A Doctoral Student's Guide to Postdocs

These days, finding employment after graduation is a challenge regardless of your degree level. However, tough job markets are even more disheartening for doctoral graduates who have dedicated a significant amount of their lives and money to earning their degrees. Fortunately, there are plenty of post-doctoral research opportunities available to new Ph.D. holders; these gigs can serve as an ideal intermediary between academic life and the beginnings of a successful career.

Reasons to Consider Postdoc Work

While postdoc work should not be considered a career in itself, it can be advantageous if you still feel you need some additional experience in your field. Below is a list of benefits associated with post-doctoral work.

  • Continuing Research and Experience: Postdoc work offers an excellent opportunity for recent Ph.D. graduates to gain additional experience in research and teaching, not to mention grant-writing and networking. As a result, it makes for a great transition from student to independent academic and provides a valuable resume boost, especially for those hoping to work as professors one day.
  • Fast-Track to Tenure: Ph.D. graduates with their eyes on achieving a tenure-track position at a college or university should seriously consider the advantages of postdoc work. These days, the competition for professorships is fierce. Postdoc work will help you learn about the politics of academia from the perspective of a researcher/educator. It also provides great opportunities to build lasting relationships with high-ranking members of faculty and university administration. Both of these advantages could ultimately help your chances of landing a desirable position at a degree-granting institution.
  • Valuable Time to Publish: Most Ph.D. graduates understand the benefits of having time to work on and publish articles in their field. Many had little time to commit to other projects (other than their dissertation) during their doctoral studies. Postdoc work enables you to begin building a stockpile of published work that could increase your value on the job market.

Downsides to Postdoc Work

While there are several benefits to pursuing postdoc positions after graduating with your Ph.D., there are several practical downsides as well. Below is a list of drawbacks you should be aware of.

  • Low Salaries: Even though postdoc work is often no different from the work you'd do in a regular job, the pay you receive will be much lower. This can be especially problematic for recent graduates with large amounts of student debt and other financial obligations. Like an internship, doing postdoc work should be more about building your profile on the job market through experience, and less about earning the highest wages.
  • Irrelevant to Some Careers: Postdoc work is excellent for Ph.D.s hoping to pursue a career in research, advanced education, or academia. If your intended career path doesn't involve these activities, postdoc work probably won't give you the experience you are looking for.
  • Delaying the Inevitable: While it may be silly to think of postdoc work as a career, there are those who grow comfortable with the work and may lose motivation to move on. This is tantamount to a kid fresh out of college transitioning his part-time job into career (as opposed to pursuing better opportunities). Be sure to use your postdoc experience for what it was meant for: preparing you for bigger and better things down the road.

Choosing a Postdoc Position

There are several factors to consider when choosing your postdoc, and they can make the difference between a valuable learning experience and a complete waste of time. These include:

  • Publishing Opportunities: Most postdoc studies involve a large amount of research, so it might be wise to choose a program (or school) where a large number of students and alumni have had their work published. It is not easy to get published in respectable academic journals, which makes it all the more important to choose a postdoc position that provides you with the connections and resources you need to do so.
  • Colleagues and Mentors: Another important thing to consider is who you will be working with. Post-doctoral work gives Ph.D. graduates many opportunities to network and collaborate with others in their field, as well as important faculty members and administration officials. Finding a position where your peers share your academic interests is crucial for getting the most out of a postdoc experience.
  • Funding Opportunities: Postdoc research projects can get expensive, especially if your research requires you to travel or invest in expensive equipment. A postdoc salary will be hardly enough to cover both living expenses and the cost of research projects. Choosing a position at a university with ample funding opportunities is essential.

Finally, check out The Scientist's list of the ‘Best Places to Work Postdoc' in the United States this year.

Advice for Postdoc Success

The key to achieving success in a postdoc position is to think of it as much more than a mere “placeholder” before better things become available. Like any job or internship, you should take any postdoc position seriously and use your time to the fullest. As more and more Ph.D. graduates turn to postdoc work, it will be critical for you to stand out among your peers.

Think of a postdoc position as a valuable extension of your Ph.D. degree program where you can not only prove your breadth of knowledge, but also build your skills as a researcher and educator. While these gigs won't make sense for every doctoral grad, for those who are planning on a career in research or academia, a few years of postdoc work could be extremely beneficial.