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The Postdoc Path: Understanding the Value of a Postdoc Before You Commit
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Irina Tiper and Ian Street

 

Deciding whether or not to pursue a postdoctoral position is not always a simple decision. A great deal of consideration is needed to determine whether a postdoc will be a step in the right direction towards achieving your career goals. A postdoc is generally a short-term research position that provides further training in a particular field, and for individuals planning research careers in academia, government, or industry, the postdoc years can be an opportunity to develop independence, hone technical skills, and focus research interests. For many, however, the value of a postdoc is not so clear. The rewards of postdoctoral work are usually not financial, and a postdoc might not provide an experiential gain for some career pathways.

 

Melanie Sinche, PhD, director of education at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine and the author of Next Gen PhD, conducted a survey of over 8,000 PhD scientists on the value of the postdoc. She noted that, while most respondents stated that a PhD was required for their current position, only 40 percent said that a postdoctoral position was either required or preferred. In a separate survey by Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach, a majority of graduate students in life sciences (79 percent) planned to pursue a postdoc, as did about half of those in non-life science programs. Seventy-two percent of students in the life sciences and 42 percent in non-life science fields “believed that at least one year of postdoc training was required” for industry positions.

 

Is the pursuit of a postdoc largely a fallback plan for graduate students because of the strong influence of academic culture? It might seem the obvious path for students after watching their research groups hire postdocs fresh out of graduate schools and hearing classmates pursuing a similar path. In his article for Vitae, Terry McGlynn, PhD, professor of biology at California State University-Dominguez Hills writes, “For scientists who have not developed a reliable employment avenue… a postdoc is the default route, even if it’s not heading in the most fruitful professional trajectory.” He argues that graduate students should make a clear career plan and determine whether a postdoc aligns with their goals. For help in making that plan and exploring career options, he recommends students seek the advice of mentors as well as career planning services at their universities. The NPA also has a list of articles and resources that can aid in this decision.

 

The ideal postdoc experience lasts “for a limited time before transitioning to a full-time research position, often as a tenure-track faculty member,” according to a report titled The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, published by the National Academies. In examining the evolution of the postdoc, the report notes: “Although the value of postdoctoral researchers to the conduct of research remains clear, the value of this experience became questionable for many postdoctoral researchers.”

 

In hindsight, many professionals realize that the postdoc experience was not essential for their career paths, but it may bring them to important realizations. Karen Kaplan, an editor for the careers section of Nature, highlighted the experiences of physicist Björn Flatt, who pursued a postdoc in hopes of becoming an academic physicist. Ultimately, his experiences led him to conclude that his postdoc was “neither crucial for building his research portfolio nor obligatory for landing his permanent position.” His permanent position was not an academic one and the postdoc experience helped him conclude that the academic career path was not for him.

 

The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited highlights many important facts about the current research environment. Perhaps the most crucial is that the number of postdocs currently receiving training far outweighs the number of available academic faculty positions. The report remains impartial, noting the importance of a postdoctoral experience for landing academic careers. However, the argument that a postdoc is needed for other career paths is dismantled, with the report noting that rising PhDs will reap benefits from alternate work experiences. Reflecting on these findings, Beryl Lieff Benderly, a Science Careers columnist and contributing editor, states, “The report’s authors are clear on one point: The notion of the postdoc as the ‘default step’ after the PhD must end.” If choosing to pursue paths beyond academia, graduate students and postdocs can seek internships in areas such as science communications or technology transfer. Overall, internships provide alternate work experiences, helping PhDs explore job options beyond research.

 

Having a career plan at an early stage is crucial for determining whether postdoctoral work will be an important career stepping stone. Students finishing their PhDs should be willing question whether it fits into their overall career goals. While it may be tempting to postpone important career choices and pursue a postdoctoral position as the path of least resistance, your career will likely not benefit from the delay. Being intentional in your career choices takes effort but will pay dividends in the long run.

 

Irina V. Tiper, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Food and Drug Administration and an associate editor for The POSTDOCket.

 

Ian H. Street, PhD, is a virtual lab manager at Happilabs, a freelance editor, science writer and editor of The Quiet Branches Blog, and associate editor for The POSTDOCket

 

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