Could You, Would You, SHOULD You Do a Postdoc?

Tips on Decision Making, Applying and Interviewing for the All-Important Postdoc
By Chris Blagden, Ph.D., and Ivonne Vidal Pizarro, Ph.D.

So you have written your dissertation and successfully defended your thesis. Now what? Are you headed for a career in industry? Academia? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? How do you want to use your Ph.D.? Time spent seriously pondering these questions will better direct the next stage of your career.

Be aware that what you want to accomplish with your professional life may not actually require postdoctoral experience. The only career path that generally requires postdoctoral experience is the academic track. However, this is not true in all disciplines. Remember that only around 25 percent of Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will actually take the postdoc route. (Nearly 45 percent have definite employment, 28 percent are seeking employment and 2.5 percent have unknown plans. See Citation #1.) For several other career paths, such as becoming a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, having some extra research experience can be a bonus, but it is certainly not essential. If your career trajectory requires a postdoc, then here are some suggestions to consider.

Do not ever underestimate the importance of schmoozing. Network, network, network. When you think you have finished, network some more. Spend as much time as you can during your Ph.D. education talking to everyone you meet at seminars, meetings and other events. You never know when and where a networking opportunity will open up. In other words, do not be shy! You may be talking to not only one of your future mentors, but people who could serve as references or put you in touch with good professional contacts. These people can have ideas on what will be hot areas of study over the coming years, what tools and skills you should be looking to acquire to pursue a line of investigation, and what other useful “outside the box” suggestions you may not have previously considered.

Keep your options open. Make sure your postdoc will provide you with the liberty to explore your career options. Although an academic postdoc at a university research institution is the most common place to carry out your training, an industry postdoc may be more suitable if your career trajectory leads you in that direction. If you are interested in the industrial sector, research postdoctoral opportunities carefully, since some companies do not guarantee positions with them following a postdoc or put rigid term limits on the length of time you can do a postdoc with them.

On the other hand, if teaching is in your future, you need to obtain teaching experience. Keep in mind that if you work as a postdoc in a medical school, or a small privately funded research institution, it may be difficult for you to get into the classroom. There are greater research opportunities at a medical school because they have more resources, and the benefit to working with a small privately funded research institution is that you will get to know most folks there. But, either institution may make it difficult for you to teach because they may not be willing to release you from the bench to participate in teaching work, which would not further the research you are funded to carry out. The principal investigator would have to be someone who is committed to mentoring you and helping you to develop the skills to further your career goals. Regardless of your career interests, make sure your mentor is aware of them and is prepared to actively support you.

Think about your research. Where do you want to take your research? You can acquire new skills and training by doing a postdoc in an area totally unrelated to your graduate studies. Or, you can use your postdoc as a springboard to a slightly different area of the same field. If your advisor is amenable, maybe you would like to continue along the same lines as your graduate work. (In this case, be sure to demarcate what in your project is portable and what work needs to remain with your graduate advisor.)

After you decide what area of research you want to work in, identify appropriate laboratories. Remember, geographical location may be important to you. Finally, in deciding which lab to apply to, make sure you conduct a literature search; if the lab’s publication rate is slow, as a postdoc, yours will be too.

Prepare the perfect application. Polish your writing skills! Write and/or update your curriculum vitae (CV). Prepare personalized cover letters. For editorial help, take advantage of the career services office on your (or your alma mater’s) campus to prepare these documents. Also, do not forget to publish! Make sure you have your studies written up and out the door, since you will have less time to focus on them once you leave your graduate laboratory. Remember, publications are the currency of academia.

Obtain strong letters of recommendation. Your thesis committee members should serve as a good starting point. Be sure to ask your advisor and three other faculty members for strong letters of recommendation. Get copies of their CVs from them to help you prepare your own CV and to determine whether this is someone from whom you would want a recommendation. Give them plenty of time to prepare a well-crafted letter.

Interview in person. Make sure you get an invitation to interview in person. Never accept a postdoctoral position solely on the basis of a telephone call. You want to take advantage of the opportunity to meet all the members of the lab in person.

Prepare for the interview by putting together a strong presentation. Since you will essentially be preparing your thesis presentation, this should be easy. The difference is that at an interview, your audience may not be as familiar with you or your advisor’s work. So, you may need to provide more background. Be ready to answer questions; this is a very important part of your presentation. Finally, practice, practice, practice to make sure your presentation will be spot-on. Nothing favors that outcome more than repetition. Ask your advisor and fellow graduate students to sit in on a practice session and provide you with feedback. Consider giving your presentation at a joint lab meeting or as an oral presentation at a conference (the SACNAS National Conference, for example).

Drs. Chris Blagden and Ivonne Vidal Pizarro met through their work for the National Postdoctoral Association. Chris did his postdoc at New York University School of Medicine. He is currently an associate program director at SciMed. Ivonne did a brief postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and is now a recruitment and diversity coordinator for Penn’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs.

1. Survey of Earned Doctorates, Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2005

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on page 20 of the Fall 2007 issue of SACNAS News. This article is used with the permission of SACNAS. A PDF version of the article can be downloaded here.

last updated 16-Feb-2010