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Postdoctoral Research

Steve C. Hempleman, PhD

Finding a Science Postdoc

For many new science PhDs, although by no means all, an important step after graduation is a postdoctoral research position or fellowship. The postdoc is a time of intense research effort, often in a high-profile research program with a respected and successful scientist. A good postdoc that is fruitful in the products listed below can launch your research career. A poor postdoc lacking these products may stall or end it. Therefore, a postdoc is a critical time in your research career training and should be taken seriously.

The goals of a postdoc are:

  1. to perform, author, and publish high quality work to show your ability as a developing independent scientist,
  2. to learn state-of-the art techniques to advance your career,
  3. to network with other scientists through presentations at scientific meetings, new collaborations, and recommendations from your postdoctoral mentor, and
  4. to make yourself more marketable for a career in research academia.

In academic research science, the coin of the realm is publication of high-quality innovative work in respected peer-reviewed journals. A good postdoc almost always results in such products.

Is the postdoc path right for you?
Postdocs are most appropriate for early-stage scientists with career objectives in research academia, i.e., becoming a professor at a research university. This career path places great value on high quality and productive postdoctoral experiences. Nowadays the majority of PhDs in many scientific fields are finding rewarding and stimulating employment outside research-intensive academia, such as in full-time teaching or administrative careers at the K–12 through college level, governmental science, science-oriented business (technology, pharmaceuticals, etc.), regulatory affairs, non-governmental organizations, and freelance work. These career paths do not necessarily require traditional postdoctoral training, but a postdoc doesn't hurt your chances either. So in the interest of efficiency, you should investigate what is recommended for your particular career goals before choosing to become a postdoc.

Where to look...
Postdoctoral positions are advertised in general academic science publications like Science, Nature, and Chronicle of Higher Education. They are also advertised in publications in your area of scientific specialization like Physics Today, Physiologist, etc. Internet search engines are useful for finding advertised postdoctoral opportunities associated with the keywords of your research area. Word-of-mouth among colleagues (the grapevine) remains a traditional avenue for announcing postdoctoral opportunities. You may also write your own inquiries to respected scientists in your field, including your CV, names of references, and statement of interest in their research program, to ask about possible postdoctoral positions.

If you are not yet a student member of your professional society, join. Postdoctoral announcements are routinely broadcast by listserv to all society members. Attend scientific meetings as a student and present your research. Ask your major professor to introduce you to his/her colleagues. This is a prime venue for talking to prominent scientists and inquiring about postdoc opportunities. Talk to the current postdocs and students of scientists who are recruiting new postdocs to find out what life is like working in that scientist's lab. Sign up in advance for job fairs at scientific meetings, which try to match students with postdoc mentors or other job recruiters.

Are postdocs hard to find?
It requires diligence. A good postdoc position with a supportive, prominent scientist is harder to find than an undistinguished postdoc, but in any case the competition is not as keen as that for a tenure-track academic position. Successful research operations, the kind where you want to be a postdoc, usually have sufficient money to hire a steady stream of postdocs (they're successful, right?). Operating a successful research program requires the types of skills you bring to the table or can quickly learn—if you are a strong postdoc candidate.

However, getting a good postdoc requires learning as much as you can about the scientific style and atmosphere of the lab you are considering. Talk to colleagues and current students or alumni of the prospective lab. Styles of postdoctoral advisors range from nurturing and motherly to unapproachable, authoritarian, and absent (due to continuous travel of the famous scientist to meetings, etc). There are positives and negatives to each style. What will work for you?

I applied for postdocs, and now I have a few offers. How do I decide?
The following is a useful checklist for evaluating postdoc possibilities quoted from "The Perfect Postdoc: A Primer" by Jim Austin in Science Career Magazine, from the journal Science. (The rest of his article is great, too).

You can use the following checklist to assess your offers.

  • Respect and professional conduct from your postdoc mentor, now and in the future.
  • A reasonable paycheck and benefits, including, especially, health insurance for you and your family. You may have to pay extra to get family coverage, but they should have access to a subsidized group plan.
  • Good publications and appropriate authorship status.
  • Money to travel to conferences and opportunities to network and present your work.
  • A degree of independence, especially in the later years of your postdoc.
  • Strong letters of recommendation (assuming you earn them by doing good work).
  • Training and experience in grant writing, paper writing, lab management, and other career skills.
  • The opportunity to take some of your postdoctoral work with you when you achieve independence.

A couple of these points require some explanation:

Authorship: If you did the work, it is reasonable to expect that you will have the opportunity to write the paper. If you did the work and wrote the paper, then you should be first author.

Taking work with you:
Some principle investigators are very liberal here; others are stingy. Don't expect too much and be willing to negotiate.

In an ideal world, you'd get a formal offer letter that would spell out lab policies on these matters. In the real world, this isn't very likely: not, anyway, for the less tangible issues such as authorship and independence. You certainly have a right to expect—but may not get—an offer letter that spells out benefits, holidays, and work-schedule expectations.

Steven Hempleman

In summary:
The postdoctoral period is an exciting time for a new research scientist. If your career goals involve research academia, then the time you spend looking for the right postdoc will be time well-spent and an important contribution to a memorable part of your early scientific life.

—Steve C. Hempleman, Professor of Biological Sciences

 Acknowledgements: Dr. David Pierotti (NAU Biology) and Dr. Jason Pilarski (UA School of Medicine) provided valuable input for this article.