From the Science Student Council

Have you thought about a postdoc?

A guide to finding — or creating — the perfect postdoctoral position.

By Jenna R. Cummings

Many of you are committed to becoming faculty at a research-oriented university. Some of you are so committed that you will begin applying for faculty positions during your final year of graduate school. Although you will certainly have grown tremendously throughout your graduate studies and may be looking forward to obtaining a “real job,” tap on the brakes of your career car for just a moment. Have you considered first doing postdoctoral (postdoc) research?

Why Should You Do a Postdoc?

There are a number of reasons why a postdoc can be a beneficial experience, but the number one reason: it makes you a more competitive job candidate. This is straight from the words of University of California, Los Angeles, psychology professors who spoke on a recent academic job markets panel — however, you would hear this from faculty at any research university. Faculty search committees make hiring decisions based on a wide variety of criteria, but a critical question of any candidate is: Does this individual have a strong research trajectory? That is, does she/he have publications, a program of research, a history of receiving funding and a future direction for her/his research? Luckily, a postdoc can help you accomplish all of these things.

A postdoctoral research position usually has no teaching or service requirements and thus allows you to devote more time to research than a traditional faculty position. Remember those gap years you might have taken between undergraduate and graduate school? Postdoc time is sort of like that, in that it gives you time and flexibility to work toward your goals. You are funded solely for research. You usually have no teaching requirements, no courses you are required to take and no comprehensive exams. A postdoc also gives you the chance to refine your interests and build your program of research. For example, say you spent most of your time in graduate school working on a project that you ended up hating. You now have the opportunity to revitalize your interests by incorporating new topics into your research. Finally, although not common, you may be invited to transition into a tenure track position at the same institution at which you do your postdoc.

What Opportunities Should You Be Looking For?

So here’s the tricky part: How do you decide what postdoc opportunities to seek out? This will put you back into a position much like a graduate school applicant, except with fewer options. That is, you will not be able to apply unless there is a position (aka funding) available. The good news is that you can take leadership in creating a postdoc opportunity (described in next section). Before embarking on that mission, you should have a clear idea of what type of position you are looking for.

Here are a few pieces of advice for this potentially daunting task. For starters, you can talk to your graduate advisor. Most often she or he is able to see your research from a holistic perspective and suggest areas that you can continue to develop. Your advisor also likely has established connections with researchers who run labs in which you could potentially work as a postdoc. Next, review your curriculum vitae (CV) and look at faculty CVs who have your dream position. What are some differences (beyond the fact that their CV will likely be much longer than yours)? For example, perhaps researchers in your dream position all have published in medical journals, but you have yet to do that. Then, you might want to do a postdoc in a medical research institute.

Importantly, think about your research questions. Are there any methodologies that you want to add to your repertoire? A postdoc is an excellent time to acquire advanced skills that can improve your research, such as fMRI, advanced statistical techniques, endocrinology, immunology or behavioral genetics.

A final piece of advice is to think about the topic of the questions you want to answer: Who are the leaders in that topic area? How can your work synergize with theirs? 

How Do You Get Funded and Create Positions?

A few lucky graduate students will see an advertisement for an available postdoctoral position, send in their CV and will be offered the position following an interview. The advantage here is that you do not have to secure the funding yourself. A drawback, however, can be that you have less flexibility in what research you will be working on. Be sure to read the position thoroughly and ask a lot of questions on your interview if this is a concern of yours. Check out Postdoc Jobs and Psychology Job Wiki.

For those who want to create a position with a specific faculty member, you will need to reach out to that faculty member first. The best way to accomplish this is by sending an initial email to express interest. Following this contact, you can attempt to meet for lunch at a conference or schedule an informational phone interview. It is never too early to start these connections.

Additionally, conferences are a great opportunity for postdoc networking. Some conferences may even have systems in place to help you connect, so be sure to check them out. For example, the American Psychosomatic Society conference has a hors d’oeuvres hour that you can sign up for and get one-on-one time with faculty. The Research Society on Alcoholism has a sticker system where you put a certain color sticker on your name badge that lets others know that you are looking for a postdoc position. Faculty searching for a postdoc also put a color sticker on their badge to let you know they want a researcher to fill a postdoc position. 

There are several public and private sources that you can use to fund your own postdoc. This often requires writing an application and can be competitive, but allows you to pursue your own interests and provides funding even when the faculty member does not have funding for you. These opportunities include the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology, American Psychological Association, and other government, foundation and professional organizations. Check out Science Careers for an extensive database. 

How Does This Affect You When You Are Applying For Jobs?

You may be wondering how completing a postdoc will fit into your career timeline. The average postdoc runs two to five years. It is common to apply for a postdoc position during your final year of graduate school and begin shortly after graduating. The length of your postdoc will depend on what you hope to accomplish during your employment, the terms of the agreement with your postdoctoral mentor and your long-term career goals. Some people will apply for academic positions during their first year as a postdoc. Others love the postdoc so much that they secure funding for a few more years and stay there. It’s a very flexible time that you can use to improve your research skills and enhance your abilities to publish high-impact research. Although one-year postdocs exist, these are often not ideal because they require you to apply for another job right when you start the position, due to the timing of the application cycle. Usually this is not enough time to maximize the benefits of a postdoc.

As a final note, don’t fret if you are offered a faculty job before your postdoc is finished. Many universities will allow you to defer your appointment by one or two semesters/quarters so that you can finish up with your postdoc. They’ll be willing to do that because they know how crucial a postdoc can be in turning you into a spectacular researcher and faculty member.

About the Author

Jenna R. Cummings Jenna R. Cummings is the health psychology representative on the APA Student Science Council. She is a third-year graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles.