Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pre-Postdoc Planning

My international travels in recent years have given me the opportunity to talk with many Ph.D. students about their research and their plans for the future, and I have noticed that there is a rather dramatic difference between U.S.-based and international students in their approach to finding postdocs.

European Ph.D. students in my field of science, for example, are much more likely to wait until they finish their degree, or are extremely close to finishing, before looking for a postdoc. In the U.S., the hunt for postdocs typically starts earlier -- sometimes a year before the expected Ph.D. completion date. I am generalizing, of course, and there are many exceptions, but I have encountered this situation enough to believe there is a difference. This difference is likely related to the different funding structures and academic cultures than to anything more profound.

Nevertheless, despite my having spent significant time abroad and despite having a high level of interaction with international colleagues, the U.S. system is so ingrained in me that I am always taken aback when I hear a Ph.D. student say that they are going to finish their degree and then starting looking around for a postdoc. I had this experience today, so I have been thinking about it and about why my instinctive reaction was to feel anxious for this person.

I don't know which system is more effective at matching Ph.D.'s with postdoctoral positions, and I don't know which system involves less stress -- it could well be a tie. It seems that it might be initially less stressful to be in a place where you don't have to do so much pre-postdoctoral planning, and may have some expectation that someone somewhere will have funding for you and will hire you when you get your Ph.D. But, as time goes by and Ph.D. completion nears, perhaps the respective stress levels switch and it becomes more stressful to be in a place where you don't know what you will be doing after your Ph.D. as compared to a place where you've known for months what you'll be doing after your Ph.D. (see Figure, which illustrates this hypothesis based on the assumption that the U.S. Ph.D. student finds a postdoc in advance of Ph.D. completion, as is typical in my field).


Anonymous said...

Currently at fancy-pants European Technical Institute. The time difference for completing a PhD in the US and Europe are markedly different. Avg. 5 years vs. 3.5 years. Whereas, the American PhDs are just winding down the European PhDs are really just getting in their groove, so more stress. It's also a lot more common for European PhDs to take a fair amount of time off between PhD and post-doc than it is for Americans, so there isn't necessarily that rush to have something lined up immediately. It seems as if in the US it's considered lazy or unmotivated or you lack of direction if you don't have something lined up immediately afterwards.

After my experience in the US and and two different universities in Europe, I still can't decide which system I like better. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The europeans definitely seem to be more prepared at the beginning of grad school but US PhDs seem to be slightly better/more advanced than their european counterparts.

But then, there are many more hoops to jump through on your way to an American PhD vs. a European PhD.

Anonymous said...

Probably too much of a generalization, but it can also be that international (European) PhD students know they will stay as a postdoc for a short time after the exam date (which tends to be much sooner than in the US) to finish up projects/manuscripts/revisions, and many qualify for social security benefits because they have real working contracts as students and so they have a safety net (including things like health insurance, not tied to a job) when they're finished...

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. My own stress levels followed the "international" curve. But is Canada classed as international or US?

Anonymous said...

Do you have any data on success finding a postdoc position? I have no idea how it works in Europe, but in the US having found a postdoc doesn't reduce the amount of stress. Why do PhD's go for postdoctoral positions? I think it's purely to get into academia (although it could be due to not finding another job). With the faculty positions being scarce compared to the number of people awarded PhD degrees, I think the level of stress increase n-fold. It might be the same in Europe, but I really have no clue.

aesthetic.vigelante said...

Interesting observation. I'm in my first year of a PhD at a Canadian university, and I've already had several professors mention that I should "think about applying for a postdoc" (not immediately, of course, but--they're mentioning it). I decided to look into the matter, and discovered that quite a lot of planning is required. For example, in order even to apply for postdoctoral fellowship funding from one of the national research councils, you must have your postdoc situation already set-up with the cooperating university. So there is the planning and then the application for funds. I'll be starting this as early as possible in order to avoid that stress you mention...

Anonymous said...

Having received my PhD in Europe (where I am from) before doing 2 postdocs in the US, I can relate to this. As opposed to what the other "anonymous" said, not all European universities give degrees a lot sooner than US schools. Mine took close to 5 years, and before that I had 1 year of masters in another country. But I too did not worry about getting a postdoc until quite late.

Part of it is that there is less stress generally speaking for grad students in Europe than in the US, and thus one tends to worry less about the future. For me, it was also a lack of self confidence. I knew which prestigious universities I wanted to go to for a postdoc, which "famous" scientists I wanted to work with, but I did not think I was "good enough". And my advisor did not push me or hint in a any way that I should be looking for a postdoc early. Not sure why. Anyway, I ended up asking around to these famous people and, sure enough, they did not have money or had already given it away. If I could wait another year, they'd be happy to have me. So, I ended up taking an offer (the only one) somewhere else, with someone who did not fit my research or personality that well. But it was one of the highest ranked US universities and that's where I met my spouse. So all ended up well but it could have been a disaster...

Now that I am professor (in the US) I will push my students to look for a postdoc early! :-)

Anonymous said...

I guess a better question is why a PhD student should look for a postdoc(which is a temporary contracted position) way before his graduation instead of seeking permanent employment? Is it a good or bad thing that all PhD students look for postdocs? After all, less than 10% of postdocs obtain faculty positions in many fields of physical sciences even now. Is swelling the postdoc ranks the right solution to this growing problem or rather we should seek to streamline the postdoc process? Maybe this is an indication that academia is churning out people who have no hope of getting real jobs?

Anonymous said...

I cannot speak for all of the Europe, just for the eastern part.

In many cases no one will consider you a candidate for a position before you have your actual diploma on hand. PhD defence is less of a formal (technical) ritual, more like an exam where committee could possibly fail you (and sometimes they do!).

And more important - postdoc is not required to get a faculty job.

Anonymous said...

Currently a postdoc in the US, but did my PhD in Scandinavia, I see many differences between the US and there. And I think there are good and bad things with both systems, and which one you prefer is probably dependent on what kind of person you are.

I also think it's important to note that Europe currently have as many systems for getting a PhD as there are countries, so you can't really do the comparison between US and Europe in general. In my own country of origin, it's common that the big funding agencies will not even allow you to apply for postdoc grants if you don't have your degree. And that of course adds some extra time to the whole process, since you typically can apply just at one or two occasions a year.

Psych Post Doc said...

I secured my post-doc 1 year before I finished my PhD (I'm in the U.S.). That left lots of time to write up grant applications and look for funding.

There are a number of PhD students who wait until the last minute (either aren't sure of the defense date, or don't get a job) but I would guess that they do not end up with the best post-docs for them. I wanted a specific type of experience, had I waited to apply for posted post-docs I never would have had a shot at this experience.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Immigration is another issue. I couldn't finalise my Canadian visa paperwork until I'd actually completed my PhD in the UK, even though I had a job and funding already lined up. Just one more complication...

Ms.PhD said...

I went on postdoctoral interviews because

a) My advisor was traveling and wouldn't read my thesis, so I had nothing else I could do while I asked other people to read it

b) I realized my committee would be much more likely to pressure my thesis advisor into letting me graduate if I had a position waiting for me.

c) As someone else mentioned, you can't write a postdoc fellowship (with only a few rare exceptions) without having identified a Mentor and getting them to write the Mentor section (or at least sign their name to whatever you wrote for them).

d) I was worried because in my informal inquiries I'd learned that some of my top choices were already full and said they didn't have bench space for anyone else. So I felt like, in a way, I'd already missed the boat on where I really wanted to be.

However, these days I'm not so sure a 1-year lag time is always the best approach.

I didn't know it at the time, but, lot of things changed between the time when I was given the offer I accepted and when I actually arrived.

So when I got there my new advisor said "Oh, so you're really coming then?"

Not exactly the enthusiastic welcome I had been led to expect from my interview.

Too bad this person didn't have the decency or foresight to say "Hey, you know, I'm thinking I don't actually want anyone new to join the lab, and that includes you."

Might have been better for everyone if that conversation had taken place.

Katie said...

I am in the US, and I found my postdoc position 6 months prior to graduation. My stress level definitely spiked at the postdoc interview, and declined steadily down until I graduated. Somehow, knowing that I was good enough to land a quality postdoc position gave me more confidence to wrap up my Ph.D. work without feeling nervous about writing the dissertation or enduring the defense.

Anonymous said...

Historically, very few people in my research group in graduate school did postdocs (in my area of computer science, they are rare). However, most people applied for tenure-track jobs before finishing their thesis and had a crazy 6 months between securing their job and starting it. That never seemed like a good idea.

I applied for and got an NSERC postdoc (Canada). (There is no need to arrange with postdoc advisor for that one). Applied in November 2005, which does seem early in retrospect; finished degree in December 2006, got tenure-track job in May 2007. Due to application cycles, I could have applied for the postdoc in November 2006 instead, I guess, and started it in June 2007, which would have meant 6 more months of funding from my advisor.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I am a Canadian with a European PhD and PDF. The job systems there are typically quite different. People finish and start at all sorts of random times. There isn't a huge rush to get people hired for September 1 or anything like that. I had a PDF arranged 12 months or so before I finished but that was because I was recruited. If I had waited I would have found something good at close to the one month to go stage.

There are lots of positions with fixed application dates but there are lots of other things as well. Also, in many fields (in the UK especially) students graduate with ZERO publications and so don't know lots of people who might recruit them.

I actually saw less stress there because people were done when they were done rather than fixed to an external schedule.

Anonymous said...

I'm a PhD student in the U.S. who is close to defending (September or October) and I've been interviewing for post-docs since March...which is typical for students at my university.

Part of it may be that after being in one place for 5 years we're all ready to move on, so we apply "early".

Definitely part of it for me (and some others that I know) is that it puts some pressure on the committee and mentor and helps the student actually's harder to suggest 6 more months of unnecessary experiments when the student has already lined up a post-doc and is planning to move in 4 months. I even had a committee member say to me about a month before I started interviewing that they didn't see the point in me worrying about when I would be defending because I didn't have anything lined up yet.

It also helps with the separation from the mentor...until I started interviewing my mentor didn't seem to realize that I was actually going to be leaving in the foreseeable future, but now he seems to have firmly grasped that concept.

Maybe because it's "normal" for students to start looking for a post-doc 6 months to a year before they defend the faculty don't think that the student is ready to defend until they start looking for a post-doc...

EliRabett said...

I suspect US engineering Ph.D.s follow the European pattern based on recent consorting with engineers

mentaer said...

finally my 2 cents after all other posts:
. I did the Phd in Switzerland
. I decided that I want to go abroad (Canada) => so i needed a grant
. grant application was possible at earliest just before the thesis submisson
. there have been 2 deadlines a year
. So I actually did know that the PDF will work out 2 months after my defense, but
. I had to finish up the things anyway (i.e. making revisions + printing) + I needed to apply for the visa => so I could go eraliest like 4 months after the defense.

b) the plus of the CH/EU system:
. some funding was left after the submission
. I could apply for unemployment pay as my PhD position was a "normal" working position (paying into the social system for 3.5 years)
=> so.. no need to hurry/worry.

c) other considerations:
. do I really want to be a pdf?... . in some fields it can be fast to find a job in industry
. if you are doing Phd-research on a non-Founding position, i.e. on a regular university position - then your position is still there even if you finish (assuming your Prof likes you ;).

so I guess the best system is between the many?

(btw.. thanx for the 2 years)

Anonymous said...

So far as I have seen, at least all the international graduate students in the US look for a postdoc or job before they graduate, so that they can stay in the US. Otherwise, if an international student graduates without a job offer, it is very hard for them to stay in the country and look for one. Because there are so many more international students in the US, this might have shaped the general culture of looking for jobs before graduation.