Feature

How to weigh whether postdoctoral training will boost your career prospects.

As a student in the counseling, clinical and school psychology doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Jasmin Llamas isn't sure what she wants her postgrad life to look like. She likes both teaching and research, but hasn't decided yet which to pursue — and whether she'll need a postdoc to get there.

While a postdoc would give her more training, publications and connections, she is eager to end her formal education and start her career. Plus, postdocs don't pay as much as research or faculty positions.

Not knowing which direction to take, Llamas has decided to apply for both faculty and postdoc positions. She's also submitted an application for the National Institutes of Health's F32 grant, an early career award that would cover her postdoc salary.

Before making a decision, she'll wait to hear back about all options. "I am straddling different career options," she says.

She's not alone. Many graduate students weigh the same question as they enter the home stretch of grad school: Should I pursue a postdoc?

The number of doctoral students in clinical programs who go on to postdoctoral positions has risen from 6 percent in 1986 to 20 percent in 2007, according to a 2009 APA survey (PDF, 974KB), and may be even higher than that today. For people in research fields, more and more are going for postdoc positions after grad school — depending on the subfield, the number may be as high as 100 percent.

The answer to the question of whether a postdoc is right for you depends on where you want to end up — professionally and geographically — as well as whether you plan to go into academia or clinical practice.

Here's what to consider as you plan your next steps.

If you want to go into research

In academia, postdocs aren't required, but it's almost become an unspoken rule to do one, says Garth Fowler, PhD, APA's associate executive director of graduate and postgraduate education. Many decades ago, "academic postdocs used to be a rarity," he says. "But now, it's by far the majority."

That's because a postdoc — or two — will make you a much more competitive candidate as you apply for jobs at universities or in labs, says Fowler.

It will also help beef up your CV with more publications and allow you to accumulate data to build on later, says Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD, associate executive director of APAGS. "Then, your first year on the job, you'll still have a big data set you can pull from to publish papers."

A postdoc is also a good idea for future academics because it can expand their research repertoire. "For example," says El-Ghoroury, "if you studied language from a developmental psychology perspective for your dissertation, your postdoc might allow you to study it using MRI." Having several different research angles can give you a big leg up in the job search — and as you're setting up your own lab later on.

Another reason to do an academic postdoc is to help secure funding, which may be required in a future job. If you eventually want to do research at a medical school, for example, a postdoc can give you time to apply for awards such as the National Institutes of Health's K award, which funds a five-year salary.

If you're a future clinician

Whether to pursue a formal postdoctoral training experience for a clinical career is a more open-ended question. For some specialty areas in psychology, it's a necessity. For others, it's not required, but many experts encourage it, says Cathi Grus, PhD, deputy executive director of APA's Education Directorate.

"Postdoc is a great opportunity to get advanced training," she says.

But the final decision should be dictated by your specific goals: Do you want to specialize? And where do you want to live since states still differ on whether they require postdocs for licensure?

For example, if you want to become a board-certified specialist in a particular area of psychology, a postdoc is almost always necessary, experts say. There are 14 areas in which you can become certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology. Each requires a formal postdoc as part of the training.

Even if you don't become a board-certified specialist, it can be a good idea to do a postdoc to gain competence in one of 14 APA-approved specialties, such as clinical health psychology or forensic psychology. While APA does not certify individuals, says Grus, it does recognize its own set of 14 specialties, which at present are not identical to the APBB specialties, since the criteria for recognition are different.

If you ever want to move

Not all future clinicians need postdocs. In fact, 13 states don't require a postdoc for licensure. This number is increasing because state licensure boards are acknowledging that students are coming out of grad programs with more extensive clinical experience, says Grus.

But getting licensed in one of these states without having done a postdoc or any kind of supervised hours can hurt you if you move to a state that does.

"Once you're licensed, you can't go back and do supervision as a postdoc. Some states just won't let you," says Ali Mattu, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Medical Center and former APAGS chair. "Cover the bases before you get licensed."

El-Ghoroury agrees. He says APAGS generally advises students to consider a postdoc — or at least supervised hours in a less formal setting — in order to have the freedom to move between states. "Get supervised experience, whether or not it's a postdoc," he says. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards also recommends this.

If you want to do both research and clinical work

If you have a doctorate in clinical, counseling or school psychology, but go right into a university position, it can be difficult to get licensed to practice if you decide to switch gears later. "It's very challenging for you to accrue the clinical training hours after you've entered academia," El-Ghoroury says. As a result, he suggests students in those fields seriously consider a postdoc position before looking for a faculty job if they want to get licensed.

If you know you want an unconventional career

If you're interested in using your psychology degree in a less conventional way, say by consulting with businesses or working for a Washington, D.C., think tank, you may be able to skip a postdoc, Mattu says. Talk with your advisors and people in the field to become familiar with state requirements and industry trends.

But in reality, "there are very few people for whom a postdoc doesn't make sense," Mattu says. And, he adds, always keep in mind that your interests or circumstances might change — something that happens more often than you'd think.

Ultimately, the best advice is to stay true to your goals, says Michelle Madore, PhD, who's finishing a neuropsychology research postdoc at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. "In grad school you get pulled a lot of different ways," she says. "In the end, you have to decide what you want your life to look like. Choose a postdoc that's going to help keep you on that trajectory."

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