Is a Publication Gap on Our CV a Job Killer?

Dear Dora: Publication GapDear Dora,

Thank you for your recent article about leaving a postdoc quickly with your reputation intact. My question somewhat parallels the matter you addressed. In my case, I didn’t leave my postdoc quickly; in fact I remained with that lab for a full two years (almost to the day). However, I did choose to leave at that time because, given the time and effort I did invest in that lab, being as objective as I could be, I didn’t see any tangible progress between Day 1 and the day I left. I was told by my PI, when leaving, that I should write up any and all results in a manuscript format and that we would certainly work, long-distance, to publish whatever had been successful either as a standalone paper (1st authorship for me) or combined with someone else’s project (2nd authorship or onward for me, but at least something!). I diligently wrote up what I had, but no publication ever arose from the two years I spent as a postdoc in that lab. All-in-all, I have very little to show from all the time and effort I invested.

I’ve been working hard in an industrial postdoc for ~1.6 years since then and now even have a manuscript submitted with my name on it. At the moment, it’s the best I could hope for since the publishing frequency in industry is far less than in academic. But now that I am looking to apply for tenure-track professorships, my 2 years in that academic postdoc are coming back to haunt me, because what little feedback I get from hiring committees are telling me that I now have a 2-year “publication gap” on my CV where it effectively looks like I sat on my hands for the duration.

Other than working as hard as possible in my current position to compensate, is there any way to soften the blow of that alleged 2-year “gap” in my career?

Mind The Gap

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Dear Mind the Gap,

Thank you for your email. I understand how tough it can be to work hard for two years and have very little to show for it. I have received letters from several graduate students and post-docs who have very few publications, resulting in a publication gap on their CV. The situation is a little easier for those who apply to industry positions, because employers focus more on skills than on publications. If you were to apply to industry, I would recommend putting a very heavy emphasis on your marketable job skills on your cover letter and resume, and tailor them specifically for each position. In industry they need someone who can do the job the following day, or as quickly as possible, and does not need training. They also focus on leadership skills, specifically whether you had mentored other scientists in the past. In other words, your employer wants to find out whether you would be responsible enought to have others report to you. Having an industrial post-doc is definitely advantageous for an industrial career track, and the submitted manuscript is impressive. I know several PhDs who got industrial positions after a few years of “gap”, as long as they showed that they did learn skills during those years even if they did not publish.

In academia, the situation is very different, because search committees focus very heavily on publications. The competition is even more fierce than in industry, and it is not unusual for candidates to apply to 50 positions, and receive only one or no interviews. At the same time, committees look for the perfect fit, and there is a chance that there is a position out there that was meant for someone with your research experience. If you find such an opening, it would be worthwhile to follow up with the search committee head, and explain why you would be the perfect fit. Make sure you mention your published manuscript. If you do not have luck with research universities, I would recommend teaching colleges, where the search committees put more emphasis on teaching experience and less on publications.

Good luck ;)

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Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!

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2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. phosphofan

    wrote on April 6, 2012 at 9:17 am

    It's very important to know your goals before going into an academic job search. If your dream is to get hired in a big research institution, you'll need to look honestly at your record and the records of those they've hired recently. If you have any friends at any of the universities in question, you could reach out to them to ask what the hiring committee is looking for, and if you have a chance. This is not to say don't apply. As Dora said, the perfect situation may be out there that's looking for your exact training and willing to overlook your CV's perceived weaknesses. However, if you're dead-set on the big programs, you may need to take additional steps to make yourself a more attractive candidate (extend/start new postdoc).

    If you decide instead to go the route of the teaching college, be aware that this choice may have a significant impact on your ability to eventually move over to the big research institutions. Generally speaking, the research component at teaching colleges is run on a much smaller scale, making the kind of progress that would impress big research institutions very difficult. In all likelihood, the decision to move to the teaching college arena would put your career on a different track.

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on April 6, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I agree. The decision to go to the teaching/liberal arts college route may significantly impact the future direction of your career- and if you want it to be Research I track, you may want to hold off on the teaching route.

    Having said that, I've had a few colleagues who, for a number of reasons (personal interests, tough job market, CV needed work) went the teaching college route. In fact, they got jobs by applying for 1-yr teaching professor positions. This was a smart way to get their feet in the respective doors in a department and since they got to attend all faculty meetings, it was a great way for them to see the politics, inner workings, and future directions of the university/department. In some cases, they were surprised by what they saw once they were there (not in a good way). This "try before you buy" model also had the benefit that, assuming they were competent, if the department was hiring the next year they already had a leg up on the competition.

    One common – and legitimate – concern is whether you'll be able to have any sort of research program as a temporary faculty. My colleagues were able to negotiate a small bit of space (even just a bench in someone's lab) in order to keep their work going – albeit slowly. A very clever approach one of them took was to start/extend a collaboration with someone in the field that would be able to help carry the work forward simultaneously. Using this approach, for example, my friend was able to synthesize molecules in their limited lab space in the teaching college and then ship it to the collaborator, who would do the biological assays. As it turned out, this maintained research momentum and that person actually ended up getting a tenure-track position at a very good school (not research I track).

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