When the Ph.D. is Not Enough

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When the Ph.D. is Not Enough

An increasing number of Ph.D. candidates, especially in scientific fields, find that they need still more education and practical experience before entering the work force. To meet that need, many institutions have created postdoctoral research positions, which offer further training in such areas as research, writing, and teaching in preparation for research careers in academia, government, and industry. In the United States, over half of these postdoctoral scholars are international visitors.

Postdoc positions provide scholars with an intense research experience under the direction of an experienced mentor in the field. The scholar is essentially apprenticed to this mentor, and together mentor and scholar agree upon a schedule of collaborative and independent research and publication of findings.

To qualify to become a postdoctoral scholar (commonly referred to as a postdoc), an individual must have completed the requirements for a doctoral degree (e.g, the Ph.D., M.D., D.D.S., Pharm.D., D.V.M., D.P.H., D.N.S.), or in some cases a terminal master’s degree. For many positions, applicants are expected to have completed their degree work fairly recently (at least within the past seven years) though some midcareer opportunities are also available. Most postdocs work in the fields of biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, as well as in engineering, medicine, mathematics and computer sciences, and psychology. In some cases, postdoc appointments are available in other social sciences and the humanities, but these are more rare. While a more common option than in the past, postdoctoral positions are not available in every field of study.

Postdoc positions are not appropriate for every Ph.D. holder. Individuals who plan a career in non-research applications of their field, such as secondary education, policymaking, or project management, may find little benefit in devoting several more years to research training. These scholars should seek out internship or fellowship opportunities more suited to their needs.

Preparing for a Postdoc

Postdoc appointments are very competitive, and Ph.D. candidates will want to lay the groundwork for a successful application well before they receive their degrees. Ideal candidates have a background in teaching and research at the doctoral level and have made efforts to distinguish themselves in their field through publishing, presenting, and attending conferences. Experience with lab supervision and knowledge of how to write papers, abstracts, and grant proposals is also important.

Finding an Appointment

Postdoc positions are not easy to come by. They must be sought out, and the more thorough the hunt, the more likely a student is to find an ideal appointment. Appointments can be found not only in academic departments, but also in research centers, foundations, laboratories, and museums. Some positions are advertised in professional magazines and journals, at annual meetings of professional associations, or on university Web sites, but many positions are publicized only by word of mouth. This is where personal and professional relationships in the field become key. Students should familiarize themselves with as many researchers in their field as possible and send letters of inquiry to those whose projects interest them.

Many international students mistakenly believe that the institution is the most important factor in choosing a postdoctoral position. While students will want to factor in the institution when considering, for instance, what benefits and stipend levels they may receive, institutions in general have little influence over the quality of the postdoc experience when compared to that of the mentor. Therefore, students should focus primarily on the academic and professional reputation of this individual rather than that of the institution.

Applying for the Position

Unless otherwise indicated in the position announcement, postdoc scholars should send their application materials directly to the researcher for whom they wish to work. The application should include a résumé, cover letter, publications list, and dissertation (thesis) abstract. The résumé should be in a standard U.S. academic format and should state that references are available upon request. The cover letter should be tailored to the position and should mention how the applicants’ interests might be incorporated into the researcher’s projects. If the applicant has outside funding through a government grant or other source, this should also be mentioned. While most researchers have money set aside to hire postdocs, outside funding may make an applicant more attractive. Materials should be sent as early as possible, up to one year before the desired start date. Applicants should pay close attention to the deadline, as late applications are not usually accepted.

Money Issues

Postdoc positions are essentially apprenticeships, and scholars are compensated accordingly, at low rates. The scholar’s mentor may pay these stipends from his or her research grant, or scholars may apply independently for outside grants of their own. Scholars may also receive some or all of the following benefits: health insurance, travel allowance, moving expenses, library privileges, family allowance, overhead, computer facilities, and an office. Because the amount of stipend and accompanying benefits vary from institution to institution, scholars should request a list of benefits in writing before accepting an appointment. Because the cost of living can be quite high in the United States, scholars should carefully compute their budgets before bringing their families with them. Most stipends are not designed to support more than one person.

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