PART 1: So You Wanna Be a Postdoc?

Congratulations on finishing your PhD! What’s next? You no doubt have a number of research ideas and directions that interest you. How do you want to pursue your research interests? Or do you want to shift gears entirely and work towards a different career than you had not considered previously?

As you think about how to move forward in your career, postdoctoral training may be helpful, required, or unnecessary. How do you decide? Postdoctoral training should not define your career, your career should define your postdoc. A key element to remember is that a postdoc is temporary; it is a means to an end (that end being your career) and is not always necessary to get to where you want to go.

There are a few steps to the process of deciding on a postdoc experience and considerations along the way, which we will walk through in this 5-part series.

Base Postdoc Choices on Desired Career Outcomes

Research is the central driving force in postdoctoral training, so if you do not have a research question, or a suite of them, about which you feel passionate and cannot wait to pursue further, you might consider another path to your career of choice. Your central research question(s) will be the core of what sustains you through your postdoctoral training. If you are not driven to pursue a research question, you should consider not doing a postdoc.

Start with what you expect to do after your postdoc. What kinds of projects match your scientific interests and support that outcome? If you intend to do anything other than a faculty role, you should seriously consider going straight to your next career step after completing a Ph.D., or structuring a postdoc project around a specific outcome that can be achieved in a short period of time and would significantly impact your job prospects in your desired field and position.

A 2017 study shows that postdoctoral training does not enhance long-term financial outcomes in any career trajectory other than tenure track faculty. In other words, it’s not necessarily beneficial for you to do a postdoc if you are not planning to become a faculty member. Taking the time to determine the necessity of a postdoc may save you several years of training which may not translate to additional financial benefits.

If you are planning to pursue a faculty role, think carefully about what type of institution and faculty role fits your interests, as this should inform your postdoctoral training choices. Take for example a Stanford faculty position: successful candidates will have developed as a thought leader in their research area and benefitted from employing bold new approaches that are by definition high-risk high-reward in their postdoctoral research. A PUI faculty role, on the other hand, might emphasize teaching and mentoring skills, which, together with a strong publication record, might be most quickly obtained by expanding on one’s graduate work while developing other relevant skills. In both cases, your postdoctoral research project and training plans should include developing new skills, trying new approaches, and/or expanding to new models, while also gaining other professional skills that support your next career steps. To what degree you would embrace unknown challenges and take risks, versus developing a strong-but-steady research portfolio, can be a strategic choice that allows you to design the right projects and choose the right mentor(s) and training environment, so you can get the most out of your postdoc and move on as efficiently and successfully as possible.

It’s perfectly reasonable to still be deciding, and it’s likely you may not have had time or energy to think about next steps. Not only is this okay, but it’s quite normal for someone coming out of a PhD program to still be considering the many career options before them. If you decide to do a postdoc without a clear purpose for that training, structure the postdoc to allow you to do plenty of exploration early and use the remainder of your postdoc strategically once you have a more clear direction. In Part 2 we will continue this discussion about discernment, and provide information on how to think about the research focus for your postdoc.