see how (IV) is different from any other non-tenured job. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 27 '18 at 1:19
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Another reason that hasn't been stated, probably because its something a potential employer is not supposed to take into account...

Some profs only want to hire people who want to be profs because those people will be "hungry for success", and will be willing to put in substantially more hours of work than their contract requires them to.

On the other hand, having a right-hand man/woman around can be very attractive - someone reliable who is willing to do the leg work without needing to be intellectually in charge. Trouble is that arrangement works well when a relationship builds up between two people. But the fact that positions are generally only funded for a max of 3 years means that you can never guarantee such an arrangement will continue indefinitely.

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    probably because its something a potential employer is not supposed to take into account... Is that true? Considering time since PhD is not the same as considering age, so I don't see why it would be illegal say. – Kimball Apr 26 '18 at 21:56
  • by not supposed to take into account I didn't mean considering time since PhD, I meant considering how "exploitable" the candidate would be. How will would they be to go beyond what you are allowed to ask for in their contract. – Ian Sudbery Apr 27 '18 at 8:50
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To answer the general question: No, it is very unlikely you can live off post-docs indefinitely. The reason are many. Among them:

  • It pays very little
  • Job security can be iffy
  • The retirement benefits are lackluster
  • Employers will expect you to find a faculty position soon (or equivalent)
  • Post-docs with 10+ years experience may be seen negatively when applying to new post-doc positions

Also, in your particular case the motivation for post-docs seems to be a dearth of funding. I don't think a post-doc is in a much better position than a faculty member as far as obtaining funding. So your solution doesn't really follow from your premise.

That said, if you actually attempt to be a post-doc indefinitely, I don't think the result will necessarily be unemployment. Assuming you perform reasonably well, and your lab is nice, etc. you will probably be offered a position at some point which is basically a souped-up post-doc with less expectation of moving on to a faculty job.

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