By Felix Moser
In this post, I examine the “postdoc” as a step in a young scientist’s career. A “postdoc”, or one’s time as a Postdoctoral Associate in a lab, is traditionally the phase of a scientist’s career immediately after graduate school that precedes a career in academia. But due to sparse availability of faculty positions and plentiful PhDs produced by graduate schools every year, a career in academia is no longer a realistic option for the vast majority of new PhDs. In the face of this fact, does doing a postdoc make sense? When is it valuable for a new PhD to pursue a postdoc?
There are essentially four reasons to do a postdoc:
1) Because you want to.
2) To get additional training (even though you may not want or need it).
3) To prepare for the next step.
4) Your PI kicked you out and the coffee shop next door ain’t hiring.
The first reason is perhaps the most obvious and least acknowledged. Many people take postdoctoral positions simply because they like the features of such a position. Because we scientists and engineers are driven primarily by our curiosity, we tend to want to learn new things. So, getting additional training outside of our graduate field is exciting to us. Some people relish to opportunity to hone their skillset. Others get excited about a particular project, lab, or location. Some people simply love the freedom of the academic environment, and, barring available faculty or scientist positions, find the postdoc as the easiest way to extend their time in academia. Looking only at these features, a postdoc may seem like a great job. Unfortunately, with a pay of ~$40k/year, the risk of a bad PI, poor funding, or bad project, and slim chance at career advancement in academia, these features come at some cost.
The second reason to do a postdoc, additional training, is typically the official one given by academic institutions and companies who won’t hire people straight out of grad school. Even the lucky few who get hired to faculty straight out of grad school are often asked to postdoc in another lab for a year to round out their experience. Part of the reasoning for the additional training is that science is so much bigger and complex now than it was ~30 years ago that it simply requires more experience in different subjects to really produce someone that can lead a research program. The unofficial reasoning is market forces. In a market where there is no shortage of excellent people WITH postdoc experience, why hire someone without it?
The advantages to additional training are obvious. Developing skills and knowledge complementary to your current skill/knowledge set should add to your value as a scientist. You’ll be more likely to build bridges between fields and carry out true innovation. You should become a stronger analyst and problem-solver by learning new systems, different methods, and new lines of thought. However, some drawbacks should be acknowledged. An old adage about young scientists maintains that “they don’t know what can’t be done”. Someone who has been around the block a few times might know the neighborhood very well, but they might be less inclined to head into a new part of town. Also, not all training is equally effective or useful.
The third reason to do a postdoc is to prepare for the next step in your career. The postdoc should position you for the job you want after. Because of this, you should tailor your postdoc to land the job you want. Regardless of whether you are targetting an academic or industry positions, plentiful innovative research, publications, and excellent communication are a must.
If you want to become a professor, a successful postdoctoral period is a cornerstone of your application. Unless you’ve had an exceptional graduate career, don’t bother applying for faculty without at least one postdoc under your belt. The postdoc is in part considered a time in which you are thought to be skilled enough to be fairly independent. Hence, it is a type of trial period for you as an independent researcher and a glimpse at what you would be like as a group leader.
BE faculty have told me that the most important thing for a postdoc is to “make your project your own.” This speaks to the independence and ability that’s expected of an academic researcher to develop their own science and put together a compelling story. A really successful postdoc will take a project idea and develop it in a way that is characteristically their own, so when people read your published work, they will link its ideas to you. A successful postdoc will set your faculty application apart from the 200+ others an institution will receive. It will do so foremost in 1) ability to publish excellent science, 2) creative, thought-out ideas, and 3) the ability to tell a compelling story (translates into good grantsmanship). Even with these, an excellent rec letter is required to seal the deal. The rec letter, like any networking connection, should be from a recognized and trusted PI. If this comes across as a sort of “good ol’ boy” network, that’s because it is. When there are 200 CV’s on the table, 10% of which excel in #’s 1-3, the one that’s picked will likely be on someone’s recommendation. Because of this, an academic postdoc is best done for a PI who is well-respected in the field in which you intend to become faculty.
To tailor your postdoc for an industrial positions, there are some things to keep in mind. For one thing, the rec letter doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does when you’re applying for jobs in academia. Industry mostly cares that you can do your job well and less so about what your PI thinks of you. Also, the PI may not be well known in industry, despite stardom in academia. You should also be mindful that some industry positions require specific skills which, if you lack them, you should seek to acquire during the postdoc.
The length of a postdoc that prepares you for an industry job is another key difference. Depending on your goals for an industry job, the postdoc can be more flexible in length. If, for example, you are looking to postdoc solely to learn a skill-set, then you should call the postdoc complete as soon as that skillset is learned and a job is secured. If your goal is ANY job, then the postdoc is merely a stepping stone. Once that first job is locked down, you’re done. The postdoctoral advisor should be kept in the loop at all times, however. You don’t want to burn a bridge with a connection that could be a great help to you later.
Doing a postdoc for preparation for an industrial job may lead to some friction with the academic advisor. Old-timey measures of success value placing students and postdocs in academic positions. An industry position is considered a failure. This is an antiquated attitude and any advisors that retain or propagate it should be avoided, if not confronted. Their perceived interests are completely misaligned with that of the postdoc seeking an industry position, and the postdoc should not expect support from them. Advisors that are supportive of your goals, whatever they are, should be sought after. However, it is up to the postdoc to be as clear with the advisor as possible about their goals. The key is to be proactive and open in communicating with the advisor.
Industrial postdoc positions should be approached with special caution. If you are angling for a faculty position, you want to make sure an industrial postdoc will allow you to publish. Be aware that if and what you publish is often strictly controlled. The company IP lawyers may very well veto any publication that divulges sensitive information. If you are angling for a permanent position in the company, you should get explicit confirmation that similar positions have in the past led to permanent hires. Try to find and talk to people who previously completed postdocs with the company. The worst industrial postdoc programs (may also be called “internships”) are simply ways to get a scientist on the cheap. These may string you along for years without any promotion and offer little real security. Also be wary of signing a “non-compete” agreement. These agreements will bind you legally from working in your field outside of the company. Because scientists are typically highly specialized, resigning your right to employ your skill set outside of one company can be deadly to your career (unless you move to CA, which doesn’t enforce non-competes).
Finally, it should be acknowledged that a big reason many people do a postdoc is because they simply can’t find any other work. Today’s market for scientists is more competitive than it has ever been, both in academia and industry. The market is flooded constantly with many more PhD’s than there are available positions. Because the NIH and other funding agencies set the floor for postdoc salaries well below industry standards, it is much, much easier to find a postdoc position (~$40k/year) than a full-time scientist position (~$70-80k/year starting). If you remove the postdoc from the table of possible next steps for graduating PhDs, then becoming a barista starts to look like a plausible alternative.