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I want to have a career as a tenure-track research professor. I have a little over a year left in my PhD in a science/mathematical field, and I don't feel I learned enough during graduate school. I know I can (read: have to) finish my thesis in a year because my adviser is the type to just cobble something together and get you out of here (and there is no funding left)! However, I really love science, I love learning, I love reading, and I love thinking! I just feel due to various reasons (adviser putting me on projects that failed after which I had to switch, etc.), I am grossly underprepared!

I have grown intellectually so much since staring my PhD, but when speaking to professors and postdocs at conferences I feel like I can't hold my own. I know part of this is imposter syndrome that I have always struggled with, and part of it is that people can always "talk about" their research and "sound smart" in the short time we're all discussing, but I want to feel like I really understand these topics and that feels like I need more time!

They say "thats what postdocs are for!" but I get the feeling its the exact opposite! Professors hire postdocs to do something well and fast, not really bolster their education or mature as researchers. How can I convince someone to hire me as a postdoc, and allow/help me to "fill in the gaps"?

Note: this question was also posted on quora, but has so far gone unanswered.

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    "Professors hire postdocs to do something well and fast, not really bolster their education or mature as researchers": That does not at all match my experience, at least in mathematics. Professors hire postdocs so as to have someone on-site to work with for a few years, who shares their interests and has enough of the appropriate background to make the collaboration reasonably productive. It is expected that along the way, they will "bolster their education and mature as researchers". It's not a matter of "here is an assignment, get it done perfectly by yesterday"... – Nate Eldredge Jul 7 '15 at 21:00
  • ... If they wanted that, they would hire a technician, not a postdoc. – Nate Eldredge Jul 7 '15 at 21:01
  • By the way, you might get more directly relevant advice if you can be more specific about your field. – Nate Eldredge Jul 7 '15 at 22:35
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That's great! That's just how you should feel (1st 2 paragraphs, at least if you're a normal mortal). It means (i) you're not an arrogant fill-in-your-favorite-anatomical-term-here, and (ii) you're motivated to understand things rather than just get out papers. This is what a scholar should be.

I felt like there were too many huge gaps in my learning when I was a grad student. I felt like that when I was a postdoc too. I felt like that when I was a new tenure track. I have tenure now, and I still feel that way. I just learned a lot of basic things over the past year that I can't believe I didn't know 5 years ago. Part of this is the impostor syndrome, but part of it is just realizing that there there is so much out there to learn.

There is so much out there, and fields are so rich after centuries/millenia of development that you can only learn bits at a time, and you need to find a balance between solving new problems/getting out papers and learning what has already been discovered. This is true for bigshots as well as littleshots. Ravi Vakil (an algebraic geometer at Stanford) says the following, quoted from this MSE answer:

...mathematics is so rich and infinite that it is impossible to learn it systematically, and if you wait to master one topic before moving on to the next, you'll never get anywhere. Instead, you'll have tendrils of knowledge extending far from your comfort zone. Then you can later backfill from these tendrils, and extend your comfort zone; this is much easier to do than learning "forwards".

I was surprised to hear one of my friends, who is a hotshot and always seemed to know everything, once tell me something like: if we weren't expected to do research, we would spend all of our time just learning the beautiful mathematics that was already discovered.

At least in math, any postdoc mentor will expect you to have gaps (otherwise you wouldn't need a postdoc), and most mentors will want to you learn a lot of new things, though it is true that some mentors focus on being productive while learning as little new as possible. So, instead I think you should focus on finding a mentor who you think you can learn a lot from. Here are 2 things to look for:

  • They work on things at least somewhat different from, or at least from a different perspective than, what you/your advisor do. Then you will be forced to learn more new things working with them.
  • The professor themself seems to know a lot, so you'll learn a lot just from regular interactions with the professor and their colleagues. This also indicates they're less likely to be of the philosophy of publishing without learning.
  • thank you so much for your answer! I can't tell you how comforting it is to hear someone whose made it "all the way" (to tenure and beyond!) admit these feelings too. Too often I feel academics put on a show of dropping vocabulary words and sounding intelligent. I appreciate your honesty and advice! – user79950 Jul 8 '15 at 15:57
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There are multiple different types of postdocs out there. Some people are just looking for a warm body to fill a technician job more cheaply. Other postdocs give a chance for re-skilling or for more exploratory research, and some (especially in non-university research institutes like foundations, national laboratories, and think tanks) are specifically targeted at giving people the freedom and opportunity to develop their own research identity.

So yes: "that's what postdocs are for." You just have to look for the right types of postdocs.

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