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Freddie was offered a post-doctoral position they did not apply for, by Sasha. Sasha and Freddie know each other because they used to share an office. The topic is quite different from what Freddie has known in the past. Freddie is surprised and hesitates to accept. Had the position been externally advertised, Freddie would not have applied for lack of self-assessed qualifications, but Sasha convinces Freddie to learn on the job. Notwithstanding the impostor syndrome, Freddie accepts, being between jobs and enjoying the opportunity to broaden skills if successful.

The risks for Sasha are quite clear: perhaps too optimistic about Freddies skills, and if unsuccessful, that will be bad for the project. But what are the risks for Freddie in this scenario? In the scenario in which Freddie is unsuccessful, how damaging would that be to academic career chances? Is the value of an unsuccessful postdoc positive, neutral, negative?


In a previous version of this question, Freddie was called Sue, and Sasha was called Sam.

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    Hmmm. Does Sam have motives beyond the job? Does he desire a non-academic relationship with Sue? If so, there is an obvious red flag here and it leaves Sue at the mercy of Sam's good will. – Buffy Jan 9 at 20:45
  • @Buffy Oh! No, I certainly don't think so. Sam forwarded a job opening to Sue for the attention of her husband hoping he could also find work in the same region. (Sues husband was interviewed but not hired.) I think Sam wanted to bypass bureaucracy normally involved with hiring and was aware Sue was looking for work, but I really don't think there's any nefarious motives. – gerrit Jan 9 at 22:24
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    @user2768 You are right. I have changed the names to be unisex and have removed any gendered pronouns. – gerrit Mar 11 at 8:24
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The main question here is what kind of postdoc Sasha needs to appoint. Does Sasha have a specific project / task that they expect Freddie to handle? To that extend is this negotiatable?

  • If Sasha has a very specific task in mind that is largely un-negotiatable (e.g., because of hard commitments to a funding agency, or because there is a specific study that Sasha really wants to do), and Freddie foresees that they won't be able to actually do this, then they are only setting themselves up for failure when accepting the postdoc. The consequence will likely be a personal fallout with Sasha and a big setback to their own career. Nobody wins here, and Freddie should decline.
  • If Sasha is more flexible, and Freddie can do something that would be of significant value to Sasha's research programme, it is likely that things will be ok. The consequence in this case will likely be that the project gets adapted or shifted to another person, and things will work out alright. (or at least it has the same chance of working out alright than any other postdoc)

Given that Sasha knows Freddie personally, and has explicitly invited them to apply, I presume that the second case is more likely than the first - but a frank discussion between Sasha and Freddie is necessary. It is possible that Sasha is not aware that Freddie lacks these skills, or that they overestimate Freddie's ability to learn the required skills on the spot, but it is equally possible (really: more likely) that Sasha is fully aware that the project will go in a different direction with hiring Freddie, and they are ok with that.

Many academics I know (including myself) care more about the potential of a candidate to do good science in their overall field than whether they are the best fit for a specific project. In other words: I would typically rather hire a great person who is a bad fit for the specific project than a medium person who is a great fit. Ultimately, I care more about good papers being written in my team than what I care about the topic of any particular project. Freddie needs to find out if this is the case for Sasha as well.

1

Choosing the right postdoc is super important. Not many people will be forgiving to Freddie if she explains that her failure to publish was due to her taking a position she wasn’t qualified for. It may be that some people would be agreeable to take her for a second postdoc, but that involves its own hassles and risks for an already unhappy Freddie.

This is all if the postdoc goes badly.

If it goes well, then it could be seen as better than a postdoc in Freddie’s field! Switching fields makes you a bridge between them and expands your skill set.

To conclude, high risks, but also high rewards!

  • 1
    Are you sure that not many people will be forgiving? Taking risks and then failing, is that so bad? – gerrit Jan 10 at 9:27
  • It’s often a numbers game. Should I take Sue who had a bad postdoc or Alice who had a great one? There’s one position to fill, often enough... – Spark Jan 10 at 10:14
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But what are the risks for Freddie in this scenario? In the scenario in which Freddie is unsuccessful, how damaging would that be to academic career chances? Is the value of an unsuccessful postdoc positive, neutral, negative?

It's probably obvious but I think it's worth mentioning: the risk is to damage their career chances by not producing anything (or very little) during the postdoc. Depending how long and how unsuccessful the postdoc is, this loss of opportunity might undermine their future applications when compared to other candidates who would have maximized their scientific production.

(I'm saying this based on my own experience: a few years ago I had applied unsuccessfully for positions after a couple unproductive years; when asking for feedback I was told that my low publications/year ratio was an important factor)

Notwithstanding the impostor syndrome, Freddie accepts, being between jobs and enjoying the opportunity to broaden skills if successful.

Despite the risk, this sounds a reasonable choice to me. The fact that the PI is aware of the risk but encouraging anyway is a big advantage in this scenario, since the candidate can expect the PI to be helpful and patient. Together they could establish a plan with specific targets for the postdoc, and agree to pull the plug at a certain point in time if things really don't work out.

0

It's possible Sam invited Sue to apply because Sam did not expect anyone as qualified as Sue to seek the position. Maybe Sue is overqualified in reality, and should seek a better position.

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review – Buzz Feb 9 at 2:51
  • @Buzz The asker wanted to know what the risks are. I have identified a risk. The real issue is that the asker has multiple questions. Of course there are other valid answers. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 9 at 2:55
  • If there are multiple questions in the question, than one ought to suggest improvements by comments or vote to close, not write an answer. – Tommi Brander Mar 11 at 11:58
  • @TommiBrander I post here to give people helpful answers, not to improve the quality of the questions. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 12 at 0:06

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