Stay or Go?

Nov 22 2011 Published by under career issues

A reader wonders whether it is a bad idea to do a postdoc in the same department/institution as the PhD (but in a different research group, with a different supervisor). This is an interesting question, and raises some related questions.

There are many possible combinations of staying and going in an academic career, from undergrad to postdoc and/or faculty position. I don't think it's worth making a distinction between those who do an MS and PhD at one or more institutions, as some departments require an MS along the way to the PhD, some don't require an MS at all, etc. Of course some people do get an MS and PhD at different institutions, but staying at one institution for an MS and PhD is not as significant as staying for some or all of the other stages of an academic career.

With that in mind, I would classify the extreme cases as:

case 1: different institution for every stage from undergraduate to faculty position (probably the most common, especially since those who go to undergrad institutions without grad programs have to move, by definition); and

case 2: two or more institutions the same for consecutive stages of undergrad, grad, postdoc, and/or faculty stages (most extreme case = all stages at one place).

I included the word consecutive in the second case because I think it is important to distinguish between those who return, perhaps many years later, to a former academic home and those who just stay.

I have seen diverging views of those who stayed in one place for undergrad-grad or grad-postdoc, from "S/he stayed at the same place because no one else wanted them" to "S/he is so awesome, University X didn't want them to leave".

I have also commonly seen in reference letters for undergrads applying to grad school, "I would gladly have accepted Z to stay on as my graduate student, but I know it is in his/her best interest to move on to another department." (implying that it is conventional wisdom that moving = better?).

As usual, I have lots of questions, and as usual, the most likely answer to most of them is "It depends..", but I think we can be a bit more specific than that, if only to make things more interesting. As usual, I hope that there will be many different points of view represented in the comments; e.g., from those who stayed, those who went, and those who are in a position to make decisions (e.g., hiring) about those who stayed vs. those who went.

Questions for discussion:

  • Is case 1 always better than case 2?  (my opinion: I think it is good to move if you have that flexibility, but case 2 is not by definition bad.)
  • And if you think so, is case 2 necessarily bad, or just not as good? (my opinion: case 2 is not necessarily bad; in some cases it might even be a better career opportunity to stay, although probably in most cases it's not better. I guess we could debate what are good vs. bad reasons to stay in one place, and whether we think this has positive or negative consequences.)
  • Does it matter which stages are involved? For example, undergrad and grad at the same institution is good (or bad), but grad to postdoc is bad (or good)? (my opinion: Above, I wrote about how many people think that it isn't in a student's best interest to stay from undergrad to grad, and I guess I have to agree with this. I have never wanted my best undergrads to stay on and work with me as grad students; I think they should move on. However, 'should' does not mean that I would be critical of someone who did this. I also think that the grad to postdoc situation is different, maybe even indicating something good about research momentum, ideas, independence, excellence etc.)
  • If someone does stay at one institution -- for example, from PhD to postdoc, as in the case of the person who wrote to me with this question -- does your opinion about staying vs. going change if there is an internal change from one research group to another? (my opinion: I don't think it is a strike against someone to stay in their grad department as a postdoc, especially if it's a short-term postdoc and certainly not if the project and/or advisor changes. Perhaps the grad/postdoc-to-be got their own funding? It's good if you can move and want to move, but it's not dire if you don't.)

I think these are the situations of most interest. Postdoc-to-faculty at one institution is going to vary a lot in goodness or badness depending on whether the postdoc is largely an independent scientist who clearly deserves to be hired in a faculty position (= good), or whether that person is someone's favorite minion and they are hired in an inside-job political move (= bad).

I have moved around a lot in my career, and I'm glad I did that (and had the flexibility and opportunities to do so), but academia is not one-size-fits-all, and there is room for all sorts of career paths followed by many different people with many different priorities, preferences, and experiences.

For me, it was important to move on from time to time. I met many interesting people, gained new collaborators, and developed new research directions in each place. Perhaps you can do this as well in a very large and dynamic institution, and therefore perhaps the key to whether staying vs. going is good vs. bad depends on what you do with your opportunities in each place.

27 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    There's a part of me that would love to go back to a previous academic home...but unless/until I accomplish significantly more they'll be devaluing my diploma by hiring me. And that would cause me to reduce my alumni donations in retaliation! :)

    To be serious, I think that if you are staying "in the same general area", it's a bad idea to stay at the same place for undergrad and grad, or PhD and postdoc. If you'll be working with the same people and going to the same talks and using the same facilities, you aren't spreading your wings. I know that sometimes people stick around for another year to finish up a project, and get postdoc pay rather than grad student pay, and I think that's actually a remarkably enlightened way of doing things. Kudos to the advisor willing to be that generous and enlightened with an experienced student, rather than insisting they delay the thesis defense for another year at low pay. But in general, if you want an independent career you should at least spend a bit of time somewhere else first, meeting new people and doing new things, even if you do return for the long-run.

    OTOH, if you decide to change subfields, and the best people to do that with just happen to be in a different building on the same campus, well, great. Loading a UHaul sucks.

  • sciencecanary says:

    I am in an excellent department that has great grad students and great undergrads, but for some reason, the only undergrads who stay here for grad school are the not-great undergrads -- they don't want to leave home, they didn't get up the energy to apply to other places, they were doing some work in a lab and so were kind of useful and got accepted in large part based on that. The really good ones go elsewhere. I wish our admissions committee would apply the same standards to our home-grown applicants as to external ones. I fight against the idea that those who stay = losers as a generalization, but it's what I see in my own backyard.

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    I gotta agree with Sciencecanary... There is nothing wrong, per se, with staying at the same institution... BUT it seems most (I'm sure there will be some *amazing* exceptions described later in this comment thread) of the ones who stick around are trapped by a combination of no ambition/family-needs/fear of leaving familiar place...

    Its kinda like that onion headline "18 year old miraculously finds soulmate in hometown" except its "Undergraduate finds perfect graduate supervisor in 4th year seminar class he kinda enjoyed"

  • James Annan says:

    OK, so I'm that undergrad who found an interesting topic in my final (but in this case 3rd) year class. By that stage, it would also have been virtually impossible to find another funding source for the DPhil - as it was, I ended on the reserve list and only just sneaked in at the last minute. There were also non-academic reasons why I liked the idea of staying there too. I leave others to judge my "loser" status, but I certainly don't think my graduate location had much influence on my subsequent career path, other than helping to get my current job (being somewhere the Japanese had actually heard of). Scratch that, it helped with every job. There are few moves that would not have been perceived as visibly downmarket, even if the destination department was good.

    But I don't disagree with the mainstream opinion that some moving around geographically is a good thing in general. Moving well out of field in scientific terms (as my wife and I have both done) does probably tend to knock back the overall career progression a bit though - at least, that's my excuse :-)

    You've also got to bear in mind that personal situations may dictate geography to some extent. Not everyone subscribes to the principle of career über alles, even some of the reasonably successful ones.

  • Anon says:

    I went to the same school for undergrad and my masters. Even though I changed departments, it was expected that I would move on for my phd. I didn't even apply to my alma mater.

    Interestingly, while on a campus visit, it came up that non-academic friends had asked me why I wasn't staying at alma mater, shaving a few years off my time to degree. The professor I was talking to jumped into a lecture about how I shouldn't stay at the same place, that it was super important to have a diverse background, etc. After he was done, I said I agreed and hadn't even applied but couldn't get a word in mid-rant. He has been coast jumping back and forth his whole career and worked as a PO for NSF at one point. I don't know where he developed such a strong opinion, but now it makes me wonder if there are any biases about moving/staying that could affect funding chances, particularly for things like grad fellowships and CAREER awards that are person focused.

    • Chris says:

      Hey Anon,

      It depends. Some professors feel that staying at the same place can be good. Of course, depending on the situation. As for funding, I have experienced some bias about not moving. Reviewers of my K award criticized my career development plan since I would be spending most of my time obtaining training at the same institution as my PhD and post-doc. The training, by the way, would be in another college and extend my post-doc research.

      In any case, I have been a little hesitant to move since my wife has a great job, and it would be a pain to find a comparable one. We are also close to family, which is great for the kids. My university has everything in terms of research support and opportunities, but I understand why some would feel like moving is good including being exposed to new ideas and less "group think."

      I am convinced that my sacrificing of job opportunities has hurt my career potential in the eyes of some, but the quality of life is also important.

  • The extreme version of case 2 (all stages at one institution) is still extremely common in countries like Italy. In that situation, case 2 is a consequence of a certain way of thinking where connections and staying at the same institution (slaving for someone who's above you and gradually escalating the ladder) are much more important than talent.
    Now, I think that, in general terms, case 1 is better (helps circulation of ideas, ways of working and all the rest) but case 2 is not necessarily bad/worse. A "case 2" (especially an extreme one) should rise questions on why it happened, though.

  • One of my best students did her undergrad work at our institution, went to Stanford for grad school for a year, found the department there very unsupportive of re-entry women (and grad students in general) and came back to our institution for her MS and PhD. She is now doing well as a faculty member at an R1 institution.

    I generally encourage students to change programs at both the BS/grad transition and the PhD/postdoc transition, as dissemination of ideas happens mostly by people moving around, not by conventional publishing and conferences. It is good both for the individual and for the community to avoid intellectual inbreeding.

    But there are sometimes good reasons (either personal or research related) for people to stay in the same place, and it can work out well, so there is no rule that can be always applied.

  • Unabashed says:

    My spouse and I both did postdocs at our Ph.D. institution, in the same department where we got our Ph.D.'s but in different labs and in my case, in a different subfield. We did this, in part, because we were at slightly different stages of study, and so we took opportunities to postdoc locally while figuring out what our next move would be.

    We both ended up getting PI positions (one academic and one non-academic) in the same commuting area, so it didn't really hurt us long term. In general, though, I agree with the commenters above who describe the advantages of moving around. It encourages diversity of experience and helps build your network.

    A fellowship application I did while a postdoc specifically required applicants who stayed in the same location as their Ph.D. to explain that decision. And I know that when my spouse interviewed, one reference proactively discussed on my spouse's behalf the choice to postdoc in the same location, to prevent the hiring committee from speculating about the reason. So it does seem that there is a general bias against staying put.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I agree with your "it depends" take. Given this is true, the mythology is incorrect. Bias *against* the homegrown is just as bad as nepotic bias *for* the homegrown. By rights the whole idea should be a nonissue.

  • Patchi says:

    I think I would consider it worse if someone kept to their graduate project in a different lab than someone who changed labs and fields in the same institution.

    My case was a personal choice: as my husband went from post-doc to faculty at my PhD institution, I decided to do my post-doc there as well. In fact I did 2 post-docs, but all 3 labs were extremely different, in different colleges of the same university. My PhD was in plant molecular biology, then I did a post-doc in biological chemistry and my second post-doc was with mammalian cell cultures. The variety of techniques I learned were much more enriching than if I had gone to a plant biology lab in a different institution to work on a project similar to my PhD topic -- not even considering the family difficulties.

  • FemaleScienceGradStudent says:

    This hits home rather hard for me at the moment. I'm a graduate student just beginning my PhD, but I'm already wondering what I will do when I graduate. I love my field, and I would love to continue on in it. However, my husband has a truly excellent job where we are, and there is no guarantee that I will be free to move in a few years. Although I know many academics do, I'm not willing to live across the country (or in another country!) from my family long-term. Furthermore, as my field is highly theoretical it really can only be directly pursued in academia; if moving is not an option, my primary -- maybe only -- chance to pursue it would be to take a post-doc at my current institution. My department is great and I would be happy to continue on here, but given the stigma around staying in the same department (even if I work with a different supervisor), I am not sure they would even offer me a post-doc, let alone whether I should take it if they did.

    That said, I suppose the post-doc question really only lets me avoid the real question for a few more years; how can I build a career in academia if it turns out that I can't move around freely to follow opportunities and jobs? Other people have obviously figured this out somehow, but I feel like I will inevitably have to leave the field eventually, regardless of how post-docs (etc) play out. And if that is true, should I even be pursuing a PhD in this field at all? I wanted to stay in the field as long as I possibly could (and hope for the best I suppose) but perhaps that is naive and I should gain more experience in a field I'm more likely to get a job in after graduation. I'm just a mess of whatifs and maybes right now, and with family and friends giving me all sorts of contradictory information I can't tell anymore which worries are legitimate and which are just silly. It bothers me that I don't have any idea what I might be doing after graduation.

  • Ria says:

    I also did my postdoc at the same institution in which I did my graduate work, but I changed model organisms as well as subfields, although the department stayed the same (it's a strange combination department, so I went from one side to the other, and the two are really unrelated). Unfortunately, when I applied for an NRSA, the reviewers dinged me specifically for not moving to a new institution...raising the issue as though not moving were a character flaw. I chose to stay both because I knew that my new research interests required an excellent mentor with an impeccable reputation...who happened to be at the institution...and also because my husband had received an excellent career opportunity.

    I am now at a new institution, but questions are still raised about the fact that I did my graduate and postdoc work at the same institution....the high productivity of my time there (particularly in the postdoc!) doesn't seem to matter.

  • BugDoc says:

    I agree with you that Case 2 is not necessarily bad, and there are lots of personal and professional circumstances that might dictate staying in one place/institution. However, these is one point I would urge students to consider. Aside from whether people perceive going to a new institution as a positive, a real positive effect of moving is that you expand your professional network into a new community.

  • jen says:

    The NIH doesn't seem a fan of staying at the same place, so regardless of what we all think, it can be an issue. (I've heard of people being dinged on NRSAs, and for a K99R00 award if you stay at the same place for both phases you have to write a "justification" of this and an explanation of how you will truly truly be independent.) It absolutely can be done, but I'd be aware of this issue (perhaps in an NRSA you can address this in the training plan to try to ward off the criticism...?).

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I went to three different universities for BS, MS, and PhD and changed fields from geology to biology for the PhD. On the other hand, a very successful colleague did all his degrees at one university, became a TT Professor there, and is probably now an Emeritus. Because my University did not have a PhD program, my students who wanted PhDs went elsewhere. Postdocs had not come into vogue back then.

  • userj says:

    There seems to be a huuuuuuge (and ridiculous) bias against this. The idea of course is that you should somehow find "the best" lab you possibly can to do your postdoc in, and if that lab is in Switzerland or Australia well of course you should go there. It is assumed that "the best" lab for you couldn't possibly be within 100 miles of where you did your pHd so anyone who stays nearby is given the stink eye.

    This is ridiculous for a couple reasons. First and most importantly for any given scientist, there are dozens (or at least a large handful) of labs that could provide an enriching and productive post-doc experience. There is no "best" lab. Even if there is one on paper, what if the scientist is excited to branch out and learn something new (rather than the obvious track based on phd work)? I'd argue it is quite possible to find an excellent post doc (possibly even "the best" within 100 miles of almost any large city).

    Secondly, it's impossible to predict how well the post-doc experience will be based on who seems the best fit on paper. Going to CERN to post doc with Mr. Famous might seem like a good idea, but maybe everything will go to hell due to one of a dozen unpredictable factors. Maybe the home institution PI will be a disaster as well, but it's certainly easier to deal with

    Second, quality of life will change one's ability to work productively and do science. Thus, no one should be expected to drop everything to take "the best" opportunity if their quality of life will suffer a great deal. If they take a great opportunity instead of the "perfect" one it's ridiculous to knock them for it.

    The only time I might look askance at someone for staying at an institution too long would be if they stayed Undergrad -> Grad -> Postdoc in the same lab. Same department, different labs is fine.

  • Anonymous says:

    An important subtlety here is the reason: I did a short (one-year) postdoc in the same group as I did my PhD, so that my spouse and I could continue to live in the same city. Several years later, this certainly doesn't seem to have affected my development as an independent scientist, nor my career as a TT faculty member. In fact, I don't think many notice this line in my CV, focusing instead on my subsequent postdoctoral and faculty experience.

    In contrast, another student who graduated at the same time felt compelled to leave to avoid spending time as a postdoc in the same group (even though they could have stayed). They accepted a teaching-heavy position at a small college, the only offer they had received, and this definitely changed the direction of their academic career. (Although they are certainly happy in many ways with what they've done since.)

    In short, there are good reasons to stay and there are bad reasons to leave.

  • CSgrad says:

    I did my undergrad at MIT, and faculty who fell into case 2 (the all-stages-in-one-place extreme version) weren't uncommon. We called them "lifers".

    I didn't notice any bias against them, but MIT's also not a typical institution. The individual departments varied wildly in how they regarded "academic inbreeding" (at the undergrad to grad level, there were departments that wouldn't accept their own undergrads, and departments that preferentially took their own undergrads).

  • NatC says:

    For me, the biggest advantage of changing institutions between career stages has been a change in the "group think" around me. It seems small, but the different ways of thinking about the same problem and the other research topics in different institutions have opened a lot of great doors.
    These influences are often peripheral, more from things like which external speakers invited to seminar series, and what techniques collaborators are doing than from a mentor's direct input.
    Most of these have nothing to do with how "good" or "bad" an institution is, just who is there.
    Having said that, I can see good reasons to stay at an institution for two consecutive career stages (though I'd wonder about staying for more than that)

  • Alex says:

    The point about group-think is an important one. I'm in an environment where most people came from elsewhere, but once here most people focus on teaching. Consequently, they don't get out much after they get here. This reinforces a lot of group-think. I've been able to get a lot done in my research and go to a lot of conferences and give a lot of seminars. Beyond the benefits of the research itself, it's nice to meet a lot of people from other environments. At some point during lunch the conversation often drifts to "So, how do you teach this subject?" or "What's it like in your department?" A lot can be learned in those conversations. Even just meeting people from a different campus in the state system, and seeing how they do different things while subject to the same system-wide rules and serving a similar population, is tremendously beneficial. Sometimes I think our approach is better, sometimes worse, sometimes equally valid, but I always value getting another take on things.

  • Swedish PhD student says:

    Is there any pressure in the US to go abroad for a postdoc? In my field in Sweden many do their PhD in the same departments as they did their undergraduate/master and many return to their PhD-department for a TT-position but the postdoc should be done abroad. Of course that is a different thing considering how small our system is but even leaving to another nordic country is not really considered enough. On the other hand I rarely meet US.scientists working in Europe. Are they going to Canada or are most staying in the US system their whole career?

  • Anonymous Consultant says:

    Except for the MIT "lifers" and Harvard "ibids" (and I'm sure parallels at the other eight of the top ten), my opinion is that it does depend, but it's better to move. The short post-doc to synch up spousal levels, the perfect lab that happens to be down the hall or a building away--that's fine if it's clear that the intellectual thrust is different enough, and it looks like the creation of an independent line of research is clear enough. But I see places that hire their own PhD graduates right out of school into faculty positions, and they do not generally do well in winning federal research funding because they don't seem to know how the scientific world works on a national level.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So NatC, by your lights it should be bad to get tenure. People should move on to different Universities even after they are faculty, right? A 25 or 40 year career in the same place is one heck of a lot of groupthink indoctrination.

  • Wesley Calvert says:

    When Feynman was finishing his undergraduate degree at MIT, a wise mentor advised him to take a PhD at Princeton. Feynman said he wanted to stay at MIT, saying, in effect, that he thought it the center of the scientific universe. The mentor replied that this belief was exactly why he should go elsewhere.

  • GradStudentAbroad says:

    Interesting discussion. As I am just finishing up my PhD, I have wondered about this, too. I will continue as a postdoc at my current institution, probably only for a short time before moving on to a postdoc position elsewhere. I always thought the conventional wisdom (in the U.S.) was that it is better to move around, but that appears to be less true here in Europe (where I am doing my PhD, something that is indeed unusual for U.S.-Americans, as noted by the commenter from Sweden).

    My reasons for wanting to move on are partly professional (wanting to pursue different research directions, meet new people, get fresh ideas) and partly personal/geographic. The major reason for staying is that I want to finish up some publications before moving on in order to start with a clean slate. (At my institution it is standard practice for students to stay for at least a short postdoc after finishing the PhD, in order to tie up loose ends and have time to look for a job.) However, I will switch to a different research group, in a different department -- a group that I have already collaborated closely with. This is partly because I wanted to avoid the appearance of stagnation, partly because my research and interests have developed in such a way that I fit better in the other group, and partly because my PhD adviser is moving to another institution in a different city, and it wouldn't make much sense (from my point of view) for me to also move and join that institution for such a short time (although this option was/is explicitly also available).

    @FSP: on a tangentially related note: thoughts / biases about having part of your academic career abroad might be an interesting topic for another post -- in my experience many people seem to have strong opinions about this, and make all sorts of assumptions about the reasons people do this. In my personal case, many of the assumptions generally made by others around this issue are often so wrong that they are completely perpendicular to or even opposite to the actual situation -- for example, sometimes people seem to assume that I am *really* here to in order enjoy traveling around Europe -- sure, I wish that I had plenty of time/money to do that, but being a grad student = working full time for a tiny stipend, and time/money resources available for travel are usually more than entirely consumed by expensive and rare visits to my family in the U.S.

  • NanoBioNick says:

    I've been struggling with this question for a while and at different stages. I am currently a PhD candidate at the same university I did my BS at (different department, and college though). My academic adviser as an undergraduate told me in no uncertain terms "go anywhere else for your PhD except here." I applied to maybe 9 programs around New England (granted many were a reach into the Ivies) but I got accepted to a few. Even after visiting and weighing the offer letters the best place for me was to stay- financially, personally, and I would have the best chance for research.

    As I start to think about post-docs I'm torn. I *WANT* to go abroad for a post-doc, partially to see the world and partially to offset doing my BS-PhD at the same University. But I don't know if I will be able to pull it off for personal reason. And, there are two groups within 3 hours of here that are doing similar research. I guess my thinking is if I can find a good option elsewhere I'll take it, but if the best offer is local I'm going to take it.