Guest Post: Thoughts on “How to Get a Postdoc Position” Part I

Today’s guest post is brought to you by three post-docs:  Amy Boddy, PhD, Arizona State University,  Michelle Kline, PhD, Arizona State University & Simon Fraser University, and Hillary Lenfesty, PhD, Arizona State University

Part I. The what, why, and where’s of a postdoc position.

When we first spotted graduation on the horizon and realized, “OMG. I need a job!”, the realm of the postdoc was mysterious and opaque. What exactly is a postdoc? (Answer: Many things). Where are postdoc positions advertised? (Answer: Many places. Or sometimes nowhere.  Or sometimes they only exist if you create them). Can I just ask someone for a postdoc? (Answer: Yep…kinda.) When we each finally scored satisfying postdocs, we met women graduate students with all those same questions, had a chat about it, and decided that our answers could be useful more broadly. So, here they are.

Why you may want a postdoc

Postdocs are pretty standard in the physical sciences where it’s viewed as a necessary extension of Phd training, but postdocs are also becoming more common in the social sciences and the humanities. Why? It’s a little bit about the carrot and a little bit about the stick.

  • Postdocs are a way to get a paycheck for academic work while riding it out for another year on the job market.
  • Postdocs pay better (around $50k in 2015), and look better on your CV than another year in graduate school, or a year of adjunct teaching.
  • Postdocs can provide training in new skills (research, teaching and mentoring).
  • Postdocs can help you build research collaborations with a new lab or school.

A postdoc will also often allow you to do new stuff. You might have a much different research focus than what you studied during your Phd. You will likely live in a new town and meet new people who have thoughts and know things about academia that differ from what those in your grad school niche thought and knew. This can be fantastic even if you absolutely LOVED your graduate school. And, you get to do this while being gainfully employed. (YAY!) But without much job security. (BOO!) And, as in graduate school, your quality of life may very much depend on your PI’s expectations. (Yikes.)

As you may have already inferred, this is a system that is very difficult to navigate and succeed in, and even more so if your current situation does not match the assumed ‘ideal’ of being a single cis white male in good health, with no dependents, with a  glam paper or glam PI. Most of us humans have partners, children, or other dependents. We may have disabilities, debt (or at least not piles of extra money for moving expenses), or concerns that we are not safe living in some part of the country because of our identities – including gender, sexual orientation, race, and religion.

In choosing a postdoc, real life factors like this matter.  The often exceedingly casual, network-based modes of finding a postdoc, combined with the ever-tightening job market for tenure track and postdoc positions can result in only those with all possible advantages–those who are playing on ‘easy’–may be able to find employment that suits them.

We loathe that this is the case, and we want to change this. But in all likelihood this will not change before you need that postdoc to keep you employed on your venture to a tenure track job. So for now, we’re dealing with the world as it is and giving the best advice we can. And — when we are PI’s — we plan to push back against the inequities of the system. Giving advice on how to work within the existing system is a starting point for future change. In the next post, we hope to provide some tips for securing a postdoc that you feel safe in within a difficult and often biased system, and shed some light onto alternative options when you may be at a disadvantage.

Shop around for different kinds of postdocs

We keep saying that word postdoc. But it may not mean what you think it means. There’s quite a lot of variety even within academic postdoctoral positions, and much of it depends on – wait for it – where the money comes from.

There are three basic types of research-focused postdocs, all of which will vary a bit based on the funding agency and discipline:

  • Fellowships funded by a grant you’ve written (often in collaboration with your future PI). The NSF has Postdoctoral Fellowships which vary by Directorate. In the social sciences for example, these are focused on interdisciplinary and/or underrepresented minority applicants. The NIH also has Individual Fellowships at the graduate level. Some larger universities also have fellowships available, check out UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship (which emphasizes public service to women and other underrepresented minorities) or the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan for examples. Often for this kind of “fellowship” postdoc, you must work closely with a faculty PI to write the grant. This kind of postdoc is most amenable to pursuing semi-independent research, since you’re writing it yourself. This is a really good option for individuals that may not have the opportunity to move. You may be able to approach current faculty at your University to work with. Of course, this will be easier for applicants who have strong academic networks, or high prestige advisors or degrees. In the humanities, there are also similar 1-2 year “writing fellowships,” where the expectation is that you will transform your dissertation into a book. Most fellowship postdocs are recurring, established programs — you should search online, scope out others’ CVs, and ask around for which agencies or schools fund them in your field or topical focus.
  • Funded by someone else’s grant or start-up. These jobs are often for a particular role on a project that already exists, so there may be less room for your own independent research in comparison to a fellowship. Additionally, these typically have a time limit — somewhere from 1-5 years. It may include fieldwork, lab work, statistical analysis, etc. The common theme is that you’re hired to work on the PI’s projects, rather than your own work. These tend to be advertised from late winter through spring, because of the funding cycle; they also tend to circulate only on professional listservs or on social media, rather than through paid job ad sites where you’ll find most tenure track job ads. Seek out and join those listservs, and let advisors and colleagues know if you’re looking for a postdoc like this. Beware: these can be “workhorse” postdocs where your own career is sidelined and you become your PI’s statistician. Before accepting a position like this, it is a good idea to ask your prospective PI about the possibility for first authorship on a particular set of papers and/or how much freedom you will have to pursue your own work; even if these discussions are not binding.
  • Written into someone else’s grant. This is somewhere in-between the previous two: it’s funded by a grant, but it’s earmarked for you. You might have contributed ideas to the grant but are not a PI, and you may have some intellectual ownership over the projects you’re on. These aren’t advertised, but if you contact prospective PIs, you might get a chance to give early input on project and be brought on board without applying to an existing postdoc position. In any case, this operates on the same yearly funding cycle as most big grants, so if you want to pursue this option, keep in mind it’ll take months to write a grant, and at least a year for the funding to come through. Again, this kind of position will never be advertised. We have heard of people with this kind of postdoc funded via their grad school advisor, or after a lunch with a visiting speaker, or after chatting with their future PI at a conference bar. Email can’t take the place of in-person networking, but if you don’t have access to such opportunities, we suggest being extra-assertive about making email and skype contact. These positions won’t find you — you need to search them out in any way you can.

In addition to these fairly typical research postdocs, there are also teaching postdocs and postdocs that aren’t funded through universities. Again, the funding source matters because it changes the expectations and goals of your postdoc, which affects your career trajectory. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Teaching postdocs require teaching. Simple, right? Big nope. These can range from highly prestigious with a light course load and small class sizes, to more or less adjuncting by another name. Make sure to evaluate teaching postdocs carefully and make sure their expectations for teaching and research are in line with your career goals. If you ultimately want a career at a small liberal arts college or other teaching-focused institution, these can be a great option. They’re often advertised on job sites alongside tenure track jobs, or can be advertised on university webpages in the same way fellowship postdocs are. We have heard misguided graduate students refer to these as backups as if they are easy jobs to get, but with the current job market that is just not true. Pretty much every postdoc is going to be competitive, and less focus on research does not necessarily mean the job will be less competitive.
  • Think-tanks, industry, and other postdocs function to hire academics into public or private institutions. These may be associated with a university, and may even receive funding from some of the same agencies who fund university research. SESYNC, an NSF-funded center connected to the University of Maryland is a good example of this. In addition to “think-tanks”, postdoc positions may be available in industry or non-profit research (e.g., Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle), directed at scientific advances or public policy-making.  Some of these positions still allow you to pursue publications and would not be considered “getting out of the academic game,” while others might serve as good transitions out of academia.

So, perhaps you need or want to do a postdoc, and you’ve now got an idea of which type–or more likely, types!–you’ll apply for. The next step is to search out positions or funding sources, and go about securing a postdoc for yourself. We recommend doing this 1-2 years prior to graduation, especially if you have a flexible graduation timeline (talk to your advisors about speeding up or slowing down depending on job prospects). For that next step, stay tuned for Part II: Tips for securing a postdoc.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Thoughts on “How to Get a Postdoc Position” Part I

  1. “Why you may want a postdoc” … I wish I wanted to do one, but it’s more like I had no choice and had to do one (being in the physical sciences). Being a postdoc is a lot different than I thought it would be like when I was in grad school. The lack of job security is so stressful – as even though I do have a couple of years of funding, if my postdoc is not productive, I don’t know where that leaves me. The moving to a new place – I thought would be fun like in grad school, but ended up being more stressful, as there’s less time to go out and meet new friends. Because as a postdoc you are essentially working three jobs – 1) your current paid job under your postdoc PI, 2) your loose strings of your PhD finishing a paper here-or-there and answering emails from former grad student colleagues and PhD advisor, and 3) your future job of preparing job materials, reading up on research for a field you can join independently after your postdoc, etc.. It took me 14 months to find my postdoc position using the funding methods mentioned above – it’s quite a catch-22 to shop for one without funding available. You can’t write a personal grant without having a PI sponsor you and a PI may not want you unless you have your own funding. It’s just crazy it took that long for the stress that this job entails.

  2. I actually think being written into someone else’s grant is a better option than applying for post-doc fellowships if you don’t want to move. The fellowships with which I’m familiar, especially the ones from NSF, pay close attention to the kind of new training that the fellow is getting. If someone is proposing to stay with their graduate mentor — or even at their graduate institution, with a different mentor, perhaps even in a different department — it is difficult to make the case that they’re obtaining new training that they could not have gotten as a grad student.

  3. your mileage will vary re: salary, depending on field and funding source. $50k? I wish…I’ve been post docing for 3 years and never made more than $36k, often less

  4. Parts I and II of this series are a fabulous overview of ways to think about and maneuver the postdoctoral pursuit. It should be a handbook for every graduate student. Cheers.

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