Friday, July 19, 2013

Tell All

From a reader seeking your comments:

"I am currently on my 4th postdoc position and still have a 4 years left on my current fellowship. I've decided that I don't want to continue moving around, even for a permanent position. If a position opens up in my current town, I will apply, otherwise I plan to look for a job outside of academia in a few years time. Several people have contacted me with further fellowships or jobs positions abroad that they encourage me to apply to. Some of these people are current collaborators. My question is, how do I let them know that I don't want to apply to these jobs, without risking losing my collaborations over the next 4 years? I feel that if I let people know my true intentions, they will write me off as 'leaving academia', stop collaborating with me, inviting me to conferences etc... Even if I do eventually do something else, I still want the next 4 years to be productive scientifically, yet don't want to apply to places I have no intention of going to for that to happen. "

It is always tricky giving advice with only partial information about the context and people, but, as usual, let's not let that stop us. One possibility is to imagine this scenario in the context of our own collaborations and speculate about what we would want this person to do if we were working with them. Using that approach, this is what I think:

You should not apply for jobs you have absolutely no intention of taking no matter what. If you were merely leaning towards staying where you are but could possibly move for a great job, then it is worth applying anyway and seeing what happens. But if there is 0.00000% chance of your accepting another academic job if offered, I recommend not applying.

I realize that advice leads you to a situation of having to explain to your colleagues why you are not applying for academic jobs, but I also think you should be open with your colleagues about your decision. If I were your collaborator, I would keep working with you for the next few years but would know not to plan on doing so in the long-term (assuming your non-academic job wouldn't involve such collaborations). In fact, I am reminded of a situation years ago when a colleague of mine left academia but we kept working together for a while to wrap up a project. This was fine with me, and I appreciated having some notice because it affected my plans regarding proposals, students, postdocs and so on.

There are likely to be some conflicting views in the comments (I hope!), but perhaps seeing a range of opinions will nevertheless help this reader wrestle with the options and come to a good decision for this particular situation.


Anonymous said...

First of all, I think there is nothing wrong with speaking your mind. I found that when I shared the fact that I had reached a point in my life where I wouldn't want to keep moving around like a nomad forever, most if not all people were completely understanding. Plus, if you show/have shown to be a good and reliable collaborator, those people should know that that isn't going to be any different all of a sudden just because you are thinking about your life's priorities.

I agree with FSP that if there is a 0.00% chance of you moving to place X then don't apply. However, if you can be honest with yourselves and your collaborators that there may be a 1% chance, then by all means check it out. The job market is hard enough, so having a position/place pointed out to you by someone who maybe knows what makes you tick might be a better fit in the end than chasing after Nature Jobs.

Phillip Helbig said...

Be honest. Someone who doesn't want to work with you for that reason isn't worth working with anyway. There is a serious problem that it takes too long to get a permanent job and good people leave. Make a scene about it and maybe someone with power to change things will wake up and smell the coffee.

James Annan said...

I'd have thought with 4y of funding left, it would be simplest to just say that you want to get your head down and focus on doing some work for the time being. Surely there's no need to talk about longer-term plans.

Anonymous said...

I agree with James Annan - why not state that you are focusing on your current fellowship and not in a place to apply for these positions. Then, if in 2 years you change your mind, no problem. If not, you then state how much you love where you are living and want to stay in that area.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

What is the fuss about? People enter and leave academia all the time, and it really makes very little difference to collaborations (unless a non-disclosure agreement gets signed).

Or are non-engineering faculty so narrow-minded that industry collaborators don't even exist in their minds?

a physicist said...

I agree with those who say it's fine to be open about your long-term plans. For that matter, in the past I've been happy to help my junior collaborators find non-academic jobs, if that's what they want to do. I get job ads sent to me all the time, and to some people I know I forward the academic positions, to others I forward the industrial positions, and to many I forward all the positions.

All I want from a collaborator is that they do their share of the work (and how much that share is depends on the collaboration, of course). Life is too busy to worry about their long-term plans or try to second-guess them!

quasihumanist said...


It's not that non-engineering faculty are narrow-minded; it's that, outside of engineering, there are for all practical purposes ZERO industry jobs actually in the field.

If a pure mathematician leaves academia, then almost certainly his or her new job involves doing zero pure mathematics. Any mathematics applied in industry is almost always mathematically well-known and very far from what is actually now being researched even in applied mathematics, and also very unlikely to have any relation to any pure mathematics actually being researched. Also, industry is usually after a good-enough, approximate solution, and that is almost entirely contrary to the spirit of pure (or applied) mathematics, which wants the provably optimal solution, or at least a solution with a provable bound on how far it is from optimal.

If your job doesn't actually involve any of the research you have been doing, it's unlikely you'll find the energy to keep up with your old research in your spare time.

The one exception is a job for the NSA or an NSA contractor, but then you can't tell anyone what you are doing anyway.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the point of speculating about whether non-engineering faculty are more narrow minded than engineering faculty. The original letter writer provides no information about what post-academic job he/she wants and does not seem to consider the possibility of continuing to collaborate after completing the postdoc. Working in that context, gasstation's comment is irrelevant (sorry).

EscapingWestOfTheBigMuddyTomorrow said...

I'm moving from my thrid post-doc into a assistant professor's berth at a strictly undergrad school with no research history and it isn't even guaranteed to be a long term position, so I know where this correspondent is coming from.

Heck, I went to grad school the same year my brother joined the army. In the last twenty years (yeah...) I have moved more than he has.

That last job search was more industry than academia (yep, I finally got an academic offer when I had essentially given up hope--perhaps I should have fallen into the pit of despair much earlier?) but every prospect I had in industry would have required a move.

Anonymous said...

4th postdoc?!??? Unless there were some extenuating circumstances, 4 postdoc positions seems like a big red flag.

ParticlePhysicsProf(F/m) said...

I would play these offers very much into your advantage - be polite, thank them, but tell them you are not moving for another postdoctoral position, implying they need to offer you something better than that. In your current state of mind it does not matter anyway, if you want to go do something else there are I am sure many excellent, and very interesting, jobs in industry for you.

Who knows, things change and maybe in 2 years from now you want to be in academia again. Still, even then it cannot hurt to negotiate and these things (=not being desparate. yes it is sad but true) always put you in a better position.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 5:23, I don't see the point of your comment other than just being mean. This person is leaving academia and wasn't asking if this was a good decision. If that was the question your comment would still be mean but at least it would be relevant. Also we don't know what country this person is in. There are some places where it is very difficult to move from postdoc or researcher to professor because there are not many opportunities, so 4 postdocs might be more the norm than in the US.

David S said...

I wouldn't tell your collaborators the truth. Four years is a long time so who knows, you might change your mind, and you don't want to be written off before that.

I wouldn't apply for the jobs either because you will do it half-heartedly and they might be disappointed by your application details.

I'd use one of the excuses already mentioned here. The best one of which looks like 'I want to concentrate on my fellowship for a couple of years.'

Conventional Maverick said...

Think carefully before leaving academia. If you are motivated bya love of your subject you will find it frustrating in an industry where subject comes second to profit or project concerns. It is not easy to move back if you move away for too long.

Anonymous said...


I am the postdoc who sent the email to FSP - thanks very much for posting it and thanks to everyone for their answers and suggestions.

In the field/region where I work, 4 postdocs is not rare, but is usually the 'end of the line'.

Also, I'm not sure I was clear that the collaborators I am talking about are all senior collaborators, not peers, which I think makes a big difference.

As the field I work in is very competitive, senior collaborators really feel that they are "investing" time and support spent on younger colleagues. They genuinely hope that you will obtain a permanent position, so that their time investement will then reap rewards (long term collaborations, exchanging students, postdocs, etc..).

So my fear is that by stating that I am considering jobs outside academia, senior collaborators will no longer see me as worth the time investment.

I have been on a conference programme committees where senior members dismissed inviting a very established and renowned collaborator as keynote speaker, since they had heard on the grapevine that they were *thinking* of leaving academia.

In that sense, I am a bit put off by Phillip Helbig's comment saying that "someone who doesn't want to work with me for that reason isn't worth working with anyway". The thing is senior collaborators who support you are quite rare, and since the field is quite small anyway, I can't afford to be picky with that criterion. Also, since the field is small, the information will not remain within my close collaborators, but can travel quickly throughout the entire field, meaning even people who are not yet my collaborators, may refrain from wanting to work with me in the future.

Finally, it's not so much that I want to 'leave' academia, it's just that there are no jobs for me! I have a genuine passion for my subject, which is why I want to ensure the most stimulating research environment for the rest of my contract.

Tina said...

Don't close any doors. Who knows what happens in four years.

Anonymous said...

4 years is a long time, and you may decide that it's time to seek other avenues and opportunities outside of the community you are in. You seem to want to be in academia, you just don't want to move.

We don't know your family/spouse/child situation so it's hard to know if you don't want to move because moving SUCKS or because you have established roots in a new place. 3 years ago my husband and I were 100% sure we'd stay where we were (and the option was there) but family and life called us home to our own country. We know have awesome TT prof jobs, a great new lab and a wonderful new city to call home. We're exceptionally happy in our forever city and have received nothing but support from our mentors, collaborators and peers.

If you are giving the next 4 years your all, I'd say that is what matters. Don't apply to new jobs prematurely or if you can't ever see of moving there, but don't burn bridges or leave others the impression that "you're done".

Anonymous said...

I don't see how politely declining to apply for jobs would sabotage your current position. It isn't like these people actually offered you a job meaning that they went to bat for you to create an actual job for you. Rather they merely suggest applying. So it is no skin of their nose if you decline. If you fear how they view your personal life choice, well I think you should stop caring what other people think of your personal choices. Sure they may think you aren't serious about academia, or they may not. Or even if they do, they won't stop working with you now. Life is too short and complicated as it is to add more stress by trying to imagine what other people are thinking about your personal life decisions. 4 years is a long time and a lot can change in that timeframe and people know that.

Anonymous said...

Take a cue from "Leaning in" (I know it is controversial, but ...) which says don't leave before you leave. I would say that you keep your intentions close to your chest. This is mostly because this will allow you to be your most effective self while you are being a postdoc at this position. You will get support from your collaborators, which will allow you to do good things in your current position. Four years is a long time and situations may change and some opening may happen where you are. Positive expectations and optimism on your part will get more support from your collaborators, better work outcomes and perhaps and better final outcome. This is how the feedback loop works in many fields.

Also, watch how you talk to yourself about your situation. Almost all of us have gone through phases where we were ready to throw in the towel. At some point I decided to myself that I had only two years of postdoc left as my science career and I would have the best, most productive two years and no regrets afterwords, whatever happens. As it happened, they were the best, most productive years, and I did get a decent permanent job afterwards.

Whatever you decide afterwards, make the best use of your life now. As long as you don't deceive anyone, you do not owe them a four year projection of your intentions.

NonUS FSP said...

Echoing the sentiment of the last comment, this blog post on viewing the tenure track position as a 7-year postdoc expresses a similar opinion:

Aboutthemcat said...

I one time was in a situation where there was going to be a work-life balance consideration, and I (male professor) volunteered to be on the section. The women (professors) organizing the panel said that the aim was for a women-only happening, because they felt that the female students would be more eager to speak up if there weren't men in the room. I believe there was furthermore a proposal that some of the issues women face are distinct, which certainly makes sense.