When it comes to getting a tenure-track position where one has both a lot of resources and academic freedom to do what one wants to do (so having a tenure-track position in a top university might be more useful because one may get more resources at a top university).

Or in short, when one wants to maximize one's chances of becoming a "top scientist".

There are obviously numerous factors, and "rank/prestige" should not be considered as a factor in itself. That said, the period after one gets a PhD is an extremely important time for building up connections, and those are easier to get at a top university.

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    "Better" for what? According to whom? Given what career plan? In what field? – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jun 28 '12 at 3:00
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    If rank/prestige isn't a factor, then I'm unclear on what you mean by "academic advancement". If your goal is to get a tenure-track job, and you don't care how prestigious it is, then a tenure-track position is by definition better than a postdoc. If you have other goals, then the answer may vary, but I'm not sure how to give a comprehensive answer (except by a case analysis for possible goals). – Anonymous Mathematician Jun 28 '12 at 3:03
  • Okay - tenure track position. I'll explain more. – InquilineKea Jun 28 '12 at 3:13
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    Maybe the question intention is: "postdoc in order to get better job VERSUS job right now" ? – Suresh Jun 28 '12 at 4:27
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    Earth/Atmospheric Science. But I intend this to be more of a general question for people here since no one in Earth/Atmospheric science hangs out here. – InquilineKea Jul 1 '12 at 19:26
  • Getting experience at a top university is good for your CV and for you as a researcher.
  • Getting more research experience under your belt can increase your chance of getting a job in the future, but there are no guarantees.
  • A post-doc will give you a chance to write more papers and to find out what topic you really want to do your research on.

  • Taking the assistant professorship now would get you immediately on the track to full professor, which may be delayed if you spend years doing a post doc.

  • Working at a non-top university might mean that the students you have access to, for example, as RAs or PhD students, to develop your research vision, will not be as good as at the top university. That said, as a post-doc, you will generally not have access to such students anyway, except perhaps as part of a collaboration.

  • The pressure to succeed at a top university is much greater than at a non-top university.

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A post doc is merely a step towards getting a tenure track position. I would always suggest taking the tenure track job. The only time I would even suggest thinking about it is if the tenure track position has a heavy teaching load (e.g., 3-3 or higher in the sciences and 4-4 or higher in the humanities). Even with a ridiculous teaching load I would still suggest the tenure track position.

Not everyone with a postdoc at a top university gets a tenure track job afterwards.

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    It may be merely a step, but it can be a lot of fun and can really contribute towards one's development as a scientist. – Dave Clarke Jun 28 '12 at 12:28
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    Nor should one neglect the degree to which a postdoc may be a step toward failing to get a tenure track job, in which case you need to consider the extend to which you are getting experience that may be less helpful in industry while also getting paid less than you would in industry... – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jun 28 '12 at 14:33
  • @dmckee I don't understand what you are saying. – StrongBad Jun 28 '12 at 16:13
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    Not every postdoc will get on the tenure track (much less achieve tenure), and postdocs do work similar to what they would do if they got into industry for less money. There is a cost to keeping your sights on academia. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jun 28 '12 at 16:20

A postdoc is not a career goal; it's yet another step in training, with the purpose of preparing the trainee for the eventual faculty role. With that in mind,

Postdoc is good because:

  • You're associating yourself with some top-notch researchers and gaining valuable research experience.
  • You're learning new techniques and methodologies from a well-known and well-respected professor.
  • You're writing grant proposals that are X times more likely to be funded because <well-known researcher>'s name is on them.

Faculty is good because:

  • You're running your own lab and getting experience managing teaching, research, mentoring, and administrative duties.
  • You're proving that you can do it by yourself.
  • You can do research on your own interests, without having to worry about what your PI wants you to do.

Additionally, think about the opportunity cost of both choices... it really depends on where you want your career to go.

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