For how long should I be a postdoc - title

For how long should I be a postdoc?

Young researchers often ask: what is the ideal length of a postdoc? There are many different answers that depend on the field, the country, the university, the supervisor, and funding institutions. You should strategically investigate your field to get good advice on the best length. Get some ideas here.

What is a postdoc?

A postdoctoral fellow, often referred to as a postdoc, engages in professional research following their Ph.D. completion. While these positions are usually temporary and academic in nature, they often serve as a preparatory phase for those aiming for a faculty role in academia. See the definition in Wikipedia.

Should you do a postdoc anyway?

Many young scientists start a postdoc because they have no clue what they should do with their PhD.  Therefore, some tend to prolong their studies due to a lack of clear goals, and  – as a result – the duration of a PhD may differ substantially between students. Read more here: How long does it take to complete a doctorate?

Some may think that a postdoc is a nice way of extending the student lifestyle for a few years. Others may consider it an important additional training to qualify for industry positions

The numbers differ slightly per country and field, but – as a rule of thumb – only 10% of all postdocs continue an academic career, and only half of those become tenured professors. Read more here: Should I become a professor? and Is being a professor worth it?

scientist reflecting whether he should do a postdoc anyway

Thus, about 90% of all postdocs leave academia and find well-paid jobs *outside* academia. In life sciences, the value of a PhD degree is seldom debated. PhD candidates are often preferred over candidates with only a master’s degree because they are technically and intellectually better qualified for industry jobs.

Whether or not a postdoc adds sufficient additional value for an industry position (more technical skills, more people skills) seems to be heavily debated. Thus, if you are heavily considering an industry career anyway, talk to at least 3–5 people to advise whether a postdoc is really useful.

If you realize that you can not reach your career goals in your current job, you should consider quitting your postdoc and finding a better position.

In contrast, if you consider a career as a professor, a postdoc period is a necessary stepping-stone. In most faculties, to become a tenured professor you are obliged to have a few years of postdoc experience – ideally abroad.

How many years is a postdoctoral degree?

I must disappoint you – there is no clear answer to this question. “How long is a postdoctoral degree” depends on your career goals, the job market, and your skills and expertise. However, I can give you some guidance on what might be considered the minimum duration, a generally acceptable timeframe, and the maximum advisable length for a postdoctoral position.

What is the shortest period possible?

Depending on your career goals (industry, academia, public sector…) you may consider skipping the postdoc and immediately starting an industry job or accepting a postdoc position for one year.

Unfortunately, a 1-year postdoc may not really serve you.

It is not easy to produce good results (publications, grant proposals, patents…) within such a short period. In addition, if you are going abroad, you need considerable time to adapt to the new environment. Read more here: 9 reasons not to go abroad – and how to handle them!

Shorter periods than one year will not be considered as a real postdoc experience.  However, I know a few cases of colleagues who involuntarily had to finish their postdocs early and found great industry positions. Anyway, if you intend to limit your postdoc period as much as possible, it might be better *not* to do a postdoc and apply directly for industry or public sector positions.

What is a reasonable time for a postdoc?

How long is a postdoc? Most positions are two to three years, and some can be extended. A non-representative survey among my colleagues led to a clear answer – a good postdoc period takes 2 to 4 years. There are good arguments for this duration.

In such a period, you have enough time to develop at least one major project, publish at least one major paper at the end, and have broader experiences with supervising PhD students, bachelor’s and master’s students, and technicians.

You can use this time to develop and demonstrate scientific independence and leadership skills to become a more attractive candidate for professor positions. Thus, the answer to the question of how long is a post doc depends on your goals.

In my humble opinion, doing your postdoc abroad for two years is the minimum to broaden your horizon, learn the language sufficiently, and dive deep into the culture of another country. Read more here: Do I really have to work abroad as a scientist? 

What is the longest acceptable period for a postdoc period?

old scientist representing a very long postdoc time

There also seems to be a clear answer to the question of what the maximum time of postdoc duration is. It is not advised to stay a postdoc for more than 5-6 years after the doctorate.

My colleague John Creemers summarized it as follows: “Being a long-term postdoc, permadoc if you like, is almost always bad news. It comes at professional costs (temporary contracts, no long-term career perspective, no career progression), financial costs (poor pension plan, no group insurance plan), and personal costs (effect on emotional well-being/frustration, family planning, settling down). 

Thus, there are multiple arguments against becoming a long-term post doc. Read more here: Should I become a long-term postdoc?

How long does a postdoc take is an important question, but equally important is the number of postdoctoral positions you might undertake.

How many postdocs should I do?

Based on the rule of thumb that you should limit your post doc period to a maximum of 5–6 years, it is advisable to go for one or two post docs. Thus, for example, two post docs of 2–3 years or a longer one for 4–5 years. 

If you start your third postdoc, people may start to question whether you are really “faculty material”. If your CV looks promising, you may start applying for faculty positions at the end of your first post doc. There are a number of criteria that help you determine whether your CV is promising or not. Read more here: How to become a professor and Am I doing enough for my scientific career?


Just a caveat: these are very general considerations, and my experience is limited to life sciences. Thus, ask at least 3-5 competent persons for advice on whether these rules apply in your field.


Here are some links that may be useful:

A short general intro to “What is a post doc”:

Find here a similar analysis from the perspective of a physicist:

Furthermore, a strong plea for *not* applying for post doc positions but industry positions:

Recommended reading

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