Mobile: The Postdoc Path: Spurring Growth


Ian Street and Irina Tiper


The first article of this series explored factors for graduate students to consider before pursuing a postdoc. This article takes a look at how postdocs can leverage their experiences and networks to continue growing professionally.


A postdoctoral scholar position is now a core part of academic career growth. In many academic disciplines, a postdoc is a step toward a faculty position, designed to build new skills and develop an independent research program to take onto the tenure track. The “optimal” academic career trajectory entails the postdoc working hard for several years, keeping focused on research. Eventually, the postdoc becomes a faculty member, advancing their field, and gaining recognition as a respected member of the scholarly community.


Achieving this career goal often means staying in postdoctoral appointments for many years. Many mid- and late-stage postdocs remain committed to that goal, while others realize that career satisfaction may lie along another path.


Preparing for what’s next


If you’ve remained a postdoc for more than two years, a career in academia is likely a primary goal, and staying active in research is certainly a major part of the process. Expect the job search to take a while and a lot of work. New faculty memberJeremy Yoder has the data: Over the course of several years, he submitted 112 applications, leading to three offers.Erin Sparks’ story of her ultimately successful two-year academic job search has good advice too. She learned much between her first and second years on the market. Being a mid-stage postdoc can be an ideal time to pursue a research faculty position, as illustrated by Yoder’s and Sparks’ years-long job searches.


Research supervisors, academic colleagues, and professional societies can provide advice for a successful academic job search. However, there aren’t enough faculty jobs or even staff scientist positions for postdocs currently seeking them. As postdocs get a better sense of what tenure-track faculty or equivalent positions entail, they may find that their skills, interests, and values better align with other career opportunities. Postdocs at any stage aren’t stuck, but after dedicating years to a path, it can feel that way.


For postdocs no longer pursuing the academic path, the earlier they start preparing for different career trajectories, the more value they may get from their postdoc experiences. It takes time to figure it out. The question becomes one of how best to leverage the transferable skills gained through research experience as a mid-stage postdoc. It’s usually not a linear process but away finding problem of identifying new potential career paths based on previous and current experiences. A mid-stage postdoc likely has a sense of what they do and do not want out of a career and can start designing possible paths from there. Online resources are available to postdocs working to change career paths. For PhDs in the sciences, there are NIH’s BEST website, MySciCareer, myIDP, and the NPA Career Planning Resources. ImaginePhD is a new tool for those in the humanities and social sciences. VersatilePhD offers resources across all disciplines.


Mid-stage postdocs can and need to develop new skills and the language used to describe them in different fields. These skills might be acquired through extracurricular pursuits like serving in the local postdoc association or other committees, teaching, taking courses, volunteering, or even freelancing. However, there are ways to extend your skills from inside the lab as well. Learning to manage the lab’s finances and resources, becoming an editor for your colleague’s manuscripts and grant proposals, or learning to care for and manage instrumentation in the department are all transferable skills.


Acquiring a diverse set of mentors both in and outside of academia is also valuable for opening. Mentors can help identify marketable skills and potential career tracks. Career planning with a mentor (or a group of them) still applies whether starting a second postdoc or extending a first appointment.


Coping with challenges


Many mid-stage postdocs have pursued an academic career through multiple short-term appointments, in some regions, even moving institutions every year or so. Ideally, continuing in academia would spur growth for these postdocs. However, a series of lateral moves often doesn’t allow sufficient time to fully develop skills or independence. Conversely, inertia of staying in the same lab for a long time can stall a career.


There is a large community of postdocs (as well as other current and former academics) who have experienced these challenges first hand. If you are struggling with these career choices, it can be worthwhile, professionally and personally, to reach out to other individuals who can offer advice and support. Mid-stage postdocs may well be at the most risk of feeling stagnant and stuck, but it’s not inevitable.


Francis Dolan was in his ninth year as a postdoc when he died by suicide in 2011. His death recently came to broader light when his friend Oliver Rolston dedicated an academic publication to him. The article was rejected by several journals, not because of the science, but because of the acknowledgements section. Rolston states, “The psychological brutality of the post-doctoral [sic] system played a strong underlying role in Francis’ death.” The discussions it spurred demonstrate that the challenges faced by many mid-stage postdocs are systemic and very real. This is on top of the everyday challenges associated with performing research. Not becoming isolated and finding a supportive community can be crucial in navigating these often difficult years.


There is value to what years of postdoctoral experience can provide, even if it is learning that an academic career is no longer desired. Postdocs have skills and identities beyond the lab or office, and these can be acquired, honed, and applied elsewhere. The potential for growth and exploration is always there, even if not at first obvious. Curiosity and introspection—common traits in a postdoc—can be the keys to a rewarding career, inside or out of academia.


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/editor of The Quiet Branches blog, and an associate editor for The POSTDOCket.


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