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I used to think that for research postdocs, faculty evaluate things like research potential. Now I think they still do, but they look a lot at whether the research topic interests the faculty. For example I have had a senior faculty member in some field (call it field A) tell me directly: "Field B is much sexier now than field A. Field A was very popular when I was doing my postdoc. Look at this researcher who did outstanding work in field A! Universities wouldn't hire him. He ended up getting something, but if he had worked in field B he would have done much better on the job market."

The lesson I took from this was: to succeed in academia it is not sufficient to do amazing research. It has to be amazing research in an area that interests people on the faculty of the universities you're applying to. For example, if University X has no homotopy theorists, but two representation theorists, then good results in representation theory would trump outstanding results in homotopy theory.

When applying for postdocs, there is sometimes a question asking if applicants have "faculty contacts." I am also taking this as another piece of evidence. My impression is that a blank response looks worse than being able to say: "Professor Y is a potential collaborator." It seems pretty much necessary, to get any position at a given university, to do work in an area that interests some faculty members, so that they can be enthusiastic about an applicant.

A last example. When looking at MathJobs.org you can find postdocs in Europe for working in certain research groups. To get such a position, you need to fit your research into those areas. Suppose professor X is looking for a postdoc who works on problem 1. If two strong applicants apply, but another, by chance, does work more directly related to problem 1, then that applicant would be preferred.

Looking back at my time in grad school I think this is what I should have done: Make a list of all the academics in a given field and see what work they do. Look at who gets the big grants, and what topics the big conferences are in. Based on those criteria, determine who you want to do a postdoc under. Then decide who you want for a thesis adviser. Then steer your research to be interesting to those faculty members at the universities you would like to work in for your postdoc. In other words, direct your entire academic trajectory for a postdoc position. This way, five years later when it's time to apply for jobs, you'll find faculty members interested in your work, because your entire trajectory throughout grad school was towards that goal. This seems to be the best way to get postdoc offers.

In other words, I feel that there are many traps in academia that unsuspecting grad students or junior faculty can fall into and not get out of. Is my impression accurate?

On a more personal note: I have applied for a lot of postdocs and have gotten shortlisted a few times. But I have received zero offers. I suspect that other applicants fit the position better, not because my work wasn't good work (whatever that means), or any deficiencies in my application (though I could be wrong). I have no idea how to avoid these issues in the future besides the (admittedly rather extreme) plan I had proposed.

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    I don't understand how the second paragraph relates to the rest. Can you pull it together? – Buffy Feb 26 at 19:14
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    There is no real question stated in the body, just the title. – Buffy Feb 26 at 19:15
  • on average, a nobel laureate made his discoveries 20 years before... – user847982 Feb 26 at 19:15
  • if there would be given a nobel prize for CS, you could probably drop the zero :-) – user847982 Feb 26 at 19:16
  • @Buffy: Hello. I have revised my question. I hope it is clearer. – user74089 Feb 26 at 20:46
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Let me give a contrary "strategy". Do the work that you are interested in rather than try to game out a path to success. Background:

There are two advantages of working in "trendy fields". One is that journals probably want to publish more in that area. The other is that, if students are also interested, then universities will probably want to hire teaching faculty in those areas. But, I suspect that universities are happy that you are productive in publication no matter what your research interest.

There is a downside to working in a "trendy field". There will be a lot of competition. There is likely to be more parallel research on the topic that interests you. You may well get "scooped" more often.

There is a risk factor in trying to game out your career: things change. What is trendy today might not be in a couple of years. The academic market may just fall apart when you enter it of course. But it will probably return in a few years and the "once trendy but no more" field may have a resurgence. There is no sure path.

Much better, IMO, is to find something that interests you and makes it possible for you to make a solid contribution and then follow that. You don't have to commit your entire life to it, and can change course as you go, but build a life, not just a career.

I'll make a wild arse guess that you are more likely to be a success in research if you focus more on the research and less on the success. You will probably be less angry at any setbacks, also. Work on interesting problems, collaborate with good people, bring along a lot of students. But make it satisfying.

Five years is a bit less than eternity in any job market, but not a lot less.

I'll also note, for completeness, that universities may specialize in some research areas that may be unrelated to trendiness, but only to history. It is hard to say whether they, at any given moment, want to add more faculty to that concentration or to, instead, hire someone who will bring a broader perspective to a department. Hard to game. There is an advantage, of course, for a young faculty member to join an established working group (easy collaboration) but also a disadvantage. The old codgers might just want all the credit. You don't need physical presence these days for collaboration in most fields.

  • I feel as if this response is premised on the notion that on-trend and personally interesting research is mutually exclusive. – Dawn Feb 26 at 23:32
  • @Dawn, not at all. But what is more important? – Buffy Feb 27 at 0:48
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  1. At least focus on your interests versus your advisors. We get a lot of questions from weak reeds who just bend with the wind. But at the end of the day, there's a huge investment of years by junior researchers in these projects. Need to do something you want to do. Exercise choice during advisor and project selection, stick up for yourself, etc.

  2. Obviously it's a multivariable function (not just x and y, but some z's and w's floating in there). So, you should look for something both marketable AND interesting. While, it is unlikely that optimizing for one variable will optimize for the other, there likely are several areas where you can be both interested/skillful AND that are marketable. Yes, absolutely you have to use your noggin when deciding this...and your advice to a younger you is relevant.

  3. I would be wary of something that is trendy now if it has the seeds of changing soon. String theory, nanoscience, machine learning, etc. At least don't get involved in one of these rush areas if you aren't super interested in it (I don't believe the students who all come here and say they have a "passion" for machine learning--they have a passion for getting hired by Google.)

  4. I think often there is a lot of opportunity at field boundaries (and has been for decades). "Material science" is the classic example. If you can collaborate, it opens up possibilities and often you find others can't really compete as well in the border areas (are only able to work in the core). Personally I find that a lot of fun (and also doing applied work)...so it's not even a sales BS job for grants, like with some researchers. I really like it.

  5. It's probably good if you can package yourself as both a specialist and a fundamentalist. I.e. I'm the math expert in some bizarre shale oil krieging junk. But I also can find a home as a graph theory math person (I'm making this up...not sure if those are real things...but you get the idea). Have some sexy thing like that specialty...but also make a department feel comfortable that you can teach basic classes and fit in with the core math department.

  6. This is not to say there is no demand for people drilling down the center of the field. But you better plan on being the best, then. Really top notch.

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