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I've heard from not a few people that the first postdoc can be quite tough. You've been kicked out of the nest and have to figure out for yourself what's worth working on, what's likely to turn into a real project, etc. Many new postdocs struggle to publish or even submit anything in their first year. Considering the high stakes of academic careers, it makes me wonder if that in and of itself is a sign to pause and figure out a different career path. To put it as a question,

Is your paper output the first year of your first postdoc a good metric for future performance?

I imagine it is actually possible to answer this question rigorously with data, but I would be content with anecdotal responses from senior academics.

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    What field are you in? – iayork Jun 4 at 14:51
  • A relatively competitive scientific field. – artificial_moonlet Jun 9 at 14:53
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    Biology? Medicine? High-energy physics? The de facto expectations for publications are wildly different for different fields, so the more information you can g I've the more helpful responses can be. – iayork Jun 10 at 9:48
  • Understandably. Unfortunately, for what I hope are obvious reasons, I prefer maintain an air of secrecy on this public forum. – artificial_moonlet Jun 10 at 15:16
  • A typical project in my field takes about 1.5 to 2 years... The idea that you can get something published in your first year is just unrealistic, esp. if you are new to the field. – Drecate Jul 4 at 18:04
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If you're not productive early, it's doubtful you will be competitive for higher end jobs in academia. It's a tournament system and the odds are against you, just numerically. Doesn't mean you are a bad person or a dummy. But yes, maybe getting out of academia and into the general economy or government is wise.

It's important for young researchers to pick projects that are high likelihood of success. Or "areas" with potential for several papers. I once told a grad student in my group "how will you publish that when it doesn't work", who was being pushed to do a dumb set of experiments by my advisor. And I meant it. (Some things can/can't publish negative results.) Probably shouldn't do dumb experiments...but at least if you can publish some "data point" paper(s) afterwards it's not a total loss.

Don't just be a non-thinking "subordinate". Have your own opinions. There are always more possible things to do than time to do them. Give your time to what deserves it. If you are incapable of having good opinions about what projects are worthwhile...you are NOT a budding PI.

Yes, you should be a paper-cranking machine as a postdoc. If you can't do it now, how will you do it when you are tenure track at an R1 school? This isn't grad school and you should hit the deckplates running. And avoid multi-year laser building projects like the plague. Let some other sap do those.

Look at these two questions of yours: Should I quit a project where I can't see how to contribute? and How to tactfully "decommit" from projects? I would think the answer to these early questions would be obvious now, in the context of this later one. You need to focus and churn out first author papers.

P.s. I'm sure the "reassurance crowd" will down vote this. But you need to hear the cynical view.

  • I appreciate your cynical response, actually-- it's clear that if I wanted to be a tenure-track professor then I would need to be working myself to the ground busting out tons of papers. Good thing I don't. – artificial_moonlet Jul 5 at 8:52
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Is [the first] paper output [during] the first year of your first postdoc a good metric for future performance?

In my opinion: No. (Although I agree that "it is actually possible to answer this question rigorously with data," that's rather time consuming.) Opinion-based questions are off-topic here, but in the context of the following back story, I think I can provide a reasoned answer.

You've been kicked out of the nest and have to figure out for yourself what's worth working on, what's likely to turn into a real project, etc.

I disagree with the above rationale: Once "[y]ou've been kicked out of the nest," you have research that can be published (possibly with some additional work). So, the first paper published after leaving needn't require "[you] to figure out for yourself what's worth working on, what's likely to turn into a real project, etc.," you can publish research that was largely conducted before leaving.

  • Research from the PhD actually turned out to be part of the problem for me-- it required an additional year of work to submit it and kept me from getting new collaborations off the ground. Other people I know of really didn't have much else they could publish from their theses and spent their first postdoc year trying to figure out what to do next. Do you think it's possible to recover from even these situations? – artificial_moonlet Jun 10 at 15:22
  • @artificial_moonlet What's the question? Recovering from being "kept...from...new collaborations"? Or recovering from "spen[ding a] first postdoc year trying to figure out what to do"? – user2768 Jun 10 at 15:31
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There are at least two ways to treat a first postdoc or the first year of any academic job post degree.

The first is to use it to work over the backlog of problems that you saved in your "work backlog" notebook. You have one of those, right? If you are still as student, reading this, I suggest you get started on one immediately. If you saved descriptions of work that you had to put on hold during your dissertation work along with hints, and if you reviewed and updated the backlog periodically, you can probably get quite a few publications started or even into the pipeline by the end of your first year. You don't really want to be starting with a clean slate.

The second way to approach the first year is to get yourself attached to other researchers in your field for collaborative work. If the institution has a large enough faculty, most of them can be local. You may not be "first author" on everything (anything), but you can get out there, but also establish relationships that will last and boost your productivity. If you are in a small place, or isolated by subfield, you can, perhaps, use conferences to meet people and try to set up communities of interest, or join those that already exist.

In general, though, it is good to be working on a variety of things of different difficulty. Some of them might result in early publications, but aren't earth shattering. Others, you can work on for wider impact, though the going may be much slower.

And when you go for the next job, that backlog of work in progress is your friend.

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