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I am a finishing CS Ph.D. student (5 months to go). I applied to postdocs positions and I feel like it is a bit early to do so. What would the process resemble in this case? Do they wait for your until you graduate, even if it takes longer than expected?

Thanks

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As a manager at a national lab (not in CS), I post job openings for postdocs when I know we will need/want one. There is no specified time of the year that happens. I'm also well aware that projected PhD completion dates are, well, nebulous at best. In particular, I had to delay my postdoc start date by several months as the reality of finishing up the thesis and getting everything done and dusted came to roost.

Now, if you are projecting to be done in 12 months (more realistically 15-18 months in my mind), that is too early. Three months could well be 6 months, but is just fine. We can wait for the right postdoc for a project. But you'd better believe that if I want to hire you I'll be talking to your advisor about just how realistic your time estimate is compared with theirs.

Further, in my experience, if the student has a job offer in hand then it seems that the time to complete everything magically shrinks a bit all of a sudden - it is in the professors' best interests to get everything wrapped up as well at that point since they know the student has a place to go.

Bottom line - 5 months ahead is not unreasonable, but is it really 5 months?

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The problem with answering this question accurately is that the only true definition of a postdoc is "job you get after the PhD." At one one end you have externally-funded postdocs (e.g. NSF) which act more like mini-professorships, in which you are the PI, NSF pays your salary, and the lab (or research group) or university just gives you space in exchange for the overhead money (= the so-called "indirect costs".) At the other end, you have glorified technical positions, in which you are no more than a lab tech, programmer, teacher, whatever, with the title of "postdoc" as an excuse to pay you less than the job is actually worth. And everything in the middle.

Then there's the issue that "applying for a postdoc" is not as simple as looking up the job postings and filling out applications. For example, some PIs have pockets of unencumbered/discretionary money which they can use to fund a postdoc if a great candidate happens to come along. Other people find postdocs by writing grants with established PIs, writing a postdoc position as part of the grant, with the agreement that they'll be that postdoc if the grant lands. Other postoc positions are, like the one I described above, something you get directly from a funding agency after writing a grant application. Yet other postdocs are the type where a PI writes a grant, gets the money, then advertises the position, reviews applications, and hires the first good candidate. And so on.

So when do you apply for postdocs? In a sense, you should start preparing for a postdoc the day you start your PhD, making contacts with potential PIs, visiting other research groups, giving talks at conferences so people have you on their minds when good opportunities show up, growing a list of collaborators (all potential postdoc advisors), etc. The closer you get to the end of your PhD, the more time and effort you should spend tapping into your network, and yes, sending applications out to advertised positions. It really does not matter how you get a postdoc, it only matters that you get one.

When applying to advertised opportunities, 5 months feels to me close to the sweet spot between too early and too late. Some people will reject your application right away, as they only want people who already have the PhD at hand. Oh well, so be it. But other potential employers will welcome your early application and if they like you, save the position for you until you defend your thesis. I've seen in happen many times. But you can't tell who's who from just reading the job postings, so might as well apply to all the positions to which you are qualified.

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General advice is not to apply for a postdoc that starts before you intend to defend your PhD thesis. There is a very good chance that they will not consider you. This is not universal of course, but it is a pretty standard policy. You may be able to find some postdocs that will consider applicants that are ABD though those are rare. I've seen a few on mathjobs.org over the years. I've heard on rare occasions of people having postdocs or similar who are in the process of finishing their PhD who were given special consideration (i.e., the department made an exception to the completed PhD requirement). One of the cases I knew along these lines involved someone being a VAP for a few years without finishing their PhD and ended up getting fired for it. (In addition to angering the department, I think there were potential accreditation issues at play.) Presumably the postdocs you applied to start in Fall 2024 by which point you should have your PhD, so you're likely fine on this front.

Some schools may defer the start of your postdoc if something comes up in the process of defending your PhD that is out of your control. A lot can go wrong like advisors becoming suddenly very chronically ill or dying or PhD candidates themselves developing health issues or going through other major life-changing events. Schools will be more accommodating in these situations though it will still likely vary. You would need to be in close contact if anything comes up after accepting a postdoc offer and need to defer. There is no guarantee that a school will do so if the reason for deferment is an issue within your control (like just not finishing writing/defending your thesis without extenuating circumstances or wanting a "gap year").

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  • how early can you get offer for postdoc while a Ph.D.? could they offer me a position before 3 months of the ending date of Ph.D. to start earliest after graduation? Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 22:42
  • Postdocs usually start in the fall or otherwise in line with the academic year (depending on where you are in the world). Look at the job postings again. They will specify. Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 23:11
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    Postdocs at a company or national lab may start anytime throughout the year.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 23:55
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    This seems to be advice for math postdocs, but the question was about CS postdocs. I'm not familiar with CS. For physical sciences, this answer would be wildly wrong. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 0:07
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    I graduate in May and have informally contacted postings with a sooner or nebulous deadline and they've all been like "go ahead and apply! we want the best candidate" Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:28
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I can only talk about my personal experience. I was supposed to defend my thesis in September and start my postdoc in a different institute in November. For some reasons my PhD mentor canceled my thesis defense and postponed the date of several months because his schedule was heavily packed. I ended up defending in May of the following year because the committee members were not available before. Long story short, I started my postdoc position as planned. I just had to provide a letter from the program manager stating that I would be awarded of my PhD title within the next year. On a personal note... dealing with your postdoc work and your thesis defense at the same time isn't something pleasant. Good luck!

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    Hopefully, "postponed the date of several months because his schedule was heavily packed" leaves out some important details. Otherwise, placing such huge burdens on your student's life because of a packed schedule sounds unacceptable to me.
    – Ian
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 14:31
  • you were given an offer when exactly? when you applied to a postdoc at first? how long the process took (from application to offer?) Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 19:12
  • @MartinMoore I received the offer during the last year of my PhD. The PI was a collaborator and I knew him. We started to discuss the details after I submitted my thesis (approximately 3 months before the defense). Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 21:40
  • @Ian I found it unacceptable as well. My issues with my mentor aren't the focus of my post. However, since you are asking, I can tell you that my second supervisor (mentor) waned me to rewrite some parts of my thesis, and he came up with this decision 2 weeks before my defense. The thesis had been previously approved by the thesis committee, including my main supervisor. The changes he wanted to make were totally arbitrary and only reflected his personal preference. After I changed the text as he suggested, took him very long time to approve it. It has been a terrible experience. Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 22:03

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