I am a post-doc in the physical sciences and I am finding that people have very different expectations of what a post-doc's priorities should be. Typically people are somewhere between two camps. I call these two extreme views "Laundry list" vs. "Research trumps all".

The "Laundry list" view is that everything matters, and that next to research skills developing soft skills is also very important. Examples of such advice philosophy are the Times Higher Education guide (see here) and the The New Scientist guide (here). Apart from research, there is great emphasis on teaching and mentoring students, practising talks, going to many seminars and networking.

The "Research trumps all" view is that at the post-doc stage, the importance of papers far outweighs everything else. For example,  this interesting guest post on The Professor Is In advises to be very cautious about getting involved in mid-author papers and optional teaching commitments. In the Scientific American blog post "The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc " (here), the author directly attacks laundry list advice of the above kind and emphasises selectivity in activities, putting research and teaching first. Cal Newport's canon of advice (e.g. this and this post) is generally all about selective focus on research projects and minimizing dissipation (e.g. little email communication, drop bad projects).

I am most interested in career advice for post-docs in the physics, mathematics, computer science, life sciences on a path towards a research oriented academic career. I think it would be very interesting to see what you think and where you place your post-doc priorities on the continuum between "Laundry list" and "Research trumps all".

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    The SA blog post is about tenure track, not about postdoc, isn't it? Oct 6, 2017 at 20:08
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    What an excellent question! I think the people most qualified for answering it are those with much experience in hiring committees. From my limited experience in CS, I would like to comment on the specific advice regarding mid-author papers: They're (obviously) less valuable than first-author papers, but can still have some merits, especially if the average number of co-authors is low. Oct 6, 2017 at 21:16
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    I am voting to close on the "The answer to this question depends on individual factors ..." reason. You may take this as an answer. (Even if you want to integrate over the whole job market, you still need to tell me the measure on your integral, and that depends on individual factors.) Oct 6, 2017 at 22:08
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    Frankly I see no reason why this question is worse in terms of requiring individual factors than many others we happily answer. I am voting to re-open.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 7, 2017 at 7:54
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    I don't see why mentoring students, going to many seminars and networking won't help with pushing publications out. It's not the opposite. If you supervise a lot of students you can publish much more than if you do all the work on your own.
    – user64845
    Oct 7, 2017 at 19:38

2 Answers 2


I think this is an interesting and multi-faceted question. As a postdoc, I was very much on the laundry list side of things. I did a lot of teaching, organized events, went to plenty of conferences, helped with department service, collaborated in projects that I probably should have gotten out of months ago, started a lot of long-reaching initiatives which would not lead to any papers in the short term, wrote grant proposals, and so forth. My publication track record was good, but not nearly as good as the track record of some of my colleagues who tried harder to fend off non-publishing activities.

I think ultimately this made job searching harder, as hiring committees in virtually all research-oriented institutions put an overwhelming emphasis on published papers. However, I also feel very strongly that I am a better and more well-rounded academic now than what I would be if I had locked myself in and wrote one paper after the other. I especially feel like I am pretty well set-up to achieve my tenure requirements (which, at least in my institution, are much more well-rounded than just looking at papers alone), and the change from a postdoc to a faculty position has been rather smooth - I did not get the "shock" that some others seem to have when they suddenly need to do teaching, department service, etc.

All in all, I think a good way to see it is that the "publications-over-everything" strategy maximizes your chance to get as good a tenure-track position as possible, while the laundry list strategy trains you better for a long, well-rounded career.

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    "...well-rounded career" if you get hired first, right? Oct 12, 2017 at 3:07

As this question has been re-opened, I'll put a version of a comment I made in meta here as an answer:

It Depends on You and Your Job

There is no single, written-in-stone answer for this question, which is why there are a variety of seemingly contradictory answers.

Your Job: The postdoc position itself might have requirements to it that push one or the other. For example, if your PI is coming up for tenure, and the volume of papers is primarily what they're being evaluated on, that's clearly a need. On the other hand, if you're largely funded by a cooperative agreement or other mechanism that involves a lot of work with outside groups and products that aren't necessarily papers, the "Laundry List" might work better.

Your Desired Job: There are hiring committees who are definitely looking just at volumes of papers. Who want to see that Cell/Nature/Science manuscript sitting there. For these, clearly, the "Research is Everything" approach is likely the right one. For other positions, there's much more emphasis on stakeholder engagement, or software development, or other things that don't get easily wrapped into a single manuscript, and where the "Laundry List" is more appropriate.

Vexingly, these positions might even be part of the same call.

You: It's likely that one approach suits you better.

For example, there are people who I know who are extremely good at playing "The Game", for whom the "Laundry List" approach would potentially be very productive, and where "I spend a lot of time on Twitter" is actually a major benefit to one's career instead of a time sink.

Similarly, there are people who are immensely productive when writing papers - if they can ditch the other stuff on the "Laundry List" for a bit, they can absolutely churn out solid, impactful research results. In this case, "I shall crush them under the weight of my CV" might be a good strategy.

I have seen these people co-exist in the same position, and have similarly good career trajectories.

When it comes down to it, I think a better approach is to figure out which one you fit in, and then try to find jobs that are conducive to that, rather than the other way around. I'm extremely skeptical that someone trying to shoehorn themselves into a different "style" will be as successful as they would otherwise be if they found their niche.


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