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Is There a Postdoc in Your Future?

If so, you might want to see what some of your colleagues have to say about it. We asked some of our recent science, humanities, and social science graduates who have obtained postdoctoral positions to share their perceptions about the postdoc experience, and to offer advice, where possible, to others considering postdoc opportunities.

Being Treated as an Equal Research Partner

Because statistical science (“statistics”) is a relatively new field of study, post-docs in my field are still more rare than common (although their popularity and necessity is growing rapidly). As a new and pompous Ph.D. student, I felt I could bypass a postdoc and go straight to academia. However, because the economic downturn of 2007-2009 had caused graduating Ph.D.’s during those years to go into postdoctoral positions, I found that I couldn’t compete with those two to four years my senior on the academic job market. Hence, I was forced into a postdoctoral position – it wasn’t my first choice, and I was quite bitter about the prospect of waiting several more years to get my dream job.

Looking back, I am grateful that I was forced into this position. I now realize how valuable a few extra years of research experience beyond the Ph.D. can be. A postdoctoral position gives you needed experience beyond a Ph.D. to compete in an aggressive research environment. No matter how developed you think your research agenda is (I thought mine was very developed), postdoctoral research time can expand that agenda to areas you never imagined and catapult you to the fast track for research funding and academic positions. In fact, postdocs are quickly becoming (or, in some fields, have already become) a necessity to get an academic position at a top-tier university.

My postdoc experience is, so far, as I expected: I spend all day, everyday doing research and the activities attached to it (grant and paper writing, etc.). Luckily for me, I found a postdoc researching something that I find interesting and exciting. Having said this, a postdoc could be a very painful experience if you get stuck in one that doesn’t interest you or if you just don’t enjoy research in general.

One point that, to my pleasant surprise, I did not expect was to be treated as an equal research partner. As a student, I always felt a divide between professor and student. However, having earned a Ph.D., the only thing that separates you from your boss is the number of years of experience. You should be treated as an equal.

I found my postdoc through personal networking. During my Ph.D. career I tried to be very active in presenting research, going to conferences, and meeting the people who were brought in to give seminars in my department. In doing so, I met high caliber researchers, and when the time came for me to find a postdoc, I knew people to contact. Furthermore, because these researchers knew me, they actually contacted me with postdoctoral opportunities. From my experience, my advice would be to be as active in presenting research at conferences as much as possible (even if you don’t think you have anything to present) and talking to seminar speakers. From this you can begin to establish your own research network that will pay dividends at graduation.

I am also finding that a postdoctoral experience is a two-edge sword. On the one hand, you have valuable time to develop your research. But, along with a postdoc comes certain research expectations (i.e., the number of publications and grants you have). If you don’t meet these expectations, you will find it harder to get a job than you did as a new Ph.D. You must be prepared as a Ph.D. to go into a postdoc to get the most out of it. This leads to the question, how do you prepare as a Ph.D. to be a successful postdoc? My answer can be summed up in two words: be active. As a Ph.D. student, be active in doing as many things as you can. Ask your professors to help write and read grant proposals. Publish as many peer-reviewed articles as you can. Give seminars and attend conferences. Learn what your fellow students are studying. The more things you have already been exposed to the better because you won’t have to learn how to do them while you’re a postdoc. Postdoctoral time is preciously short and if you already know how to do something, it will be that much easier to do it when you’re a postdoc.

–Matthew Heaton, Ph.D., Statistical Science 2010, is currently a postdoctoral scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO.

Time and Space to Think

I think the most important thing my postdoc has given me is time to think, write, research, collaborate, connect with new colleagues, articulate my work in relation to a related but larger discipline, a set of other ethnic studies postdocs with which to exchange work and feedback, and faculty colleagues to engage with, gain advice and experience from, and with whom I am a colleague. This time has helped me to consider my job possibilities, further my research to support applications and my contributions to the field, and to think about where I might want to be positioned in the University. My postdoc is entirely research focused with optional teaching. I have opted to mostly do presentations to various parts of the University community ranging from journal clubs and working groups, to undergraduate students and graduate and faculty in my fields, as well as to conferences that enhance my exposure and provide feedback for the future of the project.

In terms of considering a postdoc position while still a graduate student, I thought that it was an option, but I thought I would go straight into a tenure track job, administration position, or other application of my Ph.D. skills that was a longer-term possibility. I’m not sure I knew what to expect in the position, but in some ways it’s an extension of graduate school but without the onus and goal of the dissertation and graduation. It’s time and space to think about what I really want to do with my research, career, activism, and teaching. So I’m not totally sure what my expectations were, or if they have been fulfilled, but progress is being made. It is really hard to know where I will wind up from here, but I am applying to faculty positions. The experience has been useful to me personally at least in understanding my limits and boundaries, where I am more comfortable teaching, as well as the benefits of a program focused on one of my areas of expertise instead of a larger discipline. I do think it’s a valuable experience in its own right, perhaps thought of as a bridge, a new skill set to learn, new engagements to have, and new challenges on a different kind of campus.

I think the best advice for someone going into a postdoc would be to set expectations for the position and goals for the year. Also, take initiative because people are and are not going to come to you, and it’s your job to make what is best out of the experience for yourself.

–Jessi Bardill, Ph.D., English 2011, currently holds the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Seeing How Another Institution Operates

I did not think I would be doing a post doctoral fellowship early in my graduate career, but that was because I didn’t know what a postdoc was. I thought I would just go straight into a tenure-track position. I really began thinking about doing a postdoc when I started to learn more about the processes of publication and tenure–that is, how difficult and time consuming these things are. When I learned that you really only have two years to get things published while also teaching a two-two load and working on committees, I began to recognize the value of having one additional year before starting my first tenure-track job.

My road to a postdoctoral fellowship was a bit different than most people’s experience. I worked for a summer program, the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute. The participants are all undergraduate students who are preparing to go to graduate school, and during the summer program, a number of political scientists come to Duke to recruit the institute’s participants. I thought I would take advantage of all of the information that people brought with them, and I asked some of the recruiters if their departments had post-doctoral opportunities available. When I asked Ken Meier at Texas A&M, he replied, “No, we don’t have any, but we’ll make one for you.” And that’s how I got my postdoc. The main thing I learned was that there’s no harm in asking people for help.

Now that I’m actually doing it, it’s great! I wanted to do a few things during my postdoc. I did all of my degrees at Duke, so I wanted to see how another institution operates. Texas A&M has 50,000 students and is a public school. Things are done quite differently here. Second, I wanted to know what it was like to be a faculty member (without any real responsibilities). I go to faculty meetings, and I’ve developed fruitful working relationship and friendships with faculty members; we exchange ideas and papers. Third, I wanted to teach a course, an opportunity I was “barred” from–for lack of better words–because I had an NSF fellowship during graduate school. I’ve prepped and taught my own courses without the added pressure of the tenure clock.

During my postdoc I’ve prepped two courses (which would have been difficult if I were on the tenure clock). I’ve been able to prepare and send out four journal articles, and I’m preparing my book manuscript. I’ve met and gotten to talk with tons of people about how they work and get tips from them about how to be successful in a tenure-track position. I think that quite a bit of the response that I’ve gotten on the job market comes from the fact that I already have my degree, I now have teaching experience, and I have several works in the pipeline, which I wouldn’t have been able to say at this time last year.

–Candis Watts Hill, Ph.D., Political Science 2010, currently Visiting Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University

Taking Advantage of the Transition

I actually started thinking about and looking for a postdoc position by the second year of my Ph.D. (more than two years before graduation), which is rather rare. In fact, I started talking to my current postdoc mentor, who was actually doing his postdoc at Duke then and had a faculty position lined up, and we immediately started writing proposals and postdoc fellowship applications together. It was tough balancing my Ph.D. research with new (and very different) research ideas for my postdoc, but it was definitely worth the effort. Not only was I able to get experience with grant writing early on, but I was also very excited about what was to come after my Ph.D.—a great inspiration for me to graduate as early as possible!

I came to the Ph.D. program not knowing exactly what I wanted to do other than that it had to have some connection to research. I decided that I wanted to pursue an academic career by the end of my first year at Duke, and at that point, I had the intention of doing a postdoc. It was more of a realization that faculty positions were very, very competitive (partly due to the financial situation back then) and that it was nearly impossible to get a position at a good school without postdoc experience. Also, some people are ready for a faculty position straight out of graduate school, but I did not feel that I was, so I wanted more training time.

I didn’t feel that postdoc opportunities were that limited, especially because there are many ways of getting a position. The trick is to be proactive about it and be willing to take some time writing grants and applications. Many professors are happy to take you if you’re willing to do that.

Judging from observing other postdocs throughout my master’s and P.hD. years, this is pretty much what I expected. The postdoc isn’t as much of the research-and-nothing-else time as my Ph.D. years were but more of a career building time and a transition between the Ph.D. and the faculty position. I try to balance lab work with more writing and reading than I had done during my Ph.D. as well as taking part in learning opportunities that will help me in my future academic career. I’m also relearning how to effectively manage my time while balancing various duties, which will also help me in the future. My objective for doing a postdoc is to gain experience in things that I didn’t have time for during my Ph.D. but will be necessary when I become a faculty member.

I do think that the postdoc experience is as valuable as you make it. There are no deadlines or exams that you need to pass as a postdoc; you are pretty much on your own (aside from your direct supervisor who may or may not tell you what to do) to do what you want to do in the given time. It is very important for me to remember my postdoc objectives and goals so that I take full advantage of the transition time to become an effective and good teacher and researcher.–Kaoru Ikuma, Ph.D. 2011, Civil & Environmental Engineering