Postdoc Survival Skills

August 20, 2004

It's been four years since I wrote for The Chronicle. Last anyone heard of me, I was a freshly minted Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology, back from the circus (really) and leaving to take up an interdisciplinary postdoctoral position as a springboard to what I hoped would be a fulfilling tenure-track job.

You might expect that I would have secured permanent employment by now, or perhaps shifted out of the academic job search entirely. But you would be wrong.

In fact, I'm still a postdoctoral fellow, several times over. Oh, the fellowships have all been great, don't get me wrong. But they're still fellowships, temporary by definition. I'm still a nomad on the academic landscape, trekking from the shadows of one university to another (and still another).

I apply for jobs, I pack, I move, I inadequately explore my new environment, then I do it all again.

Sometimes I lose faith. Surely there must be a way to open my e-mail account at my new postdoc before my account at my old one is closed down? Is there really a sound reason to keep those boxes of files when I have no place to store them? What city am I in again? And is there really a finish line out there or should I jump the wall to alternative events?

As I've circled around the tracks of multiple fellowships in the social sciences, I've picked up some insights. For anyone embarking upon a similar path, I humbly offer the following lessons on the postdoctoral race:

  • If offered a choice of fellowships, consider the length of tenure, the prestige of the fellowship and the institution, and the salary level -- in roughly that order. You're working toward a more permanent career in academe, and an extra few thousand dollars isn't going to help you get there as much as the other criteria.

  • Don't expect a yearlong fellowship to provide you with a full year to work on your research. You will have to spend a good deal of time that year searching for your next position. Postdocs that last two years or more are gold. So are ones with little or no teaching required.

  • Don't wait until you settle in to really get to work, to keep a regular schedule, to explore the library and research resources available, or to fully move into your house and office. You don't have that much time.

  • When an institution offers you office and work space, consider them precious gifts. Use them or lose them.

  • When designing a new course to teach, be aware that many academic presses will send you free examination copies of their books for you to consider using in the classroom. Whether you adopt the text or not, you can usually keep the book. Check the publishers' Web sites for details of their policies.

  • Developing new courses to teach might be interesting and fun, but that's not what you are paid for, and beyond a certain level, it will not help you further your research agenda or land you that next position. File away any interesting textbooks and syllabi that you come across for future reference.

  • Write, write, write. Find or create a writing group made up of people who can give you feedback, encouragement, and regular deadlines. Do it long distance if you have to.

  • Never underestimate the power of administrative assistants. Particularly in a research institute with frequent turnover in the director's job, the assistants may be the only ones who really know what's going on.

  • You have advocates in the institution or you would never have been offered the fellowship. They may be people from other departments who reviewed your application. Find them. Find out what specifically they saw as promising directions that they hoped you would take in your work. Nurture those ties, keep those people up-to-date on your work. They are extremely important resources (and you will need them for recommendation letters in the future).

  • Network at your own institution and at others nearby. That is tough to do when you, and they, know that you may well be 3,000 miles away come next semester, but do it anyway. Not gregarious or outgoing? Fake it. But on the other hand, if that coffee date gets put off for a third time, consider taking the hint.

  • Accept (or request) invitations to give talks on your research. Attend others' colloquia. Don't limit yourself to your own department.

  • The only correct answer to how your research is going is "Great!" The person asking you may need to repeat that positive outlook in a recommendation letter. That doesn't mean you shouldn't discuss substantive issues or problems you're having, particularly with colleagues who can help, just couch your words in a positive frame.

  • Don't complain about anyone to anyone in your institution. You are a transient; they are residents. They have rights and longstanding ties by necessity. You don't. You also don't know the lay of the land, or who might be keeping time with which dean.

  • As a neutral (or at least impotent) bystander, you might find yourself privy to people's complaints about their colleagues. Pay close attention, be sympathetic, but stay publicly neutral.

  • Find nonacademic activities to keep you sane and provide a few friends (including some you can complain to about whatever ridiculous thing just happened at work). An old friend of mine pointed out that his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings provided instant social support -- as well as neighborhood advice, restaurant recommendations, and job leads -- that he could plug into no matter where he traveled. But that's just an example; don't cultivate any new bad habits.

  • Don't be too disappointed if you end up having only relatively superficial friendships. You'll move too frequently for much else. Keep in touch with your friends from graduate school or your hometown buddies. You need friends with whom your history extends back beyond the past semester.

  • If you don't have a partner, get used to being alone. If you do have a partner, or a family, and are moving around from postdoc to postdoc, and are not yet in counseling together, I have no advice for you. Write me and tell me how in the world you can manage that.

  • Get a permanent e-mail address and use that one instead of, or in addition to, the local university one. Print your permanent e-mail address on your business cards. Institutional e-mail accounts are fleeting, and years later you don't want that one contact that could open up to a great job opportunity to be returned as undeliverable.

  • A contract of one year or less is considered temporary employment by the federal government, and local bills may be deductible business expenses if you maintain a permanent residence elsewhere. It's complicated, but do the research (or hire an expert) and you might save yourself thousands of dollars.

  • Create your own retirement savings account, and make regular contributions, no matter how small. Most institutions won't offer such benefits to temporary employees.

  • Learn to love the convenience of Internet banking. Look for no-fee, low-minimum, interest-earning checking and money-market accounts that allow you to pay bills electronically for free. Free checks are a plus, since you'll still need a few after every move (securely shred the old ones -- the address may be bad, but the account numbers are still good).

  • Back up your computer files regularly. Trust me on this one.

  • Minimize your belongings. Every box is one more that you'll have to carry up the next flight of steps to your new apartment.

I admit I don't always follow my own advice, but it appears that I'm just settling in to the fellowship circus at this point. Sadly, I have heard reliable reports of people holding postdoctoral positions for 10 years or more. Best to enjoy the run. So, how am I doing so far?


Paige Gordon is the pseudonym of a postdoctoral fellow at a major research university in the East. She earned her Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from a large research university on the West Coast.