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For context, I've been a postdoc in computer science for about 3 years. I recently wrote a grant and was awarded a fellowship for 2 years.

I've heard from multiple sources that if I don't get a tenure-track position in the next two years it will become very difficult for me to have an academic research career. But I don't need the kind of job security that allows me to get paid if I stop working—I just need some kind of agreement that I can keep my job while I'm productive. This is pretty common in other jobs, so why in this case am I being told that it's basically tenure or nothing?

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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/a/120046/93566 – Erwan Aug 29 at 9:58
  • Do organisations like CSIRO or the research wings of certain companies in industry that hire full-time researchers count for this question? – nick012000 Aug 29 at 11:45
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    What country? (Must add characters... – user2768 Aug 29 at 12:21
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    I don't need the kind of job security that allows me to get paid if I stop working What is wrong with having both job security and be productive? – PsySp Aug 29 at 15:58
  • People who get tenure generally don't need it. However the tenure track is traditionally at least the main career path for professors in college. This is changing but only a little. So to not start on it is to not progress in your career. Note that professors are more than teachers and researchers. They also share a ton of the administrative work in a college. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 1 at 21:28
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The reason is simply that possessing a tenure-track faculty position (and then obtaining tenure) is the primary performance indicator for long-term careers at most institutes where research is the primary responsibility.

There are some exceptions - some universities offer a research professor position: you pay your salary from grants you secure, and as long as you do that you can continue working there.

You can also work as a lab manager/research scientist in a university, which is a term contract that is extended based on merit.

Some private research institutes (Google/Facebook/Amazon etc.) offer research positions (that are highly competitive and well-paid), but there are also many other private research laboratories that offer a similar deal to what you describe (though in that case your research needs to be focused on what these institutes care about, and is not entirely up to you).

I'd also mention that tenured professors are still expected to be productive and get grants. Though it is more difficult to fire them, becoming completely inactive for no reason is probably not going to be good for your long-term career. In other words, to some extent tenure track faculty face the same agreement, especially when they're not tenured yet.

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    “Why am I being told that it’s basically tenure or nothing” - I’m directly answering this – Spark Aug 29 at 11:53
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    in other words, why can't they have never ending postdocs even in institutes that have this kind of indicators for performance? – Dilworth Aug 29 at 12:06
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    @Dilworth, I think that, in a lot of minds, if you have had a lot of post-docs but never a "real" position, your competence comes into question. Even when there are not specific rules limiting post docs. Also, in academia, there is a notion of moral-tenure. If you are good enough to keep around more than seven years you should be good enough for tenure. – Buffy Aug 29 at 12:57
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    @Dilworth OP asked why people are saying tenure or nothing. This answer says: because the long term research jobs (what OP wants) are mainly tenure track jobs, with some exceptions (also mentioned in this answer). – Bryan Krause Aug 29 at 14:10
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    @BryanKrause, Unfortunately I don't understand neither the full terminology nor the grammar of the sentence "for most institutes that use research as a primary performance indicator, a tenure-track faculty position is it.", so possibly the sentence does say what you write. On the other hand, even what you write does not seem to be an answer to the OP: The OP doesn't want a long term research (single) job. But is asking something else: the OP wishes to have possibly many and short-term research positions, like postdocs. That is, the OP asks whether he can continue as a postdoc forever. – Dilworth Aug 29 at 17:24
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In the United States, at least, there are a lot more non-tenure research positions than is often perceived.

Even if we ignore the (vast) number of positions in which one can do fundamental scientific research outside of universities, there are lots of non-tenure-track research positions at universities as well. Sometimes these positions are associated with individual grants ("soft money" positions), but the longer term ones are more often with various "centers" and "institutes", all of which tend to exist outside of traditional departments. Some examples I'm personally familiar with include Harvard's Wyss Institute, BU's Hariri Institute, the MIT Broad Institute, and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. These all involve complex mixes of faculty and non-faculty researchers in various complex arrangements, and can readily support long-term academic research careers past the "post-doc" phase.

For people at smaller institutions or stuck in a department-centric mindset, however, it's easy to overlook or discount these "non-traditional" careers. Likewise, once people choose one path or the other, it's relatively rare to switch, though by no means unheard of.

This may be why you are being told "now or never" by various people. You don't say what country you are from, so it also might be that things are different in your country. To the best of my knowledge, however, most other developed countries are much the same as the USA in having a large academic research "demi-monde", though the particular mechanisms and and organizations differ greatly.

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Strictly speaking, there are no limitations on the number of postdocs that you work in. The limitations tend to be external and implied in the contracts or regulations around the issue of postdocs.

In France, there is a law against ongoing contracts if there is evidence of continuous employment and work for five years. So this would impact postdocs in France. I am not sure about other states.

Another example is the limitations of the short-term US visa or J-1s being limited to 5 years - Quora article

The other possible relevant angle is the granting institution of your postdocs have a 5 year limitation as well. Some institutions that grant post-docs nationally or states have time-limits. It might be worthwhile emailing or checking your current and previous post-docs to see whether there is a time limitation if you do decide to keep going with post-docs.

  • It's all situational – Poidah Aug 29 at 14:19
  • Maybe only 10% of cases these situations are relevant? If you are in France a 100%. If you have a visa then 100% but it sounds like it is not as common as you seem to imply. And I am not attempting to mislead as well – Poidah Aug 29 at 14:21
  • I am not sure how your nitpicking and hostility on just about everyone's post is helpful and in the spirit of StackExchange. I am pretty sure it has contributed to the low participation rates in the psychology SE. My comment was about the J-1 visa requirement and not about NSF or the NIH etc. Happy to amend my post though but I suspect that the NSF and NIH is not representative. But your persistent attitude of trying to catch people out and put ppl down is tozic. In Facebook you would have been called out for trolling. In the FB groups I moderate you would be blocked and banned without a blink – Poidah Aug 29 at 15:06
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    Happy to amend and do the research but I am arguing that it is rare from my impression of the OPs question. If OP is in France for example, someone would have told the OP about work limitations. If J-1 applies then the immigration department would have said something by now. If there is data about the spread of post docs then maybe your NSF and NIH would be relevant. But I suspect as OP is in comp sci, these agencies are irrelevant... – Poidah Aug 29 at 15:16
  • Okay, thanks for considering my comments. – Bryan Krause Aug 29 at 15:45
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Funding and institutional policies are the major barriers to your plan.

There are a fairly large number of fellowships available for newly-minted PhDs looking to start a postdoc. These are often only open to people who graduated within the last 1-2 years. A number of other fellowships have slightly longer cut-offs: the Burrows-Wellcome Fund CASI award cuts off at 60 months post-PhD, and the NIH's K99 program is also limited to people within 4-5 years of their degree, and all training grants cut off at ~7 years. At the same time, many places also prevent non-"permanent" staff from applying for pure research grants, on the grounds that you're a) committing the university to do years of work but b) might not have a funded position then. (Yes, this seems to apply even when the grant contains funding for that very position. No, they don't seem to see the Catch-22).

At the same time, you're also getting more expensive. My institution has a 5 year "term limit" for postdocs, after which you have to become a "Research Associate" or "Research Assistant." This title change requires a slightly higher (though still objectively low) salary and more benefits (retirement, etc). The interaction between you a) costing more and b) definitely requiring money from a research grant, leads many lab heads to prefer younger applicants who cost less and could get their own money soon. To be clear, I think this is a totally ridiculous, wasteful, and possibly discriminatory—situation, and these policies ought to be reworked to avoid it. Nevertheless, it's going to be tough until they are.

The solution is to make sure that you're a good value for the money. Along with producing solid research on your own, take an active role in helping out with other projects in the group. Look for money where you can. Some foundations don't care much about career stage. You can also look for funding opportunities where you'll have a major role, even if you're not the formal PI. There are a very few staff scientist funding programs too. The NIH has an R50 "Research Specialist" grant that supports similar jobs (though with some restrictions on the person and environment), as does the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Finally, you can lobby funders and agencies to reconsider their time-based eligibility limits. The NIH recently extended some K99 windows from 4 to 5 years for under-represented applicants, and I think the Wellcome Trust is removing all time considerations from some programs (though not CASI, which is probably the most relevant to a computer scientist).

  • While there's obviously a lot of correlation between age and experience, a preference for hiring cheaper and less experienced postdocs is a distinctly different goal than hiring based on age. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 1 at 2:32
  • It nevertheless has a disparate impact on a protected class of people (older than 40), which is one legal standard under Title VII. Admittedly, it's a little weird here because one group's decisions (funders) is driving a second group's (PIs) decisions, but even if it's not a legal slam-dunk, I think the "emergent agism" is ethically questionable (and a waste of good, well-trained people!). – Matt Sep 5 at 14:46
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If I understand your question, it seems that you ask whether you can secure postdoc jobs that will allow you to continue your research, as long as you are productive, forever. That is, without getting a tenure-track position or a permanent position.

The answer is most probably: "No" (for CS in North America). If you are not on a tenure track/permanent post after about five years of PhD, then even if you are productive you will find it very hard to find postdoc positions. Until you will get none, hence ending your research career in approximately less than 10 years after PhD completion, regardless of your productivity.

There are few rare exceptions: there are never-ending postdocs (research assistants of some sort) that go with their postdoc host for decades. But this is rare, and this is not a good position to be in (money wise, and independent research wise). On the other hand, if you find these positions good for you (no admin, no teaching though low salary and no ability to form your own group), you may like such deals.

  • You may want to note that your "about five years" figure is specifically for computer science in North America. The appropriate number varies significantly across different fields and different regions. – David Schaich Aug 31 at 13:46
  • Correct! ------- – Dilworth Aug 31 at 13:55
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Large employers typically have some degree of standardization of compensation across hires. Most large employers offer health care coverage as part of the standard compensation package, most large employers offer standard retirement packages as part of their standard compensation package. You can't just tell Microsoft that you don't want a 401k or you want to opt out of the possibility of ever using their health care coverage. Most large employers have rules about the salary ranges for employees based on type of position and level of experience. You can't just tell Google "I want a job running a large team, but I want the job to be at T3 instead T6." Bonuses are part of the standard package at many finance companies, and you can't just say when you're hired "I want to opt out of the bonus system." At many law firms in order to do a certain level of work you need to be a partner in the firm, and many firms will not allow you to stay as an associate beyond a certain point.

Of course in all of these situations you could argue that if an employee wants to be compensated less than other employees in the same role, why shouldn't the company just take them up on that? But again and again most professions don't decide to work this way. It's bad for company morale. It's expensive for HR to keep track of weird bespoke contracts. Compensation well below the median is bad for retaining employees, since if the employee is valuable another company will hire them away with the standard package.

In academia in the United States, tenure is part of the standard package of compensation. Positions without tenure for mid-career academics are unusual. If a school wanted to start offering positions without tenure, they would either have to significantly increase compensation in some other way, or they would end up in a situation where all their good employees left. If they hired some people with tenure and some without tenure to do the same job it would be difficult to maintain a conducive working environment.

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    Everyone's calculation would be a bit different, but to me tenure is worth roughly as much as a guaranteed $300K severance package plus $15K/year in salary. In academia hiring only happens once per year and most jobs are located in cities with no comparable job opportunities even if you were to leave academia. So I'd want at least 2 years of expected salary at age 50 in severance to consider a non-tenured position in a college town, plus extra money for retirement to compensate for the possibility of being forced to retire a few years earlier than planned. – Noah Snyder Aug 29 at 19:15
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Define “productive”.

Getting some form of job security is quite desirable so normally qualified candidates will eventually get offered tenure so that professors can enter longer term projects such as supervising students, and can tackle longer term problems without the fear of loosing your position because of decreased productivity over the short term.

Possibly the best example of such a long term endeavour was Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s last theorem, which took 6 years to complete, something unthinkable to attack unless you have tenure. Of course while the research of most tenured professors is not conducted over so many years in such quasi-secret as Wiles, it would be wrong to suggest most stop tenured faculty working/being productive once they are tenured.

Tenure also plays an important role in protecting academic freedom: tenured professors can undertake (and publish) research on or discuss controversial issues without fear of retribution (in principle), and can likewise criticize others (including administrators) usually with no consequence on their employment (provided some limits of civility is maintained).

Overall, I venture to say that good tenured professors are the backbone of most academic systems, and universities know this. Granting them tenure is a mark of confidence which reflects the commitment of the institution to the candidate: if you are not tenured after many years, people (read: students and funding agencies) will suspect something’s not right with the professor.

One can not deny that some abuse the system and the privilege of tenure, but thankfully these are not the majority.

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I don't need the kind of job security that allows me to get paid if I stop working—I just need some kind of agreement that I can keep my job while I'm productive.

You're misunderstanding tenure. Tenure is much closer to what you said you want. Professors don't actually keep their jobs if they just sit around and do nothing - and their employment agreements don't say that they have this entitlement.** Tenure is about not getting fired without good cause**. Effectively, it's about not getting fired when you are (at least moderately) productive; and not being in a continual rat-race of having to please and impress people to maintain your position.

Also, post-doc employment conditions are terrible, but in a sense that's a different problem; i.e. I believe academic staff unions should make temporary and fixed-term positions at least as expensive per hour to institutions than permanent positions, if not more, to discourage them from artificially preferring temporaries.

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