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I have been appointed as a lecturer in a UK university. For establishing my lab, the department head offered two fully-funded PhD students (research programme) or two postdocs. I am struggling with what to choose. I consulted with some colleagues but received contradictory advice.

Postdocs are more experienced for a starting lab but successful PhD students are better points for my promotion. On the other hand, PhD students have lots of official responsibility and paperwork while postdocs have no direct interaction with the university/department.

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    What about 1 PhD and 1 postdoc, would that be possible? – Pieter Naaijkens Sep 6 '17 at 9:59
  • What do PhD students cost at your university? It varies widely. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 6 '17 at 10:07
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    What exactly are you doing in the lab, resp. want your co-workers to do? Experiments, theoretical research, teaching,...? – Dirk Sep 6 '17 at 10:15
  • Would the postdocs be for the same length of time as a PhD (~3.5yrs each)? Finding other funding/studentships for great PhD candidates is usually much easier than the salary and overheads for a postdoc. – user58935 Sep 6 '17 at 22:13
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    @AnonymousPhysicist There won't be much variation in cost within the UK, for a fixed subject. PhD student pay is usually pretty close to the RCUK rates. – Jessica B Sep 7 '17 at 6:17
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It obviously depends dramatically on your discipline and what you want to do with those positions.

That being said, in most cases I would assume that the decision should either be to hire 2 students, or 1 student and 1 postdoc. Here are some advantages of hiring students in your case:

  • As a new faculty member, you need to develop a profile for your team. PhD students are often largely a blank slate with not many preconceived ideas for what they will be working on in the next years - it's much easier to steer a team of 2 students into a coherent direction than 2 postdocs, who pretty much by definition already have a research agenda.
  • Similarly, postdocs should and will develop their research direction independently of you, which should also include letting them work on their own projects and publishing their outcomes without you. Mentoring postdocs to be fully independent is great and very fulfilling once you yourself are fully established, but in the beginning you may want to use your scarce startup funds in a way that better maximises them for your own career progression.
  • PhD students will stay on longer. You have a better chance to develop them and publish extensively with them before they graduate. With a postdoc, it's easily possible that they are gone on to their own faculty position before you have really started to hit it off.
  • In many fields where some amount of manual labor is required, a team of 3 PhD holders but no students will be highly dysfunctional, with lots of talking heads and nobody doing the grunt work.
  • As you say, successfully mentoring PhD students will reflect positively on you in, or will even be required for, your promotion case. I don't think that having had postdocs usually really counts for anything in this regard.
  • You may simply not need a postdoc at this point. In my experience, postdocs are most productive in a large lab where the PI is stretched too thin to supervise all students effectively. This will not (yet) be the case for you.

Not all of those factors are true everywhere, but you should be able to decide for yourself what of the above is accurate for you. However, what I suggest avoiding is hiring postdocs in the hope that they will be some sort of pre-trained super-student, who will do as told with no real benefit to his own career. The few times I have seen young faculty take such a stance, it always ended with very little outcomes and a postdoc who quit after a short time.

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    If you are setting up a lab, a postdoc may help kick-start that process since they will have relevant domain knowledge of what to do, and an interest in doing it quickly to get results to get a job (some of this may be manual work, but a slightly different twist on it). But, 1 new prof and 2 postdocs seems out of balance compared with 1 new prof, 1 postdoc, and 1 new grad student. – Jon Custer Sep 6 '17 at 15:56
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    +1 I would also add another point that there is a certain dropout risk with PhD students. I have seen too many students who realize after starting a PhD that they are not cut out for grad school. Sometimes they were never adequately prepared to begin with. Sometimes they are okay in the beginning but can't live the grad student life. Sometimes they want to stay and finish but they fail their exams and the department forces them out. And sometimes their own circumstances change. Of course, the OP should look at his department's dropout rate before making this judgment but it is a real downside. – Fixed Point Sep 6 '17 at 19:48
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    I have to disagree with the second to last point. There are a lot of very successful research groups out there which basically only consist of postdocs, and they are doing all the work and much better/faster than PhD students could do.For example the Whitesides group: gmwgroup.harvard.edu/people . The problem I see here is that it's unlikely to get really good postdocs into a brand new group since they will almost always aim for established groups. – DSVA Sep 6 '17 at 22:32
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    @DSVA As I said, I am sure you will find exceptions for pretty much all of these points - but if one or more of them are not valid, the OP probably is aware of it and can take her/his situation into account. – xLeitix Sep 7 '17 at 6:12
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Unless some regulations keep you from doing this or you expect to be overrun by excellent candidates, I would advertise the positions for both levels. I have seen many such offers for positions where you can either apply for a PhD or postdoc position. This way, in addition to what xLeitix wrote, you can take into account the quality of the candidates – which arguably has a much higher impact than their rank. Also, you stay flexible if you should not find any candidates at all.

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I know from myself and from my friends as an engineering PhD student in the US, PhD students are vastly divided into two:

  1. The ones who expect every step, every single instruction and idea from the advisor. They are not much of a help if you're looking for self starters who fly their own tangents. These are mostly clueless students who do not know why they do PhD. They are good at programming, modeling etc. as long as they are given whatever the job is or idea is.
  2. The ones who push for new ideas, new methods, and does not only work on what you suggest for project progress but also conducts what s/he thinks would work better. They have tons of ideas to conduct, they enjoy what they do. And mostly, they like to learn as much as possible, so they are more flexible rather than focusing on one single thing, which is whatever the dissertation is about.

From 2 PostDocs I have worked with, in my lab, I have observed:

  1. They are more focused in one area, and mostly wanna publish/research in that area since they like to pursue academic career afterwards. The research area is mostly related to their dissertation or kind of continuation of their dissertations "future steps", so they are not always as flexible as a PhD student.
  2. However, they have better discipline,and better time management and organization skills. They can easily kick in a project.
  3. Mostly, because of their experience, they are more able to or better at looking at big picture rather than getting lost in details, compared to new PhD students; which is pretty necessary to be on time with projects timelines because postdocs are generally much faster and more efficient.

Of course, my observations as just a PhD student may not necessarily be useful for you. But if I were in your shoes or when I hopefully one day get to a similar position, I guess I would devote 1 quota for each if it is possible. 1 for a postdoc who has proven to be"all-over-the-place" but also expertise in one topic, so depth-and-breadth together; and also for management and organization skills. And the other quota to a PhD student to be flexible in research to do. But while choosing PhD student, it is necessary to be able to differentiate whether the student is a self-starter and self-willed or "requires-to-be-managed-at-all-times."

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