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I am soon to finish a long PhD, and am thinking about postdoctoral applications.

As a PhD student I did a lot of quality work and have some publications in respected journals/conferences. However, I did not develop my own research ideas or objectives as a PhD student. This was just the state of affairs and there wasn't much I could do about it. Also, while my work so far is primarily applied and methodological, I am interested in theoretical work. I do not want to continue doing the kind of work I have done so far.

I have a couple questions under the theme of the title:

  1. Do I need to sell my PhD work as my own idea in a postdoc application, or is it reasonable to be honest?
  2. Will it arouse suspicion in an application to propose research in an area which is not closely related to my PhD research?
  3. If I want to be able to develop my own ideas as a postdoctoral researcher, should I seek to clarify that goal, seek positions which advertise that option explicitly, or conceal that goal and instead simply do so once I have a position?

More general question:

  1. From my observation and reading, there's an art to developing a research objective/question. Ideally, I would like to have some kind of guidance in doing so. In my experience that is unrealistic. How can I seek meaningful mentorship, but somehow frame it in a manner that allows me to move forward and to maintain financial and intellectual freedom from the mentor?

In my experience for students from mathematics and physics the answer to (2) is often "no". However, coming from an applied area wishing to do more theoretical work, the standards are unclear to me.

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    Welcome to Academia.SE! Your questions are interesting, but could you please use a thread per each single question? (StackExchange system does not work well for putting multiple questions, even if related, in one thread.) – Piotr Migdal Feb 15 '14 at 13:41
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    @PiotrMigdal I would say these questions are related enough that they should work well in a single thread. – xLeitix Feb 15 '14 at 13:50
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    I work in a completely different field, so I am not going to answer your questions lest I say something completely wrong. That being said, in my experience, being entirely honest about your goals and expectations is always the way to go in academia. Academia is a small village - when you deceive your current mentor, the next one (or the next faculty search committee) will know about it. – xLeitix Feb 15 '14 at 13:52
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    @user11948: I make a mental notice of people who say other people are "too nice" and then make sure I stay far away from them. IMHO this tells more about the one who speaks than about the one who is spoken about. Also, if I get the impression that someone expects dishonesty (in job interview questions - not about students during an exam) I tend to conclude that they may be dishonest themselves - and that's another one with whom I don't want to collaborate. – cbeleites supports Monica Feb 15 '14 at 17:15
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    @user11948 I guess there are almost certainly people that consider me "too nice" or naive as well. However, I have yet to find a job (TT or postdoc) where they would rather hire somebody with the reputation of playing political games than somebody with the reputation of being a straight-forward researcher. Is it possible that you are just rationalizing for yourself why it would be ok to deceive your future mentors? – xLeitix Feb 16 '14 at 9:10
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First of all, let me say that your choice of words really rings an alarm bell with me. The general impression is that you are very ready to be inhonest, and (in agreement with that) your default position seems to mistrust your future employer and you seem to expect suspicion as opposed to taking in the situation openly.

Now if someone does not trust me, a natural question for me is: why should I trust them? I would not want to work with someone with this attitude towards work. And moreover, I wouldn't want to have someone messing up the working atmosphere in my group.

(But don't worry: I'm not in the position to hire anyone.)

Do I need to sell my PhD work as my own idea in a postdoc application, or is it reasonable to be honest?

I'd say it is even necessary to be honest, and it is most probably futile to try to get away with anything else. Academia is a small world, and phone, skype and email reach very far nowadays. Particularly if you say that your field is so small that you do not care to name it here.

Will it arouse suspicion in an application to propose research in an area which is not closely related to my PhD research?

No. But you should have a positive reason to apply there.

If I want to be able to develop my own ideas as a postdoctoral researcher, should I seek to clarify that goal, seek positions which advertise that option explicitly

I'd say that you are expected to develop your own ideas in a postdoc position.

So: Yes, why not. I had interviews where we discussed openly how much own ideas would be possible, welcome, and what the bottomline of things-that-need-to-be-done-no-matter-what would be.

From my observation and reading, there's an art to developing a research objective/question. Ideally, I would like to have some kind of guidance in doing so. In my experience that is unrealistic. How can I seek meaningful mentorship, but somehow frame it in a manner that allows me to move forward and to maintain financial and intellectual freedom from the mentor?

I can ensure you that there are good mentors and leaders, including also mentors and leaders who are even good at teaching leadership in research. But such learning can only work if you trust your mentor. That in turn makes financial and intellectual dependence a non-issue. It may not be easy to find a good mentor. But on the other hand, you could also learn from someone who is not your direct supervisor. That way, you'd have the financial and intellectual freedom.


But: if you feel you need mentoring how to develop research questions, how can you feel ready to apply for a postdoc position?

I did not develop my own research ideas or objectives as a PhD student. This was just the state of affairs and there wasn't much I could do about it.

How come? How could your supervisor prevent you from thinking your own thoughts and from having your own opinion and judging of what needs to be done and how? As a research professional, crititcal and independent thinking is one of your core tasks.

Remember: you were a professional already when you started the PhD. If that wasn't necessary, it would be appropriate for an apprentice to apply for a PhD position.
And if you had gone to work in industry instead of in academia, you'd aslo have been profesionally responsible for everything you do.

  • Hi. Thanks for your answer. I don't feel my question implied "dishonesty". People "spin" their message. I am asking how best to do so. Further, in my field it's very common for people not to have worked on their own questions in their PhD. Writing a PhD is literally a matter of stapling together your papers. Further, I know many postdocs who are just like graduate students: they are unable to work on their own projects. Hence my question. – user11948 Feb 16 '14 at 8:02
  • "How could your supervisor prevent you from thinking your own thoughts and from having your own opinion and judging of what needs to be done and how?" That's silly. I was paid by my advisor and expected to work on his research problems. That's my job. I can assure you I am "professionally responsible" for my work. I didn't say I didn't do my own work. I said I did not choose the problem. – user11948 Feb 16 '14 at 8:07
  • "But: if you feel you need mentoring how to develop research questions, how can you feel ready to apply for a postdoc position?" Because I am graduating. I will work on my own problems. However, it seems natural to seek some kind of guidance, especially since I want to enter a different field. – user11948 Feb 16 '14 at 8:13
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    I'm sorry you didn't like the tone of my question. However, your rejecting that tone does not remove me from the context in which it was written. – user11948 Feb 16 '14 at 8:21
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Time for some tough love. What your future employers want is a steady stream of scholarship, increasing in quality, quantity, and self-sufficiency. This includes both those hiring you for a postdoc and those hiring you (hopefully) for a permanent position afterward.

Normally to switch from subject A to subject B requires time and produces a gap in the stream. This is very bad. Even if there is no gap, switching topics renders much of your hard work publishing papers less relevant to future employers. All other things being equal, I would prefer to hire a specialist in subject B rather than someone who straddles both B and A.

If you're Terry Tao, you can work your way through the entire MSC 2010; that's just being brilliant and prolific. However if you're a mere mortal it's a bad idea to switch specialties until at least after tenure.

PS. If you are less than forthright about how experienced you are at working independently, this cannot possibly lead to a result in your favor.

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Do I need to sell my PhD work as my own idea in a postdoc application, or is it reasonable to be honest?

You need to honestly show how your work is your own and you need to show that the research question you worked on is important. The people hiring you want to see that you do groundbreaking work on important problems, they aren't looking for a story about how an original research problem came to you in a dream. You need to talk about what you did. You should devote very little space to what other people did, if any.

Will it arouse suspicion in an application to propose research in an area which is not closely related to my PhD research?

Not if you justify your interest in the proposed research. It would be good to show some sort of conceptual connection between the proposed research and the previous research, but probably not essential if the proposed research is something "hot" in your field.

If I want to be able to develop my own ideas as a postdoctoral researcher, should I seek to clarify that goal, seek positions which advertise that option explicitly, or conceal that goal and instead simply do so once I have a position?

Developing original research ideas (under constraints) is usually the point of a postdoc. It's not really something you need to clarify, and not something that needs to be in the ad. Do make sure that the ad is compatible with your intended research direction, obviously.

From my observation and reading, there's an art to developing a research objective/question. Ideally, I would like to have some kind of guidance in doing so. In my experience that is unrealistic. How can I seek meaningful mentorship, but somehow frame it in a manner that allows me to move forward and to maintain financial and intellectual freedom from the mentor?

The postdoc isn't the PI. At a postdoc position there will usually be a few senior people who can be your mentors. So you'll get mentorship.

Meaningful mentorship isn't exactly something you can ask for (or that can be given on-demand). It's like friendship: it doesn't really make much sense to "ask for meaningful friendship," it's something that develops with people who are the right fit for you.

Intellectual freedom is sort of implied in the position, as mentioned before. The postdoc's job is to do original research on a particular topic. Obviously there are constraints to what research you can do, but that's true at all levels: everyone has constraints on the research they do.

As for financial freedom... I'm not entirely sure what one needs to do to get fired from a postdoc, but I think that having original ideas isn't that thing.

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