21 January 2010

No postdoc? No problem!

Professor in Training tries to warn people starting tenure-track what they’re in for (second installment here). Unsurprisingly, the first two points both revolve around money, and a big chunk of that concerns postdocs.

For those of you who one day hope to be tenure-track, have you thought about what you can do if you can’t have postdocs?

Your first response might be, “I wouldn’t take a job where I couldn’t have a postdoc.” Are you sure you want to limit your opportunities that much? Especially in the current economy?

You can survive and conduct research without postdocs, but you have to think about it. It’s very helpful to have ideas for $5 projects in your pocket as well as $50,000 projects. There’s a lot of research that can be done with time and elbow grease instead of big bucks.

Undergraduates can be awesome in the lab. The trick is to recruit them early, in their first year. That way, you have the potential to work with someone for three or four years. Still, you can get a lot of good work with people who are around for a year.

There are programs a-plenty to support undergraduate researchers, both financially and intellectually. Beta Beta Beta publishes a journal of undergraduate research. If the work with an undergrad student goes well, some might stay for graduate work.

Institutions that don’t have postdocs are also unlikely to have doctoral programs, but there are often master’s programs. Master’s students have more experience, but the turnover rate is often faster than for undergraduates. There are also far fewer funding opportunities than for undergraduates or doctoral students.

Big labs in big universities train so many people that they get to think that those are the one and only model for scientific success. That does not need to be the only way to do research.


Professor in Training said...

1. You don't have to be in a program that has doctoral students in order to have postdocs. Medical and/or professional health depts typically have research labs with postdocs.

2. I have undergraduates rotating through my lab it's just that in terms of cost they are much cheaper than grad students or postdocs so they don't really affect your budget as much.

(I'm in a small program within a large R1 with no access to doctoral students.)

Zen said...

Thanks for the feedback!

You’re absolutely correct that postdocs are separate from doctoral programs; I should have been clearer. I do think, though, that places with doctoral programs are more likely to be savvy about postdocs generally.

The larger point is that there’s a lot of variation. Some places will be absolutely flummoxed by the concept of hiring a postdoc. Even if the institution gets it, some researchers will find it hard to recruit postdocs, depending on the kind of research they do, where the institution is, and so on.