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Suppose that in your sub-field there are half a dozen research groups on your continent that are acknowledged to be "world class". You have had the good fortune to do your MSc research in one, and your PhD in another. You are now a postdoc in a third. Your current group is large and well-funded, and your position there is secure for the foreseeable future. You realistically hope to get a faculty position in a good research university within the next 3-5 years.

One day, you are offered a postdoc position in a second-tier research group. Should you consider taking it, in order to broaden your academic horizons? Does the answer change depending on how long you've spent in your current postdoc? Are there other relevant considerations? Assume that you cannot expect to get a better offer within the next year.

Bonus discussion points: What if you're instead offered

  • a faculty position at the second-tier institution?

  • a postdoc position at one of the first-tier institutions you've already had an association with?

  • a postdoc position at a first-tier institution that you haven't already had an association with?

I have some views on these questions that I'm happy to share, but I'd like to see what other people think first.

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    I'm a little confused by the question, as you seem to be asking "Should I give up a better position of type X for a distinctly worse position of type X for the sake of variety?" To me the answer is a clear no, and it doesn't even make much sense to me that you would be offered the second position in these circumstances (did you apply for it?). Given how clear-thinking you've shown yourself to be on this site recently, I strongly suspect that I'm missing some nuance of your question. As a side note: I thought that postdocs were almost by definition not "secure for the foreseeable future". – Pete L. Clark Jun 1 '14 at 18:19
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    (Being offered a tenure-track faculty position at the second-tier institution is of course a totally different kettle of fish. The short answer is that in the current job market, any tenure-track position that is broadly acceptable to you -- though not what you are shooting for -- should be given very serious consideration. You should talk this out with a lot of people, including all your academic mentors.) – Pete L. Clark Jun 1 '14 at 18:24
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    The recieved wisdom - or at least, my impression of it - amongst my peers is that it's best to move around as a postdoc, and indeed that there's a stigma/career damage attached to staying in one place too long. I'm therefore interested in exploring the extent to which people think this is true, and what weight people give to the competing considerations for career decisions at this level. Of course, the situation is somewhat hypothetical, to remove a couple of the most obvious "forcing terms" in the equation. – avid Jun 1 '14 at 18:38
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    Physics. So there are two common flavours of postdoc: independent postdoctoral fellowships, and tied projects where you are paid from a PI's grants. The former are more prestigious; the latter can be quite long-lived if your PI is rich and likes you. ;-) If it makes a difference, I'm thinking largely about the second sort when posing this question. – avid Jun 1 '14 at 19:04
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    @PeteL.Clark postdocs of the kind the OP describes are the common one in CS as well, for example. A university-funded postdoc is much less common. – Suresh Jun 1 '14 at 20:45
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"Discussion" isn't really how SE is supposed to work. However, I think the answer to your questions are relatively clear-cut (at least to me):

you are offered a postdoc position in a second-tier research group. Should you consider taking it, in order to broaden your academic horizons?

Why? You have a broad horizon, you have seen three top institutions before even becoming a faculty member. Go if the new position offers you something you are currently missing (such as a nicer place to live), but I would certainly not move just for the sake of it.

[you are offered a ] a faculty position at the second-tier institution?

If I like the place, I'll take this offer without a second thought. Expecting to become faculty directly at one of the five top institutions seems too much to ask for.

a postdoc position at one of the first-tier institutions you've already had an association with?

Did you like it there better than in your current job? If yes, take the offer. If no, stay.

a postdoc position at a first-tier institution that you haven't already had an association with?

More or less same answer as for the first bullet. You have seen a lot of places already, you do not need to change jobs just for the sake of it. If there is something you think the new institution will do better, then go for it. If not, stay. There is no life achievement for visiting each top institution in your field.

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    One might go as far as to say that the whole point of a postdoc is to transition into some kind of permanent job, whether it be a faculty position or a non-academic position (although it's typically the former). Moving to another postdoc doesn't make sense unless your hand is being forced in some way, given the base conditions you've described. – Suresh Jun 1 '14 at 20:46
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As promised, I'll attempt to answer my own question. I'm pleasantly surprised that to date, comments and answers amount to "why would you move (unless you want to)?". This is clearly a very sensible answer, yet it doesn't accord with my own experience of academic career advice (hence the original question). It would be interesting to know whether other people have also gained the impression that "it's important to move around as a postdoc" - perhaps this is field- or region-dependent?

It seems (@PeteL.Clark) that the implied meaning of "postdoc" is also not necessarily uniform across all fields. I'm focussing here on postdocs who are supported by funds secured by their PI, and who are therefore expected to work (predominantly) on a given research project. To my knowledge, this is the most common form of "postdoc" in (at least) the sciences.

As @suresh observed, "the whole point of a postdoc is to transition into some kind of permanent job". So, why would you quit one postdoc for another? For completeness, let's start with the most obvious reasons, which I deliberately tried to exclude when constructing this question:

  • The funding for your current position has been exhausted;
  • You are offered a position that is clearly a 'step up', academically, from your current position;
  • You are offered a position that offers something that is sufficiently attractive to you personally to justify the move (e.g. closer to family, nicer living environment, better pay, etc etc).

What are the other potential benefits associated with moving? Possibilities include

  • Exposure to new people, new ideas, new ways of doing things - not everyone approaches research in the same way, and not every department is organised along the same lines: it's good to see some different perspectives;
  • Experience of different research questions - the research focus of the new postdoc is unlikely to be identical to that of your current position;
  • "A change is as good as a rest" - a move can provide practical and intellectual stimulation, and may lead to a boost in productivity (particularly if it allows you to shake off additional responsibilities for a time);
  • It raises your profile in the wider academic community - humans are conditioned to pay more attention to changes than to continuity;
  • You get to remind a range of influential people (your referees; research groups that you apply to) that you exist, have attractive qualities, and are in the job market.

Potential downsides might include

  • Lost time - the process of winding down your research in one place, transporting your entire life to a different city/country, and getting set up for research in the new place will probably severely reduce your output over several months;
  • Dealing with all the hassles (and, potentially, the expense) of relocation;
  • You effectively remove yourself from the job market for a time - realistically, you are not going to be able to move again for a while, even if a better position comes along;
  • Signalling of limited ambition - people may question why you are taking another postdoc and not concentrating on obtaining a personal research grant/a faculty position;
  • Reduced opportunity to benefit from the work you've already done - if, say, your research group has spent the last decade getting to the point of sending a rover to Mars, it is probably not a sensible career move to leave a month before it lands.

There are also various factors which may be either positive or negative, depending upon the precise circumstances in which you find yourself: the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two research groups in question; the personalities involved; and so forth.

Given that the single biggest factor against moving is the time cost, it seems plausible to argue that there is a "minimum length" for a postdoc to be truly profitable. I suggest this is of the order of 2-3 years. Thus, all else being equal, there is limited benefit to moving until you've spent at least 3 years in your present position. There is also little benefit to moving if you can reasonably expect to secure a clear "promotion" (e.g. a personal research grant or faculty position) within the next 2 years.

On this analysis, there is perhaps a short window in the middle of one's "postdoc years" where a sideways move can make sense. This is where the different classes of institution come into play. If, during this window, you can move to an entirely new first-class institution, then you should do so: the benefits are likely to outweigh the losses. However, moving to an institution you have already had an association with is less valuable, as you have already gained most of the "new experiences" that such a move might otherwise provide. A move from a first-tier to a second-tier institution is unlikely to be sensible, unless you can identify specific exceptional circumstances.

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When should you move on from a postdoc position?

  • If and when you feel you'll be able to further your research better elsewhere, or get inspired/motivated to do other work elsewhere.
  • If and when you feel mistreated, abused, burned out etc.
  • Perhaps - to follow your significant other to wherever they're going, or to move with them someplace where both of you can lead a fulfilling life, or to someplace better to raise children etc.
  • When your contract expires...

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