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Weighing the Postdoc Against the Tenure Track

Imagine you have been offered the perfect job. This position promises just enough teaching to keep you on your toes, but not so much that your ability to do research will be compromised. It boasts generous departmental support for travel and professional development along with an attractive salary. In addition, you will have the freedom to write your own upper-level courses. On your campus visit you fell in love with the town and you feel a real connection with the current faculty. Now imagine you’re guaranteed to lose this job in two years.

Let me back up. I went on the market this fall excited by the notion of finally settling down. My little family has moved across the country twice in three years, and, with at least one more big move coming up this summer, it seems high time we started putting down roots. My wife wants to find a place where she can develop lasting relationships with other young mothers, and I want to find an institution where I can make a long-term investment in the students and the writing program. I’m tired of never teaching the same student twice, tired of having nothing at stake in the larger life of the department. So while I still applied to a couple of particularly attractive postdoctoral fellowships, it’s the tenure-track positions I have been dreaming about.

None of that has changed. But now, with an offer on the table from one of those postdocs, I find myself revisiting the idea of a short-term position. With a light teaching load I could focus on getting my book out the door and pursue the other projects that I have been forced to neglect while writing the dissertation. If the perfect tenure-track job doesn’t materialize this year, perhaps the postdoc would give me a chance to be more competitive next go around. And yet, while my wife likes the thought of living in this particular postdoc town, I still feel guilty about possibly asking her to go through all this again.

What other sides to this question have I failed to consider? If a job seeker has both options, a prestigious postdoc or a (slightly) less attractive tenure-track position, would she be crazy to give up the security of the tenure track? If a job seeker was competitive on this year’s market, should he expect to be more competitive with another couple years of research and a fellowship under his belt? Alternatively, what additional advantages are there for the professor that begins a tenure-track position young (say late 20s)?

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