For PhD graduates who are more interested in research and little teaching, which is better, a postdoc with a focus on research, or a (non-tenure-track) teaching position (lecturer, instructor, etc.)? I assume that both positions would be helpful when moving to a research position. The point with a postdoc is that even at top schools, the pay is low and they don't guarantee a good job afterward, while a teaching position, with 3-4 courses would be distraction from doing research.

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    A teaching position/teaching experience will contribute little if anything towards getting a research position and would probably only be used to differentiate between candidates with very similar research output. And, in that case, a postdoc would still be better because you'd have more time for research, increasing your output and making that hypothetical comparison moot. Ymmv depending on location/field, but from what I've seen in STEM fields a teaching position is generally a one way track that is leading away from a permanent research position.
    – user49483
    Apr 4 '15 at 0:51
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    Good points, but a postdoc may not lead to a research position. So should someone take the risk and do 2-X years postdoc without guaranteeing that it may lead to a permanent research position?
    – Thomas Lee
    Apr 4 '15 at 1:27
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    What makes you think a teaching position is going to be more likely than a postdoc to lead to a permanent research or teaching position? If anything, I'd argue that taking a teaching position is even riskier, as there is little chance for a permanent research job and permanent/secure teaching jobs aren't that common (at least where I am from). Unfortunately, certainty and academia don't really go hand in hand...
    – user49483
    Apr 4 '15 at 2:05
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    There is no way to guarantee a permanent research position, no matter what path you take.
    – JeffE
    Apr 4 '15 at 13:04
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    I think doing good research is the best way to increase the probability of getting a research position. If you can do better research in a teaching position than in a postdoc position, take the teaching position.
    – JeffE
    Apr 5 '15 at 17:02

In my discipline, mathematics, there is a huge range of tenure track positions, from very strongly research oriented positions to positions that are entirely oriented towards teaching. Most new PhD's would prefer to end up in a more research oriented position, but most tenure track faculty positions are not at that end of the spectrum. This means that a lot of new PhDs will ultimately have to settle for something less than the research oriented position that they have dreamed of.

If you're only willing to accept a research oriented tenure track position and would not accept a teaching oriented position then you should focus your efforts on getting a research oriented post-doc.

If you are most interested in a research oriented position but would at least be willing to consider taking a somewhat more teaching oriented position, then you should make an attempt to get some teaching experience by doing some teaching during your post-doc or by taking a position that is designed to mix research and teaching. For example, Dartmouth has named instructorships in mathematics with a teaching load of one course per quarter.

There are also non tenure track faculty positions (typically called "visiting assistant professor.") These are a good way to get teaching experience but it is extremely difficult to get any research accomplished while teaching a load of 3-4 courses per semester in such a position. These positions are sometimes created to temporarily fill the vacancy created by when a tenured faculty member leaves or retires. Sometimes the visiting assistant professor position turns into a tenure track position in that department, but you shouldn't count on this happening. .

  • Visiting assistant professorships do not always carry such high teaching loads; at some places they have a reasonable balance between teaching and research. Unfortunately the naming of positions does not seem to be very standardized. Apr 5 '15 at 2:01
  • "do not always carry such high teaching loads" is certainly correct, but "most often carry teaching loads of 3-4 courses per semester" would also be correct. Know what you're getting into. There's certainly a distinction between positions (like the ones at Dartmouth) that are designed to mix teaching and research and jobs that are simply short term non tenure track teaching jobs. Apr 5 '15 at 2:34

If you want a research position, you should go for the postdoc: a heavy load teaching-centric position will make it hard to publish, which will make getting a research position much harder.

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