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I work as a research group leader at a top-100 university in Europe and supply of good PhD students is good, both from within the university and from other places in Europe. However, attracting good postdocs is much harder, even for the more senior professors with an even better international reputation than I have.

My impression is that the good postdocs are really picky with the places that they want to go to. It's the Ivy league places in the States, Cambridge, Oxford, ETH or EPFL. They don't seem to even consider any other options. I have tried to talk to good finishing PhD students in groups that I know, but they don't seem to see my university (or my group at least) as a good career choice.

How can I change this and attract good postdocs?

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    There is a lot of heterogeneity in Europe regarding postdoctoral working conditions. I don't know if this is the case where you are, but in some countries, like Portugal, postdocs don't have all the rights of standard employment. For me, this is a deal breaker, independent of institutional prestige and quality of research.
    – The Doctor
    Feb 11 at 10:42
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    Pay well, provide stability? Feb 11 at 21:59
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    I'm curious to know which field of research you are in. In my field of research there's always an over supply of good postdocs and an under supply of postdoc positions.
    – vyali
    Feb 13 at 2:12
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    @IanSudbery well, one hopes that permanent academics can try to exert the little influence (or at least, voice) they have in the university. Plus its not entirely true, in the UK as a postdoc your salary can range for more than 20K£ of difference. I can tell you that hiring for the higher pay and longer projects will attract people. You can write grants with that in mind, for example. Feb 13 at 17:36
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    @AnderBiguri Increasing many of us are in the "burn it all down" camp. Those of us that arn't see the solution in national level reform, probably brought about by a prolonged fight against the basis of the system. But that doesn't help individual labs or postdocs in the immediate future. Feb 14 at 12:24

9 Answers 9

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I don't think that there is an easy solution to your problem. If there were, and it were easy to put into practice, all the other less-famous labs would also put it into practice and the easy solution would no longer work. It's an old problem in economics.

That said, however, I think two parts of a solution (and by no means all of the solution) are the following (I ignore things like grant money, the fact that you are in Europe, etc. because you either can't change them or will already be well aware of them) :

  1. Be a good person to work with. Treat your colleagues well, treat your students and post-docs well, share your ideas.
  2. Increase your sales taskforce. You've probably never thought about the problem that way, but if you are the sole sales-person for your lab, then you are behind the eight-ball. You will find it very difficult to compete with the publicity that other, better known places, command. There is nothing shameful about asking people whom you know and who like you to advertise your good points (that's what post-docs do when they as you for a referral!). So, if there are postdoc who have worked with you or who are currently working with you, and with whom you enjoy a good collegiate relationship, mention to them that you are looking to the future. Tell them you'd be very grateful if they would mention your lab to any third person (potential post-doc?) whom they think worth telling.

To see how important, ultimately, it is to work with people who are friendly, supportive, challenging, collegiate, and all-round "nice", you need only look at the number of questions on this forum (see this example, and this) that are phrased along the lines of "HELP! I'm working in a famous lab with lots of money and a famous PI ... but the PI hates me and I hate them"!

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This is tough. The job market for assistant professorships is so tight that talented postdocs will try for the highest profile jobs that they can find in order to be competitive when they enter that job market.

So, if you want the best postdocs, you'll need to convince them that your environment and publication record is high profile enough to attract them. When you can say "I've hired 10 postdocs, and 9 of 10 of them moved on to stellar academic careers", you'll no longer have a problem.

That said, when you hire a postdoc, you're intrinsically saying that you'll be hiring a person with academic job aspirations. Every postdoc you hire will be looking toward that next job.

Presuming that you're looking for people to do the work your lab needs done, and not necessarily looking to train the next generation of faculty. an alternative approach would be to hire people that you need to do your work as normal employees, not aspirants to academe. Look for staff scientists and the like.

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    I'll add that the postdoc market is a networking thing, not necessarily a "I'll post the add and the applicants will pour in" thing. Feb 11 at 18:57
  • "9 of 10 of them moved on to stellar academic careers" That's not going to happen. Feb 22 at 2:07
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Offer a position with a salary, rather than a stipend.

The position should also offer (paid!) teaching opportunities, for those who want to improve their CVs.

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    Why is a salary better? It may have tax implications.
    – Buffy
    Feb 11 at 13:02
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    @Buffy this will vary regionally, but in Europe, having a stipend instead of a salary forcibly removes you from all social benefits (health care, social security, pension contributions) and all the standard employee rights (legal protections for hiring/firing, collective salary agreements, holidays, sick & care leave, mediation). For some people, the smaller employee perks (subsidised childcare, mental health care, cheaper meals) might also add up in a big way. This might not matter in some countries, but in those set up around social benefits, it's a bad sign. Feb 11 at 14:06
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    @Buffy Yes, salary is taxed, which means it counts toward pension. Also, In Sweden you get 80% of your salary during parental leave. A stipend counts as 0, so this makes a big difference. Post-doc time is a common time when one starts a family, so this distinction is rather important. Feb 11 at 17:04
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    Stipends for postdocs are not common in Europe, getting a salary and a work contract is much much more common.
    – Dr. Snoopy
    Feb 12 at 8:57
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    @coffee_into_plots In the US this distinction is not as stark as it apparently is in Europe, but it is still there. For example, stipend recipients do not receive unemployment insurance, do not have taxes withheld from their checks (their checks are not "pay", they are "stipends"), have to jump through hoops to get loans because they don't actually work for anyone (i.e., legally they're not employed and hence have no employer), etc. I did it for 3 years and it wasn't horrible, but it was a bit of a pain. That said, not all postdocs are viewed as stipend recipients...some are employees.
    – tnknepp
    Feb 12 at 15:07
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To get good postdocs, I think you first have to get a lot of applicants.

To get a lot of applicants, offer a lot of money and a lot of freedom. Offer a lot of career support for obtaining a permanent position.

If you have to offer less of one of these you may need to offer more of another.

And, those top schools you name generally offer a lot of the last item, which is likely the reason you ask this question.

Of course, this might not be possible or desirable in your context.

FWIW, I've seen the above suggestions work in practice.

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  • It's hard to be competitive on pay. NASA's postdoctoral program currently has a base stipend of $70K/year (plus locality adjustment, insurance), plus $12K in relocation expenses, plus a $10K/year travel allowance. I've seen DOE postdocs making over $110K/year. That's tough to beat. Do you have a gauge for what postdocs in academia make?
    – tnknepp
    Feb 12 at 15:12
  • @tnknepp, no, sorry. And it varies a lot by place and by field.
    – Buffy
    Feb 12 at 15:15
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    @tnknepp... postdocs in academia? not enough. At least in the US, postdocs in academia make so little that they qualify for government housing here in the US....
    – Questor
    Feb 13 at 18:13
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I think you are seeing the effects of the pyramid structure of academics. There are more PhD students than postdocs and more more postdocs than professors in academics overall. This means that not everyone who does a PhD at a top university will get a postdoc there and not everyone who does a postdoc will get a professorship there.

This means that at a university like yours that is good but not the very top, you will still have a good proportion of professors who did PhDs and postdocs at the very top universities before coming to your university. In other words, if you do try to rank people by their academic achievement you should expect that the average level of your professors is higher than the average level of your postdocs. Of course, trying to linearly sort everyone by their academic achievement is a gross oversimplification and as the other answers explain, networking, being a welcoming research group and offering attractive positions will help attract good postdocs.

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A few things come to mind in addition to several of the important points raised

  1. The Postdoc should provide an attractive compensation for those high aspirations that the University and project has (and they should have to a reasonable extent).

  2. The Postdoc should be able to reasonably support the candidate's livelihood and personal needs. For instance to bring his family and return his family. Its not worth it if a Postdoc saves 6 months to bring his family under a one year contract and needs to save another six months to return them back.

  3. Postdoc should reasonably give the candidate some room to express and explore his Academic philosophies e.g. the kind of top journals he might like to publish, the kinds of networks he would like to build.

  4. The Postdoc should socially make the candidate look like someone working on a decent job in a foreign land. This has to do with pay and the job conditions should cushion some national policies and benefits that puts locals at a higher social pedestal

  5. The institution, supervisor and lab should look attractive, adding value.

  6. The postdoc experience should be able to add value in the sense that the candidate can even negotiate for greater opportunities in that country and the rest of the world afterwards.

  7. The postdoc opportunity should give some reasonable time before expecting those high quality results and papers. Strong research footprint requires some time.

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    I wonder if you want too much. If the salary is adequate then the postdoc can afford to bring his/her wife & family - though naturally this will have an impact on the postdoc's disposable income compared to that of native postdocs. #3 . . . this would be nice but, at the end of the day, whoever pays the fellowship calls the research direction. #4 okay. #5 I'd say look respectable rather than attractive - -it's not healthy to have people promoted by association with a famous institution rather than by the quality of their own effort. #6 agreed. #7 This is domain dependent - some won't wait.
    – Trunk
    Feb 12 at 18:50
  • @Trunk, I get your point. There is a huge spectrum of what different countries and institutions offer, as well as the cost of living and benefits in those places, especially for foreigners. For #5, keeping other things relatively constant, this point is a reality that many live by. Prestige has its place, and many of those top institutions have higher expectations and ways of managing things, as that is what fuels their reputation. Similarly, a top professor in an area usually has a higher "taste of quality". Feb 13 at 0:39
  • For #5, keeping other things relatively constant, this point is a reality that many live by. The essence of making a research breakthrough is to hold to what you yourself think is right, not follow mainstream opinion - let alone elitist opinion. It seems to me to be so much easier being a big fish in a small pond than a small one in a big one.
    – Trunk
    Feb 13 at 14:09
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I thought of a few points that you could make in your pitch (in print or in person) to fellowship applicants, for example:

  1. Fellowship researchers may well prefer to work at top research schools. But if they are doing so in the belief that merely having Oxford, MIT, etc on their CV will count more to hiring faculty than the actual scientific value of their research work then they are playing a high-risk game with their own long-term careers. Good quality research can be done in many humble arenas. But when it's done, that researcher has an entrée to any research environment.

  2. Top rank graduate schools are also pressure cookers in regard to working environment and this surely makes them more challenging than they need to be.

  3. Fellowship applicants may well be married or thinking of getting married, looking to buy a home or to have their first child. This progression in life proper would normally help both broaden a researcher's philosophical outlook and offer a new motivation to their work. But would the latter effects be as natural were it to happen while the fellow was working - perhaps in effect competing - in a high-rank university ?

  4. Top-rank schools have top-rank expectations for their fellows. I think it's fair to say that they won't be so perturbed by those fellows whose teaching performance is below par - provided the research work is acceptable. All fellows intending a career in academia need at least a competence in teaching - and the latter might be something much more obtainable at a lower ranked university.

  5. Just as not all PhDs want to become academics, neither do all postdocs want to so be. They will do postdoc because it enables them to continue basic research with excellent lab, library, collegial, etc facilities (plus free use of a 50 m pool, squash courts, film society, etc) at a livable salary while they look around for a vacancy in their preferred professional milieu. This doesn't make them dumber than academia-preferring postdocs. But it does make them much more available to work in non-tier 1 institutions.

But the real question here is your own definition of what a good fellowship candidate is. You need to provide - and honestly so, not a graniloquent essay - your own profile of a quality fellowship candidate. In effect this may well be a profile of what your own academic virtues (or shortcomings) are but without this it will be hard to really offer you effective suggestions.

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    I wish #1 were true, but if I look at the people who got faculty jobs in, say, my department, in the last 15 years, almost all of them have one such high prestige place on their CV at some point in their career. Feb 13 at 17:35
  • @IanSudbery But surely you're not saying it was mere presence in a high prestige department alone ? I mean, weren't the papers they put out before permanent appointment any cut above those of peers from a "lower" tier department ? Is there a possibility that "lower" hiring departments may also be seeking attributes outside those of traditional academia (teaching quality, love of scholarship per se, a good research nose, campus-wide collegiality) like insights into funding sources, useful contacts and career aspirations to match the department's own ambition to get promoted to tier 1 ?
    – Trunk
    Feb 13 at 20:49
  • difficult to tell because everyone had a high prestige departement on their CV. Mostly they also had high prestige papers - although I think people were more willing to judge the papers on the work actaully done, rather than the journal - few had Cell, Science or Nature papers, although all had papers in the next tier down (funnily enough, we the exception of me, who had Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard on their CV, but far less in the way of high prestige papers - although I was a specialist hire taken on for a particular set of hard to find skills). Feb 14 at 12:20
  • Your place is now "grouped" with other large research-oriented unis. I wonder if that exerts any effect, e.g. preferential hiring within that group. It looks like the recent HoDs of your discipline were looking to assemble a visually plausible "high-powered nucleus" of researchers with a view to impressing funding entities. Know what, it's these administrators of funding entities who are likely instigators of this whole bias towards prestigious universities. This guides research oriented unis to hire staff with such associations. At least it's better than hiring their own ex-students!
    – Trunk
    Feb 16 at 0:22
  • @trunk- we've pretty much always sat where we are in the rankings - not oxbridge or golden triangle, but up with the best outside that set - at least in my discipline. It's been that way for at least 50 years. And it's not that we only hire within the same pool of similar unis - what I'm saying is we only hire from unis more prestigious than we are. And for this very reason, it can be hard for us to attract good postdocs. It's a vicious circle. Feb 16 at 0:45
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This is partly a marketing problem, as in marketing a service or goods. You can describe this is in several different ways, one is like this:

  1. What is your intended target group, ie what people do you think should know about and have a positive impression of your program?
  2. How do you reach the intended target group? Do they even know that you exist? What marketing do you do towards your intended target group?
  3. How does the intended target group perceive your offering? Do they find it attractive or are there things missing in the initial offering?
  4. What does current postdocs think and say about beeing part of the program? Is anything really good: make it public, is anything really bad: change it!
  5. What does your alumni think about the program? Do you keep contact with them and use them in your marketing?
  6. What does your grant donors / other cooperation partners think about your program? Do you use them and their contacts to reach out for new postdocs?

Another part of the problem is "sales". Sales is very much about filling the pipe-line of "customers" and handling them well. So how do your organization identify potential customers (suspects), contact them and make them interested (prospects) and get them to actually apply for postdocs. Reaching out to suspects could be done through various methods, one guess would be to scan published papers in the relevant area and contact the authors telling about your offering. What happens if someone contacts you -- how do you respond and is it timely?

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Pay your postdoc a livable salary. None wants a miserable life.

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    Feb 22 at 22:47

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