To post-doc or not to post-doc, with some interesting twists
March 30, 2019 4:51 PM   Subscribe

I recently defended my PhD (in Computer Engineering) and while looking for a job, I now find myself torn between two options, both tempting in different ways. This dilemma is a mix of the age-old academia-or-not question and some other considerations. I've perused most of the related questions here and on the Internet more widely, but am still unsure, and I have to decide by Monday, so I'm hoping to get some objective perspective here!

My background is a mix of hardware and software, and academia and industry: I've worked full-time for a few years, both in hardware design and as a software engineer.

My first offer is at a smaller software company, working on a project that is very relevant to my software background. I've talked to a number of team members with whom I would work and there's a mix of some research-y thinking with more mundane fix-the-bugs refactor-the-code work. In general the benefits are great and people seem mostly happy, with a small amount of internal politics as background noise.

The other option sort of fell into my lap without me seeking it first -- my advisor has some friends/contacts on the CS faculty of a large university with a very well-regarded CS department, and suggested I'd be a good fit for a project that is looking for a postdoc with both hardware and software experience. (I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to be in this position, I know.) I subsequently talked to them and things sound very interesting (though I only got a short meeting).

So how is this different from the usual academia-or-not question? I'm pretty sure I don't want to be in academia -- the idea of competing for grants turns me off completely, and I don't even like writing papers that much; I just love inventing stuff and building novel things. (I don't want to close that door completely, but I'm 90% sure.) But: this whole academic research project (several students and faculty) is funded by / affiliated with a consortium of a ~half-dozen companies for whom the work would be useful. This seems like a good venue in which to flesh out some high-level thoughts I've had, and possibly build something really useful. My thought is then that I'd be in a good spot to continue this in industry (either as part of one of the bigcos or doing my own thing). Worst-case, I decide in 2-3 years to just find a "normal" job. My advisor is also in favor of the postdoc, for obvious reasons.

So that's the case for the postdoc. Why not do it? I'd miss out on the really nicely fitting normal job, which checks a lot of boxes that are hard to come by in combination. The postdoc pay is ~half that of the normal job (and this is in an expensive part of the country; it's livable, but only just). And basically I'm banking on living life on "hard mode".

But then if I just go for the job, I might always wonder what could have been. Partly it's the shininess (chance to be at a very prestigious CS dept...), partly it's the chance to work with smart people and see what I can do with my ideas, partly it's the feeling that it'd be a shame to just drop specific research ideas that I think could work well and make a difference.

I guess one concrete question for Mefites of an academic bent is: how much sense does it make to go for a postdoc for the chance to work with very smart people, work out a specific idea, make connections to
like-minded folks in the university and various companies, with an eye only on heading to industry afterward? Another is: if I stay on the academic track for now, do I start to acquire more of an "overqualified" taint in the eyes of tech companies? And in general: am I more crazy to pass up a job that's otherwise a perfectly good fit, or to pass up a chance to postdoc in one of the world's best CS departments? (Again: I'm very, very lucky and this is very much a first-world problem. My apologies...)
posted by anonanimal to Work & Money (9 answers total)
Yeah, don't postdoc. My postdoc advisor was horribly abusive. The pay was shit. It took me a few months to find a job like the one you described. There is no strong reason to postdoc, at least not that you describe.

Every year you postdoc, your lifetime earnings and industry employability go down. So no, not if you don't desperately want to stay in academia.

Cons of posdoc:
Low pay
Lower industry employability
Lower future pay
Stronger chance of getting treated like crap
Short term contracts
The what if factor
Dealing with more arrogant douchbags

Cons of taking this job:
The what if factor

It could be a really positive postdoc experience. But usually not.
posted by Kalmya at 5:20 PM on March 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

As someone who's had positive experiences in CS academia so far, I'd lean slightly toward the postdoc.

I personally tend to take careful and interesting risks as they present themselves, rather than take the stable option. It sounds like the potential payoff of the postdoc may be worth the risk. I recognize that academia can be terrible, but I think that risk can be mitigated by talking to lots of people who are working on the project and getting a sense for their day-to-day work. I get that job hunting is stressful, but let's be real, with a PhD in computer engineering, you won't have trouble finding a job—especially since you've already landed a great one :)

If what you like is "inventing stuff and building novel things," my suspicion is that the postdoc will offer you more of an opportunity for that than the industry job. The postdoc might also make you more attractive for jobs in top industry research labs afterward, if that's what you're looking for.

Two factors to think about are location and stability. Doing a postdoc, from what I've heard, is like being in a weird limbo because it requires putting your life on hold for a few years. How do you feel about moving to the location of the university to start the postdoc, and then almost certainly having to move somewhere else after the postdoc? Will it be socially stressful, or stressful for anyone moving with you (e.g. partner or children)? How does the university's location compare to the location of the company?

The postdoc experience can vary widely by advisor, so I'd again suggest talking to folks working on the project first to see what the advisor's like. You may want to figure out their expectations for the postdoc as well. Do they expect you to publish a few papers by the time you leave? Or do they expect you to play more of a role of staff engineer? Perhaps you can explicitly ask the possible new advisor about the chance of heading to industry, to make sure they're aligned with your goals.

Feel free to memail if you want to talk more!
posted by icosahedron at 5:39 PM on March 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Does the postdoc do anything to advance your career in a direction you want to go? They're often positions you put up with the problems of because they're a step along the specific path you're pursuing. If this is just an interesting option but doesn't take you anywhere specific, I'd pass. You can just go and work directly for the companies that are funding it. There's plenty of opportunities for people that know software and hardware engineering.

Also, consider that every year you have now has a significant ripple effect on your lifetime earnings and savings. Starting life with a healthy 401(k) balance can literally shave years off the age that you'll be able to retire at. And every job offer you get going forward will try to base it off what you make now.
posted by Candleman at 7:00 PM on March 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Former CS PhD (and dropout). I would say a postdoc in an interesting area with a big name group could be worth more than the same number of years at a company where there might be more obstacles to being able to say "I invented X." Especially if the research group is connected to places you'd want to work later.

If you loved grad school life and are interested in working on the project, I'd say give it a go. It's not career suicide for your industry track, may be a win, and is only a year or two salary hit.
posted by zippy at 12:24 AM on March 31, 2019

I would first check out the placement for your potential lab's recent postdocs. Do their jobs look appealing to you, and like something that might be a better fit than your other job offer? Also, I'd want to be sure that:

>This seems like a good venue in which to flesh out some high-level thoughts I've had, and possibly build something really useful
will actually be a possibility -- sometimes, advisors have a very narrow idea of what they want postdocs to work on.

Next, will you have to stay 2-3 years? Couldn't you just jump ship a year in if you get the itch to start making that good money and to jump ship to a company? I"ve seen many postdocs bound for industry leave in that timeframe.

Finally, no I don't think the postdoc will overqualify you for any industry position that a PhD would not. Especially at the big famous tech cos, I don't think this will be a problem.
posted by shaademaan at 6:21 AM on March 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm a CS academic. Neither option is crazy! Both are good choices! Both will likely provide you good opportunities. The difference is what you personally want out of life. I'd call the industry job the reliable choice. I'd call the postdoc the risky one. I personally advise students to take risky options when they are young and it is easier to make changes. Being a postdoc will not make you less employable elsewhere and may actually give you additional opportunities in the future based on the contacts that you make. Feel free to memail me - I work with postdocs and academics and can answer further questions.
posted by procrastination at 8:33 AM on March 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the answers so far, everyone!

I think one thing I'm realizing is that I should collect more data regarding what actual role I'd be able to play at the postdoc, as a few of you said. I'm vacillating over the choice because my picture of the outcome is fuzzy. So I'll try to remedy that.

I will say too that the postdoc is in the bay area (in the vicinity of Palo Alto...) so jumping ship would be easy logistically. (The job is, too.) It's really just a question of the work itself and which makes more sense. I shall now ponder some more!
posted by anonanimal at 9:02 AM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

I vote postdoc. It won't close any doors and certainly could open some new ones. The job sounds kind of dull, but is a safe option if you're 100% burnt out and just want a good paycheck and some stability.
posted by emd3737 at 10:00 AM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

From what you write, it seems like you're thinking the postdoc would just be more fun than the job. I say go for it. If you're having fun, the lower income will be more bearable. At least that's been my experience. Especially if you're approaching it from the angle of "I can always return to private industry," it seems there's not much to lose.
posted by MrBobinski at 2:46 PM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

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