I've been a neuroscience postdoc for the past ~2.5 years and have recently applied to Assistant Professor positions in various R1 universities within the US. I decided to apply mainly for timing reasons: there were lots of good open positions and I'd had a very productive 2018 (with many pubs from grad school coming out). Now, having received several interview invitations, I'm starting to wonder what I'd do if I got offered a job.

The reason for my hesitation is that I have changed areas in my postdoc (going from experimental work to theory/modeling and machine learning). I really like my new research area, but I feel like in the past 2.5 years I haven't learned enough about it yet, nor have I established myself as a theorist/modeler. There's so much more that I still want to explore, and I feel that as a PI I would not have the time to learn and develop new research directions, new collaborations, etc.

If I do end up getting a job offer, would I be crazy not to take it, given how competitive the market is? More generally, what's the right time to transition from postdoc to PI?

  • 1
    Part of a PI's job is to learn and develop new research directions, new collaborations, etc. Could you clarify why you feel that you wouldn't be able to do this?
    – user2768
    Jan 28 '19 at 17:22
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    The right time is when you get a PI-level job. Well, actually before you get the job so you can show you can do the job...
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 28 '19 at 17:32
  • @user2768: My impression is that, as a PI, you don't have as much time for these things because you end up spending a lot of it teaching and writing grants. But even with respect to research time, you probably want to spend all your effort on areas you've already mastered since the tenure clock is ticking.
    – NewPI
    Jan 28 '19 at 18:07
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    This is hard for anyone but yourself to answer as it depends on the amount and kind of risk you want to take on. You might be able to get better advice from someone who you have worked with and can judge your potential. I've voted to close, since it is, fundamentally, a personal choice.
    – Buffy
    Jan 28 '19 at 18:22

If you do get a job offer, then yes, I think you’d be slightly crazy not to take it - more precisely, to not take it based on the concerns in your question would be a somewhat irrational decision. However, one thing you could do in that situation is negotiate a late start date that would give you time to continue your postdoc for X more years (assuming that is an option that’s available to you). I have seen this done and think this has a reasonable chance of success with X=1. For higher values of X I have never heard of anyone doing it, so I suspect the chances are not high, nor do I think it’s particularly advisable, but if it’s important to you you can still look into whether that’s a possibility.

In general, while you are somewhat correct in thinking that when you start a tenure-track position you become less “free” than a postdoc, and have more responsibilities and duties and therefore a bit less free time than a postdoc to explore and learn new areas, I think that’s beside the point. All the things you can do as a postdoc, you still can do, and in fact are still expected to do, as a PI. You also start acquiring important new skills and abilities that enable you to take your research and career to the next step. If you don’t feel ready for it, that’s probably because a lot of people don’t feel ready for it, so that’s completely normal. But regardless, the best time to do it is whenever people judge you are good enough to offer you a job that appeals to you. Good luck!

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