Are you asking yourself “Should I apply for postdocs this year?”

Ask a Candidate | Topics in Higher Education

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, on considering postdoctoral fellowship options & whether or not you should apply.

In the past few decades, as it’s gotten harder and harder to land a tenure-track job in the humanities right out of school, more early-career scholars (especially in fields like history and sociology) have joined scientists—who have long been accustomed to taking temporary jobs after getting a Ph.D.—in assembling a string of short-term postdoctoral positions, while looking for something permanent. But when should a grad student, or recent grad, apply for postdocs, and when should they stop? There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but here are some considerations. 

Make sure the postdocs you’re applying for are worthy of the name.

There’s no industry-standard definition of “postdoctoral fellowship,” especially in the humanities. That means that some of these positions—the most prestigious ones—require no teaching at all, while others ask recipients to shoulder a 3-3 or even a 4-4. At that point, they’re really “Visiting Assistant” jobs in sheep’s clothing. 

So what should you look for? A postdoc should give you ample time to do research and promise access to a new network of scholars at the host institution. Ideally, you should have enough money to attend conferences and acquire the research materials you need. 

In newer types of postdocs, like those that have proliferated in the digital humanities over the past decade, the need for applicants’ vigilance is still higher. In many situations the institution offering the gig might be well-meaning but have very little idea of what they want from the person who fills their position. Miriam Posner, an assistant professor of information studies and digital humanities at UCLA, has a good blog post outlining questions people should ask when they’re applying for an unconventional postdoc—some of these apply to other fields, as well. 

If you are looking at taking more than one postdoc in a row, have something to show for it

In a 2014 series on postdocs for Chronicle Vitae, reporter Sydni Dunn interviewed experts who agreed that extended postdoc-hopping didn’t have to be a black mark on a resume—but added that the early-career scholar who had taken more than one such position should be able to provide ample evidence that their time in “limbo” had allowed them to: 

  • Produce X number of articles 
  • Learn a new skill 
  • Get a book well into the publication process

Essentially, at the end of the postdoc, you will want to have a tangible and transferable outcome.

The chance to research without distraction (which you should get, in a good postdoc) will be difficult to come by later on in the race for tenure, so make the most of it. 

Ask yourself: Can my family, finances, and mental health handle another move?

These are not small matters for people looking at adding another short-term position to a CV. Especially in the sciences, the typical salary for postdocs isn’t great. And even if you’re a humanities scholar and are getting slightly better funding for short-term jobs, the opportunity cost of another year (or more) of your adult working life spent trying to get a permanent position in academia should be a consideration. If the idea of moving now makes you feel like screaming, or you’ll have to put off having a baby again, or you’re going to be separated from your partner to take this job, you may not be willing to make the sacrifice. 

Every academic has some anecdotal evidence that argues for persistence—a friend, or acquaintance, with a new-ish Ph.D., who “hung in there” through a string of postdocs and visiting positions and finally grabbed the brass ring: a tenure-track job. But there isn’t much data on the topic of postdoc outcomes, so here’s one good way to think about it: If you don’t feel like you’ll be able to be productive in your third postdoc anyway, because you’re so stressed out about the sacrifices you’re making, that may be an indication that it’s time to step off the treadmill. 


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