Postdoctoral fellowships—long an expected step for graduates in the research fields—are even more prevalent today than they were a generation ago. Indeed, some of the strongest doctorates turn to postdocs to master sophisticated methodologies and beef up their CVs. The proportion of recent psychology doctorates in research postdocs has risen from 10 percent in 1985 to about 25 percent today, according to APA's 2003 Doctorate Employment Survey. In the subfields of neuroscience and biological psychology, postdocs have become virtually obligatory, with as many as 75 percent of recent doctorates in biological and 83 percent in neuroscience taking such positions.
These broad statistics mask enormous diversity. The meaning of the term "research postdoc" is widely agreed on: Postdocs are people with doctorates who temporarily conduct publishable research under the supervision of a more senior scholar to train for independent research careers. The total number of postdocs in the United States for all fields of science is estimated to be around 50,000, the majority of whom are conducting biomedical research.
But even though the general outline is clear, the details of each postdoc—from its length to the nature of the research, the extent of supervision and the ultimate purpose of the position—vary widely, as the results of a recent survey by the scientific research society Sigma Xi indicate. (The survey's results and a summary report "Doctors Without Orders" are available online.)
"Our survey data suggest that the various postdoc definitions do not correspond to reality as well as one might like," noted Geoff Davis, PhD, the Sigma Xi survey's principal investigator. Davis analyzed the definitions of "postdoc" offered by federal funding agencies and scientific societies and found that almost all of the definitions agreed on seven basic traits. But only one of the seven traits-the possession of a PhD or equivalent degree—was shared by all postdocs responding to the survey.
Given this diversity, it is no surprise that there are multiple ways of obtaining a postdoc, including applying for a nationally advertised position with an ongoing project, obtaining an individual fellowship from a government agency or private foundation, and negotiating a position directly with an individual principal investigator.
"The main thing is to have a clear idea of how you want this postdoctoral appointment to advance your career goals, what you are hoping to get out of it, and to have that game plan thought through before you apply to positions," says Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association.
Some postdocs are funded by individual fellowships from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation or private foundations. The application process for such positions is similar to other kinds of grant-writing, with the potential adviser co-sponsoring the proposal. But such fellowships are few in number and highly competitive. "Most postdocs are actually in positions working on someone else's research grant," says Reed.
For the latter kind of postdoc, the application process ranges widely and is typically much more informal. Principal investigators will sometimes solicit applications-typically consisting of a cover letter, CV and three letters of recommendation-in the classified sections of professional publications and job databases. Such positions are more likely to have narrowly defined responsibilities than are individual fellowships.
More likely, a position will be created after a conversation between adviser and would-be postdoc about potentially fruitful areas of collaboration. James Gross, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has hosted several postdocs in his psychophysiology laboratory since arriving at Stanford as an assistant professor in 1994, but none of them were established through a formal application process or advertised position.
"It was much more of an organic, 'This is a terrific person, let's see if we can find funding to make it work' kind of approach," says Gross.
The informal approach works best when you already have a connection to a potential mentor, whether through courses, research collaborations or your graduate adviser. In the absence of such a connection, "try to develop an organic connection to them," suggests Gross. Send a CV and a cover letter describing your research interests, along with a request to meet in person—perhaps on campus for coffee or in front of a poster at an upcoming conference.
Making the Visit
If initial contacts seem promising, an invitation to visit the laboratory is the next step. Typically candidates will give a formal talk to the laboratory group they wish to join, as well as tour the research facilities and speak with the principal investigator (PI) and his or her students and staff. On the visit, evaluate the match between your goals, personality and skills and those of your potential mentor and lab mates, experts advise.
A good postdoc mentor can be found at any career stage, from assistant professor to senior scholar, but the best will share some key attributes, suggests Robert J. Dooling, PhD, a psychology professor and associate vice president for research at the University of Maryland, College Park. These include publication in high-quality journals, ample extramural funding, national recognition in his or her field, a successful record of training postdocs and a well-organized lab with a strong work ethic. Choosing a mentor who can teach you new skills--rather than merely take advantage of the skills you already have—is also crucial, says Dooling.
The professional fate of your potential adviser's former postdocs may be the single most critical piece of information about the likely success of your own postdocexperience, Reed notes.
"You always want to ask the prospective PI: Where are his or her former postdocs now? And what have they achieved careerwise? If the answer is unsatisfactory, vague or sketchy, that's a red flag," says Reed.
"Ask if you can speak with current postdocs working in that lab," she adds. "If you're being walled off from people working there now, that's also a red flag. Obviously, if you do speak to the people and there are profound silences, that's also significant."
Generally speaking, the more explicit you are about your expectations and concerns during the interview and planning stages, the more successful you are likely to be, studies of postdocs suggest. According to an analysis of the Sigma Xi survey data by Davis, postdocs who established a research plan and mutual expectations with their adviser at the beginning of the fellowship—in writing—tended to have far more positive experiences than those who did not.
The average postdoc lasts only two years. But however temporary it may be, a postdoctoral fellowship is a big investment and a potentially significant turning point in your career.
"Do your homework," suggests Gross. "If you think you want to give a research career a go, then it's really crucial to take this step carefully."