Choosing the ‘right’ postdoctoral position can be critical to career success and even to the mental health and well-being of early career researchers. I remember at the start of a career counselling interview, a postdoc once telling me that she felt less confident as a postdoc than she had as a PhD student. During the hour-long session it emerged that the work environment, research topic and location of her postdoc were all contributing factors to her current state of mind. If she could have her time again, my client said she would have chosen differently.
Research from surveys of doctoral destinations (e.g. European Science Foundation 2017; Vitae 2008/10) show that a high proportion of PhD students in the Life Sciences (and other disciplines) continue their careers within the academic research sector as postdoctoral researchers. The reasons for this are many and varied but, fundamentally, graduates say they have enjoyed their PhD research and are keen to extend this experience as a postdoctoral researcher and, of course, for many, to go on to secure a permanent academic position. Perhaps this applies to you too.
Postdoctoral research positions are relatively easy to secure compared to moving into industry, due to the familiarity of the work culture, network connections and specific research knowledge, as well as being able to demonstrate directly relevant experience and skills in applications and interviews. Most non-academic employers welcome applicants with postdoctoral experience, especially into research-related posts, if the applicant can demonstrate associated interpersonal skills alongside their research and technical abilities.
Doing a postdoc after a PhD can be a very good career decision for doctoral graduates. The issue isn’t whether or not to do one, it’s making sure to pick the ‘right’ postdoc to suit you and your career aspirations. Here, I list four key questions to consider when making your decision:
Consider first your motivation for continuing on to do a postdoctoral post. What do you want to achieve from it and how will it contribute to your continuing professional development? What will it add to your current skills and experience and how will this contribute to your securing your next job, whether within or outside of academia? If you’re aiming for a permanent academic position in a University, you might look for a postdoctoral position that allows you to develop new avenues of research to gain your independence or that involves a student focus to help you to build up your teaching and pastoral portfolio. If, however, you intend to move into industry after your postdoc, you might benefit from a research project that is more applied, that helps you to build and develop the skills you will need in your future industry-based career. Perhaps the research group is collaborating with a company, a hospital or start-up enterprise or maybe the research programme offers the opportunity to get entrepreneurial training or to do an internship.
Of course, a research career outside of academia is not wholly reliant on postdoctoral experience so, on reflection, you may decide to bypass this option and move directly to investigating and applying for industry/business research opportunities. And, if it transpires that research is not at the heart of your career ambitions, you may want to reconsider your motivation to take up a postdoctoral position when you could be moving ahead and gaining experience within your chosen career of interest.
Some PhD graduates continue to pursue their current research interests within another research group in a similar field, or even within the same group. It’s important to be motivated, and even passionate, about your research topic, but bear in mind what new learning and experiences you’ll develop in your new post that will take your career forward. Using the same techniques and working with the same people will not extend your horizons in terms of your research profile, network and employability. Moving outside of your current field of interest may be a challenging prospect, but consider how your skills will be of value to another research field, as well as networking with them to gain their confidence.
You may wish to continue to develop your research-associated experiences such as outreach, enterprise or organisational activities with which you’ve been engaging during your PhD. Some postdoctoral positions offer these types of opportunities and may even be partnering with, for example, a charity, non-governmental or policy organisation as part of the research project. If your long-term career goal is to transition into these kinds of organisations, this type of postdoctoral experience will help you develop your skills, expertise and network relevant to the sector.
I advise and deliver career workshops on academic mobility – should I stay or should I go? It’s a dilemma for many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers as they progress in their careers. The key question to ask yourself is not whether or not you should move, it’s why you should move. Is it to gain experience, access to particular research facilities or insights from another leader in the field and their research group? Is it because there are more opportunities to undertake your research in another country? Do you really need to move far away for a long time, or could you stay locally and do short visits and build collaborations remotely instead? Applying for your own postdoctoral fellowship, where you can choose your host research group, can give you more control over this decision, so that you are not reliant on the availability of advertised posts. In many cases, academic mobility involves compromises to work:life balance, personal and professional relationships. It’s a decision that is peculiar to each person’s own situation and can be influenced according to their life/career stage.
- Do your research. Adapt your research project skills towards researching your next postdoctoral position.
- Start early and familiarise yourself with types of postdoctoral posts, research groups/institutions of interest.
- Get advice from your current supervisor, postdoctorals and/or collaborators.
- Do your homework in detail – academic research groups are very visible on the internet via their own webpages, Researchgate, LinkedIn and Twitter. Find out what they are doing, read about their research, investigate who’s in the group now and the destinations of former group members.
- Consider what you could add to their research that complements or extends their capabilities with potential to create new data and new avenues of research, leading to publications.
- Network with relevant people during conferences, on social media or even via a direct email to a research group leader (recent research from EMBL shows that the majority of postdocs secured their first post by writing speculatively).
- Focus on your own current research expertise and figure out how you could improve your profile, e.g. by learning or building on research skills, extending your network, filling gaps in your experience and perfecting your CV and interview technique to present yourself at your best.
If you know the ‘why, what, where and how’ of your career decision to do a particular postdoctoral position (or any job), you will likely be more successful in your applications, more genuine and knowledgeable about your motivations to take up the post, as well as more confident and happy in your new-found role.
Wishing you success!