Wikipedia defines a Postdoctoral Researcher (postdoc for short) “a person professionally conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies… The ultimate goal of a postdoctoral research position is to pursue additional research, training, or teaching in order to have better skills to pursue a career in academia, research, or other fields.”
I feel like this is a pretty good definition. If you are getting a PhD and want to stay in academia and do research or teach at a larger school you need to do a postdoc. You can also use this time to learn new skills and enhance your research toolkit so you can be more well-rounded for a future in research, industry, analytics, etc…
Those of you who are reading this post are likely aware of the job prospects of postdocs and anyone trying to make it in academia. The number of postdocs in academia has increased dramatically since 2000 (+150% in the US since then) while the number of tenured faculty is shrinking worldwide (for various reasons). Something like 20% of all postdocs actually attain a tenure-track faculty position. But if you’re anything like me, you are already pumped to try out a postdoc and see how life in academia suits you…
(If you want to explore alternative careers outside of academia I strongly encourage it. I am considering my options both in and out of academe. You have skills that can make you valuable in many arena. If you don’t agree with that last statement or want help with your journey I encourage you to get in touch with the folks at From PhD to Life/ Beyond the Professoriate).
Now we know what a postdoc is and we know what the jobs market is like (reminder: not great) so let’s move on to how to get one!
How to Get a Postdoc (or, some tips I picked up along the way):
1.) Apply for postdoctoral fellowships
As you might expect, you can get a fellowship that will pay your salary and in some cases you can also get some research or travel money. This is ideal as when you have your own money it is easier to get a position. If you are in a biology field take a look at these lists linked below! There are tons of fellowships around the world.
2.) Want to teach? Seek out teaching or 1/2 teaching programs
If you are passionate about teaching and want to work at a liberal arts or teaching college then take a look at all of the programs that are focused on teaching. Searching “teaching postdoc” may help. UNC has a program called SPIRE that is 75% research and 25% teaching. There are many similar programs around the country (sponsored by NIH). You can find a list here.
3.) Future Faculty Programs
These programs are great! They seek postdocs who would work well in collaboration with labs that already exist at an individual institution. If you are interdisciplinary or have strong collaborators somewhere you should look into these types of programs. They provide professional development to train you for a faculty position at the host institution or elsewhere. Often time, there is no guarantee of a tenure-track job offer after the program, but they still look good on your CV and provide you with skills and training that you might not get otherwise. Availability varies by institution.
4.) NOT ALL POSTDOCS ARE ADVERTISED!
This is so true, especially if you are able to bring in your own funding or at least apply for it. I have a hard time just contacting people out of the blue, but sometimes that can be valuable. If there is someone you really want to work with try contacting them about doing a postdoc. The worst they can do is say no (or ignore you), but if you are in academia you are already used to this ( 😦 ). Anyway, talk about writing an NSF postdoc together or apply for some other form of funding. Ask them if they are interested and what kinds of funding they have available and then see what you need to do to secure funding. Make sure you come armed with ideas though! You are a collaborator and more or less a peer in this relationship so prove that you are an independent researcher and bring some ideas to the table!
5.) Professional society emails, listservs, etc.
I see tons of postdoc ads on Ecolog and Coral-list. Join these or join others that are relevant to your field to see postings. Note, these postings will be seen by thousands of people, so they may be competitive but it can’t hurt!
6.) Be flexible
This one is hard for me because I am trying to stay at my current institution until my wife finishes her PhD. We are both academics and accept that some sort of nomadic two body problem lies in our future, but we are determined to try our best to stay physically in the same place as much as possible. This means we are making huge lists of options for postdocs and faculty/industry jobs and cross-referencing them to figure out what locations work best for us. I encourage you to do the same, even if you are on your own. There is life outside of work so make sure you are willing to live wherever you are applying for jobs. Otherwise, look broadly. Postdocs can be as short as 1 year so spread those wings and try something new! It’s a stressful process but you get to explore new and exciting work and try new things. Just don’t forget to take care of yourself along the way.
I hope this list is helpful to some of you. Happy hunting! If you have more resources that you want to share please comment or get in touch with me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).