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When looking at adverts for postdoc positions, I often see examples from the US that say something like "the position is for one year, with the possibility of extension for another 1-2 years".

Literally, and contractually, the meaning of this is obvious, but I am interested in guidance as to whether it consistently means anything in practice.

For example, I can imagine that it could mean "I only have funding for one year, and I'm hoping the successful applicant will find themselves funding to stay longer". But I can equally imagine that it is "I have funding for three years of a postdoc, but I want to see if I like them before committing".

Is there a "usual" subtext? Or is it not possible to read anything into this?

When considering an intercontinental relocation, it would be helpful to have some idea of how likely the longer duration is!

It's in a scientific field, in case that's relevant.

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    Just as a side note, since you are refering to the US. In Germany something like "mit Option auf Verlängerung" (with possibility/option of extension) exists in contracts. That means that they can extend the contract if they like to and you have to agree, but you are not in the position to demand an extension. – Arigion May 25 '18 at 7:30
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I'd probably read it this way:

I have funding for one year for sure, and hopefully for additional years, but it might depend on the success of future grant proposals, so I can't make any promises. But assuming that my funding is successful, and the postdoc is continuing to do a good job, I'd be happy to keep them for 2-3 years.

In some cases, postdocs might be funded by "hard money" coming from within the university; this is common in math, and such positions often have names like "Famous Person Assistant Professor". In this case, funding can be assumed to continue (barring a financial catastrophe for the university) and it means more like "2-3 years assuming you do a good job".

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    My department (math) normally appoints postdocs for three years, but the official offer letter says something like "1 year plus another 2 years subject to satisfactory teaching." As far as I know, we've never refused the additional 2 years, but the wording of the letter does provide some leverage if a postdoc were to do a really terrible job of teaching. – Andreas Blass May 24 '18 at 22:53
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In my experience in the U.S., postdocs are exclusively for limited contracts, usually 1 year. Any departure from that or a longer initial period would be unusual, and would likely occur only in cases where the postdoc is bringing their own funding.

Therefore, you can't take much out of this information: in fact, the more meaningful part is probably "with the possibility of extension for another 1-2 years" - this indicates that if things go well for both you and the lab, there is a possibility of extension. However, it says nothing about whether the funding for those subsequent years is secure or not secure.

The alternative would be for a position to explicitly say that it is limited to 1 year with no extension.

I think @NateEldredge's answer is a suitable reading, but I disagree that the wording implies that funding is currently only secure for 1 year. It's simply that post doc positions are only offered for 1 year at a time.

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    As a manager at a US national lab, this is correct for my institution. By policy, the postdoc is a one-year renewable position. with a maximum term limit. Have I ever not renewed one? No. I also have never had one reach the maximum term, since they all have gotten real jobs well before then... – Jon Custer May 24 '18 at 18:52
  • @JonCuster - just out of curiosity, what is the max term limit? – davidbak May 24 '18 at 22:38
  • @davidbak Of course Jon can give a better answer for his own institution, but the limit I am aware of is for anyone funded by NIH: 5 years total is the max, including positions at different institutions. – Bryan Krause May 24 '18 at 22:40
  • @davidbak - I believe the official limit for any ‘limited term’ position, which includes post-docs, is 6 years. I once had a post-doc go just over 3 years, but they were aiming for a tenure track position. Their start date with us and the normal annual faculty hiring cycle conspired to stretch things out a bit longer than normal. – Jon Custer May 25 '18 at 0:47
  • Note that any limits at my lab may not apply at others - they are all managed differently. – Jon Custer May 25 '18 at 0:48
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I personally feel that one-year contracts are terrible both for postdocs and for the PI. Both have to invest a lot of time and effort in getting the project started: relocation, learning the rules of the new lab and where the coffee machine is, getting up to speed with the subject and methodology. Yet, the duration of one-year contract is not sufficient to get a published paper by the end of it, so no-one has an evidence to demonstrate success to support their next grant / job application.

Unfortunately, with the decline of research funding and increased competitiveness of academia, one-year contracts become a norm; even less-than-a-year contracts are not unusual, allowing universities to charge the same overheads but save the costs of annual leave. So, I would read the statement about an extension as:

I know one-year contracts are terrible; I wish I had funds for 2-3 years; I personally would not want to be in a position when I have to apply for such short-term job. To sweeten the pill I will mention a possible extension here --- this makes my ad to look a bit better and does not cost me anything.

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    I agree that one-year postdocs are nasty, but given the other answers, do you have any evidence (or personal experience) as to the likelihood of that being the meaning in the US in particular? – Flyto May 25 '18 at 4:53
  • @Flyto No, I can't say anything about US. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 25 '18 at 11:26
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I have published postdoc offers with wording like that and in practice, they meant "I have the funding for more than one year and as long as you do a decent job, the contract will be extended". The reason for making the initial duration one year was just to avoid the possibility of getting stuck with a bad hire.

I wouldn't personally word the offer like that if I only had funding for one year. If you depend on getting a new grant to offer more years, then in my view that would be a new contract, not an extension.

I suppose this can vary a lot per country, university or even individual PI making the offer, though. So my advice would be to just ask. I got asked about this issue by several candidates and at least in my view it's a perfectly normal question to ask.

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