I am finishing my PhD at a famous research institution located in Europe. I am quite delayed due to COVID-related disruptions, which forced us to devote most lab equipment to vaccine development and trial assessment instead of doing some experiments I needed to validate my hypotheses.

Nonetheless, I will obtain my degree within the next few months. My thesis has already gone through a mandatory internal assessment process, which is similar to peer review. And my advisor has already appointed examiners.

I have some interesting publications in good journals (Nature Comms and equivalent ones), but a big part of my thesis is only published as a preprint in medRxiv. My findings are very novel and, in the words of my supervisor (who is a big name in the field), it's a major breakthrough. We've contacted other big names in the field, who are also really interested in this new approach, and they are helping to validate things. We already have enough for submitting to a top journal, which is good.

My advisor and his peers are writing grant applications and preparing clinical trials based on my findings. I am interested in continuing with this line of research, but I will need to find a different host institution once I graduate. I would like to continue as soon as possible in order not to loose a head start on my own ideas.

I am a bit confused with research-oriented Assistant Professor openings. Is it appropriate to apply at this stage? I have contacted one US professor behind an open position, and he encouraged me to apply. However, is this the norm for most American and European positions?

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    I'm not in this area, but I understand that, in the US, medical school faculty appointments work quite differently from biology department faculty appointments. Which are you interested in? May 23 at 18:45
  • I am interested in both, or I would rather say I don't know how to discern. I've not seen significant differences in the requirements for both kinds of openings. But I'm not super familiar with US medical schools.
    – kingston
    May 23 at 19:30
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    It is currently late May 2021. If you are looking for tenure track faculty jobs in the US that start in August or September, you are months too late. Jobs that start in September 2022 will start to be advertised in a few months. May 25 at 9:31

In most biology/biological sciences departments in the US and Canada it would be unusual for someone to be hired into a tenure-track assistant professorship immediately following their PhD; most candidates would have at least a year or two of postdoctoral experience. (This may be different in biomedical and/or clinically oriented programs). If you have a spectacular research record that could make you an exception.

Postdoctoral experience is less expected in math (although 1-2 years is probably still the median), and even less in statistics; this is probably also the case in other fields such as engineering where people with a fresh PhD can get well-paying jobs in industry.

It doesn't hurt to apply for such positions, but I would say if would be safer to at least consider a few post-doctoral positions as a backup plan.

Finally, as with most questions like this, you will get the most relevant advice from your supervisor and colleagues in your lab/program; they know the most about the norms of your particular sub-field and geographic region. Unless you have some particular reason not to, you should probably ask them.

Here is some data from a reasonably recent survey of (mostly North American) ecologists (note, this paper was contentious because of the way it handled gender and informed consent of respondents):

Recently hired TT assistant professors of ecology typically were about 4 years post-Ph.D. at the time of hiring (mean 4.2 years, median 4). 69% had anywhere from 2 to 6 years of post-Ph.D. experience, with a range from 0 to 11 years of post-Ph.D. experience. The majority of ecology faculty job seekers also are 2–6 years post-Ph.D.

These data are consistent with a job market in which most hiring institutions prefer applicants with at least a year or two of post-Ph.D. experience. But once you have a few years of post-Ph.D. experience, the marginal value of additional post-Ph.D. experience appears to be low at best, though it's hard to say precisely based on the available data.

Fox, Jeremy. “A Data-Based Guide to the North American Ecology Faculty Job Market.” The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 101, no. 2 (2020): e01624. https://doi.org/10.1002/bes2.1624.

  • 1
    Thanks. This is an interesting view on the topic. In Europe, I have seen many people hired as Assistant Professors straight after their PhD by great institutions, and without many publications. The reason for hiring was that the dean or the equivalent figure thought their research plan was very promising and/or of strategic importance for their institute.
    – kingston
    May 23 at 19:33
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    This goes for the UK as well - virtually no one in biology is hired to a faculty position without at least 3 years postdoctoral experience, but the average is more like 7 or 8 years. There is a route to independence in the UK that looks like 3 years postdoc, then an independently funded fellowship, where you would be an independent group leader, but not be on the track to a permeant position. May 23 at 20:13
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    For research departments in math in the US the average number of years of postdoc before getting hired is up to around 4, and only a true superstar would be hired at 1-2 years out. For teaching-centric positions it is common for hires to be in the 0-2 year range. May 23 at 20:55
  • I made this a "community wiki" post, feel free to edit with information/corrections/details from different fields and geographic regions.
    – Ben Bolker
    May 23 at 21:21

Is it a norm? Probably more of an exception than a norm. But it is also an exception that a Ph. D. student has a major breakthrough under his/her belt at the time of graduation. From the point of view of the hiring committee, the reason to hire someone with postdocs is because they would have shown some ability to conduct independent research, or at least work in other research environment than their alma mater and their supervisor. But if they are convinced that you were the main driving force behind a major breakthrough, that's obviously a moot point. A committee faithful to the purpose would not pass over such a candidate in favor of someone who did regular work over the course of a couple of postdocs.

Answering a question of what is appropriate, I don't think that if a position is openly and internationally advertised, you are ever committing a faux pas by applying.


Yes it is appropriate to apply now, at least in the US. Don't wait. The competition is fierce for jobs in many fields. Consider a post doc as a backup strategy. But now is the time to start applying.

The process will take a while and you don't really want to have a gap in your career if you can manage it.

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    I think this might be appropriate advice in mathematics. However, in the biomedical sciences a postdoc is not a backup strategy but an essential qualification for an assistant professor position. May 24 at 14:42
  • @user2705196, would you recommend passing up an offer for an assistant professor's position in favor of a post-doc? Would you recommend not applying for one you were "encouraged" to apply for.
    – Buffy
    May 24 at 14:46
  • Can you identify a single person who has obtained a tenure-track assistant professorship before they finished their PhD, since March of 2020? Things that happened before March of 2020 are no longer relevant. May 25 at 9:28
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, so you definitely recommend against applying - even when invited - for someone who may well be exceptional? See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-defeating_personality_disorder
    – Buffy
    May 25 at 14:41

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