Finding a postdoc that sets you up for career success (opinion)

Finding a postdoc that sets you up for career success (opinion)


As you approach the end of your Ph.D., you may find yourself considering a postdoctoral position, or postdoc, as the next step after graduation. Pursuing a postdoc is a career decision in and of itself, and you should approach it with intention in order to find the best fit and derive the most benefit. Consider these five practical steps to find a postdoc that will set you up for long-term career success.

Understand what postdocs are. Postdocs are defined by the National Postdoctoral Association as “a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.” Postdocs are a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of American higher education, originating in the sciences in 1911 to promote U.S. scientific advancement and extending to the humanities in the 1990s and 2000s to support the career development of Ph.D.s pursuing faculty positions. Today, Ph.D.s across disciplines use postdocs to prepare for a wide variety of careers by diversifying their research skill set, changing fields of research, expanding their publication record, gaining funding application-writing experience, improving their mentoring and teaching skills, or even getting training in specialized career paths beyond research.

As postdocs increasingly lead to career options beyond faculty positions, they can also be found in a variety of sectors, including academe, industry, government and nonprofits. Academic postdocs are still the most common and typically occur under the guidance of an individual faculty member, an academic department or a postdoctoral program. A growing number of STEM postdoc positions can be found in industry, particularly pharmaceutical and technology companies. Government laboratories and agencies offer postdocs in research, policy or media. Finally, postdocs can be found at nonprofit organizations, such as research institutes, think tanks, community-based organizations and professional societies. Because postdocs exist in various environments with different focuses and career benefits, you should engage in career decision making before determining whether and where to do a postdoc.

Determine the value of a postdoc to your future career. By engaging in career exploration and decision making before applying to postdocs, you can identify opportunities that best match your career goals — or even decide that a postdoc is actually not the best career step. Too many graduate students choose to do a postdoc by default, out of pressure from their adviser, or out of fear of leaving academe. It is far better to be empowered in your decision, knowing that you are choosing to complete a postdoc to develop a specific skill set or gain expertise that will increase your ability to pursue your desired career.

To determine what benefit a postdoc may have, you should start by exploring your career options. Self-assessment tools like ImaginePhD for humanists and social scientists and myIDP for scientists are helpful to articulate your top skills, interests and values, as well as to find a variety of career options that align with your preferences. Once you have identified several careers of interest, you can begin gathering more detailed information about each career through reading articles and books, attending career events through your university or professional society, engaging in experiential learning, and, most importantly, conducting informational interviews.

Informational interviewing with Ph.D.s in careers of interest can be the most effective method to explore whether a postdoc is the right path for you. Through having conversations with professionals who have and have not completed postdocs, you can ask tailored questions about the value of a postdoc in that career path, such as if one is required for advancement in their field, if some types of postdocs are more helpful than others or if there are specific skills that are critical to develop during the postdoc. If postdocs are not advantageous for the career, ask if other experiences would provide helpful training or preparation. Once you have conducted this research and learned how a postdoc can benefit your career aspirations, you can feel more confident in your choice to pursue a postdoc.

Given the variety of postdoc options that you can choose from, it is important to articulate the specific career goals you hope to achieve. Are your postdoc goals to develop your faculty research plan and secure independent funding? To publish your dissertation and expand your scholarly record? To teach multiple courses? Or are they more technical or expertise-driven, such as learning new programming languages, the process of policy making or the development and curation of museum collections and exhibits? Those goals may lead you to pick different types of postdocs, such as research-focused positions in academe, government labs or research institutes; teaching and curriculum development postdocs; computational research postdoc positions; policy-focused postdocs in government; or postdocs affiliated with museums or nonprofits. Having identified such goals before your postdoc search will help you to prioritize where to apply as well as to create individual development plans for your postdoc.

Finally, consider how much time you want to devote to your postdoc to achieve those career goals. Postdocs can be annual or multiyear contracts and may have the option to renew. Some Ph.D.s have chosen to complete two or three different postdocs before they make their next career transition; however, a postdoc, like graduate school, is meant to be a defined period of training, not a long-term career. The gains of additional training from a postdoc should be weighed against the financial and personal benefits from a permanent position. If you find yourself pursuing multiple postdocs out of fear about your career prospects, seek assistance from a career adviser or trusted mentor at your institution. By understanding how many years you are willing to dedicate to this period of additional training before you even begin a postdoc, you are more likely to make the most out of every year.

Search for postdoc opportunities. Finding postdocs can require two different strategies: searching for advertised postdoctoral opportunities (which can be found as job descriptions on job boards, or a call for applications for a university or organization’s postdoctoral fellowship program) or networking with potential faculty advisers at conferences, through your contacts or by email.

To find advertised postdoc positions, search for keywords like “postdoctoral researcher,” “visiting fellow(ship)” and “research fellow(ship)” on higher education job boards such as NPA Career Center and Inside Higher Ed Careers, STEM-specific job boards such as Nature Careers and Science Careers, and humanities and social sciences-specific job boards such as H-Net. In addition, your professional society may have its own job board that will list postdocs in your field of research. Some postdoctoral programs have their own websites with application details instead of a job board posting; those programs can be found via internet search or on curated lists of postdoc programs (such as Pathways to Science, Academic Jobs Wiki for Humanists and Social Scientists and the University of California, Berkeley’s lists of postdoctoral fellowships in the humanities and social sciences). Take careful note of application cycles and start dates: academic, industry and government postdocs in STEM fields are posted throughout the academic year and usually request a start date as soon as possible. In contrast, academic and nonprofit postdocs in humanities and social sciences adhere more closely to the faculty application cycle with deadlines in the fall and winter for a start date the following fall.

For academic postdocs in STEM and social sciences fields, you may also use the networking approach to find opportunities. Some faculty rely solely on direct inquiries from graduate students to fill postdoctoral openings in their research groups. At conferences, dedicate time to networking with faculty members who conduct research of interest to you and set up one-on-one meetings where you can ask questions about their research group. You may also choose to ask your own adviser, research collaborators or dissertation committee for recommendations of faculty in your field or conduct online research on faculty who work in institutions or departments of interest. It is recommended that you connect with potential faculty advisers six to 12 months before graduation in the case that a research group’s openings fill far in advance or the adviser requests that you apply for funding before your start date. For the best outcome with your postdoc search, employ a variety of these different search methods.

Send in postdoc applications or letters of inquiry. Applications for postdoctoral positions often require, at minimum, a CV, a cover letter and a list of references. Those documents are also necessary when pursuing a postdoc through networking channels. However, applications for postdoctoral programs across disciplines may also require an applicant statement or personal statement, a research or teaching statement, a writing sample, academic transcripts, and/or letters of reference.

Make sure to tailor your application documents appropriately for the position. For example, if applying to a teaching postdoc, highlight your teaching experience and training early in your CV and request references from faculty who have observed your teaching. Tailoring is especially important for cover letters, applicant statements and personal statements. You should change such documents with each position you apply to and reference specific details about the group, department or program to which you are applying. Gather those details by thoroughly researching relevant websites, publications and presentations and reflecting on how they align with your postdoc interests and goals. These statements often detail your specific interest in the position or program, your qualifications and areas of interest, your goals for the postdoc, and how the postdoc will support your career goals. Generic cover letters or statements may give the appearance of a lack of interest, so showing enthusiasm for the specific opportunity by tailoring the application can greatly improve your chances of getting an interview or an offer.

Use interviews or informational interviews to identify the best postdoc fit. Postdoctoral training can last multiple years, so it is equally important to consider how the environment will impact your personal happiness and success during that period. Assessing if a postdoc is a good fit involves researching the mentorship and management style of the adviser or supervisor, the style of work environment promoted by the colleagues or organization, how the location may support your lifestyle or family considerations, and the availability of opportunities to receive career support and engage in career preparation. Identifying your professional values using the values assessment on ImaginePhD will not only help you rank your values but also provide questions you can ask to vet how a postdoc opportunity aligns with those values.

Having identified your values, you can use conversations with faculty mentors or supervisors, current postdocs and former postdocs to determine the fit of a specific postdoc. If you are asked to interview with the adviser or supervisor, prepare questions on topics like: their managing style and training plans for postdocs, their involvement in determining topic and direction of your research or project, the funding situation, and what makes a postdoc successful in that group, department or program. You may have the opportunity to meet — or request to meet — other postdocs or researchers in the group or program, allowing you to inquire further about the work environment and career outcomes. In addition, consider asking previous postdocs for an informational interview; having moved on to their next position, they are more likely to speak candidly about their experience.

Postdocs can be an incredibly valuable experience in your professional development. Choosing to do a postdoc for specific career goals, applying to opportunities that support those career goals and assessing how the postdoc environment can promote your success will help make sure you get the most out of the experience.



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