The Pro’s & Con’s of Being a PostDoc:

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The Postdoc: Purgatory or Prize?

If you are ABD and in the sciences, you may be thinking of applying for a postdoctoral position. Many science graduates pursue this route. I myself had a postdoctoral appointment for one year at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, which was funded by the Brain Research Institute. Although fewer postdocs exist for humanities grads, they are certainly a viable option. For example, in 1998 only 4% of Ph.D. recipients in economics went on to postdocs.

What are the advantages of taking a postdoctoral position? Are there any disadvantages? How can you make sure that the postdoc you choose is the right one for you?

A recent survey of 7600 postdocs* helps provide some of the answers. My thanks to alert reader Andrew Clark, who describes himself as “ABD for 6 years, yet persistently finishing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering & applied physics at Cornell on the physics of space plasmas,” for alerting me to this publication.

Postdoc Pro’s

Let’s look at the advantages of a postdoctoral position:

  • It will provide you with time to publish your dissertation

  • You will have few teaching or administrative responsibilities, freeing you not only to publish, but to pursue further research

  • In the case of psychology, a postdoc will provide the hours you need for licensure

  • You will receive additional training or mentoring

  • You will have time, training and opportunity to write a grant

  • You will have time to send in numerous job applications

  • Some postdocs are renewed, so you may have a place to park yourself while you enjoy the above advantages, and wait for a better job market in your area

  • You will have more time to think through what you want to do with your career

Postdoc Con’s

  • You may not earn as much money as you would as an assistant professor (in the sciences, the median is $38,000.)

  • You may not be given benefits

  • You are not guaranteed to get the mentoring or training you need

  • Some postdoctoral positions are really set up to take advantage of the postdoc as a teaching or researching workhorse.

  • You may get stuck in a holding pattern for a number of years

  • You might not get the level of independence that you wish (i.e. you may have to pursue your advisor’s research interests)

  • As a foreign student, there may be visa issues

Procuring Postdoctoral Perfection

I had to work a long time to create that subtitle, so I hope you appreciate it. Well, there is no perfection in the world, but there are some factors to look for in your prospective postdoctoral position:

  • Make sure the potential postdoc has some kind of structured program. One thing you can look for right off the bat is the first letter from the institution – does it spell out the advisor’s responsibilities?

  • Look at the formal training that you will receive – is it what you need and want? In the survey, 43% did not consider their postdoc to be professional training.

  • Who will be your advisor? You want someone who will help you work out a specific action plan in the beginning, and who will provide you with mentoring and regular, formal feedback. In the survey, only 24% considered their advisors to be mentors.

  • Is there any flexibility in the program? For example, if you are dissatisfied, can you switch into a different research group?

  • Will you get guidance and training in applying for grants and other aspects of administering scientific labs?

  • Will you truly be given adequate time to write up your research for publication?

If you do get a postdoctoral position, you can be proud – it’s like winning a national competition. If you’re thinking of applying for one, make sure you check out the deadlines. They are often different than the deadlines for jobs, because they follow grant schedules. Keep yourself up to date on the various grants and fellowships that are available.

With some perspicacious pugnacity, your putative postdoc will perhaps provide a plethora of positive paybacks! (I hope the English students and professors are no longer reading this.)

*”Doctors Without Orders” (from Special Supplement to American Scientist, May-June 2005, Highlights of the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey*. Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society,)
Principal investigator: Geoff Davis


© Gina Hiatt, PhD.
Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully. Get Gina’s free assessments & ezine at

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