Forty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a psychologist in a postdoc-it just wasn't part of the usual recipe for training. But today, licensing laws and the changing nature of academe have made the postdoc a first stop for many new psychologists-researchers and practitioners alike.
The postdoc gives scientists a chance to learn new investigative techniques and build their research programs, while practitioners get the supervised hours they need for licensure, specialize in a particular area or build a client base. It's also when new psychologists establish their professional identities.
"This is the time to really segue from being a student to being an independent psychologist," says Mitchell Prinstein, PhD, chair of APA's Ad Hoc Committee on Early Career Professionals, "and to maximize the opportunities to really grow into that new identity."
Although postdocs offer a big growth opportunity, they aren't without their challenges. For researchers, there's the annual scramble for grant money and the risk of becoming mired in postdoctoral research for too long. Poor mentoring relationships, an unfocused research program and taking on too many duties can also be snares along the way, say experts. And, unlike clinical postdocs, which can be accredited by APA, there's no accrediting body for research positions, which means students rely on reputation, grant history and other measures when they search for fellowships.
Meanwhile, unlicensed psychologists face the dilemma of needing to get postdoctoral supervised experience for their licenses when most payers won't reimburse them for their services. The situation is compounded by the fact that, although there has been an increase in formalized training positions in recent years, there are still not enough for the number of students who need supervision-leaving some to seek supervision in other ways that can potentially offer lower-quality training.
And the pay for many isn't lucrative. For postdocs logging their hours toward professional licensure, a lack of reimbursement from third-party payers puts a financial squeeze on employers whose liability is heightened because they employ postdoctoral fellows. For fellows in research, stipends often depend on the kind of grant that funds their work. In fact, in 2001, the average full-time research postdoc stipend was $29,388 compared with $23,580 for clinical work and $25,956 for postdocs with both research and practice components.
Luckily, there are forces working on these postdoc concerns. For example, APA and other psychology organizations are following up on the recommendations of an APA commission that proposed revamping how practicing psychologists get their supervised experience (see Toward solutions for professional postdocs). More broadly, research postdocs from many disciplines formed the National Postdoctoral Association a year ago to advocate for institutional and governmental changes in how postdocs are treated (see A national voice for research postdocs). Because reform efforts will take time to implement, today's graduate students will have to navigate their postgraduate years in the current environment. Here's how to get started, get hired and get the best out of your postdoc experience.
Postdoc Basics for All
Finding a postdoc is a lot more informal than applying to grad school or getting an internship-whether you're a social psychologist seeking a basic research fellowship or a clinical psychologist looking to log supervised hours while on the job. While clinical neuropsychologists have a fellowship matching process, there's less of a road map for other new psychologists.
That means you'll have to start thinking like the independent psychologist you are aspiring to be while you're still a graduate student, says psychologist Deborah Polk, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine who completed a second health psychology postdoc last year.
Indeed, postdoctoral fellows have, for the first time, the ability to negotiate what kinds of work they will do, their compensation and other aspects of the job, say experts. That's a big change from graduate school.
How can you make sure you find a good match? Here are the basics:
Aspiring practitioners should consider how they will get their postdoctoral supervision when they apply for internships, while students in research tracks should start considering potential postdocs as they write their dissertation and no later than a year before they expect to complete graduate school, say experts.
Before you begin your search, decide what you want to get out of the experience. Do you want to learn new skills? Acquire in-depth training in an area of expertise? Get great mentoring?
"Look ahead to what you think you want to be doing and work backwards from there," says Matthew Cordova, PhD, a staff psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System who supervises postdocs and completed his own research postdoc in 2001 on adjustment to cancer.
Do Your Homework
Thoroughly investigate potential positions. Will the position fit with the goals you've set? Will you get the mentoring and training you need? Are there health benefits? Have others been happy there? Talk with former postdocs and other psychologists to find out.
Don't Give Up
Even if it seems too late in the year, keep applying and networking; new funding or postdocs who backed out of a position could open up opportunities, says Annette Brodsky, PhD, outgoing director of the psychology fellowship program at Harbor-University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center, the field's longest actively accredited professional postdoc program.
Once you're in a position, keep your next steps in mind. Where is your first "regular" job going to come from? If you don't get a job right away, what will you do?
Shannon Casey-Cannon, PhD, didn't get the academic job she wanted right out of her clinical postdoc, so, while she's studying for her licensing exam, she's consulting with local psychology students on their thesis proposals and scoping out jobs for next year. She's also working on publishing research from her dissertation and postdoc-papers that she says she hopes will make her more qualified for her goal of teaching and researching in academe.
"The adjustment afterward is something to be thinking about," she says. "Where do you want to go after your postdoc, and what happens if that excellent but elusive job isn't available?"
Find a Career Mentor
Link yourself with a mentor-whether it's an early-career or seasoned psychologist-who can help you through the job search, advises clinical psychologist Astrid Reina-Patton, PhD, who completed her HIV, mental health and behavioral medicine postdoc in 2002 and now supervises postdoctoral fellows at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center: "Someone who can honestly discuss what job opportunities look like, what the appropriate things to ask for, and say, and do are."
Postdocs for Licensure
To get licensed, you have to log supervised clinical hours after graduation; the number and type vary by the state you want to practice in (see What you need to know to get licensed for licensing tips). Depending on the state, you could get your hours by, for example, joining a formal postdoc training program, working under an investigator's clinical research grant or working on-the-job at a clinic or with a private practitioner.
But your postdoctoral supervision doesn't have to be just clocking hours, say experts. It should be another valuable learning experience.
"Think of this as your time to grow in the direction in which you see yourself in five to 10 years," says Reina-Patton.
Here's what you can do to find a good fit:
Have a Diverse Job-hunting Plan
When applying for internships, look to see if there's a possibility of returning for postdoctoral supervision, or if contacts you'd gain on internship could lead to a postdoc elsewhere. Other postdoc resources include the classified ads in APA's Monitor on Psychology, and other psychology publications, and listservs in areas of your interest, which often include postings of available slots (see Postdoc resources).
And don't forget about the power of networking, says psychologist Tracy Hopkins-Golightly, PhD, who finished a pediatric psychology postdoc in August. When she was searching for her position, she tapped the psychologists and physicians she'd worked with on internship to find potential postdoc sites that were the best fit.
You can also make connections through faculty members' networks and at local and regional psychology meetings, says psychologist Dorit Saberi, PhD, who finished a forensic fellowship two years ago. To find her position, she asked around to find solid programs and applied only to those that came highly recommended so she'd be sure to get a good training experience.
Choose Between Formal and Informal
Formal programs - such as those that are accredited by APA or that belong to the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) - are designed to give postdocs an advanced, focused training experience, says Brodsky of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. They can also offer specialty credentials, such as in clinical child or neuropsychology, and give you specialized experience that could boost your marketability once you're licensed, she notes.
Unfortunately, the number of students who need supervised hours far exceeds the number of formalized postdocs. About 80 postdoc programs belong to APPIC, and about 30 postdoctoral programs are accredited by APA, although that number is steadily rising.
Other kinds of positions, such as unaccredited training programs or arranging to work as a psychological assistant or unlicensed psychologist for a private practitioner, certainly can also offer high-quality training and hands-on experience, say experts.
When scoping out these less formal options, graduates should determine what they want-whether they are looking to simply log hours or would like supplementary training, for example-and make sure the position meets those goals and licensure requirements, say experts.
For example, compare the position with the APA guidelines for postdocs (see Postdoc resources): Will you have a psychologist who is a consistent supervisor? Will you be compensated for your time? Will the position meet your licensing requirements, and will you have time to study for the licensing exam? Will you have the opportunity to do some research, if you want?
Without that legwork, postdocs can end up working long hours, yet struggle to get the supervised hours they need. They also may be paid little or nothing for their services, since their employers may not be able to bill insurers for the services of unlicensed psychologists.
Spell Out Your Expectations
Discuss your duties and goals with your supervisors before you take the position, says Reina-Patton of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Some even advise writing up a contract that includes what the supervision will entail, at what point you should acquire the training hours needed for licensure and what skills or training you're going to get from the fellowship.
Such contracts are especially helpful for postdocs who aren't in an established training program, says Prinstein. "Those kinds of postdocs can be excellent experiences with a lot of autonomy, but they will sometimes be the least clear on articulated goals and expectations because it's a make-it-up as you go position," he explains.
Check Your Progress
Once you start your supervision, regularly discuss your progress toward your goals with your supervisor, says Emil Roldolfa, PhD, chair of APPIC. For example, Saberi, who was required to write down her fellowship goals at the beginning of the year, constantly referred back to them to stay on track during her Harbor-UCLA Medical Center postdoc. She also notes that she had the flexibility to alter them. For example, she wanted experience in her hospital's psychiatric emergency room, so she spoke with her supervisors who helped her secure a rotation there every Friday for a semester.
"It was possible to get that just by asking the right questions and being proactive about it," she explains. "During a postdoc year is when there's more degree of freedom to try to get some [additional training]."
Although once rare, research fellowships have become a common first stop for new graduates aiming for a career in psychological research, says Greta Sokoloff, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in neurobiology at Indiana University. "It's the time to make that step toward what you really want to be doing as an independent investigator."
In fact, it may take more than one postdoc to make that transition, says University of Texas at San Antonio psychologist Joe Martinez, PhD, who directs the neuroscience component of APA's Minority Fellowship Program.
For example, Sokoloff's first fellowship was a nice fit with her graduate training in developmental psychobiology, she says. But she didn't feel as though she was pushing herself to grow. So she switched to a lab that examines the neurobiology of learning and memory. She's now learning new lab techniques that she says will bolster her research career.
But how can you find a position that's a good fit?
Mostly, the old fashioned way, say experts, through networking. Present posters and give talks at small to medium-size conferences, where you'll have the chance to talk with researchers. And don't be shy about contacting a researcher you admire, says Sokoloff. She did so, and while one particular researcher declined to take her on as a postdoc, he gave her great advice on mapping out her career.
"Especially in the age of e-mail, people will respond to queries and give you advice," she says. "They are not unapproachable."
Moreover, there's probably no better networking tool than your graduate adviser. Sokoloff made a list of developmental psychology labs that did work similar to hers or work she wanted to learn and then asked her adviser to call around to feel out opportunities. However, she notes that there's more to think about than the type of work a lab does. Some key considerations:
"Think about the qualities of your graduate adviser that are good for you and that help you work well, and look for those qualities in a postdoctoral mentor," advises Sokoloff. "Research gets done better and more quickly when you really click with the person you're working with."
For example, has the researcher provided good mentoring to other fellows? Have fellows published papers with the mentor? What was the authorship order of those papers? Talk with current and former postdocs, interns and staff to get a feel for how things work, advises Polk at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Think about it as you are hiring this mentor to work for you," she explains. "Do the vetting of the prospective mentor before you start talking to him or her about writing a [grant] together."
Also, consider whether the mentor will allow you the level of independence you need, she says. Since she spent the first year of her postdoc transitioning from her clinical background to health psychology research, she wasn't ready for complete independence, Polk says. However, when she was ready to work autonomously, she decided that a second health psychology postdoc in a different lab was a better fit.
How will your research be funded? If you'll be on a grant, how long will the grant last? Is that enough time to complete your work? You may need to begin applying for the next year's funding shortly after you begin your fellowship.
Two common funding approaches are to get written into an investigator's research grant or, to show you are competitive with others, to write your own research grant, such as a National Research Service Award or a National Institutes of Health training grant.
Goals and Expectations
Talk over your fellowship objectives with your mentor and seek agreement, perhaps writing a contract that seals it. Once in your fellowship, continually evaluate your progress based on those goals, says Prinstein. However, that doesn't mean your objectives can't shift, experts say.
Indeed, fellowships often represent the last time psychologists have such freedom to explore their various research interests, says Polk, now an assistant professor examining such questions as how stress affects periodontal disease.
"In terms of your intellectual development, nothing beats it," Polk explains. "You don't have faculty meetings, don't have to teach. You can just focus on your research."