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I am currently halfway through my first postdoc (a two-year position). I have a Ph.D. in physics, published 3 papers during it, and since this postdoc is in a slightly different field, I still haven't published anything.

I am moderately comfortable in my original field, meaning that if I work for some months on something, it will most likely render some sort of publication (usually in Journal of Physics A/B or Physical Review A). However, my current situation at work is very stressful. I have less freedom than I thought I'd have to work on my own ideas, and the research environment is very dull. I find myself working on problems that might be simply too hard, and perhaps I can't solve them.

I started to wonder what will happen if I turn out not publishing anything during these two years. When I was struggling in my Ph.D., thinking about dropping everything and becoming a monk, I heard from many experienced researchers that it was OK if my Ph.D. was crappy. That the Ph.D. is not the "big filter" in the life of a researcher... And that this is the function of the first postdoc. They told me this is a decisive moment because people will not hire you afterward if you do poorly. In your Ph.D., the fact that you're still more of a student than a researcher usually saves you some explanations, but for the first postdoc, the lack of publications looks really bad when applying to a follow-up position. This is naturally very simplistic (a postdoc might not publish anything simply because his/her research group is non-existent, the boss is crazy, family problems, etc). However, if I were myself on the board analyzing applications, I cannot promise I wouldn't consider the lack of publications as a red flag.

If this filter is true, it makes the situation of someone who just happened to be unlucky in his/her first postdoc quite depressing. Maybe they will have to give up academia and go to industry, even if they don't want to, just because no one accepts them. As I really don't want to move away from academic research, I'm starting to get very anxious about this topic...

Well then... Is my stress justified? Will I be able to find another postdoc after this one even if I don't publish?

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  • 5
    If you are feeling anxious/stressed, discuss that with a mental health professional. Feb 19 at 0:40
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    @AnonymousPhysicist not looking for medical advice, but thank you for your suggestion. Feb 19 at 0:44
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    Ignore all job market advice from people who haven't gone in the job market in the last three years. Difficulty level: this includes mine.
    – user133933
    Feb 19 at 2:38
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    If you notice that you're not productive in your first post-doc, you need to get out of it, possibly by switching to a different post-doc. The amount of spilt milk after three years is much bigger than after 6 months of an unproductive post-doc. Feb 19 at 7:53
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    Three publications in total after one postdoc in quantum science won't look good. If the group you're in is not a good environment, try publishing yourself or apply somewhere else asap. When asked why you applied early, this is much easier to explain than that you just sat there for 2 years and waited for it to be over. Of course, if everyone else thinks/knows that your current advisor does good work and promotes their postdocs, this probably won't save you. - Or just keep writing papers with your collaborators from your PhD. But you'll need an answer if asked what you did the last two years.
    – user151413
    Feb 19 at 22:17
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Like many other things in academia, this depends.

Having an unproductive postdoc is a point that will definitely come up with any future hiring committee. I’ve sat on a few myself (CS departments) and productivity is considered at every period of your academic life. Of course, if a candidate had a stellar PhD it will make up for it to an extent, but it’s entirely possible that such a candidate will be passed over in favor of a candidate with a less impressive PhD but a more consistent performance overall.

Such “performance gaps” always raise questions - does this indicate an issue with working independently? Working in a group?

Another point to consider is reference letters. Your postdoc host is not likely to write you a glowing letter if you are unproductive, which will hurt your chances of landing a position later on.

That being said, research does not always result in publications. If you made progress on an important problem and have at least a preprint/workshop publication, this may be enough. Hence, your focus should be on productivity rather than on the end product.

A postdoc is also an excellent time to show your commitment to the research community. Organizing workshops, taking on higher-ranking roles in program committees, setting up tutorials, writing a useful blog... All excellent ways of putting yourself out there and making yourself more marketable. Of course - research should absolutely come first, as it is the main evaluation criterion.

Remember - you successfully completed your PhD, you can (at least according to empirical evidence) succeed in this as well! Good luck!

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    Assuming a 5-year PhD and a two-year postdoc, how is that so? It’s almost 30% of your academic career thus far.
    – Spark
    Feb 19 at 3:07
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    In physics it's not unusual for it to take two years between when a paper is first drafted and when it is published. I guess CS is different. Feb 19 at 3:18
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    Your postdoc host is not likely to write you a glowing letter if you are unproductive, unlikely as it may sound, there do exist other research outputs than papers ;-) Maybe the postdoc resulted in a great dataset that researchers use, but time ran out before time to describe it in a paper. Maybe postdoc was decisive in getting a large measurement campaign to be approved, but time/funding ran out for postdoc to participate in this (or measurement campaign was cancelled due to a pandemic). I'm sure hiring committees will discuss "why no papers", but a reference letter might still be glowing.
    – gerrit
    Feb 19 at 13:52
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    @Anon If I were a postdoc with no publications, I'd certainly try to post preprints on the Arxiv. I also feel that with not posting on the Arxiv you seem to be a minority in physics (fortunately, as far as I am concerned.)
    – user151413
    Feb 20 at 2:20
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    @gerrt the second comment regarding research not being the main driver of a postdoc may be field dependent, but at least in CS/math I have never heard of someone taking a postdoc not with the objective of conducting scientific research. Are you familiar with disciplines (namely, in physics) where this is the case?
    – Spark
    Feb 22 at 5:49
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Sort of.

Yes, the first post-doc is one of "the big filters" of becoming a professional academic, but not for the reason you're supposing. The simple truth is that the vast majority of PhD students don't get hired into jobs in academia at all; at my university, the ratio is something like 90% of PhD students find jobs in industry afterwards, rather than in academia.

As a result, simply getting a post-doc job at all represents crossing a big filter that weeds out the vast majority of PhD students, regardless of your performance during it. You might still fail at the expectations of the people who hired you and not progress your career in academia any further, of course, but simply by getting a post doc job you've already progressed your career past the first major hurdle.

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    I think this is highly field and location dependent. I can speak from experience that in applied CS and Europe, finding a postdoc position is not a filter - literally everybody who wants one and is willing to move will get one. What really weeds out people is getting anything without an inherent expiration date.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 19 at 20:47
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    In my experience, there are much more postdoc positions than reasonable applicants.
    – user151413
    Feb 19 at 22:24
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    Yeah, it’s true that many people leave academia after their degree, but in my experience that’s most often because they didn’t particularly want to stay. Feb 20 at 1:16
  • Thanks for the answer, but I don't believe in this optimistic view. I received so many postdoc offers that I lost count, and it's not because I'm particularly good, just because there are way more positions than applicants. Feb 23 at 9:51
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I started to wonder what will happen if I turn out not publishing anything during these two years.

It depends on the field, on your career aims, and on whether you have any other outputs — apart from papers.

In science, papers are the most common metric for academic output, but they're not the only thing. A totally failed postdoc may end your academic career, either by ending your motivation to continue or by not being hired, but it doesn't have to be. Getting a faculty position is very hard. Getting another postdoc is much easier.

Papers are not the only possible academic output. Alternate outputs are highly field dependent.

I worked on a project where I produced enough material for 4-5 papers, but only managed writing one first-author paper in four years, because we were perpetually stressed by non-paper deliverables to the funding agency. We were setting new standards on how to do things, publishing detailed reports and datasets of 2–50 TB. Probably by working evenings and weekends I could have written 1-2 more papers, and this may have been needed if I'd had the aim to become a tenured full research professor, but I chose life instead. But I had a good recommendation letter, an award at a conference, and success in subsequent job applications, albeit in government institutes rather than academia. Nobody asked me "why only one first-author paper in four years?" — they were familiar with the project I'd worked on and impressed with its outputs and my role in it (pity but understandable that we didn't write more papers).

Or maybe results from a postdoc are instrumental in getting a field campaign approved, but you run out of time/money before it happens. Probably your supervisor will be happy.

In conclusion: lack of papers may mean trouble, but not necessary. Whether it means trouble may depend on your career aims and on if you have produced any other results rather than just papers, and certainly also on the field.

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Disclaimer: my background is in fundamental science with a strong attiguity to applied science. A rather stupid thumbs rule is that an excellent PhD publishes 1 paper per year, a PostDoc/advanced researcher 2 papers per year, however ...

Postdoc? Publishing? Who cares.

A PhD student is a student that does 100% of his time research, then additionally some other things like TA and learning new skills: that's the PreDoc phase. Then, you are a PostDoc, where you spend 100% of your time doing research, and in your free time you do some other things, like teaching, learning new skills, supervising PhDs and so on. Additionally, you should start to demonstrate to be a good fundc catcher and a decent project manager as well, so you spend some of your free time from all the activities above to write proposals. Yes, you have additional free time, unfortunately it is imaginary as in algebra: it exists, but you see it only because of some weird effects (like burnout and so on...)

There is a transient of 1 nanosecond, when you get your Doc/Dr title, in that time you are a researcher free to investigate and spend all your time in research.

Anyhow, if during your postdoc you manage to get fundings for whatever projects/phd, your publication record will take care for itself in the near future.

If during your postdoc you manage to:

  • spend some time (1-3 months) visiting another group with respect to the one you are affiliated, building relevant connections or at least putting some solid grounds towards a joint publication; and
  • submitting at least one paper as first author in 2 years, or a patent; or
  • getting relevant funds (roughly equivalent to one year of your salary + research costs, or at least for 6/12 months for a side project of a PhD student in your group);

Then yes, your chances of getting another PostDoc or an Assistant professorship or equivalent are higher than the PostDoc not completing any of the above mentioned things.

Papers? they will come, but a human being can publish one paper per year working full-time, if you are required to publish two/three papers per year either you get funds to have some PhD/postdoc to work for you or ... you give up: Taylor was a rather poor scholar, a person can complete a certain task x working 8h per day for 6 months, but no person will complete 2 tasks x working 16 hours per day for 6 months.

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  • I do not think your expectations are typical. Feb 20 at 21:37
  • @ZeroTheHero On one hand, I stated that a rather stupid thumbs rule is that an excellent PhD [...] On the other hand, my expectations are expectations from someone that survived a PhD and thinks that after (right after) a PhD a person should be capable of being an independent researcher. If this is not common, unfortunately it is due to the system we built, where PhD students are considered buckets to be filled with very specific notions about one topic while at the same time being underpaid to be TA to whatever product modern Unis are selling to their customers.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 22 at 13:56
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    I don't disagree with your expectations, just sayin' they are not typical. I concur that, in too many instances, a graduate degree and even a postdoc are a plus for the supervisor, not the supervisee. Feb 22 at 14:37
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    I think your answer is nice, but it doesn't fit the physics environment very well. The funding part of it does not apply, for instance. Teaching and supervising students are also part of the job and should not be considered things to do in your free time (free time = unrelated to research, necessarily). Regarding assistant professorship, no one will offer this to someone that doesn't have at least a couple dozen papers, is well recognized, and has possibly done 3 or 4 posdocs already (tenured positions are nearly impossible to get in Europe). Feb 23 at 9:56
  • @QuantumBrick thanks for your remarks. Can you clarify if the couple dozen papers must be as first author? With the teaching as part of the job, I agree with you, but I am quite sure that the 4 hours/week as TA requires more or less 10-20 hours per week of preparation, especially in the case of new (for the TAs) courses (which is almost always the case for the first 3/4 years of career). And the TA job is paid for 4h/week, not for 14-24h/week. Free time should be free, then there is working time, in which research and teaching must be contained.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 23 at 11:45
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That the PhD is not the "big filter" in the life of a researcher... And that this is the function of the first postdoc. They told me this is a decisive moment because people will not hire you afterwards if you do poorly.

This is a myth.

Will I be able to find another postdoc after this one even if I don't publish?

Not publishing during your 2 year postdoc will not be a decisive factor.

So what is the big filter? Your overall publication record. To get academic research jobs, your publication record must be larger, better quality, and more relevant than the competition. Only the hiring committee knows what the competition has done.

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    Well... My publication record will most certainly be smaller if I don't publish during those two years. So... It does look like a filter? Feb 19 at 0:43
  • No, that's wrong. It depends on the job and the other applicants. If you want a tenure track position at a research university in physics, you would need 20+ publications. There's no way you can get that many after 2 years as a postdoc. If you want another postdoc, you might be competing against people with zero publications, in which case you might win. Feb 19 at 0:45
  • The statement that it will not be a decisive factor is, well, overly decisive. Can you guarantee this?
    – Spark
    Feb 19 at 2:10
  • Anonymous people on the internet do not offer guarantees. For any given criterion, you can find someone who will hire based on it. But you'll notice Spark's answer is about the same as mine. Feb 19 at 2:56

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