Tuesday, September 4, 2007

To Postdoc or not to Postdoc?

I swore that I was Not Dealing With the job market or even thinking about it until I finished teaching my summer class. I lied.

Having caught up on my bloglines, I was left with the choice of either reading random internet sites or grading student essays. I guess I could prep tomorrow’s class along with the grading. Obviously, I chose option c) blogging on my non-random blog, about the above interdicted topic.

The Job List is not out yet (tho’ jobs are starting to appear in the chronicle and inside higher ed for affiliated departments I could possibly cross-apply to) but Famous Postdoc Positions in the humanities have permanent websites, and many have been updated with the “theme” or “topic” for the year. I can peruse them right now, all the while wondering: would it be worth it?

Let me immediately make clear that I am not turning up my nose at the pay or even teaching loads (50k would be unimaginable riches compared to a full teaching year here for grad students. Even the ones that offer 30k are the UC equivalent of two grad students.). I can handle teaching multiple sections or even multiple courses because of all the teaching I did here --- though I have heard that certain postdocs are really exploitative adjunct positions in disguise and have met several people now who went back on the market after teaching a 3-3 or even 4-4 load of business and technical writing at a certain place only to get another postdoc or nothing. (So I fear that some of these positions are a ladder downward, not upward onto the tenure track.)

No, what really concerns me is the draining nature of the application process. Postdoc applications are more specialized and resemble fellowship apps. (You may need a special type of letter and additional statement of how your work intersects with the theme in addition to a standard statement of research, for example.) The ones at the Big Ivies and Elite SLACs also charge an application fee (usually $20 or $30) to scare off the hordes. And the UC system has a postdoc system, but you need to find a sponsor at another UC to mentor you, as well as prove that your work enhances diversity in some way. Mine arguably might, but I don’t, and I think I’d get put at the bottom of the pile because of that.

Most worrisome are the letters of recommendation, which I presume would have to be different from job letters and specially tailored to each postdoc position. I try not to unduly piss off any committee members and asking them for 8 million different hassles of postdoc recommendations would seem to needlessly use up my store of social capital. (Advisor capital? Grad-schoolian capital? Help: my Bourdieu is across the room and I can’t get up.)

So, considering that applying for postdocs would be more time-consuming and committee-pissing-off than the usual job application, I thought I would ask you, the blogosphere, and whoever else might listen, if going for these postdocs would be worth it.

I should add one more thing: I’m not sure you’ve heard of my school, or my department. Seriously, do the Big Ivies only consider grads from the other Big Ivies? (I just read an article citing Lacan and his use of “the Big Other,” which my phrase reminds me of, and so I’m keeping it for amusement and appropriateness.) I should go see if any have lists of previous awardees. If they only take students from Cambridge and Harvard, then I shouldn’t even bother.

Last year I applied to one postdoc, because the topic was quite close to my own, and it was at a committee member’s alma mater. (Connections, you know? I can hope.) I made it to the second cut and they asked for another writing sample. They also sent the request as a list to the 24 other people from the second cut, rather than blind-carbon-copying it. That’s how I know there were 25, and that me and the other person here who worked with said committee member were the only people from a public school; the rest were grads at Big Ivies.

Finally, while some postdocs are due on D-day (November 1 seems to be the deadline for job applications) and some are due in early December, quite a lot are due almost immediately. So I need to make this decision right away or else it will be made for me by the passing of time.

Gah. On the one hand, I'm all "maximize your time investments!" and on the other, "desperation is staring you in the face! Apply to everything! Now! Go, go go! I don't care if you're not in an economics department; apply to that job too --- apply, apply, apply!" It's amazing that I actually get any teaching prep or writing done over all this mental shouting. But listening to this inner fight has exhausted me and so I'm going to put the decision making all in your hands. Heads or tails? Up or down? Stay or go?


adswithoutproducts said...

Ah, now that's a great question. A bunch of answers, some of them even to your questions....

1) I found postdocs more selective than jobs themselves. This may be a quirky, individual thing (about me, about the postdocs I went for) but I had a good run on the market my year out and sank like a stone with the postdocs. (I was at an Ivy in grad school...)

2) I am extremely jealous of friends who got prestigious low teaching load postdocs (a la Stanford). I'm at a 2/2 place, but still I lose all of my semester time to teaching - almost every drop of it. (Advising grad students basically should count as adding a 1/1 to your 2/2, and then there's administrative work and the like..)

Those postdoc'ers are working on their books full time, going to conferences, and making the same amount of money while hanging around prestigious universities. It feels (from my perspective) like grad school 2.0, which I'd kill for right now.

On the other hand, I'm sure those postdoc'ers are very, very jealous of me for having tt work at a research 1 etc. I don't face elimination from the discipline with each MLA I attend...

3) Relatedly: I one could sculpt out the average track to academic greatness, it would probably involve 1) not getting the first state school grinding job (like I have) out there 2) getting a nice post-doc instead and then 3) using your time there to finish a manuscript and start another and 4) getting an absolutely fabulous job on the other side.

But you can't plan this. You take what you get. But there is no doubt that in most cases tt job finders feel like winners and postdoc'ers feel like runners up, when, in the end, the latter might well be better off - even vastly better off.

4) I would guess that it's probable that the postdocs tend toward Ivy-bias more than even jobs, because the files are evaluated with less care (not much at stake for the department) and picking all the Harvard and Yales just makes it easier on the poor slouch that gets assigned this duty.

5) The absolute single most important commodity in academic success is time. And that's what a good post-doc gives you. Almost impossible to find time anywhere else, once you leave gradschool.

6) Yes, there are fake postdocs. All that I say above only applies to low-teaching load versions. (2-2, 1-1, 0-0 etc). The others are only valuable if, yes, you really need to work. Better than straight-adjuncting, CV-wise, but that's all...

St. Eph said...

So there's another option to add to the bucket of crazy-making I'm toting around with me these days. I have exactly no experience with post-docs (though I should be researching them), but as for the letters from your committee, one of the members of my department's kick-ass job-search team reminded us at our spring meeting that writing letters is part of each faculty member's job. One always feels like an awkward supplicant when asking, but these are in no way outrageous demands. (Easier said than done, I know.)

Flavia said...

This is worth just about nothing, but I decided not to apply for post-docs for some of the reasons you mention--and also because I was ready for a real job, and really didn't want to move somewhere for just a single year or two. (There was one that I was strongly considering applying to, mainly because it was quite close to my then-boyfriend, but its deadline wasn't until Jan or Feb and by that point I'd had some MLA interviews and lost interest.)

As for the selectivity: one of my colleagues here previously held a very prestigious post-doc, and he got his PhD from a very good public university in the midwest (and his BA from a no-name-recognition public university in the west). However, he HAS commented that he felt that he stood out there because of his public-school background, and that all his fellow post-docs had much "fancier" degrees.

heu mihi said...

Some postdocs are ridiculously competitive. Like, 800 applicants for 3 slots. I imagine (with no real basis for my imagining) that getting one of the uber-prestigious postdocs, and then getting a ton of work while you have it, would help your future career. However, the odds are stacked against everyone (how can that be? It doesn't seem possible that *no one* has a decent shot, does it?). So I understand the inclination not to apply.

The reason I would give FOR applying is actually one of the things you mentioned: most of the deadlines are quite early. Why is this a good thing, you ask? Because by November you will be in no mood to write that extra research-topic essay. If I were you (and this is actually what I'm going to do) I'd knock off a couple of them this month, send out the applications (those fees are enraging, but what can you do), and then concentrate on the more standard job apps in Oct-Nov.

I applied to a pack of postdocs last year and got nothing, not a nibble. But hey, a 1-1 teaching load at a fancy university? That's worth the extra couple of essay-writing hours....

Eddie said...

I started at 40K for my teaching job. Although that's slightly low, I think it's fairly normal for a crappy-end SLAC.

dance said...

Are you done? I think I made the conscious decison not to apply for postdocs because I was finishing that year, and I knew I would need a break from the diss project, and that I would waste a postdoc year to feeling burnt-out, not working on the book. The postdocs I was looking at largely were open to anyone who had received the degree within the last 5 or 7 years or so, and so I decided I would try to get a postdoc as/in addition to a mid-tenure sabbatical. When I was on the market, I think that was always a question I asked the chair--"these postdocs are out there, would I get leave to take one?"

Also, I needed the big perspective of teaching to revise for the book. I might have applied for some postdocs late in the season when I was a bit frantic about getting a job, but I didn't really want one.

If you think you would make use of a postdoc, I think it's worth it.

Sisyphus said...

Thanks for the comments! Sorry I didn't get back to them, of course, until the post was almost completely forgotten.

First: Yeah, St. Eph, I ask my committee for letters --- last year I did one letter for jobs and one for a specific postdoc and then two months later a bunch for continuing fellowships. So I'll ask them, but I feel like each time I bug them, I make it more likely they'll say no to something else. This is part of their job, yes, but --- my advisor is really busy, and the grad-student steering is only a small part of it.

heu mihi, 800 sounds like a _lot_! And I wanted to crank out most of a chapter in the next month (hehehehe! yeah right) but fancy-ness and money and time sound good. (I'm not sure CR's answers helped sway me one way or another, but they are all good points.)

Eddie, I would _love_ 40K right now! Unless, of course, it was a postdoc in New York city --- I hear that won't even cover the cost of cabs. But it would be way higher than more TAships or even adjuncting next year.

So, in sum, I am still undecided and confused. Luckily, that is my natural state. I have sent an email to advisor asking her opinion, which will come back sounding like a gnomic aphorism that is capable of interpretation 40 different ways. I'll keep you posted.

Oh, and yesterday I was bewailing that I would never get a postdoc to Dissertation Buddy because I'm at a no-name school and wasn't Mr Fancy Pants McPantserson, and made her blow soda out her nose.

Thank goodness for small pleasures.

Marsia Sfakianou Bealby said...

What an interesting article. I am doing the 3rd year of my PhD in archaeology and I really appreciate the information you have provided over here. I am definitely going to apply for a postdoc). Thanks for the advice. Any comments or thought, please contact me.