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I find myself in a complicated situation. I am about to finish a 3 year Postdoc, and have been applying to other postdoc and professorship positions. However I have not been lucky so far, without even a single interview.

I am even wondering my path in academia as it feels that all these new positions keep asking for unrealistic experience levels. Some positions even go as far as rejecting candidates that defended their PhDs for more than 3 years, which I think it is hardly a reason to reject very good candidates.

I work in materials science, my background was inorganics, but did a PhD thesis in organic polymers, in a group that only works with inorganics and has very little to no knowledge in polymer science. Because of this I ended up publishing much less than my peers, and my supervision was not great (including toxic environment, threatened to be fired, forced to agree with the supervisor, and micromanagement). My postdoc is also in polymer science, in a completely different work environment: no meetings, total freedom, very little feedback, and the usual "you're a postdoc" statement whenever I ask for genuine feedback.

I want to continue in polymer science, but diversify into electronics, yet no PI/institute has answered a single application. I have also tried grant applications, which also resulted in nothing, often with no tangible feedback on what could be improved. In my current situation, writing and applying for funding is out of question, huge risk, no grants are opening now, and would leave me unemployed waiting for a chance.

They want scientists to have a broad knowledge and creativity, but only hire people that have devoted their research to single topics. Ask for teaching experience for a basic entry level of professorship when not everyone can do teaching because of contractual limitations.

How do I move from this? am I stuck scientifically and cannot explore new topics? or is the system already so rigged?

I would love to get some feedback from fellow postdocs and even some professors. I understanding this is a more "ranting" or subjective post, but I think it could benefit some people (like me) to perhaps see this whole situation from a different perspective.

EDIT: To clarify some points - I have been in three different countries already (mobility), at good universities, and actively try to apply to different places in different countries, primarily within the EU. I have a broad experience in physics, engineering, characterization, materials, and polymer science. I have tried to ask for counseling from different supervisor and professors at different stages in my career, but it comes always to the same: "you have to publish". From my different conversations with different professors it feels like many are disconnected from today's market reality, retaining the idea and experience they had 30 years ago.

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    To clarify: are "How do I move from this? am I stuck scientifically and cannot explore new topics?" your primary questions? "is the system already so rigged?" is a very different question—but perhaps it's only rhetorical in your post. Sep 29, 2023 at 19:56
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    If your postdoc supervisor gives no advice, ask other people for help. Department head? Collaborator? Even your competitors might give you useful critiques if you ask them nicely. Of course even the most diligent supervisor can give poor advice sometimes. Sep 29, 2023 at 21:22
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    I do not think we can give you a guide to be coming a professor. Most people do not. Those who think they can give you a guide have survivorship bias. Sep 29, 2023 at 21:23
  • Many places will not accept an applicant for postdoc position with more than X years since PhD to prevent "abuse". Financially I'd love to pay postdoc rates for someone with 10 years experience, but it's a disservice to that person. Having hard limits like that forces me to hire staff/faculty if I really need that experience level. Unfortunately such policies are sometimes too strict and limit second postdoc terms Oct 2, 2023 at 19:01

4 Answers 4

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The (perhaps unpopular) truth is that not every postdoc can get a faculty position. There just are more postdocs than open faculty positions, and as a consequence universities can ask that successful candidates have qualifications that you (i) think are unrealistic, (ii) believe constitute a "rigged system". But that's really no different than in any other system where there are many more candidates than positions. Say, in American football where there are literally thousands of players on college teams every year who would love to become professionals, but only a couple of hundred can get a spot on a pro team.

So there are really only two approaches that are open to you:

  1. You dedicate your life to the job so that you have a resume that's among the best.
  2. You have a Plan B for your life.

Given that, as you mention, you have not had any luck with applications and proposals, I will come back to the (perhaps unpopular) suggestion to seriously explore option 2. It isn't that people in industry (or whatever other career path outside universities) are generally more unhappy with their jobs than professors are. Indeed, there is a vast number of people who do industrial research, and your particular research area strikes me as one that should have substantial potential for industrial research jobs.

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    There are 1 million high school football players, 73,000 NCAA football players, and 1696 NFL football players. NFL players can stay in the NFL for over 20 years. Sep 29, 2023 at 21:15
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Ah, very cool! I love that you provide the statistics to back me up! Sep 29, 2023 at 23:03
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    Average tenure in the NFL is apparently 3.3 years, so that’s 514 slots on average per year among 250,000 graduating high school seniors or 18,250 graduating NCAA, so about 1 job per 36 at the college level. Better than I’d have guessed!
    – Charles
    Sep 30, 2023 at 1:21
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    @Charles Some players would not play all four years of high school/college. Sep 30, 2023 at 13:25
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    +1 "not every postdoc can get a faculty position" ... or at least a faculty position in a research university. You could try for positions in primarily-teaching universities. Or even two-year community colleges. [This is if you are already in the US.]
    – GEdgar
    Oct 1, 2023 at 1:18
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You've asked for feedback from postdocs and professors. I've just gotten a tenure-track research uni. job after a 3 year postdoc and a close-call academic search, so maybe I can add some perspective on top of Wolfgang's answer. Your question is "When should you try to make the move to an Asst professorship?" The answer can only be: start applying as soon as you are competitive for the jobs you are willing to take, and keep taking lower-ranked jobs for as long as you're willing to take them.

For me, my line was to do only one 3 year postdoc, then Asst professorship at a PhD-granting institution or out. Most such places now have candidate pools with a larger number of postdoc years on average and the application season was rough. But that was my line. You'll have to set yours however makes you happy.

Supply/demand for labor in academia is strongly balanced against the supplier (you). Academic institutions are also relatively poorly funded in aggregate. The more unbalanced this becomes, the more institutions can afford holding out on promotions for workers (e.g., a promotion postdoc -> tenure track). If you can't get a promotion now and want to stay in the industry, there are few choices other than continuing to work at your current rank.

You mention that you think you are missing skills that are sinking your applications, like teaching experience. It's hard to guess whether that's true. If it is, taking jobs without an opportunity for gaining that experience also has a cost to you in the longer term in delayed promotions. You need to make a decision about your goals and the costs in time/money/etc. you're willing to expend for them.

Finally, rather than saying the "system is rigged", at some point it's rather that the "system" cannot afford your labor relative to their competitors. Academia is a peculiar, demanding, and relatively low-paying line of work. I'm constantly questioning whether better pay in a different industry would be the smarter choice myself.

If you end up in a situation where you can't find a university that has enough compensation to pay for your skilled labor, that's the system's loss not yours. Sure, there's some competitive aspect to getting a job at the next rung, but just as much of that is randomness and time at a lower rung (i.e., lost compensation).

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To add to the answer of WB.

Your specific qualifications are largely irrelevant when you apply for a postdoc position. The matter of fact is that, in most fields, it is increasingly hard to find a candidate with the exact qualifications required. The candidates have just to be able to quickly catch up, which means that any adjacent area will take you.

Therefore, just apply to everything you see. Forget about your narrow field of expertise.

As wisely put by the other answers, have a plan B with a deadline. And stick to it.

A 3 year postdoc is, quite frankly, nothing. Most staff we hire have been to 3-4 postdocs.

Finally, the time to apply for an associate position is "all the time". Getting hired in a ternure track position is associated mostly to:

  • Luck
  • Contacts
  • Qualifications (In this particular order)

You know that 3-year-issued condition that you mentioned? That's one of the tools we use to filter candidates, so we can hire who we want.

As a 3 year postdoc, you should have been actively applying for grants as the PI (for 2 years now, tbh). If you want to follow an academic path, you should also be teaching, regardless of what your contract says. Your contract simply cannot stop you from teaching in your free time. Just pick 2h/week anywhere you want.

The system is rigged. The sooner you realize it, the better. Some places are better than others, but overall it is always the same.

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    >A 3 year postdoc is, quite frankly, nothing. Most staff we hire have been to 3-4 postdocs. In my field if you have more than one postdoc when applying for TT it's counted against you.
    – user479223
    Oct 1, 2023 at 13:07
  • "in most fields, it is increasingly hard to find a candidate with the exact qualifications required" -- I would question the correctness of this statement. I believe that in times of the internet, when it has become so much easier to search for and apply for jobs, it has become much easier to find the right person. Oct 1, 2023 at 18:53
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    This is very accurate. The connectivity is countered by the increasingly narrow fields. Oct 2, 2023 at 1:24
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Times are hard at the moment. Your field seems (to me) to be very specialized, which might be limiting your opportunities even further, especially if you aren't flexible in your asks and expectations.

You may need to look farther afield to obtain a position if you are limiting your search to, say, France. You may need to apply to a wider range of institutions if you are applying only to top research institutions.

I suggest, however, that you have someone in your field who you trust to look at your application materials and identify any needs or deficiencies. And, identify any opportunities that you may be missing. In some places, make sure that any letters of recommendation are very strong. Make sure that they match institutional needs.

When there are a lot of candidates for any given position, the requirements can seem to be unfair, though they are actually a natural consequence of the current situation.

Think about what you want your career to be long-term and note that you don't need to start there, but can work toward it from many different types of entry level positions. But, I also suggest that the time to make the "jump" is now if you can manage it. But do what you need to do to keep connected - and to get more connected. In CS, that would mean attending a lot of conferences, presenting if possible, even in workshops and such.

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    When aren't times hard?
    – user479223
    Sep 29, 2023 at 14:01
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    @user479223 - well, the 50's and 60's in US universities were pretty good times...
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 29, 2023 at 14:33
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    @JonCuster That certainly seems longer than a moment!
    – user479223
    Sep 29, 2023 at 14:42
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    Times are not hard right now for fields that have huge industries attached to them. Few people want to become a machine learning professor when there are industry jobs offering similar work for much more pay, for instance. Sep 29, 2023 at 15:46
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    @JonCuster: Maybe I'm a bit nitpicky - but given that the number of students in a country cannot steadily increase so strongly in the long run, rather than saying "times are hard at the moment" it might be a slightly more realistic framing to say "times are quite normal or a bit worse than normal at the moment and it happens only rarely that times are really good". Sep 29, 2023 at 15:47

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