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I think that's right: a postdoc is a chance to tread water for a bit. It gives you a bit of a respite, and a chance to focus attention on some aspect of your candidacy that needs work.

It also gives you a chance to forge connections somewhere new, so take advantage of that. Make yourself present in the department, participate in their activities, build friendships, etc. Take advantage of opportunities to get some feedback (e.g. a colloquium or other presentation), maybe get involved with cognate departments, teach if you get a chance and need the experience, work on your publications.

You know, that sort of thing! It's a great chance to see how things work in another department, and to expand your professional network.

At the same time, however, I'd advise you to focus your efforts a little. You don't want to be busy with busywork that doesn't lead to tangible CV improvements. You want to take advantage of the breather and improve some aspect of your candidacy that really needs it.

In my case, I decided that what I needed most were some pubs. So I devoted the entire first year to working on my papers and trying to publish them (although I participated in plenty of departmental activities). I didn't have much success until year two; but when I did, I was able to shift focus a little and add some teaching experience. To give myself more time, I applied for jobs only very selectively my first year, although of course I had to apply more widely my second year, since the postdoc was expiring.


I think there is a bunch of aspects to take into account:
- where are you? Postdocs in Europe or US are very different. I imagine it's the same elsewhere.
- how did you get your postdoc? It's your own project/funding or not? In Europe there's a clear pecking order, and the rich get richer, all the way to grant-based tenured positions...
- how much time do you have? There's a difference between 1 year and 4.
- where are you going? Research university, larger grants, teaching focused institution, or extra-academic career?

UK Postdoc

One advice I would give is to take into account the time it takes to actually add a publication to one's CV. If your postdoc is, say, two years, and it takes about a year to get a paper from submission to acceptance, then only the papers you submit in your first semester or so of the postdoc will help for when you're on the job market again in the second year of the postdoc. This means that *most* of the work you perform on your postdoc does not actually contribute to your success of finding post-postdoc employment!

For me, this realisation meant that I spent most of the first semester/year of my postdoc finishing up project I already had lying around, getting as many publications out of my thesis as possible, and working on projects I knew I'd be able to get out quickly, such as short response papers or more straightforward papers. I did not focus on developing a new significant research project or writing entirely new, difficult papers from scratch until later on.

Of course, it's best if you can do this while also getting to know your department, networking, and enjoying living in a city you probably don't know yet!

UK Postdoc

One small addendum to the above: at first I worried that I had to develop a new research programme as soon as possible, in order to avoid the impression that I didn't have anything in me beyond my thesis. But I reasoned that I will only really have to show evidence of any new research ideas during the second year of my postdoc when I'm fully on the job market, so even after the first semester there is still plenty of time to present new ideas at conferences, write a new research proposal, develop some work in progress you can talk to with people.

what to do?!

For anyone who is not at a Leiter Top-10, one should be cultivating relations with people outside their PhD granting institution. Letters from people at the host institution will count for a lot more than letters from one's PhD institution. Do not ONLY cultivate good relations - work with and learn from these people. That is what you really want. I speak as someone who never had a post doc, but has supported one on a grant.


A couple things that helped me...

- Use the postdoc as practice for your next job. Some of the habits people develop in grad school aren't necessarily sustainable in the long term. Write every day, focus on work-life balance, find a more efficient grading method, whatever you need to make your life sustainable.

- If your postdoc is affiliated with a department,do anything that's beneficial for you (showing up to talks or whatever), and do your fair share of helping out, but keep in mind that your fair share is low, much lower than what's expected of tt faculty. Steer as far clear of department politics as you possibly can.

- Postdocs vary a lot in how much mentoring, market support, etc. they do automatically. If yours doesn't come with that built in, advocate for what you need--but keep in mind that faculty often don't (maybe shouldn't) feel the same responsibility for you that they do for grad students.

Assistant Professor

Agree with what others have noted, especially that while a postdoc can be excellent protected time to build a publication track record, the timeline to publication can be such that you might not get the boost on the job market in Year 2 of a postdoc even if you work up papers like wild in Year 1 and have many submissions out. If you are in a position to start sending things out, perhaps from the dissertation, in your last year of your PhD program that can help in terms of timing.

One other suggestion is to use a postdoc to cultivate a specific (relevant) skill to your scholarship (or teaching, depending on your goals). For example going to train in a department where people are doing something innovative from which you want to learn, working on a skill from another discipline that you want to bring into your work, etc. Doing some further specialization that have might been distracting during the PhD, but could really set you and your work apart in the future, is a great way to use a postdoc rather than consider it merely a way to, as one commenter put it, tread water. What could push you forward in the field or give you a specific expertise relevant to what you want to be doing? Pursue that.

OP Here

This is fantastic advice. Given my goal of obtaining an R1 job, I think that adding pubs is probably the greatest added value I can get from the postdoc. At the same time, as is pointed out in the above, the timeline for pubs is long! That basically does mean that the only writing that can be relevant for my 2nd year job market efforts must happen within the first year of the postdoc (and perhaps on the earlier end of that, assuming that I need to cycle through a couple of journals).

I also really love the idea of taking time during the postdoc to cultivate a particular skill. This seems more manageable than putting together a new research agenda, since time is short in a two-year stint (when the second shot at the job market comes at the start of the second year). Perhaps this skill can be connected to an anticipated research project, or a research project that I can show to have begun in the course of the postdoc.

Thanks again!

Postdoc Zero

One of the most valuable things I did in my first postdoc was to make connections and to explore career options outside of academia. It makes it much easier to be on the academic job market if you have confidence that you could do rewarding work elsewhere should you not luck out and land a TT job.

I found this professional development course for postdocs really useful as well — it's online with a free option: https://www.postdocacademy.org/

Collective Action Problem

I wish I knew! I published 15 pieces, some in top journals with infamously high rejection rates; expanded my teaching portfolio; organized conferences and workshops; presented at the top conferences for my field...

I haven't had a single interview for a TT job!

So my main advice would be to prepare for disappointment, in the short run. There is literally nothing you can do in a postdoc that will guarantee a TT job afterwards, except maybe securing 7-digit funding. This is one case for picking postdocs with longer durations: I had a choice between my current postdoc and one with longer duration. The latter involved learning a third language, but if I'd know just how bad the job market would be in the past 12 months, I would have taken it.

Finally, be prepared to do what I just did: don't place all of the responsibility for what happens on yourself. In past stages of academia, I have personalized everything, to the point of self-harming out of frustration at myself. ("If I was intelligent, then I wouldn't be in this situation" etc.) Now, I work on the things that I can do, express my disappointment at my hopes not being fulfilled, and carry on without bitterness towards myself or others.

Well, I do that 99% of the time! I was just thinking about how my first postdoc boss told me that they wanted to hire a woman, but unfortunately none applied. It's easy to get distracted by such details and ignore the overall situation: even if the Taliban conquered the world and every woman was banned from academic philosophy, the job market would still be terrible. Blaming others for a collectively determined outcome is about as irrational as blaming yourself.

To sum up, do as I have done (publish, teach, organize, work hard on your mental health etc.) but be prepared to get my outcome, which is interviewing for yet more postdocs, and which are less attractive than the postdocs you were interviewing for 4 years ago.

TT Prof

- get lots of papers under review, and simultaneously get feedback on them--esp. from someone who works in the area, if possible
- prep job talks
- meet people at conferences
- if you can choose, teach only if (a) you've barely taught at all or (b) you are seeking a teaching position

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