Postdoc: academic or government? (long)

So I have this big poor-me dilemma. Only I really, really don’t know what to do. This year I am (finally) going to finish my dissertation and be done with grad school. The reason I am so certain of this is that I have applied for some post-doc positions, and things are starting to get mighty real all of a sudden.

First, I saw a fellowship at the CDC (that’s Centers for Disease Control) that seemed to be written with my interests in mind. Then, while at a conference, I met a professor at a big-name university who encouraged me to apply for a postdoc to come and work with her. My PhD will be from a very well respected program in my field. Fantastic, right? Right! I was floating on air.

Here’s the reality part: There is really no prospect for a job for me where I live now (Seattle). We’ve trained a lot of good people, a lot of them have stayed, and to get the specialized training I need to do the work I want, I really need to go elsewhere, at least for a while. My husband doesn’t really want to go anywhere, he’s got a pretty good job, lots of friends, many connections for his non-work interests, etc.

The CDC has made it clear that they want me, and I don’t have a lot of time to give them an answer. The big-name university is farting around, not clear on when they’ll make a decision. I can call my contact there, but I feel awkward about putting pressure on her. They have told me that they want to interview me, which is a very positive sign.

I also have to think about what kind of career I want. I’ve been assuming that I want to do academics. I love teaching in my field, and I really want to be able to do that, and to work with students. But perhaps it’s not the right thing for me. I have literally never in my life been away from a University. I started school at age 3 at a University school, between college and grad school I worked at a research center affiliated with a University, I live about 4 miles from my current University and that’s the farthest I have ever lived from a University. I will be the 4th generation in my family to get a PhD.

And then there’s the depression thing. I get depressed sometimes and my productivity goes down. That’s not really cool, especially on the junior faculty treadmill. And, especially on the east coast, it’s hard to have a family and do the academic thing without trying to be superwoman. I am no superwoman. The big-name school is on the west coast, and they are more relaxed about the family and life thing. Both my therapist and my psychiatrist say I can expect fewer and less severe depressions in the future (because I now have some understanding of what has been going on inside my head), but I’m very wary of trusting my future on that expectation. If I screw up in an academic setting, it would be big.

I could try government work, I would learn a lot. In fact, both jobs would be great. If I want to do straight academics, though, I think the big-name place would be better. But the CDC wouldn’t be bad. There is no way my husband would come to Atlanta, and it wouldn’t make sense for him to do so for a year. A job in the hand, a job peeking out of the bush …

All this upheaval! I have to make a major life decision in the next week!

Help me, please.

Hmm. You have more than just the issue of which post-doc to go for, but first things first. I’m not in the same field as you, but some of my classmates had to make the decision about whether to go into industry or stay in academia. My old advisor’s advice was to take the industry job if need be (those bills have to be paid!) but maintain a higher profile in the research world by getting papers out while working. He also advocated not staying in industry more than 3 years if one’s goal ultimately was an academic job. YMMV.

So, let’s consider the post-doc options.

On the one hand you have the CDC. They have made you an offer already, the work matches your interests, and the experience will add to your knowledge base - all plusses. If you aren’t sure whether you would like a government job, this would be an excellent opportunity to test the waters without committing to something long-term. On the down side, realistically you’ll be starting to look for your next position before you are even halfway through that year (owing to the amount of time search committees usually take to make their selections, etc.).

On the other hand, you have Big-Name University (BNU) on the west coast encouraging you to apply for a post-doc, but they have yet to make a firm offer. You didn’t mention some things - how long is the post-doc for? How well would the work there mesh with your interests? Will you actually be mentored by the professor that encouraged you to apply, or will you spend the bulk of your time with someone else (or worse, just doing basic lab work for your mentor)? If you really are interested in this position, don’t worry about putting pressure on your contact - you really do have a limited time to make a decision, and they should be made aware that someone else wants you too! It may be the incentive they need to make you an offer. If you can’t push them into making their decision faster, then perhaps you can tell them that you are going to take the CDC position in the meantime, but would still be interested in coming to BNU after your year at the CDC is up. If your education background is that good, they will still be interested in bringing you on-board as soon as you can be available.

A very important consideration beyond any of this - you say there are no opportunities in Seattle for you, but that your husband doesn’t want to leave. Does he understand how your career will be hampered if you don’t get out of Seattle, at least for a while? If he does and still won’t budge, then you need to think very carefully about how well you’ll be able to handle being in a long-distance marriage for some period of time, especially given your history of depression. (I know of a number of academic couples who lived apart because of their job situations - one couple actually lived on separate continents - but it takes a lot of work to keep things going.) If you feel you can handle it, then you are likely better off at the CDC, so that the situation is minimized.

I understand how difficult it can be to decide on the next step… best of luck to you!

I dunno, I’d go for the CDC because I think it’d be incredibly cool to work at the CDC. That may just be me, though.

OK, more info.

BNU would also have me working in my field, doing work that I want to do, acquiring skills that I want. The cool prof who encouraged me to apply would be my mentor. I would not be doing scut work. She would be a great mentor.

The chance of developing and implementing my own research project (which I already have in mind) is better at BNU than CDC, but either way it wouldn’t happen right away.

The position at CDC is for one year, and could be extended to two. The position at BNU is for two years, and could be extended to three. Either way, we’re looking at a separation of at least one year. That’s hard, but probably doable. More may be more difficult.

I also found out today that the CDC would pay me about $4000 more than BNU.

I have thought of the possibility of doing CDC for a year and then BNU. Or, there’s another postdoc that might be even better than BNU which I’m not currently competitive for. But the BNU mentor is really, really great and I’m pretty sure I can work with her. People who know the CDC mentor say she’s great, but I don’t know anyone who knows her.

Thanks for the comments so far, please keep them coming.

I took a postdoc at a national lab over one at a Big Name University. However, in my case, the national lab position was a better fit, paid a lot more, and was a much shorter commute, so it wasn’t really the same situation. However, I understand your dilemma.

First of all, if the CDC is anything like DOE national labs, the postdoc will almost certainly be a two year postdoc (unless you want to leave sooner). Mine here was offered as two years, extendable to three, but there has never been a question of staying less than three years. If it does in fact turn out to only be a one year position, don’t take it. It’s very difficult to get up and running in time to produce a decent amount of results in only one year.

Second of all, working at a government lab won’t hurt your chances of getting an academic position later, if it’s a good group and you write good papers while you’re there. Plus, you’ll get exposure to a non-academic position, to help you make an informed decision about what you want to do long-term.

Personally, I love working at a national lab. The pay is better, the benefits are better, and the hours are better.

I lucked out after defending my dissertation, I had already accepted a position in academia at my undergrad alma mater. I was adjunct for two years and am fully tenured now 7 years later. Personally, I’d take the BNU position not only because I am partial to working in academia, but because you have a good opportunity to be someones protégé. The networking and publishing opportunities are heightened and the possibilities for your future in academia strengthened. I made the move from the west coast (grad school) to the North East. I am from CT so it was easy to move back…I will say the institution I work for fully supports family goals and aspirations…Go for the the BNU position…be slightly pushy with the woman you met…there may be someone in your exact shoes vying for the same position! Good Luck…and also, include hubby in all decision making processes…it’ll make things much easier…Tho, I’m sure you knew that :wink:

Just an update: It has all been decided.

BNU can’t make any promises, they have many good applicants and few openings this year. My potential mentor said she thought I would be foolish to pass up a solid offer. She’s still interested in collaborating in the future, so everything is not lost there.

CDC made a formal offer (top of the scale - has more to do with the position than with me, but it’s still nice, plus a travel stipend), and I haved formally accepted it. I’ll be moving to Atlanta sometime in the late summer. Yikes.

Congratulations on securing a position.

What’s so bad about Atlanta? Could be worse - I recently accepted a government postdoc grant to work in Huntsville, AL. :wink: (I’m looking forward to it, but everyone seems to laugh when I tell them.)