A postdoctoral scholar is an individual who holds a doctorate and has accepted a temporary “training opportunity” to gain additional research experience to further prepare him or her to pursue a career in academe, industry, government or the non-profit sector (National Postdoctoral Association, 2009).
For many Ph.D.s in the sciences, the postdoc is a career stage, wedged between a graduate research assistantship and a tenure track assistant professorship. Increasingly, however, postdoctoral fellowships also may be found in the humanities and social sciences. And, while the majority of postdocs engage in focused research activities, a limited number of “teaching postdocs” are available for those individuals looking to land a position at teaching-oriented institutions.
Typically, postdoctoral scholars work under the guidance and supervision of a faculty mentor, are appointed for a temporary and limited period of time (six months to five years), and are expected to build a research program. In fact, most postdoctoral scholars are hired by principal investigators (PIs) to work directly on grant-supported research.
However, recent initiatives by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health call for broader professional development opportunities to help young professionals develop the skills needed to advance their careers. In addition to building a research program and acquiring expanded research expertise, NSF and the National Postdoctoral Association, suggest postdocs need to learn how to write grant proposals, manage people, develop research topics, strengthen communication skills and develop other abilities that will help them in academic, government, industry, or other career paths (Postdoctoral Appointments: Policies and Practices, 2004).
If a postdoc position is a possibility in your future, what can you do now to prepare for it? Here are some tips from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology:
- Do great science as a graduate student. Publish your work in visible journals. Co-author and submit publications with your graduate mentor before moving on. Become known in your department/ institution as a graduate student.
- Take every opportunity you can to speak about your work at your own institution.
- Seek out opportunities to interact with other grad students/postdocs/faculty in the department (for example, start a journal club focused on your research area of interest).
- Become known in your field as a graduate student. Attend meetings – be brave and talk to PIs (particularly those with whom you might be interested in doing a postdoc). Attend small conferences where it’s easier to meet and interact with people. Present your work as a poster at regional, national and international meetings. Try to meet with/have a meal with scientists who are visiting your department to give a talk, particularly those in your field.
- Make the most out of interactions with your supervisory committee. Look at each committee meeting not as an administrative hoop to jump through, but as an opportunity to get good advice from your members and to show them why your research–and you–are so great. Set up meetings with your committee members between the required meetings as appropriate; build a relationship over time. Doing this will help you secure good recommendation letters that are based in a real understanding of you and your work.
- Get teaching experience, particularly if you’re interested in landing a teaching position. Whether or not you find yourself in a position that requires a lot of teaching in the future, being a good teacher will help you become better at presenting your own data, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, interviewing for jobs, convincing agencies to fund you, etc.
UNL recently established an Office of Postdoctoral Studies, which serves as a centralized professional and career development resource for postdoctoral scholars at UNL. The OPS provides information, resources, and networking opportunities to enhance the postdoctoral experience. To learn more, check out the National Postdoctoral Association site. For a listing of current postdoc opportunities, see a list of science careers from the journal Science.
Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP) 2000. Enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
Guinnee, M. 2006. Postdoctoral teaching: Savvy career move or distraction from research? Available online at Science Careers.
Becoming a postdoc. American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Vick, Julia Miller and Furlong, Jennifer S. 2007. Applying for a postdoctoral fellowship. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
National Science Foundation. Postdoctoral Appointments: Policies and Practices Report on a Workshop, November 15 - 17, 2004. Available online.