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What should you get from being a postdoc?

 

And what should you look for when finding a postdoc position?

By David Bogle

You are coming towards the end of your PhD – so what next? There are many options open to you; one obvious one is to apply for a postdoc position. You should think carefully about what you want to do and not just pursue this through inertia. I have supervised many engineering PhDs and some postdocs in my 32 years as an academic. As Head of University College London’s Doctoral School, I oversee the environment and policy for 6000 doctoral candidates and 3200 postdocs.

What should you get from being a postdoc?


Here are three reasons why you might want to do a postdoc.

1: Because you think it will be fun

You are inspired by research and the topic of the project and the group that you apply to. You want to continue working at the cutting edge of knowledge and make a lasting contribution to society through research. It is an exciting world to be part of. For many the idea of pursuing research to make the world a better place is hugely motivating. It need not be your long term plan to stay in research but it will give you skills and experience valued by many employers.

2: Because you want to work in research (in industry or academia) or the wider world of research

If you want to work as a researcher, in academia or in the private sector, a postdoc should give new research skills and experience and broaden your horizons. There are long term research only positions in industry and research institutes but very few in universities.

The ‘wider world of research’ is perhaps is less obvious. There is a wide range of roles that benefit from research experience such as publishing, public engagement, policy, research facilitation and co-ordination. For some of these a PhD is enough but for others you may need or want to broaden and deepen your research experience and knowledge of the world of research.

3: Because you want to work in academia

Being an academic is different to being a PhD student and even some postdoc positions do not easily enable you to get this experience. I remember feeling quite unprepared for my first academic position when I started having spent three years in industry.

If you decide on a postdoc, use opportunities during that period to get involved and better understand the ups and downs of being an academic. There is much written on this and it is a tough world and hard work, but I have found it very satisfying. It is not for everyone. Do research on what academic life is like, and make sure it fits your personal ambitions. The more you find out, the more informed your decision will be.

 

If you’re stuck between these three options or whether to do a postdoc at all, there are a few resources and tools available to you which might help you consider the different merits of each:

  • If you’re at a university, talk to your careers service. Many have experts who specialise in supporting early career researchers and have detailed knowledge of the options. They have knowledge of opportunities outside universities and what they involve in a way that many academics do not.
  • Talk to postdocs in your group or in other groups. You can find them through research networks — many of which are virtual, which makes it easy to ask postdocs in other countries, at conferences, and through national researcher organisations such as the UK Research Staff Association and its branches.
  • Finally, talk to members of academic staff, particularly those you get on with, and ask them to be honest with you about what an academic job entails.

If you do decide to go for a postdoc position, find a topic that fires you up. Get the proposal and see what you can bring to the project. Most modern postdocs are likely to be cross-disciplinary, which in part means they should stretch your horizons and force you out of your comfort zone. Don’t let that deter you. Ask yourself ‘how can the research skills that I have developed in my PhD be applied to this problem, and how best could I convey this to the interview panel?’

If you’ve decided to do a postdoc, I would recommend asking these questions about the post and the research environment depending on your personal development interests:

1. What scope is there for independent thinking both within the postdoc project and for pursuing your own interests? Any applicant for an academic post will be asked what their research plans are so you need to have independent ideas of your own and a strategy to develop them. For posts outside academia, employers will want people who can think and plan strategically on the basis of research findings.

2. Ask what training opportunities there are both for undertaking the project (including conferences, courses and extended visits to other labs and research groups) but also for developing your broader skills such as communication, teamwork, entrepreneurship, consultancy, finance, managing people, grant getting, managing your career and so on. What visiting and secondment opportunities outside of academia might there be? These are all important for both jobs in academia and in the world beyond. All employers will be looking for how your skills meet their needs and also for commitment to your own personal development.

3. What opportunities are there to deploy these skills such as presenting at conferences, managing others, working in teams, representing the group externally, being involved in strategic planning exercises for technical areas or for group management?

I have tried to give some suggestions about how you as an early career researcher should consider your options for your next career stage and how to maximize the potential of a postdoctoral position. In the next blogpost I will talk about what universities and funding agencies should do to improve the position of postdoctoral scientists.

 

David Bogle is Pro-Vice-Provost of the Doctoral School and Professor of Chemical Engineering at UCL and chair of the LERU (League of European Research universities) Doctoral Studies Policy Group

 

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