When you’re nearing the end of your Ph.D. program, it is easy to assume working as a postdoc is the next step towards your career goals, but there are other options. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself if you’re unsure if a postdoc position is right for you.
Deciding how you will spend the next few years of your life is a rather tough choice to make. When your years of working towards your Ph.D. are nearing an end, it’s time to start making this decision and preparing for whatever the next step in your life may be. The next step, for more than two-thirds of PhD students will be completing a postdoc research fellowship. This experience is meant to help new scientists learn how to work independently and for many, the ultimate goal is completion of a postdoc and then entering a tenure-track position at a university. However with less than 8% of Ph.D. students predicted to actually obtain permanent teaching positions at a university, some Ph.D. students are deciding to take other routes like working in industry upon completion of their degree. Let’s look at these 10 questions to help you decide what path you might want to take.
1. What are my ultimate career goals and do they include academia?
Depending on what your goals are for the rest of your career, a postdoc may or may not be for you. While many Ph.D. students seek to work in academia, there are a variety of other career paths that you can take if becoming a professor is not something you desire. The postdoctoral research fellowship is meant to be a link between graduate school and working independently in academia. Therefore, it is most important to complete if you want to obtain tenure at a university in the future.
However, academia is not the only field that likes to see that you have completed a postdoc before hiring. Some government agencies and other private industrial companies request postdoc experience before applying to certain jobs. Take this into consideration as you decide whether to work on a postdoc or not.
2. Do I need more training or am I ready to pursue a career outside of academia?
If a career in academia is not one of your ultimate goals, then you should consider whether you have the skills to pursue another type of career. If your Ph.D. research was done in something you no longer wish to work on, then you may consider doing a postdoc in your desired field. This will help you to gain more experience with it and make you a better candidate when it comes to applying for jobs.
However, for some industry jobs, especially if you are applying within your field, pursuing a postdoc is not necessary. To get an idea of what is required for the type of job you would like to have, start looking at open positions and review the minimum requirements and recommended requirements for applying to those positions. Since there will be a lot of variation by company and location, be sure to look at jobs that would suit you well—in a location that works for you and that meets your expectations for your career.
3. Am I prepared to take on life as a postdoc?
Postdoc life can be a lot different than graduate student life. While it probably seemed like you were spending countless hours in the lab while working towards your Ph.D., you will spend even more time working during your postdoc. With the pressure to produce results and publish your work, the postdoc life will be stressful. While you will be paid for your work as a postdoc, PayScale posts the average pay as a range from $36k to $63k. Long hours combined with low pay as well as being in the “make it or break it” phase of your career can make postdoc life difficult, but it is doable if you find ways of effectively managing your stress. Fortunately, for many who have a passion for research, the long hours and stress may not seem like a real obstacle.
4. Have I done enough networking to get a job outside of academia?
During graduate school, the majority of networking done by students is within academia. They are encouraged to get to know various faculty, peers, and researchers at their own institution and beyond, but few are encouraged to obtain contacts and network outside of the academic world. When graduation comes along and you consider obtaining a job in industry instead of continuing along the path toward academia, it is important to have made connections with people in your field at various corporations. It can be difficult to obtain an industry position quickly after graduation without having these contacts in advance. Consider what type of network you have created for yourself outside of academia before deciding against a postdoc opportunity.
5. Have I published enough papers to submit a competitive job application?
Whether you’re looking to go into academia or another field, the number of publications you have may impact your decision to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship. To obtain an academic faculty position, most Ph.D. graduates will be required to have a publishing record. However, when it comes to working in industry, publications are not generally required depending on the company. Some government agencies require postdoc training. Ultimately, if your desired career relies heavily on publication record, a postdoc fellowship is an opportunity to publish more papers in journals. If your career path doesn’t rely on having a certain number of publications, a postdoc may not be necessary for you.
6. Have I talked to people in my potential career path to get their opinions?
If you know what career path you would like to take, you can learn a lot from people who have traveled the same journey before you. Reach out to people who hold positions similar to a position you would like to have. Find out what they recommend, ask if they completed a postdoc, and if there is anything they would change about how they got to the point they’re in today. Since these people have already obtained a career in the field you’re interested in successfully, they will have great advice.
7. Have I fully reviewed my alternatives such as working as an industrial postdoc?
A common myth is that postdoc positions are only found in academics. However, there are variety of postdoctoral positions available in industry, which will provide you with the experience necessary to obtain a job in industry if you cannot get an independent position immediately after graduation from your Ph.D. program. Take a look at the field you are interested and see what postdoc programs are available both in academia and industry.
8. Can I later transition from industry to academia without having completed a postdoc?
It is possible to transition from industry to academia, but it is not always easy to do. Depending on your field of research, your industrial skills may be valuable in an academic setting. In order to increase your chances of obtaining a position in academia, you should take opportunities to publish papers and mentor younger scientists during your time in industry. If your company has an internship program, getting involved in it may be a great way to gain experience working with students. Additionally, some scientists work both in industry and as a professor part-time. Explore all of your options and find out what is typical of your field when it comes to applying for an academic position after working industry for some time.
9. What skills can I obtain from a postdoc that I wouldn’t otherwise get?
Working as a postdoc is not just about the science. It is a time for scientists to grow professionally as well. During the Ph.D. years, most students focus on one specific area of research and gain little experience outside of this specialty area. During the postdoc, the researcher has the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of other scientific methods and expand their knowledge of their field. Additionally, during the postdoc, the fellow has few other professional commitments and can give his research his undivided attention. This is a great time to produce a number of high quality manuscripts. If there is another research area of interest or a particular lab that he would like to work for, a Ph.D. student should apply to postdoctoral positions in that area at that institution.
10. If I don’t do a postdoc, what consequences might I suffer?
Ultimately, what your career goals are will determine what consequences you may suffer from not completing a postdoc. Traditionally, the way to obtain a position of tenure at a university is by first completing at least one postdoc—the typical number of postdocs to complete before becoming independent depends on your field. However, you may be able to reach academia straight from your Ph.D. program or through industry. It is harder to move from industry to academia than academia to industry, however. Another consequence you may encounter is having fewer numbers of publications when looking for a job. This may place you behind other candidates who have already completed a postdoc position—whether applying for private industry, government, or academic jobs. Lastly, completion of a postdoctoral fellowship can help to round out your areas of expertise by widening your research scope. This can be beneficial to both the job search and your advancement as a scientist.
With these 10 questions answered, you should be prepared to make a decision between applying for postdoc positions and applying for a job as you graduate from your Ph.D. program. Remember that there are a variety of other career paths for those with Ph.D.s in the life sciences that I will discuss in an upcoming article. Share your experience of how you made the decision to postdoc or not and any tips you have in the comments below.
GoldBio Staff Writer
Rebecca is a medical student at the University of Missouri.
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