I am finishing my first postdoc in computer science, and I have to make a decision about what I want to do next. I have basically two options:

  • Try to get a new position as a senior postdoc or junior researcher. In this case, I will have limited scientific freedom, and there will be a principal investigator supervising my work. This means having to adapt myself to the scientific strategy of the research group, but also not having big responsibilities, and having the possibility to learn a lot (and get help) from the principal investigator.

  • Try to get a new position as a team leader or junior principal investigator. In this case, I will have a lot of scientific freedom, and I will be able to decide the scientific strategy of my research group. But I will also have more responsibilities (that is, I'll be fully responsible of my group mistakes), and I won't have anyone directly from which to learn new stuff, or to help me.

My long-time goal is to become a team leader for sure, but I just don't know if now is the right time for the "jump".

How to make the right decision? How to understand what I would prefer most? How can I understand if I'm ready to become a team leader?

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    I have (at least) three-fold thoughts on this: on one hand if you're sure that you can learn much when working under someone, and you feel you should learn, then this seems like the right choice. On the other hand, maybe you could learn more if you're independent, 'cause then you can focus on anything you like. And being a leader forces you to grow scientifically. On the 3rd hand, some people are not suited to be leaders, and/or work more efficiently under someone else's guidance, with only some freedom to work independently on side projects. You need to decide yourself what you are ready for. – corey979 Jun 5 '18 at 20:08
  • This is a lot like asking whether you should prefer chocolate ice cream or vanilla, and expecting the internet to help you decide. – Raghu Parthasarathy Jun 5 '18 at 21:01
  • To guide the discussion, perhaps you can give the evidence that you show or have shown leadership potential? What have you done that would inspire others to follow you as a leader? What initiatives have you started? What research have you led? What new avenues have you explored? – Nicholas Jun 6 '18 at 3:39
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    @corey979 Why not write an answer based on your comment? – Tommi Brander Jun 6 '18 at 7:30

As someone has noted, much of this is down to your personal preference, but there are a few notes I would make on your question, your thinking behind it, and what it entails:


Your characterization of a postdoc isn't necessarily accurate - especially the parts about scientific freedom and adapting yourself to the scientific strategy of the lab. In my lab, I deliberately recruit postdocs with strengths that are not my own, and rely on their expertise to help guide strategy. Similarly, when I was a postdoc, my interests in several different approaches to a problem were something the lab indulged, even if they were decently far afield from their "mainline" work.

Junior PI/Team Leader

It's not clear here what you mean by "Junior PI" - if you merely mean that you'll be new, and not senior faculty. But when it comes down to it, you're a PI, or you're not (and note depending on the project you might not be - for example, I have some full professors who are on a project with me who are adapting themselves to my scientific strategy, because in this case I'm the PI).

But the advice I give my students and postdocs is this: You should be ready to tell your own story. Not an extension or adaptation of mine. You're ready when you can string together what you've done into a coherent whole, and be able to point to a spot on the scientific horizon supported by that story and say "I'm going to head that way." But it needs to be past "I used X method", "Y question was asked and here's the answer...", etc.

Note, some people don't care to get there, and live long, fruitful, and scientifically interesting lives.

And the flippant, slightly bitter answer: When you're tired of doing research and want to spend your time in meetings and answering email. ;)


There are several ways to think about this. In some fields there is a window of opportunity for becoming a PI, and once you've been a postdoc for too long, people might starting thinking your past it, and if you were any good you'd have made PI already. I think this is a toxic attitude, but it does exist. In biomedical science, this starts after around 10 years of postdoc, but it might be different in your field.

What you really need to become a PI is vision and a desire to dedicate your time to helping others achieve goals rather than achieving them yourself (whter the goal come from them or you depends to an extent on the sort of PI you'll be). Note that most PIs spend very little time doing science and a lot of time teaching, applying for funding, juggling money, going to administrative meetings and supervising others. Personally I'd be a Postdoc as long as you can without damaging your career. In biomed there are positions called junior fellows where your are nominally mentored by someone else, but are free to conduct your own research program.

My old boss always said that its time to start thinking about running your own group when you have more science that you can't bare to not do than can be done by one person, then its time to start thinking about your own group.

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