To Postdoc or Not?

Besides understanding whether a postdoc is required for your intended career field, you need to think about the financial implications as well as how you'd like to spend the next few years of your life, advises Melanie V. Sinche.

August 23, 2016
 
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As competition for faculty positions has grown increasingly fierce, postdoctoral training has become a requirement for securing a tenure-track position in most scientific disciplines. Postdoctoral training may also be required for research positions in different sectors, such as industrial or government labs. Still, it is important to recognize that you do not need postdoctoral training for many jobs in science.

It is also important to remember that a postdoc itself is not a career goal. It is instead a training period during which you can develop the skills, knowledge and experience needed for your ultimate career goal. You should not view the postdoc as the terminal step in your career path but as a stepping-stone, useful only if it is required.

Is a Postdoc Required?

In the research I conducted through my survey project, “Identifying Career Pathways for Ph.D.s in Science,” 85 percent of all currently employed Ph.D.s in the sample stated that a Ph.D. was required or preferred for entry into their current position. However, when asked whether postdoctoral training was required or preferred to enter their current job, only 40 percent responded that a postdoc was either required or preferred.

In addition to understanding whether a postdoc is required for your intended career field, you need to think carefully about how you would like to spend the next several years of your life, and about any financial commitments you may have. Do you have student loans? Are you providing financial support for your family? Are you willing to live on postdoc wages for the next three to five years rather than moving into a full-time, permanent, most likely higher-paying job? You need to consider the financial implications of entering a postdoc, as well as the career implications.

In her book How Economics Shapes Science, the economist Paula Stephan breaks down the loss of potential earnings of Ph.D.s in the biological sciences versus those who earn a master’s degree in business administration. She estimates a loss of $1,219,257 in lifetime earnings for those who spent seven years completing their Ph.D. in biological sciences compared to the holders of M.B.A.s. For those who complete their Ph.D. in seven years but also complete a three-year postdoc, the loss in lifetime earnings is even greater: $1,272,680. She notes that the difference in earnings between the M.B.A.s and the Ph.D.s makes “it quite clear that reasons other than money enter into the decision to pursue a career in science and engineering. If it were only money, virtually no one would choose such a career.” Naturally, interests, skills acquired and personal values play into any individual career choice. Still, Stephan’s point is well taken in demonstrating the choices -- and potential losses -- that Ph.D.s face when trying to discern a career direction, and in particular, whether or not to engage in postdoctoral training.

To be sure, a postdoc is still required for tenure-track faculty research jobs and for most college teaching positions, and many postdocs engaged in training hope and expect to progress toward these positions. According to the data set I amassed in 2015 in my survey project, 81 percent of current postdocs named “university faculty” as their long-term career goal, with a focus either on teaching or on research.

To enhance their chances of being among the small percentage of candidates who are selected for tenure-track positions, some Ph.D.s take on a postdoc to increase their number of first-author papers. Some seek to apply for transitional grants, while others apply for training positions to learn new techniques, to gain teaching experience or even to change their research focus completely. They may use a second postdoc to retrain in an area that will make them more competitive for jobs.

Most of these decisions were predicated on the knowledge that the academic job market is now more competitive than ever. Generally speaking, if you are contemplating a long-term career as a faculty member at the college level, postdoctoral training is essential to be competitive. According to data acquired through my research project on career options for Ph.D.s, postdoctoral training was required or preferred for 70 percent of those respondents currently in a tenure-track position or tenured. Although this is a relatively small sample size, it does demonstrate that a small number of candidates move directly into tenure-track positions without additional training.

Outside of the tenure track, it is much less likely that a particular position will require postdoctoral training, though there certainly are instances where Ph.D.s can use such experience to enhance their candidacy. If you intend to work in a research setting for a long period of time, a postdoc may help you gain greater autonomy and learn how to manage groups. It may increase your number of peer-reviewed publications. Employers that might find postdoctoral training attractive include government agencies, nonprofit research organizations, research-focused corporations, health care centers and other organizations driven by scientific research.

To determine whether a postdoc is in fact required for your field of interest, contact someone who works in that field and ask them directly whether it is. It is essential that you learn more about various fields now, before entering a postdoc. I have worked with hundreds of postdocs who found that their training after completing their Ph.D. was not required for the field they ultimately chose.

That said, if you are currently employed as a postdoc and interested in a field that does not require additional training, do not despair. Chances are you have been amassing additional skills and training through your postdoc work that are valuable to almost all employers, including the ability to work independently. Still, the more you speak with Ph.D.s in different professions, the more you will learn about what types of experiences are most meaningful and would make you most attractive for positions in that area.

Types of Postdoctoral Appointments

If you determine that in the long run it would benefit you and your job search to engage in postdoctoral training, you may wish to learn about different types of postdocs, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of engaging in varied training settings. They include:

Academic Postdocs. Most postdocs in the United States are employed in the academy -- in 2013, at least 75 percent of them. Their popularity, perhaps, can be attributed to several factors: academic postdocs are easiest to find; they are the most traditional type, dating back to the apprenticeship model in German universities; postdocs in other settings may be less visible to graduate students; and academic postdocs are assumed to leave every future career door open.

There are surely many other reasons for their attraction, and those may include opportunities to publish, to write grants, to teach, to exert a significant degree of autonomy and so on. The downsides of academic research as a postdoc can include isolation, low salaries and mediocre benefits.

Industry Postdocs. The number of industry postdocs, at least according to the National Science Foundation, is still relatively small, with just 14 percent of scientists and engineers across all disciplines engaged in postdoctoral training in an industrial setting in 2013. The culture of each particular industrial environment may vary, but generally speaking the focus on teamwork is pervasive and the work largely mission driven. Some companies habitually hire former postdocs as permanent employees following a postdoc in industry, while others avoid continuing the relationship. Whether hired by the same employer or not, exposure to a corporate environment can be seen as a plus by most industrial employers interested in hiring Ph.D.s.

Another perk of working in an industry postdoc is access to cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art facilities. You may find the same at an academic, government or nonprofit research institution, but it is more likely to be the standard here. Along those same lines, salaries tend to be higher -- sometimes significantly so -- for industrial postdocs. One drawback to working in an industrial setting, however, is that it may be more difficult to publish your work. While this is not always the case, it is true in some corporate settings. Also, you may not have the ability to write grants, if that is an area of interest for you.

Government Postdocs. Postdoctoral training in government agencies is less often considered, perhaps because participants make up only 10 percent of the postdoc population in the United States, according to National Science Foundation data. Nonetheless, some people argue that postdoc work in a government agency may incorporate the best parts of academic and industrial postdoc work: publication is typically encouraged, salaries are usually higher than those of academic postdocs, and materials and equipment can be readily available. Another perk for foreign scholars is that, unlike some corporations, many government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, hire international postdocs. One drawback of this environment is that government postdocs typically do not have the ability to write grants, which is an absolute prerequisite for faculty positions, and they may or may not have the ability to teach -- another requirement for faculty positions, at least in teaching-focused colleges.

Teaching Postdocs. If you have not had much (or any) teaching experience in your graduate program and would like to develop some classroom experience, investigate teaching postdocs across the country. These fellowships typically combine scientific research and classroom teaching at a local college. These fellowships also tend to include workshops and training in pedagogy, classroom management and other resources needed to be an effective teacher. The National Postdoctoral Association compiles a list of teaching fellowships.

Field-Specific Postdocs. If you are interested in securing positions in a few select additional fields, such as science policy or technology transfer, entering a specialized postdoc position to build skills in these areas will certainly make you more attractive to potential employers. Such training positions are not required to enter these fields, but could provide concrete experience and skill building in writing, oral communication and networking.

Some specific fellowship programs are available, with one of the most widely known being the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowships. These fellowships, like teaching fellowships, engage postdocs in training for particular professions. Selected fellows may work in science policy with congressional offices or federal agencies, or they may work in mass media as reporters, editors or production assistants. These fellows engage in the field, meet professionals and contribute their research skills, critical thinking skills, analytical skills and communication skills to serve a variety of organizations. Opportunities are also available in specific government agencies, such as the National Cancer Institute; its Technology Transfer Center offers two different types of fellowships for candidates interested in technology transfer.

Self-Made Postdocs. Given immediate access to information and continuously growing social networks, many students and current postdocs have fashioned their own postdoctoral fellowships by reaching out to organizations directly. Some have found opportunities to work for pay in start-up companies. Some have volunteered to work without pay for boutique consulting firms. These postdocs have possessed an entrepreneurial spirit and found success by responding to an internal drive to enter a career, knowing that they had to build their own experience from the ground up.

Transitional Postdocs. Some Ph.D.s will remain in their doctoral research groups, departments and institutions as postdocs after completing their degrees to gain more time to search for a permanent job. Although that may be a necessary step for you in your career development, or for your family or partner, it is wise to avoid studying with the same mentor for your postdoc and your Ph.D. Many employers, including academic search chairs, department heads, managers in industry and others want to see that someone searching for a research position has stretched their knowledge and taken risks or found new projects by moving into an entirely new research group. If you must stay for some period of time, then you must, but if you know that your time for whatever reason will extend beyond a few months, find another postdoc, even at the same institution, to take on new challenges and demonstrate your teamwork skills.

To sum up, the greater clarity you have about what lies on the other side of your postdoc (for example, an industry job or a faculty position at a small liberal arts college), the more likely you will be to find one that promotes or supports that goal and prepares you to be the strongest possible job candidate.

A successful postdoc is one in which you use knowledge about yourself and the kind of work you want to pursue, as well as the working conditions and management style that make you most productive, to facilitate agency over your future. You are the chief architect of your future career. Let that perspective guide you throughout your postdoctoral experience, and you are likely to feel fulfilled in your work.

Bio

Melanie V. Sinche is director of education at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine. This article is excerpted with permission from Next Gen PhD: a Guide to Career Paths in Science, just published by Harvard University Press. Copyright 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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