I will be getting my PhD in about 6 months, and I am trying to decide if I should get a postdoc position, or apply straight to faculty positions. I have been in school for so long that the idea of moving again, taking a one year position, and a terrible salary is almost more than I can bear. At the same time, I want to be sure that I am setting myself up for a strong career in academia. Would you suggest that I suck it up and take a postdoc?
Dear Postdoc Plateau,
The decision to take a postdoc or full-time faculty position often depends on your progress as a researcher at the end of your graduate studies. Most students will apply to both types of positions because the market for full-time positions is so competitive.
If a student is offered a full-time position that would be a perfect fit immediately following graduate school, it might be disadvantageous not to accept the offer. However, this is not commonplace, and students are often only offered a postdoc position, which makes this decision much easier to make. Although the long-term goal of graduate students is often to find a full-time tenure-track position, most academics agree that there are several benefits to taking a short detour before arriving at the ultimate destination. This is especially true if your CV is lacking in research or teaching skills. If you think that your research has yet to blossom into work with obvious, immediate value to an institution, a postdoc might be the optimal opportunity to give your research the time it needs to mature. Once it has started to flourish, you will be in a better position to find a full-time faculty job that would be a perfect fit for you.
Although postdocs do not typically pay as much as a tenure-track position, they almost always pay much better than graduate school. As of 2013, according to Indeed.com, postdoctoral fellows earn an average of $46,000 per year, compared to an average of $67,000 for tenure-track faculty. Thus, I would recommend against choosing a full-time position purely based on income for the one or two years you would be in your postdoc position.
Many faculty members I know who chose to take a full-time position immediately following graduate school actually wish they had taken a postdoc position instead. Postdocs are a great stepping stone to preparing oneself for a full-time position, and help to ensure that new faculty will not be overwhelmed with the responsibilities of teaching, research, writing, advising, and administrative duties. Indeed, many academics agree that a postdoc is a rare opportunity to enjoy life a little bit (and possibly start a family) before starting a full-time position. A postdoc often allows individuals to work a set number of hours per week and go home without feeling the need to take work with them. This can be a welcome change from graduate school, and is certainly more tranquil than a tenure-track position.
Lastly, it is important to note that taking a full-time position instead of a post-doc does not ensure that you will be at an institution for longer than a year or two. If you are not able to accept a position at an institution you are thrilled about, based on location, salary, institutional opportunities, and interpersonal environment with colleagues, you may find yourself on the job market sooner than you might like. Thus, a postdoc is a great way to find out exactly what type of job and institution you are looking for in a long-term job and will allow you to develop a research plan that will be competitive for obtaining such a position.
--René Paulson, PhD