Assume that a given postdoctoral position does not require teaching/laboratory.

Are there postdoc positions for someone who wishes to stay in his/her country and just be in touch with the post-doc advisor by e-mail or/and Skype?

Perhaps communicating only by e-mail may be slightly annoying for some people, so I also suggested Skype.

In my opinion (but correct me if I am wrong), there should be no difference between live meetings and Skype meetings.

Remark: Truly, I am asking about a post-doc position in mathematics, but I guess that my question is also relevant for other fields.

Edit: I wish to thank all the people answering (or commenting on) my question.

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    In mathematics it might work, but I never heard about such positions. A position typically involves funding (and hence you move to where the PA is). What you describe is rather a research partnership. – Oleg Lobachev Nov 11 at 14:21
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    When you say "own county", do you mean that literally? There are generally visa and tax considerations to this sort of outsourcing when it happens internationally. – origimbo Nov 11 at 16:35
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    Apart from the obvious point that you'll have to exclude all positions that have a teaching load, there might also be insurance problems. For example, your job will most likely have healthcare, however many insurance policies will only pay for costs incurred in their own country. – mlk Nov 11 at 16:35
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    Your question has been flagged as being unsuited to the site because it's opinion-based. I think this is because of the phrase "Do you think that such a position should be availabe" -- it sounds like you're asking whether it would be proper for a university to offer such a position. I wonder if you really mean "... would be available", i.e., asking whether such positions exist. – David Richerby Nov 11 at 19:58
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    Regarding the difference between Skype Meetings and personal meetings: This is partially true. Durign Skype meetings you may share a screen and present materials prepared in advance, but you would have a hard time working in real-time (e.g. getting a piece of paper and drawing a sketch). Also the communication is noisy and sometimes annoying, don't expect to be as well understood via Skype as you are in person. If you are working with mathematics, a thing you might consider is that if you perform computational simulations you may need to simulate and interact personally and together over code. – Mefitico Nov 12 at 14:47
up vote 54 down vote accepted

In person and Skype are completely different. Writing math that you can both see becomes a challenge (in person, it's called a blackboard). I get up to fetch a book: communication is lost. Meeting takes longer than expected and it'd be nice to continue talking over lunch? Very difficult with Skype. More than two people in a meeting? Complete nightmare.

And a postdoc position is not just about talking with your supervisor every now and then. IMO, that's just a recipe for having a terrible time. You are expected to participate in your department's life. This means going to seminars, talk with people who you don't collaborate with, etc. Impossible if you are restricted to formal Skype meetings with your supervisor. Let's say you have a quick question about something you're reading. Are you going to call your supervisor about it? Or go to the office next door and ask, maybe even someone else, like another postdoc or a PhD student who works on the same kind of topic?

What you are describing is a research collaboration with someone else. You check up every now and then for status updates. It's not what most people envision when they think of a postdoc.

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    (If I am not wrong, it is possible to have a whiteboard within a Skype conversation). But anyway, even if this problem can be solved, you are raising other issues, not solvable by Skype. – user237522 Nov 11 at 20:15
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    @user237522 Whiteboards in Skype is possible but it does not work. One of many pseudo-"solutions" put in to advertise the product but not to be usable. – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 11 at 22:58
  • @DmitrySavostyanov, thanks for the information.. – user237522 Nov 11 at 23:06

There is a BIG difference between in-person and via Skype. I have seen this before on several occasions in industry and it simply does not work as well. I doubt it'd be different in academia. It's much harder to integrate a remote worker into a group, especially if they're in a different timezone. I suspect there would have to be a very compelling reason for most supervisors to agree to this. Maybe they'll do it, but you better be pretty special.

  • Thank you for your answer. Interesting point about integrating a remote worker into a group. (Perhaps if there is no such a group it would be slightly easier). – user237522 Nov 11 at 15:21
  • There is a group by definition: you and the advisor. – David Richerby Nov 11 at 19:56
  • I thought that it was meant a group of order > 2, namely, that there exist people other than me and the advisor. – user237522 Nov 11 at 20:01
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    If there is no such group, it may be easier, but if there is no such group, then that's not a very good postdoc position whether or not it's virtual. – Misha Lavrov Nov 11 at 21:03
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    @user237522 Yes, very much so. My experience (as a postdoc in math right now) is that while working with one's postdoc advisor is very helpful, a lot of research is spurred by going to talks, meeting visitors to the department, collaborating with graduate students, and so on. More people bring more specialties to the table; this might mean knowing how to apply a technique you're unfamiliar with, or just being aware of more research problems to tackle. Also, it is somehow easier to keep working on multiple projects at the same time if they are with different people. – Misha Lavrov Nov 11 at 22:39

I think that would be entirely up to whoever is funding and or supervising it. I doubt that many would wish to do so as there is little opportunity for direct supervision or keeping track of the activities of the post-doc. It would seem to depend on an inordinate amount of trust.

If you were the funder, you should probably establish some very regular means of communication to see that your resources aren't being wasted.

Such a thing might be more reasonable if the post-doc and the PI had a regular relationship in the past so that trust was already established.

I don't think there is anything wrong with such a thing, I just don't guess anyone would be interested in supervising it. Interesting, but unrealistic.

If you are a postdoc for industry, many things are possible. If you are a postdoc in a University or research institution, your institution is subject to rigorous control, which includes financial transparency and visa compliance. Sure, these problems may be solvable for Prof Famous joining the University of Notmuch. But bending those rules for an average postdoc is extremely unlikely. Finance won't like paying a guy who is not physically on-site for some work which is basically a couple of telephone calls per months. Such schemes are often used by dishonest PIs for tunnel research funds to their relatives or close friends, and they are always a subject of extra scrutiny and extra attention. Finance and HR will not support you or your PI in this, and this alone is the reason why such scheme — although theoretically possible — will not really happen.

I know anecdotal answers aren't always approved of on Stack Exchange, but I do know of post-docs who have arranged to work remotely as standard within the same country (the UK), with occasional physical visits (on average once a week or less) due to independent instances of the two body problem for the PI and the post doc.

It's just about conceivable that the same kind of arrangement could be made internationally between countries with sufficiently integrated travel and financial systems (I'm thinking specifically of EU-EU here).

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    I think this is more than just an anecdote, so +1 from me. – David Richerby Nov 12 at 11:20
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    Once a week isn't "occasional", it's regular. I don't think it's uncommon for postdocs to meet their supervisor (physically!) once a week or less... – user9646 Nov 12 at 12:04
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    I was looking at an answer like this, as it felt silly to add another answer saying "I also have anecdotal evidence...!". I knew of a similar PhD situation, which if I recall correctly was between two EU countries (and it involved a Prof. Bigshot). My assumption is that they managed it successfully due to both the advisor and that particular students being quite hands-off and somewhat solitary researchers, I don't see it working for just anybody. I would assume they met in person much less than once a week, and as I recall it was also due to an instance of the two body problem. – penelope Nov 14 at 12:14
  • @penelope, thank you. I much agree with "My assumption is that they managed it successfully due to both the advisor and that particular students being quite hands-off and somewhat solitary researchers". – user237522 Nov 17 at 22:36

One thing that hasn't been mentioned in other answers is that the university may have rules that require postdocs to be physically present. Mine does, so this kind of thing would be out of the question. I have no idea how common that is.

I also agree with other answers that say working with an advisor long-distance would be a huge disadvantage. I am a mathematician.

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    Conversely, universities such as the OU (open.ac.uk) have a history of doing such things because they also have an interest in the technology of distributed learning. – Pete Kirkham Nov 12 at 13:50

It is possible for a postdoc to be at a different university from the grant-holder (PI), and supervised virtually as a result. It probably requires an unusual source of funding, and entails either frequent visits or else a co-supervisor/collaborator based at the postdoc's institution.

  1. An example

Here is an old job advert from the CGSP/CPSM, a Canadian research project in social policy. One can find by a little googling that one of the appointees is based on another continent, where they are co-supervised by a professor who is not listed as a collaborator or partner in the CGSP/CPSM. So their supervision by the PI would be mostly virtual (apart from one workshop planned as part of the programme).

In the job advert, you can see some very careful wording about supervisors and co-supervisors to permit exactly this to happen.

  1. Something similar in mathematics?

In fact I know the PI in the example above (that's how I heard about it at all). She told me that those postdocs were in some measure based on the Fields Institute postdocs in mathematics.

Academics apply to organise "thematic programs" at the Fields Institute, and the institute hires postdocs to work on those programs. The organisers could be anywhere in the world. The postdocs also aim to work with faculty at "sponsor universities" of the Fields Institute but still, many of these are physically quite distant. But there are workshops and lecture courses every month or two to bring people together physically. So in practise the supervision is not very virtual.

  1. Appendix

Of course it can happen that a PI or postdoc has an extended visit at another university or institute, or that the PI moves and it's not possible for the postdoc to follow. If one wanted to see the different ways a "virtual postdoc" could go in practise then those cases might be the place to start.

A research group or a PI typically wants a researcher who is more committed to the group and to his/her research projects. In-person presence means you are committing your life for the duration of the post-doc to that:

  • You're moving to a different city or a different country.
  • your daily routine will be very different.
  • your circle of human interaction will be people in your research group, department and university (well, not only them, but for most of the day).
  • You will be literally, physically, available for your research group members to walk in and bother you with things.
  • You will (possibly) be eating and drinking together and perhaps even the same food with your research group colleagues.
  • You will endure the same environmental, technical and political inconveniences as your research group colleagues.

So it is an entirely different experience than a "virtual" post-doc. It is also why most institutions and researchers are skeptical or not willing to consider such arrangements.

  • I'm not seeing the advantage of points 1, 2 and 6, and point 5 seems somewhat tenuous (not everyone likes eating together). If anything, point 6 seems like a disadvantage of all being in the same place. – David Richerby Nov 13 at 13:30
  • @DavidRicherby: Points 1 and 2 are an expression of commitment, and are costly and difficult to reverse. Points 1, 2, and 6 foster commitment through hardship. Point 6 fosters camaraderie and through it, again, commitment. – einpoklum Nov 13 at 14:06
  • Oh. I thought the point of a postdoc was to do good research, not to endure suffering. – David Richerby Nov 13 at 14:09
  • @DavidRicherby: "By the sweat of thy brow shall you eat bread", -Genesis 3:19. Or, "No pain, no gain" -Jane Fonda, exercise video – einpoklum Nov 13 at 14:15
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    Perhaps the importance or non-importance of those points depend on the personality of the particular postdoc candidate. Maybe some need that 'special environment'/way of life in order to do good research, while others do not need it, or even such an anvironment may hinder them (like me. I prefer to be in my 'natural' environment in order to concentrate on my research). – user237522 Nov 13 at 15:38

I'm a postdoc in computer science, working remotely for a UK university, from a different continent. However, I've been a postdoc for 2 years and it's just the last 3 months of my contract that I've arranged with my supervisor to do remotely, before that I was in the UK.

I'll add my direct experience to the chorus: being remote is hard, for motivation, for having constructive meetings, for being part of the community... there are conceivably tasks that can be done remotely, but research where you need to discuss hard problems with a supervisor are just not well suited for remote work. A few weeks at a time are manageable, but longer term is a bad idea. On the other hand, I think being on-site once a week or so, is very manageable. There are also a few administrative obstacles:

  • The terms of a fellowship / visa limit how long you're allowed to be away from the UK (it happens I'm not affect by that as I'm an EU citizen, but a friend of mine from Canada is).

  • There's a university policy that says that all academic staff have travel insurance when they travel: in this case I'm away without "travelling" and when I travel to the UK I'm at my official workplace, so why would they give me a separate insurance?

  • There could be more that I've avoided from doing the remote thing less than 3 months, and other constraints in other countries... I just mention the UK ones I know as examples.

  • Thanks. Interesting. – user237522 Nov 13 at 18:28

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