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I am wondering if there is a stigma attached to holding too many soft-money positions when looking for a tenure-track position in the area of computer science.

In computer science, postdoc positions were uncommon, but after the Dot-com bust and a general trend toward not hiring tenure-track faculty in the early 2000s, there are now many more postdoc positions in that discipline.

Do people who hold too many postdocs (or too long of a postdoc) get disadvantaged? Do they acquire a stigma of "This person can't hold a tenure-track job" or "This person bounces around too much" or "This person can't do independent research and relies too much on soft money"?

I know of a handful of faculty members who have been hired after multiple postdocs and visiting faculty positions so it seems that it isn't a permanent roadblock, but it could be a path I might not want to go down just in case it is.

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    I always thought of post-doc positions as something you do until you can find a tenure track position. But lately, I have heard a growing trend against having too many of such positions. I'm extremely curious to hear the answers to this question! – Paul Dec 21 '13 at 2:28
  • Reiterating @aeismall's first point: > The number of PhD recipients is growing at a much faster rate than the > number of available tenure-track positions. We, graduate students (PhD/Master), as minions of academia are nothing but scientific/humanities peddlers selling our ideas to the world. Only the catels and the kingpins of science/humanities enjoy the suite life. see alexandreafonso.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/… – alvas Dec 28 '13 at 18:54
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There are multiple simultaneous trends which are working against one another:

  • The number of PhD recipients is growing at a much faster rate than the number of available tenure-track positions.
  • More and more locations have been instituting term limits on the length of postdoctoral positions.
  • Hiring committees are not as receptive to applicants who have done too many postdoctoral positions.

This leads to a lot of challenges for many academic aspirants. Personally, my impression is that the dangers are as follows:

  • Remaining in any single postdoctoral position for more than about three years.
  • Accepting more than two postdoctoral assignments.

Once either of those thresholds have been crossed, I think it starts to hurt an applicant later in their career. The exception to this might be "research professorships" and "staff scientist" positions that are seen to be more permanent than a postdoctoral position. Even in these positions, however, there is always the challenge that it can be difficult to transition to a different position afterwards.

  • I would reiterate 'The number of PhD recipients is growing at a much faster rate than the number of available tenure-track positions.' – alvas Dec 28 '13 at 18:49
  • "Personally, my impression is that the dangers are as follows..." This was my "personal impression" as well, but I am wondering if this is something that is discussed, for example, by faculty search committees and is a real risk to hiring the candidate. I appreciate the answer, but would like to gather more evidence. – Irwin Dec 30 '13 at 18:17
  • I don't have enough experience with faculty hiring committees to confirm that; what I have seen is how few scientists have followed "non-orthodox" paths to academia. – aeismail Dec 30 '13 at 19:22
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In computer science, it's not yet common for people to be doing multipe postdocs before acquiring a faculty position. It's more common to see someone doing a single postdoc (or a virtual postdoc by working in an industrial lab). So it's hard to say whether there is a stigma or not. If anything, I suspect that having a postdoc might improve one's chances at getting an interview at department, assuming that the candidate has used the postdoc to

  • beef up their resume
  • establish connections (and letters of reference) with well known researchers

As a general matter though, if someone appears to have gone through a series of postdocs, I might at least wonder why. But I'm sympathetic to the vagaries of the job market and might not think more of it if the candidate looks promising in other respects.

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My feeling is that multiple postdoc positions are harder on yourself than the others. Most people fully understand that a lot of the tenure-track selection that goes on can be somewhat random, and that the job market fluctuates. So I think that simply by being unlucky, you can get stuck with many postdoc positions.

However, my experience is that most people who go through multiple postdocs eventually get tired of the itinerant lifestyle of an academic. CS postdocs have enormous earning potential, and at some point, they get sick of it, and accept an industry-level job (higher pay, living in a great city, the settled-down grownup lifestyle, etc.) I mean, can you imagine being a postdoc for ten years?

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