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Does anyone know when and how the system of post-doctoral studies after a Ph. D. originated? I've heard in a few places that there was a time when there was no such thing as a post-doc, and people used to go for faculty positions right after their Ph. D.'s. Is this true? When and why did it change? What does the post-doctoral position achieve?

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closed as off-topic by j.c., Willie Wong, quid, Jeremy Rickard, Lucia Oct 28 at 14:20

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community wiki? –  Regenbogen Mar 2 '10 at 18:30
The opposite is also true. Faced with only few academic positions and no temporary mandates like postdocs, instructorships, etc. people would hang around as unpaid Privatdozente (in Germany at least) until something opened up, often only years later. –  jvkersch Mar 2 '10 at 18:30
Generally speaking, if you read for instance Lie's biography, it seems like a lot depended on the soft touch: since the academic world was a lot smaller, having the right recommendations seemed to matter more, and so I am not surprised at a smooth operator like Mittag-Leffler (I'm being unfair here) becoming a tenured faculty right away, while it took Lie some time to develop his mathematical character and settle into an academic career (again oversimplifying). In any case, Lie supported himself with scholarships (but they were few), so untenured positions did exist. –  jvkersch Mar 2 '10 at 18:33
Is this an appropriate question for MO? It has nothing mathematical to it. Starting of postdoc positions is an academic event which has nothing to do with the subject you are doing. –  Regenbogen Mar 2 '10 at 18:36
I am voting to close this question as off-topic 4 years down the line because (a) I think MO has evolved during the past few years so that questions such as this one are no longer on topic (b) this particular question would now better belong to academia.stackexchange.com (c) there has been recent activity bumping this question back to the front page. –  Willie Wong Oct 28 at 11:23

7 Answers 7

This is really a blog question, with no single answer. There are 150+ Ph.D. programs in mathematics in the U.S., plus various institutes. As noted already, there is no central planner. Before the 1960s there were relatively few mathematicians in the U.S. Those doing active research in universities did a lot of routine teaching and were low paid. But then higher education mushroomed for many reasons, with new programs and universities all over the place. The Ph.D. program here at UMass (earlier Mass. Agricultural College) started in the mid-1960s. Hiring everywhere of new Ph.D.'s was frenetic and worked mainly through the old boy network. As the market settled down and recessions occurred, temporary postdoc positions became more common. Some at the prestigious universities were institutionalized, others were an afterthought and most often on a 1-2 year basis. At UMass almost everyone in the 1970s was on a tenure-track, with just a few non-Ph.D. "lecturers" on contracts. It's cheaper for administrators to hire non-Ph.D. people just for teaching service courses, so here it was difficult to persuade the provost and others that postdocs are standard for research-based math programs. Our main postdoc burst occurred after two state early retirement incentives removed most of the senior faculty. Now postdocs are sporadic and hard to authorize here, though the department still wants them. (There are still a few lecturers, who have full faculty benefits but no tenure. We'd have more if they didn't undercut faculty teaching ratios and if UMass had built bigger lecture halls.) The statistics part of the UMass department still tends to hire new Ph.D.'s on tenure tracks due to market pressures from nonacademic employers. No conspiracies, but lots of pressures on the system.

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In know that there is some variation among fields for when post-docs became popular. My understanding is that the "post-doc" institution as a whole began around the beginning of the last century, but didn't become common until many decades later. In the physics (and, I think, math) world, there was an explosion of post-docs in the US after WWII. During the war, the government had created many national labratories, and most of the top physicists took time away from their other academic pursuits to help in the war effort. When the war ended, the government was still very interested in funding physics research (Cold War!) in particular, and academics in general (G.I. Bill!). Thus, in the US anyway, the middle of the 20th century saw a dramatic rise in both the demand and supply for researchers. But the number of professorships didn't match pace, hence the growing number of post-docs. Moreover, many of the leading senior physicists at the time (Oppenheimer, Bethe, etc.) strongly encouraged the creation of post-doc positions as a way for the young people (Feynman, Dyson, Schwinger, etc.) to communicate their theories. As is often said: the best way to send an idea is to wrap it in a person.

This story is very well told in D. Kaiser, Drawing theories apart: the dispersion of Feynman diagrams in postwar physics, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

One other comment is important to make. The structure of the academy (and in particular the names of ranks) can vary wildly from country to country, so that "assistant professor" in some countries means "post-doc" in others. For example, Denmark in the last decade has made a conscious shift away from the "German" model, in which there are very few "professors", each of whom over see many full-time senior researchers, and towards a more "American" model where the rank "(full) professor" is more freely given.

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I think the why part is easy. University administrations like cheap labor and are risk averse when it comes to giving permanent jobs, and the people who already have permanent jobs like cheap labor because then their teaching load goes down. The real question is why people take post-docs. I think the answer is that people really want to do good mathematics and they think (often correctly, often not) that having access to the top people will help them do that, so they're willing to accept all the sacrifices that come with post-docs.

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Hi Jim! I'm not sure the "why" part is as easy as you say: the extent to which post-doc positions from part of the standard career trajectory seems to vary a lot with subject area and country. My impression is that in France people often get permanent (but possibly poorly paid) positions quite early. On the other hand, in the US for example, wouldn't a longer and maybe less certain tenure-track system give the same cheap-labor result? –  Kevin McGerty Mar 3 '10 at 1:39
I agree that things depend a lot on the country. I assumed (maybe wrongly) that the person was asking about the US market. I also agree that a longer and less certain tenure-track system would give the same result, but I'm not sure that's different in substance to the current system. The only difference I can see is that with a post-doc, the agreement is that they're not going to promote you unless you hear otherwise, whereas with a tenure-track position, they agree to tell you if they're not going to. –  JBorger Mar 3 '10 at 2:33
James- Like Kevin says, this is a bit problematic as a complete explanation. It gives no good explanation for why funding agencies like the NSF sponsor postdocs, for example. There's also the fact that rich schools, not poor schools, hire postdocs. When universities want cheap labor, they get grad students and adjuncts, not postdocs. Of course, postdocs' cheapness relative to senior faculty is a factor, but I don't see it as the primary driver of the postdoc phenomenon. –  Ben Webster Mar 3 '10 at 4:22
Fair points. I guess we're starting to get into what it means to explain why something happened, when you can't repeat the experiment. All this would be interesting to talk about, but the discussion would probably balloon, so maybe MO isn't the best place to do it. –  JBorger Mar 3 '10 at 6:47
Of course, phrasing like "more postdocs than necessary" suggests that everyone's goal is to avoid doing postdocs and get permanent positions as soon as possible, which I don't think is really the case. It's many people's but postdocs do have a lot of advantages: the workload is generally lighter than for tenure-track faculty (I know I'm going to be teaching more when I switch to being an assistant professor next year, and I'll also be doing service and supervise grad students), you can often live in a place more congenial to your tastes, etc. –  Ben Webster Mar 4 '10 at 16:27

Another factor is that as the decades have gone by, in many branches of math the amount one has had to learn to get going researchwise has increased markedly. This of course varies a lot from subject to subject, but in many areas it can take quite a while after the PhD to develop the kind of research record that a research university wants to see before they hire you on the tenure-track and take the risks associated with that. This encourages the proliferation of postdocs as well.

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This must be true to some extent, but I think the prevalence of postdocs also reflect the changing cultural expectations that a university has for a fresh assistant professor. The impression that I get from reading biographies of mathematicians is that (say) 50 years ago your advisor would essentially arrange a tenure-track job for you. When you started out, you might still be working on writing up your thesis problem and not have any ideas about research beyond that. Thus not getting tenure at your first job was a lot more common, since they don't have much into who they're hiring. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 4 '10 at 19:24
Doing postdocs makes a world of difference to one's mathematical and professional maturity. In my department, we expect to tenure everyone we hire (and do so over 95% of the time). Being an assistant professor is not that different from being tenured -- I teach graduate classes, have thesis students, and so forth. I'm not thrilled that my university's tenure clock has not been adapated to match the increased maturity of its new faculty, but overall my experience as a new professor has been extremely positive, probably much more so than was typical in the pre-postdoctoral days. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 4 '10 at 19:31
@Pete I do agree with you, that this is another factor.. the risks of a bad hire on the tenure track are much greater nowadays, both for the university and the hiree. So everyone wants to play it safe. –  Michael Greenblatt Mar 4 '10 at 20:09
@Pete There was an older European tradition followed in the US of having an advisor look out for a position. But at UMass as elsewhere the program has changed and a tenure-track has for decades led to tenure (though earlier reviews have sometimes led people to look elsewhere). The tenure clock remains a problem for recruiting people who have already shown their value, here as elsewhere, since an "early" tenure case gets harsher scrutiny outside the department. –  Jim Humphreys Apr 21 '10 at 23:01

Well, in Italy Ph.D. programs started about in mid-80s (1980s, I mean), so strictly speaking we had no post-doctoral positions or fellowships before that. :-)

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Some anecdotal evidence I heard from the older generation is that post docs in the sciences and mathematics didn't really appear (in the United States) until the Eisenhower era. During the cold war there was a big push by the government to invest in basic research, so suddenly everybody got more money to hire more graduate students. Unfortunately, the faculty positions are not opening up as fast. So you have a problem with supply bigger than demand. The expectation was that (a) more professorships will be created and (b) due to the explosion of interest in basic research, partly driven by the invention of the atomic bomb, industry will start hiring more PhDs. So it was expected that the over-supply of PhDs is a temporary problem (so does not need "curing" at the source) and a simple stop-gap (the post doc position) is enough.

How much of this is actually true, I am not certain.

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Do you remember Laika? (She died near the end of 1957. RIP). –  Włodzimierz Holsztyński Oct 28 at 7:25
@WłodzimierzHolsztyński: I was not aware that she had a postdoctoral position. Or are you just referring to the space program as a whole? –  Willie Wong Oct 28 at 8:45
You didn't have your security clearance (to know about Laika's position). –  Włodzimierz Holsztyński Oct 28 at 9:16
Hiring those days left and right people for university research positions, which were en mass unqualified, had a long-term negative stifling impact on teaching and research. –  Włodzimierz Holsztyński Oct 28 at 9:24

It is important to understand that the postdoc was not designed to "achieve" anything. It is simply a product of the system's incentives. There is no central planner.

In the US a professor at a research university gets tenure and promotion based on the number of publications and grant dollars he has. As you know, a postdoc or PhD student can write several good papers' a year in which the advisor (professor) shows up a second author. So, someone who can fund 10 students will have 10 times as many publications as someone with 1 student. The more publications you have the easier it is to get funding, so we have a positive feedback loop where the top performers get a continually larger share of the money and talent.

Because of this, a professor would rather hire 2 postdocs at \$40K/year than 1 postdoc at \$80K/year since we know that more money does not translate into more papers. In the sciences and math new PhDs are happy to take the job of a postdoc at very low wages, for several reasons:

  1. Some really really want that tenure-track job, so are willing to endure the costs.
  2. Some have few other job prospects
  3. For many foreign students (India, China) the postdoc salary is much higher than anything they could get in their country, and has the added benefit (for some) of a student visa to the US with the prospect of full citizenship to come. It is much easier to become a US citizen if you have a PhD and are employed in the US.

More than half of US Science and Math PhD students and postdocs are foreigners, so point 3 is a big effect.

There are virtually no postdocs in Law, Medicine or Finance, since someone with a law degree, medical degree, or finance PhD commands a starting salary above \$150K/year in the marketplace, so they are not willing to take a postdoc for such comparatively low wages. In Computer Science the postdoc is still somewhat rare since starting salaries for PhDs in CS are around \$100K in industry. Thus, point 1 also seems important.

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In Math, unlike lab sciences, the postdocs are not attached to a specific professor and nobody puts their name in a postdoc's paper by default. Also, in Math, typically the advisor is not a coauthor of a student's paper. –  Felipe Voloch Mar 4 '10 at 14:39

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