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To Post-doc or Not to Post-doc: The Pros and Cons of Taking a Post-doc Position (And Other Options That Might Await You)

 

Dr. Danny M. D’Amore, Associate Editor

May 2020

Congratulations! You successfully defended your PhD dissertation, and you are now a newly minted doctor. Or perhaps you are only a month or two away from finishing, and you are looking at your next steps. Either way, it is difficult to continue looking forward with such a large task in front of you; in a few short months, however, your efforts will be rewarded.

Now that you have entered this phase of your scientific career, you are faced with the inevitable question: what is next? It is generally expected that a PhD graduate will take on a post-doc position after graduation. Although this expectation can be considered a tradition (or a stereotype, depending on where you sit), there are many good reasons to take a post-doc position:

  1. 1. You have identified a project that is closely aligned with your own research, builds on your knowledge base, or you otherwise feel very passionately about. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking on a project because it suits you, your skill set, or what you hope to learn. This is an amazing reason to continue in academia if you wish to stay within academic realm, or even if you are undecided. A few additional years in research may help you identify your career objectives, and if it is a project you are interested in, at least you will be able to rule that out as a deciding factor when making your next decision.
  2. 2. You have found a project or program that uses what you have learned while working on your dissertation, but grants you knew skills to help you transition into a different field. There is no harm in using a post-doc to bridge a gap, as long as you are upfront with your future advisor. After all, it is very rare to start your college career and travel one single, straight trajectory. For example, I started my undergraduate degree in pre-veterinary medicine, picked up a minor in genetics, and went on to obtain my doctoral degree in animal behavior, which is under the umbrella of evolution and ecology. My career evolved in this manner because I discovered throughout my undergraduate career that evolution and ecology were the scientific fields I was really, truly passionate about. If you flipped a rock in your graduate career and realized that you might be working parallel to your passion, there is no reason not to take a post-doc position that might introduce you to your desired field, or even help you gain the skills you might need to continue on that path.
  3. 3. You are looking forward to international experience (or even traveling to a different part of your region or country). Typically, post-docs are short, which can be considered both a blessing and a curse. However, if you wish to travel, live somewhere new, or experience a different laboratory, without actually settling down, a short post-doc is perfect, as you will satisfy this desire while simultaneously gaining work experience and new, transferable skills.
  4. 4. You are seriously interested in staying within this line of research and want to continue building collaborations and new social networks within the field. If you want to continue in academia, a post-doc position is an excellent way to build your social ties with other researchers in the field. Not only will you join a new laboratory, but you will likely meet your new advisor’s collaborators, other scientists in your new department, and attend different conferences and meetings; your social contacts will build from these events. Accepting a post-doc position is thus a great way to form new collaborations while continuing to hone your skills as a scientist.
  5. 5. This is something you genuinely want to do. If your heart and your head are both telling you moving forward as a post-doc is the right thing to do, there is no reason to discourage yourself. Respect your instinct, as a scientist, and as yourself; no one knows you better.

I also note, however, that there are good reasons not to take a post-doc position:

  1. 1. Your advisor/friend/colleague/parent did a post-doc. In my program, it felt like everyone I knew went on to complete a post-doc. This can feel like a lot of pressure, especially to decide that a post-doc may not be the path for you; however, taking on a post-doc position simply because “everyone else” is doing so is not a good or appropriate reason. Doing so can lead to acts of desperation; you may not find a laboratory or project that is your best fit. If you want to expand your horizons beyond academia, there is nothing wrong with that decision. A post-doc is not the only way forward in research.
  2. 2. Your advisor tells you a post doc is a good idea. I completely understand – it is really, really hard to tell your advisor ‘no,’ some more than others. At the root of the matter, a post-doc used to be the only way to obtain much-needed experience before applying to professorial positions. However, that is no longer the case, and does not even consider the fact that you may not be interested in staying in academia after completing your degree. Remember, you have earned your doctoral degree; you understand how to navigate some of these waters, too.
  3. 3. You want to increase your marketability. It is hard to argue that post-doctoral experience is not helpful in the job market, regardless of if you are looking to stay within academia or transition elsewhere. However, a post-doc is not the only form of job experience; teaching at a community college could be a good source of experience if you are primarily interested in teaching and are not looking to further pursue research. Alternatively, there may be suitable government jobs at all levels, from a field scientist to a team leader, that could provide workable experience regardless of whether your goal is to transition to industry.
  4. 4. You think this is the only job you will be able to get fresh out of graduate school. It can certainly seem that way with every advertised position requesting for what feels like years and years of experience. Remember, however, that you accumulated an abundance of experience in graduate school. Did you complete a research or teaching assistantship? If so, those positions count towards valuable work experience. Remember to look at all sorts of job postings. I recommend that you join listservs, sign up for community postings, and check federal jobsites.
  5. 5. This is something you genuinely do not want to do. Sometimes the pressure of graduate school can be too much. Perhaps you have a spouse or a family, and you need something more stable than a one-year position. That is okay—these personal feelings are valid reasons not to pursue a post-doc opportunity.

Navigating the waters after graduate school can feel treacherous, but it does not have to. Set aside some time for yourself to write down your goals, not just your professional objectives. It helps to consider everything you hope to accomplish in the next 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years. Understand that this is not a decision you need to rush into; similar to when you took the time to identify the right PhD program, you should make sure you evaluate all your choices when deciding to move forward with a post-doc position.

Below are some resources I found particularly helpful when I was trying to decide what to do next:

  1. • Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science, by Melanie V. Sinche
  2. • The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job, by Karen Kelsky
  3. • Letters to a Young Scientist, by Edward O. Wilson
  4. Three bad reasons to do a postdoc, by Karin Bodewits
  5. What should you get from being a postdoc?, by Jack Leeming

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