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PhD Talk For AcademicTransfer – What Changes Between A Postdoc And Assistant Professorship

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer – What changes between a Postdoc and Assistant Professorship

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

In an academic career, the next logical step after a postdoc is an assistant professorship. Note that I am saying that this is “in an academic career”, and after your PhD or postdoc, you have a myriad of options. Yet, if you are planning to have an academic career, after one of more postdocs you will usually apply for a position as an assistant professor. In some cases, you may even apply for a position of assistant professor right after the PhD.

And while the step from postdoc to assistant professor is a logical step, there are a lot of changes when you go from postdoc to assistant professor (see also this excellent presentation on the AcademicTransfer website). Here are the main changes, and my explanation of what these changes mean in terms of your day-to-day tasks:

  • Contract: Starting from the practical aspects, a postdoc is typically a fixed-term contract. The expectation is not that you will be able to stay at the same university after the postdoc. An assistant professorship typically starts on a fixed-term contract. The expectation is that you will be able to gain tenure and get a permanent position at the same university.
  • Contracted responsibilities: A postdoctoral contract is usually 80-100% of research (note: in the Netherlands, there are teaching-oriented postdoctoral positions as well that prepare you for a position as a lecturer), and in terms of tasks a postdoc is usually a continuation of the PhD. An assistant professor can have various types of contracted responsibilities. A 40-40-20 split is common: 40% of time for research, 40% for teaching, and 20% for service and administration. Other universities may used a 33-33-33 split, or a 60-20-20 split – but you get the idea: teaching, research, and other commitments now all get valued roughly similarly.
  • Research autonomy: As a postdoc, you typically have two options: you either get hired on a project as a specialist researcher (or because you want to learn certain new skills), or you get your own funding to go to a certain university/laboratory to carry out a research project that you have proposed. As an assistant professor, you for sure will be working on research topics that you have proposed, and you will be working on crafting your research line.
  • Funding: As a postdoc, you either apply to a funded project or you get funding for yourself. As an assistant professor, you will need to get funding for yourself as well as for the researchers you want to hire (PhD candidates and postdocs), so the projects you need to be going for will be larger and will involve more people.
  • Teaching: Unless you are on a teaching-oriented postdoc, teaching typically takes up only a small portion of your time as a postdoc. The responsibilities you may have as a postdoc can be to give a few lectures in a course that is already designed, to give exercise sessions, to assist student projects, and to design exams and/or grade. It is uncommon for postdocs to design an entire course, whereas this may be a task you get as an assistant professor. As an assistant professor, you can also become the responsible lecturer for a full course.
  • Networking: As a postdoc, you may (still) be considered to form part of someone else’s research group. As an assistant professor, you will be building your own team (your own “lab”, as it is often called in North America) and you will be the “face” of your group/lab. Now, wherever you go, you will be representing your lab/group, rather than your supervisor’s lab/group. The way in which you network will thus be different.
  • Admin: As a postdoc, you typically don’t have that many administrative responsibilities. As an assistant professor, you will start to get involved in a variety of administrative tasks: thinking about the direction of your program, working on documents for accreditation or visitation, weighing in on various committees regarding academic matters in your university, admission committees – you name it!
  • Service: As a postdoc, you may be getting involved in technical committees as a volunteer, and you may be starting to get involved with journals as a reviewer. As an assistant professor, your input to the technical committees may be expected to be larger, as you will be working on writing technical documents, and you will be able to grow in your role within the committee. Moreover, you may be reviewing more papers, getting ready to edit a special issue, and perhaps be offered your first editorship.

I hope that with this post, you have learned more about the main changes in daily tasks and responsibilities between the stage of being a postdoc and being an assistant professor. When in doubt, remember that as a postdoc, you represent the laboratory or research group you work for, whereas as an assistant professor, you will be representing your group, and you will be getting funding to keep all your people funded and salaried.

What surprised you when you moved from a postdoc to an assistant professorship? Let me know in the comments below!

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