Friday, September 5, 2008

Postdoc or Tenure-Track Job?

The semester has begun; I had my first course yesterday. And I am happy to say that I’ve started to reconnect with colleagues this week, including a few that I haven’t seen all summer.

We mostly had the usual conversations about respective summers (and about this unprecedented election season), but I also got into a longer (and more substantive) discussion with a faculty member (in a different field, an important variable) about the relative value of postdoctoral fellowships and tenure-track jobs for new Ph D ‘s.

He advises his students to focus on jobs, not postdocs. He’s skeptical of the entire postdoc thing for several reasons: the way it can be deployed by universities as an almost exploitative cost-cutting measure and at the expense of more secure tenure-track offerings (my fellow Brainstorm blogger, Marc Bousquet, could say more about that), and because it runs the risk of trapping some people out of the job market and into a secondary track of consecutive postdocs and adjunct positions.

I was arguing that a postdoctoral fellowship can actually increase one’s value on the market in subsequent years (which he grudgingly conceded, a little), and that two- or three-year postdocs give people a kind of head-start in the tenure-track rat-race. My dissertation adviser was a proponent of the postdoc (at least as a potentially viable option), and she’s made me one, too.

I was fortunate enough to have a three-year postdoc that allowed me to turn my dissertation into a book, start research on a second project, and even dabble in some orthogonal intellectual interests — and all that before I had to serve on my first thesis committee, teach a single course, or attend monthly faculty meetings.

Even the right one-year post doc (without unreasonable teaching expectations) can get that dissertation housed at a publisher and a little more ready for prime-time.

I thought I’d made a compelling case, but this colleague still walked away skeptical, which made me wonder. Am I overstaing my case? Might it work differently for different fields in the humanities and the social sciences? For different kinds of academics? Are there other factors at play?

(Cross-posted with The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog)

14 comments:

Antho p.doc said...

John, I think this has everything to do with the kind of postdoc and specifically, the teaching expectations built into it. As you well know, most of the "Society of Fellows" type postdocs -- at least at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, U Michigan -- give one ample time to write and pursue new research projects. I've also been lucky to have a couple of postdocs which are training and research oriented. These are precisely the kinds of postdocs that seem to give one some breathing room and space to develop a research program.

On the other hand, programs like U Chicago's Society of Fellows--which requires that you teach two courses and quarter--seem hardly different from a visiting professorship in terms of the time left for research.

The same way that tenure-track jobs range very widely in teaching loads, I think that it is hard to make summary judgments about postdocs vs. t-t jobs.

Of course, I've yet to find a job, so what do I know?

John L. Jackson, Jr. said...

You make a great point, anthro p.doc, a great point. The kind of fellowship does matter--as does the kind of departments one applies to. You can't stress that enough. Thanks. And good luck with the search. Send me an email at Penn if you want to talk about this job-search thing more pointedly.

Megan Kinch said...

I feel like postdocs punish women who intend on having families because of the sketchy maternity options for people who have already spent their most fertile years working on their phd. It also postpones the "what city am I living in" two-body problem which breaks up relationships at an age which is might be the last chance at natural fertility. Not that all women want to have children, but a career track should make it possible to do so. Post-docs extend the phd process in some ways, which is already long enough.

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