So... should I do a postdoc? Ultimately, you're the only person who can answer that question!
You should approach a postdoctoral fellowship or research opportunity as a transitional position that will help you get the skills you'll need for your future career. Keep in mind that a postdoc position is a temporary, training-focused opportunity. Postdoc positions vary in length from one- to two-year contracts in industry to up to five-year fellowships in academia. While renewals may be possible, many organizations won’t allow the option for renewal beyond the standard timelines. Be prepared to pursue other professional opportunities when your original contract ends.
Six tips to help you find a postdoctoral research fellowship
- Make your decision to pursue a postdoc an active choice. Know that you can actively choose to pursue a postdoc at the same time you actively choose to pursue a permanent (even non-academic) position.
- Get advice from a variety of people. Yes, talk to your adviser and other colleagues at your institution, but also reach out to the career services office, alumni, and your friends who have graduated.
- Build your network! Consider reaching out to second degree or third degree connections to ask for an informational interview about what they do. At conferences, sure, talk to the recruiters present, but also talk to other attendees and ask about their research! Talk to postdocs and juniors employees about their career paths and their current roles!
- Look worldwide. A postdoc at a foreign institution is one way to get an international experience, and many companies—particularly larger companies—hire internationally, too.
- Focus your time on things that will benefit you the most in the long term. Applying to postdocs is one way to spend your time, but that same time could be used to complete that one side project, prepare your next presentation, apply to one more conference workshop for up-and-coming leaders… or apply to non-academic jobs. The best use of your time depends on your end goal.
- Be strategic! For any position, postdoc or otherwise, don’t waste your time applying to things you have no interest in. It’s far more beneficial to spend a few (several, many) hours reflecting on your current skills, your future goals, and what you need to bridge the gap, then target your job search on things that really speak to you. You’ll write better cover letters, too, if you’re really motivated by the jobs you’re applying for.
Definition of success
A "successful" postdoc position is one that you use to advance your skills and experience to help you pursue the work you want to do as a career. You can also refine your knowledge of yourself and the working conditions (level of independence/collaboration, management style, types of tasks) where you are at your best. You are the person who cares the most about your future career. Take the time to make sure it is what you want!
What not to do when considering a postdoc position
- Don’t pursue a postdoc just someone told you that you had to. Your dissertation/thesis adviser likely enjoys their own job, and could project that onto their top students—without realizing it might not be the best fit for the student's long-term goals. High-achieving grad students probably would do wonderfully in an academic position, but have many options; take some time to consider those other options.
- Don’t stick with a postdoc because it’s “the only option.” Don’t sell yourself short; put some time into considering what other options you have. You like teaching? Many companies have training-focused positions, especially for technical products. You like research? Many companies (especially the large, international companies) have entire research divisions. If grant writing really is your favorite thing, a career in academia might be the best fit for you, but also consider nonprofits (anything from sports organizations to history museums, community development to water availability) and government agencies.
- Don’t pursue a postdoc to increase your “market value” without careful consideration. A postdoc does give you an opportunity to submit more publications and further develop and develop many skills that would be beneficial to an academic position. However, you actually don't need a postdoc for some professorial jobs if your experience and publication history match the institution's needs. Industry experience can even make you a stronger candidate for many faculty positions. On the other side of things, it can be hard to transition from a heavily academic postdoc to a nonacademic position.
- Don't make a final decision without considering your financial position. Postdocs are not known for being well paid. Do you have student loans? Are you financially supporting your family? Are you willing to live on postdoc wages for the next 1-5 years—compared to a full-time, permanent, probably higher-paying job?
- Don’t let the naysayers keep you down! “It’s always sad to see promising young people decide to leave the field…”, “You can’t come back to academia if you leave now…” First, leaving academic does not mean leaving science. Your PhD qualifies you as a researcher, and a company hiring for a researcher position values that credential! Secondly, if you do return to academia, having industry experience can be vastly beneficial in terms of writing collaborative proposals, creating partnerships with companies to support the academic work, providing real world expertise to your students, and rounding out your areas of expertise.
What other options are there?
It depends on what you're looking for! Take some time to reflect on what your goals are for the next five to 10 years. As a PhD graduate, your transferable skills include your big-picture theoretical background, as well as your skills working independently, working as part of a team, generating results, and analyzing data. You'll be expected to know what scientific excellence looks like, how to achieve it, and how to plan and manage projects. Of course, your publication and presentation history also speaks to your communication skills. What else does your dream career need? What skills are you currently missing? And most importantly, how can you develop those skills?
Postdoctoral fellowships and research positions are a common stepping stone between graduate school and a professorial position, but depending on your needs, you could also consider a teaching position (usually non-tenure-track; available at community colleges, liberal arts institutions, and even research universities), consulting, technical editing, grants writing, or even entrepreneurship.
If you're considering a career outside of academia, an academic postdoc may not provide the training you need to advance in your chosen field. You may have heard "the longer you stay in academia, the harder it is to leave." This is partially because of how easy it is for researchers to become wholly devoted to what they do. Once you've published articles, presented at conferences, identified other conferences you'd like to attend one day, and developed dozens of research ideas you haven't had a chance to start, it's hard to walk away.
Take some time to investigate your options, and reflect on what's most interesting to you. Do some research online, talk to your advisers, talk to your network, and reach out to people with the job you want for informational interviews. Many companies may prefer on-the-job training versus postdoctoral training somewhere else. Some companies prefer to hire recent PhD graduates over postdoctoral researchers, viewing the fresh-out-of-school candidates as more flexible and faster learners. In most situations, your skills will be more relevant than where you developed them.