Wednesday, February 02, 2011

CRA discussion on postdocs

The CRA commissioned a study on the growing prevalence of postdocs in the CS career path. Specifically,
The question of whether it is healthy for the field, and for the
individuals, to move to a new steady state, in which prior to being
hired in a tenure-track position post doctoral positions are expected,
is an important one for the entire community.  The question of whether
support for such a program should come from funding agencies like NSF, perhaps at the expense of other  funding, is also important. To encourage a discussion about the need  for, and role of, postdocs within the computing research community,  the CRA commissioned a committee to prepare a short white paper that  reports the statistics associated with academic and industry hiring,  articulates the relevant issues about postdocs in the context of the  many stakeholders, and specifically solicits input from the community. 
They want feedback: 
We would like to encourage departments and laboratories to provide
input -- to review the white paper, to discuss the issue, and to post
your views (collectively or individually) on the companion website
(  The CRA hopes to obtain a sense of the
community by March 15.  Following review of the comments that are
received, the committee will prepare a revised version of the white
paper articulating the community's broad view (and consensus, if any)
on this issue.
So chime in if you have thoughts on this matter.

Personally, I think that this is a dangerous trend, for the following reasons:
  • Quickly, doing a postdoc will become the norm, rather than an option, when looking for academic jobs. I think this is unnecessary from a training perspective for everyone (though it might be appropriate for some).
  • One of the things that has kept CS viable academically is that people can leave after a Ph.D, go to industry, and still make it back into academia. This no longer seems to be true in places like the natural sciences, with long postdocs. I wouldn't want their career path.
  • Postdocs are glorified free labor for PIs. Salaries are miniscule, and competition is fierce. And again, it's not entirely clear that fresh Ph.Ds are so incompetent that they need 5 year postdocs to be ready for a faculty job.
  • Ph.D training suffers, because "you can fix it in the postdoc". I don't think that's healthy either.
The increase in postdocing is a market driven correction. I know this has happened before (1991-1992 was famous in that respect, in theory), and maybe it's just a cyclical thing. But I really hope it doesn't become permanent. I don't want to be in a field like bio/physics/chemistry, or even math, with indefinite multiple postdocs, and nomadic researchers hunting for ever elusive permanent jobs.
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