The Duck of Minerva

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Thinking About the Seven Year Post-Doc

July 22, 2013

This piece is really interesting.  It is written by Radhika Nagpal who was on the tenure track at Harvard but treated the experience like a seven year post-doc.  That is, she didn’t focus on what it took to get tenure there, because, well, most folks don’t get tenure.  Instead, Nagpal focused on pursuing the most fulfilling seven years so that she would be in a good position at the end of the “post-doc.”  This led her to some conclusions, which I consider below.

But before I do so, it is important to note that this advice of hers applies everywhere but to greater or lesser degrees.  There are some places where tenure is going to be highly unlikely, so her advice applies the best at those places (although it seems that she got tenure at Harvard).  There are many, many places where tenure is most likely, so Nagpal’s advice applies but only with some adjustments.  And there are places in the middle where tenure is up for grabs.  In those cases, I am not sure if this post-doc view is any good.  As I go through her list, this might begin to make sense.

Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

The first–to treat the seven years as a post-doc–makes a heap of sense at the schools that tend not to tenure.  The essence of this means getting work done, focusing less on sucking up/appeasing the powers that be, and not stressing too much.  So far, so good.   This can also work fine at those places where tenure is relatively straightforward if you hit some kind of clear and relatively not-impossible criteria.  You will not do much harm to your chances.  On the other hand, if you do not invest in the place and then you get tenured, well, you might be at a disadvantage post-tenure as others have figured how the place and have invested well.  Also, you may burn a bridge or too if you ruthlessly demonstrate that you think of it as a way-station.  At places where one has a good chance at tenure if one plays one’s cards right, this outlook might come off very poorly.  If you are near the razor’s edge, sending signals that you are not committed might be self-defeating.

Stopped taking advice?  Don’t follow all advice you receive?  Certainly.  But do listen and then figure out what works for you.  If you think you understand your department, your university and/or discipline sufficiently that you don’t need advice, you probably need more advice.  The author’s point should be clearer–do not follow advice without thinking seriously, and don’t take all advice seriously.  But do listen and then decide. This kind of like becoming a new parent–you get bombarded with heaps of advice, much unsolicited, and then you do what is right for yourself, your partner and the baby/career.

Feelgood email folder?  Absolutely.  Nagpal is right that there is so much rejection in this business that we must keep track of the positive feedback.  I keep the most entertainingly positive teaching evals on my bulletin board, for example.

Working fixed hours and in fixed amounts. I think this makes a great deal of sense especially for one with young kids. But it really depends on one’s style.  Some people can get more out of less hours and some need more hours.  I never burned the midnight oil.  I will work on weekends a bit–grading, reviewing stuff for journals or for tenure letters–but my writing and reading for my writing is a weekday thing.   But I do think I am more productive when I work finite hours.

  • Fixed travel schedule.  Nagpal travels 5 times a year maximum.  I probably average that, depending on the project in play and what I get invited to.  I do not mind going over five (a higher level of frequent flyer status, please).  Again, it depends on the personal situation.  I traveled less when my daughter was young.  Teenagers don’t want parents around that much ;)  It is also easier to limit travel if you work at a place that is pretty active–like a Harvard.  But if you are someplace off the beaten path, you may want to travel more to be connected.  Less important in the 21st century but not entirely irrelevant either.
  • Quotas for service stuff.  Absolutely.  One has to and should do service, such as media appearances, reviewing articles, etc.  No one gets tenure or many units of joy for doing such stuff.
  • Weekly hard/fun quota.  Making sure one does just one hard thing a week (grant report, letter of recommendations) and one fun thing.  Indeed, I try for more than one fun thing a week when ultimate is in season.  Plus if I don’t go to the movies and watch too much TV, I might run out of pop culture references.
  • Managing the parenting.  See her piece on this–quite well stated and developed.  I don’t think we managed 50-50, but we have done pretty well.  Every parenting partnership is different, and there are no perfect answers for how to handle it.  Fairness is very much like Obi-Wan’s truth–it is all about point of view.

Try to be the best whole person I can. No arguing with that.

Find real friends. Indeed. I have been lucky that I have found great friends everywhere I have worked.  Which is why conferences increase in importance–to see old friends when we all left the old place.

Have fun now.  Yes.  It was easier for me since my first tenure track job was at a place that had quite feasible criteria for tenure, that there were only short commutes and few distractions.  But absolutely, have fun now.

A faculty member once told me that when people are miserable and pushed to their limits, they do their best work. I told them that they were welcome to poke out their own eyes or shoot a bullet through their own leg. That would definitely cause huge misery and might even improve their research. Ok, yeah, I only thought about saying that.


The funny part is that Nagpal says not to take advice but then provides some pretty useful advice, but that which depends on where you are at.  Figuring out the tenure dynamics is really key, and some folks do not pay attention enough to figure out what game they are playing and what the rules might be.  As a friend suggested to me, spending your time backwards inducting from what is required at tenure may or may not be a good idea.  There is no perfect answer to that.  Awareness of what is necessary at the end is something that should not be ignored although it should also not dominate everything you do.


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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.