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I heard that in astronomy most people do only one or two postdocs. If they haven't found a permanent position after this, they quit astronomy and find a job in a different field like physics, economics, or information technology. And the vast majority of people who get a PhD in astronomy will end up quitting astronomy because the astronomy is one of the hardest field to get into.

But suppose that your parents were rich and provided you with more than enough money to live for as long as you wanted, which means that you have no pressure to quit your postdocs to get a job in a different field than astronomy in order to earn more money.

Would it be possible to continue doing postdocs after postdocs for up to 15 years (so up to 6 postdocs) to increase your chance of getting a permanent position compared to those who only do one or two postdocs?

Or would doing more than 2 postdocs not increase your chance of getting a permanent position anymore? Maybe all employers reject people who do more than 2 postdocs because they all see them as failures, no-good, incompetent and unskillful?

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    Posting as a comment because it's just hearsay - I heard that in some fields, you can apply for postdocs for up to 7 years from acquiring your PhD, but no longer. I heard astronomy is one of those fields. I have no memory of the source of this information, or whether it is really valid. – Ana Jan 18 '16 at 22:30
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    In addition to what @Ana said, I think many PIs take the point of view that in hiring a postdoc, they are not only getting someone to work for/with them for a couple years, but also training a future independent researcher. At some point in your sequence of postdocs, it would become clear to everyone that you are not likely to become an independent researcher anytime soon, so your likelihood of getting hired for that many postdocs would probably be very slim. – Nate Eldredge Jan 18 '16 at 23:28
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    @NateEldredge the permanent postdoc can be a real blessing for both the PI and postdoc under the right circumstances. I know a number of 15+ year postdocs that simply do not want to teach or write grants, but are happy turning the research crank. – StrongBad Jan 18 '16 at 23:53
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    Rename postdoc to Research Fellow, and it sounds better. Why not be a permanent Research Fellow, funded by <your very own> charity? – Captain Emacs Jan 19 '16 at 0:28
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    @Ana: I also heard that many universities or countries regulate this not only for specific fields, for example so you can start your last postdoc position as late as 6 years after starting the first, but no later. – skymningen Jan 19 '16 at 10:23
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This question to some extent revolves around a purely semantic issue, namely what is a postdoc? Many areas in academia have a small number of "soft money" research positions that a researcher can hold, sometimes for many years. When a researcher has an independent source of funds and doesn't need to be paid, I imagine that can only improve his/her ability to obtain such positions. The questions that need to be discussed in connection to your question are therefore:

(a) Do such positions qualify as "postdocs"?

(b) Is there a chance for a researcher holding such a position for up to 15 years to eventually transfer to a tenure track position?

I'm not in astronomy, but from a general STEM perspective I would argue that the answer to (a) is no, and the answer to (b) is yes.

Specifically, with regards to (a), the point is that "postdoc" is not a technical term (at least not one whose definition is universally agreed upon), but an informal label we apply to an interim position a researcher holds for a few years after finishing their PhD and before finding a permanent/tenure-track position. Talking about someone being a postdoc for 15 years is an oxymoron, as it stretches the term way past its conventionally understood meaning. Linguistically it would be like talking about a "50 year old child."

With regards to (b), I think it is indeed very possible for a researcher to transition to a faculty position from any other type of position, provided they have been doing high quality work. An extreme case (but not necessarily the only case) would be a researcher who makes a single very important scientific discovery that propels them to scientific stardom. I would imagine that it is absolutely possible for this to happen to a non-faculty researcher in astronomy. Whether it's likely to happen is a completely different story of course, but given that the premise of OP's question is that landing a faculty position in astronomy is already highly unlikely even in the normal way, I don't see why this approach is any less likely to work than the more conventional one.

To summarize, my (non-astronomy-specific, as I said) opinion is that although a soft money researcher may suffer from a certain minor stigma when it comes to applying for faculty positions, this by itself will almost certainly not be a deal-breaker, and when it comes to being evaluated for such positions, to a good degree of approximation everything would depend on the work they have published.

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I'm not in astronomy, but as far as I know, it's true across all of academia that your body of work is weighed against the amount of time you've had a PhD. If you don't get a permanent job after your second postdoc (say), you can't simply do more work at the same rate as before. The expectations will be higher, in terms of quantity and quality, if you apply for jobs again 2-3 years later.

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The answer may, to an extent, depend on the country. I believe there was a short period of time where Germany limited the number of years that one could be a postdoc. Assuming that you can legally move into a tenure track/permanent position in the country of your choosing, then there are two types of long term post docs.

The first type is an individual who stays in the same "postdoc" position for a long period of time. These individuals can demostate that during the prolonged postdoc that they grew from a junior researcher into an independent researcher through sole author and/or senior author papers and being PI/CI on grants sufficent to cover their salary, the salary of their team, and research costs. These are the type of people who could at any point get a tenure track position someplace, but for whatever reason (e.g., family or an aversion to teaching) chose to work where they are.

The second type is the individual who bounces between 1-3 year postdocs (or potentialy stays in the same group for a long time) and never demonstrates independence. Their funding comes predominately through grants to their supervisor and they rarely are sole or senior author on papers. These people stand little chance of getting a TT/permanent position. Hiring committees are looking for someone who when the tenure clock runs out is going to be an established independent investigator. If you have not done it during a 15 year postdoctoral period, it is unlikely you will convince a hiring committee that you will during the pre-tenure period.

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I don't know how it is in astronomy, but generally speaking, the trend of remaining a postdoc for a longer duration has set in, mostly because tenure track faculty positions across universities is reducing while increasingly huge numbers numbers of PhDs are being churned out each year. So researchers are moving from one postdoc position to another, hoping to land a faculty position sometime in the near future. Many move out of academia, but for the ones who love their research and are under no pressure to increase their income flow, this could be a good option.

Being a postdoc for a long duration means being more independent, having a longer list of publications, more sole author papers, more grant proposals: some of the things which hiring committees would look for.

On the other hand, (again, I'm not sure if this is the case in your field), this might give off the impression that you choose to be an eternal postdoc and are not ambitious or enterprising enough.

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There is no restriction per se1 and some professors are happy to have long-term postdocs, but such people rarely transition to better positions in the field.

Note hard statistics are going to be difficult to come by. I've been trying to get some sense of postdoc trajectories in astronomy for years, but everywhere I turn it's just self-reported numbers, selective memories, and cagey responses about how people who left the field ultimately wanted to do so. As a result, all I have are my own anecdotal observations from within the astronomy.

One sobering thought to keep in mind is that if you weren't "good enough" to get the permanent job of your dreams after 2 postdocs, there's no reason to think you'll be any better off after 5 postdocs. Remember, each year there is a new batch of PhD graduates entering the job market, with roughly the same distribution of hireability from year to year. Moreover, permanent positions are not rewards for a career well done; they are promises of stable employment in exchange for future research. After a 1st or 2nd postdoc, the potential employer is still making a guess about your future. After the 5th, if you haven't done professor-level work, you're statistically not likely to have a mid-career change of pace. Dwelling for a long time in postdoc limbo really amounts to hoping for statistical fluctuations to help you out one year in the job market.

A number of faculty (especially successful ones who attract good job applicants) do not even want to hire 3rd- or 4th- or 5th-time postdocs. Part of the value of postdocs, as far as the professors are concerned, is in raising successful academics. They want postdocs who will soon become faculty themselves, since then the community can say "yes, all those well-known researchers did indeed work under Prof. Bigshot." Thus your proposed plan might be more difficult to attempt than you thought.

Other professors, though, are all too happy to keep good researchers by their side. Getting someone with a decade of post-PhD experience for the price of a postdoc -- that's a great deal. They'll keep paying you as long as you keep working. At this point, though, it's not clear you don't have a permanent position of sorts. Often such people also obtain different titles, like "researcher" or "technical staff."

Furthermore, the career you have in mind -- many years of solid research under others' direction -- is not that different from astronomy positions outside universities proper. Various NASA centers, national labs, and large telescope facilities have permanent staff scientists working for them. If your goal is a position like this, there's no particular reason to idle around as a postdoc.

If your goal is a tenured faculty position, then yes it is somewhat difficult (but by no means impossible) to switch from a non-university staff scientist to tenure-track (or even tenure in rare cases). However I don't believe it is any more difficult to do this transition than to get such a job with 15 years of postdoc experience. Even if the research is the same, the latter comes off a bit unusual and leaves less room for asserting your scientific independence.

In summary, if you are considering this plan, perhaps you should look into astronomy careers outside universities instead.


1This is written from a US perspective, which has the largest fraction of astronomy jobs anyway. In the US, "postdoc" is in no way a regulated term. It's just the least-prestigious post-PhD position in the field, usually filled by wandering journeymen for 2-5 years at a time.

  • "In the US, 'postdoc' is in no way a regulated term." At my university no postdoc (in any field) can stay for more than five years. The written policy on this cites "federal guidelines." Having been a postdoc twice and done much postdoctoral hiring, I can tell you that rather postdocs are regulated in many ways. What makes it tricky is the lack of uniformity of the regulations across regions, schools, departments and even kinds of postdocs. But the regulations certainly exist. – Pete L. Clark May 20 '16 at 19:07

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