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Assume you are just about to finish your PhD and you are facing the decision of whether to go for a postdoc position or for an assistant professorship. Which one should you choose?

Let's ignore the salary for the sake of this question. Then which of the two is better? What about the benefit of short-time employment and getting to work with lots of different people (in case of postdoc) vs. being stuck at one place for several years (assistant professor). Is it beneficial to work with different groups or is it irrelevant?

Does a career involving several postdoc positions look like the individual could not get other (''better'') employment (even if they deliberately chose one over the other)?

Will a postdoc position give you more time for research because you don't have to teach or have to teach less?

Is it generally better to seek professorship rather than postdoctoral fellowship?

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    I think It's like red wine vs white wine.. What is it about? Not this site, for sure. – Dror Feb 13 '14 at 16:50
  • From a purely academic point of view, it is no contest: postdoc all the way. – DonAntonio Feb 13 '14 at 16:51
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    Disagree: postdocs need to spend a nontrivial amount of time networking and looking for the next job. – vadim123 Feb 13 '14 at 16:53
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    This really depends on the field. In my social science field in the US, it is fairly common to see young ABDs being hired for their not yet proven "potential", over people with extensive postdoc and research experiences (who are often seen as damaged commodities for having a stale PhD and not yet having landed a TT position). You need to figure out what a postdoc/TT position means in your field and what the baseline criterion for landing each of those are, and what people's typical career trajectories look like. – socialsciencedoc Feb 13 '14 at 20:41
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    In 2006 my wife and I had to choose between several options, including tenure-track positions and postdocs. If we had taken the latter, we would have been on the job market again in 2008-09, which would have been terrible timing. – Mark Meckes Feb 15 '14 at 10:40
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The typical perspective for U.S. people in this situation is to try to balance the following three items:

  1. The desire for a permanent, tenure-track job, and its associated stability.
  2. The desire to do as much research as possible in one's life.
  3. The desire to not starve to death.

Generally those just completing their PhD's are not eligible for tenure-track jobs that have a large research component, because their track record is insufficient. Therefore it is common to take a postdoc (or two, or five) to bolster the research record. This has the immediate effect of meeting the second and third goals, and has the potential to open up more research-oriented tenure-track jobs. However too many postdocs and it becomes more difficult to get tenure-track jobs (and further postdocs). The implication is indeed as you suggest, that these positions have been taken because the individual could not get a suitable tenure-track job.

Very few people consider "assistant professor" negatively because of being "stuck at one place for several years"; the only reason to turn down such a position is because it may be a bad fit, as compared to the sort of place one wants to be.

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Vadim makes some valid points. The one I would amplify on is how good a fit the school with the assistant professorship is as far as your career goals are concerned. You've got to be careful. When I started out, I thought I could go to a small school, build up a research record, and move on to a research university. It didn't happen. I started out at a small school near a research university. My school had an atmosphere that totally discouraged research (I wish I had known that). Teaching three courses a semester wasn't that bad, but keeping fifteen hours of office hours a week was. Throw in committee work, etc., and there wasn't a lot of time to do much research. The school I'm at now has a base teaching load of four courses a semester, and expectation for advising, committees, and so on. They claim to support research, indeed it is a significant component for advancement, but the general climate works against any serious work. What output I have managed, not nearly as much as I wanted, has been a struggle. That being said, I have certainly managed to satisfy Vadim's goals 1 and 3. As far as goal 2, let's just say that I'll need something to do when I retire, assuming I can remember anything.

So, again, be careful. Personally, if you have the ability I would opt for a postdoc or two. But be realistic about what you want your career to look like ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the road. Then, do what you think gives you the best chance to get there.

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