Landing a Postdoc, if You Need One

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Image: chemistry class, 1915, by Frank R. Snyder (via Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections)

If you’re a Ph.D. in the sciences, people say you need to do a postdoc. Is that true? It is if you’re working to land a permanent faculty position in academia. Of course the majority of scientists don’t wind up in academia.

One recent report claims that 42 percent of people with a Ph.D. in the sciences in the United States end up working in academia in the long term. That is consonant with data from the National Science Foundation. The numbers are arguable, but clearly the proportion of Ph.D.-level scientists who become tenured professors is much lower than early Ph.D. students might expect.

Postdocs are typically viewed as a bridge to permanent faculty positions. But the long view of career planning is uncommon in the academic circles I travel in. Most graduate students seem to do what I did: Get within a year or two of finishing and think, “Holy moly I need to find a postdoc.” That’s not the best position to be in — you should be thinking about what you’ll be doing after you finish a Ph.D. as soon as you start the program.

For scientists who have not developed a reliable employment avenue, however, a postdoc is the default route, even if it’s not heading in the most fruitful professional trajectory. If you’re graduating, and don’t have any particular career plans, then finding a postdoc seems like the easiest thing to do — not that landing a postdoc is easy, nor is escaping an infinite loop of postdoc gigs. But if your goal is to become a professor — despite the relatively low odds and regardless of whether you want to work at a teaching- or a research-centered institution — doing a postdoc is almost always necessary.

To increase your chances of landing a faculty position, what kind of postdoc do you need?

That depends on your background. Postdocs must build up a CV and personal narrative that shows how they are prepared to be principal investigators on grant-supported research. Postdocs can create new opportunities by acquiring new skills and expertise in a new subfield. If you want to be competitive for faculty positions, you need to show an independent academic identity, a set of first-authored papers, a collaborative role in multi-authored papers, and the ability to be successful in different academic environments.

Every search committee is looking for something different, and its decisions are forged from compromise and idiosyncrasy. As a candidate, you can’t be everything to everybody, and, in my opinion, postdocs are best served by labs that foster the holistic development of productive, competent, and relevant scientists. A good indicator of future success is whether a lab has a history of placing doctoral students and postdocs into the kind of job that you want.

Specific skill sets emerge and fade as priority areas for academic hiring. It would be great if you could anticipate a trendy hiring wave. For example, in my field, having substantial computational skills involving large datasets seems to be important nowadays. In certain disciplines, certain skill sets are perennially in need — for example, in biology departments, the ability to teach human anatomy and physiology is in demand.

Most faculty job openings are at teaching-oriented colleges and universities. So if you’re interested in those jobs, having taught your own course at some point is a plus. Finding a lab that supports your professional development as a teacher on the side can help you in the long run.

Most job candidates don’t have the luxury of shopping for a postdoc among their choice of PIs. You have to go where the paycheck is. There are two very different ways of getting paid as a postdoc. The first is to find your own money, and the other is to get paid by the PI who has the funding. By “your own money,” I mean secure your own grant or fellowship.

Don’t dismiss the idea of looking for a postdoc abroad. Increasingly, more and more postdocs are becoming available outside the United States, as Asian and European nations invest in scientific infrastructure while the United States divests from the development of scientists. Brain drain from the United States is becoming quite real.

Getting your postdoc funded by a PI is an entirely different matter. While you need to be highly qualified for the job, the way you land the post is from personal connections. It’s who you know that counts, which means the person who networks well is more likely to land a postdoc. While most universities will mandate an official search process, sometimes a PI knows who they want to hire before the job announcement goes out. Going to meetings, collaborating, and establishing your own academic identity early in your graduate career is critical.

Of course, some PIs don’t have a specific candidate in mind when a project gets funded. But in any case, people find jobs through their professional networks. Because a postdoc hire is a huge financial investment, PIs tend to be risk averse, and they bring in someone who they are confident will do the job well and write up the papers that need to be written. A reputation for being reliable, smart, hard-working, and able to crank out manuscripts is important on the postdoc market. PIs also look for postdoc candidates who have mentoring experience, because in bigger labs they often become the primary mentor for undergraduate and graduate researchers.
What does working as a postdoc get for you if your post-Ph.D. career plans don’t involve an academic setting?

The primary answer is prosaic: A postdoc gets you a paycheck, at least a little bigger than the one you might take home as a teaching or research assistant. My postdoc was barely a living wage, but I remember at the time being thrilled to earn something more than my meager graduate-student stipend.

Doctoral programs need to give students the professional latitude to explore, “What kind of career do I want when I finish?” and respect the choices they make. While it is often said that job options for Ph.D.-level scientists are few and far between, in fact, overall unemployment rates are very low for Ph.D.’s, and many avenues for work are available. The job crisis for science Ph.D.s has been described mostly as an attitude problem — not on the part of doctoral students but of their professors. Most faculty simply don’t know how to prepare students for jobs outside academia. Do you need a postdoc if you’re planning to work outside academia? Frankly, most of us don’t know. As a full professor who has never been part of the nonacademic job market, I am unequipped to answer.

Junior scientists who manage their careers actively will have an idea of their career ambitions when finishing up the Ph.D., and specific plans about how to get there. But many graduate students aren’t so sure about their career path. We should be providing science Ph.D.s with the mentorship and career training they need to prepare for this moment, so that they don’t just reflexively decide that a postdoc is their best choice.

It’s possible to get lucky and land a postdoc overnight as you’re finishing up your Ph.D. But if you are hoping to move on to a faculty position, it is prudent to plan for a postdoc while you plan your dissertation. And if you’re pursuing a nonacademic career path, you may not need a postdoc at all — except to support you as you make a career change.

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