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A Postdoc’s Guide to the Postdoc

By Lindsay Till Hoyt

The number of postdoctoral fellows (“postdocs”) in the U.S. continues to increase as the postdoc position has become the de facto next career step following the doctoral degree. Of course there are exceptions, but most PhDs I know have spent about 1-4 years as a postdoc before taking their next career step. As I enter my final days as a postdoc, I thought I should share some of things that I learned along the way…


The Postdoc Years

The postdoc often gets a bad rap (e.g., Science Magazine article The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell), but there are also a lot of advantages of this temporary appointment, if you find a good position*. Your postdoctoral years provide mentored training, which is ideal if you are looking to expand your research skills, learn new methods, or dive into a new discipline. The hours are often very flexible and, ideally, you will have a lot of time to write and ramp up your CV. In addition, it is a great opportunity to network with new groups of people and explore long-term career options (inside or outside academia).

The *

In order to have a positive and productive postdoc, you need to find the right position… In most cases, this means finding the right mentor(s). Ideally, this should be a mutually beneficial relationship. As a PhD, you are a highly skilled researcher with a lot of knowledge to apply to a project. In return for your work, you need to find someone that you get along with interpersonally (don’t underestimate this) and someone who will give you the training, experience, and support that you need for your future career steps.

Another important factor to consider is the community. Postdocs can be lonely: you’re not part of the faculty and you no longer have a cohort (like you did in graduate school). Are there other postdocs around the department? Are there opportunities to meet postdocs across campus (journal clubs, workshops, etc.)? How much contact will you have with faculty, students, and staff on a daily basis? I think work environment is important for everyone, and the overall community may be especially important for individuals moving to a new city/town for their position.

Types of Postdoc Positions

In order to start thinking about the right position, it’s helpful to know what kind of postdocs are out there. Three common types include:

A. Specific, Grant-Funded Postdoc: Faculty often budget for a full-time or part-time postdoc in their large grants. Depending on the project, you may have one primary mentor, or work with multiple PIs.

  • Your responsibilities can vary widely from project management and data collection to data analysis and writing, so it’s very important to discuss expectations with your mentor before accepting this job.
  • Salaries will likely depend on the location and the particular project, and may be negotiable (so don’t be afraid to ask).
  • I’m including a list of resources at the end of this post for helpful websites to search for positions, however, the best way to learn about these positions is often through the connections of your PhD advisor or other mentors.
  • Since grants get funded at various times throughout the calendar year, there are multiple opportunities to apply for this type of position.
  • You may be able to “make your own postdoc” by finding partial funding on multiple grants on the same campus (if you find one faculty member who wants to hire you but doesn’t have full funding).

B. Federally Funded Postdocs: The Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional National Research Service Award (NRSA) T32 or F32 are also popular routes for postdoctoral work. The goal of the NRSA is to prepare postdoctoral trainees for careers that have a significant impact on the health-related research needs of the Nation.

  • The T32 is an INSTITUTIONAL training grant, and each institution solicits its own applications. You can search for supported investigators and institutions using NIH RePORTER. These positions are also advertised on the links provided in the resources section at the end of this post.
  • The F32 is an INDIVIDUAL fellowship, and you apply directly to NIH with your proposed sponsor(s) (i.e., postdoc mentors). Like all NIH applications, the F32 application goes through the NIH peer review system. Your application will be evaluated not only for your past record and future potential as a researcher, but also the qualifications and strengths of your proposed sponsor(s), collaborators, consultants, and the institutional environment. F32 deadlines occur three times per year, in April, August, and December. This is also great practice for future grant writing!
  • If there is a particular faculty member you really want to work with, you can also let that guide your approach. I know many people who advocate for finding your mentor first and then finding a way to get funded to work with them. The F32 route is the clearest mechanism for making that happen, and while the funding rates are low (currently around 15%), those grants are not impossible to get, especially if you have a research project that’s unique in some way. If your grant does not get funding, you may still be able to work with your proposed mentor on a specific project if they have grant money (see Section A, above).
  • In most cases, the sponsoring institution (for the T32 or F32) should be a site other than where the applicant fellow has trained as a graduate student.
  • The stipend level for a postdoctoral trainee is determined by the number of full years of relevant experience after the doctorate at the time of appointment. The NRSA stipend levels are posted online (e.g., fiscal year 2015).

C. Privately Funded Postdoc Positions: There are also some institutions that offer private fellowships, often affiliated with specific universities. These types of positions are not as plentiful, but it’s certainly worthwhile to spend time looking and applying if you are a good fit! I’ve listed a few samples here, and if you know any additional programs, please add them to the comments!

  • Bell Fellowships at Harvard (for multidisciplinary population health research)
  • I was fortunate to be a RWJF Health & Society Scholar for the past two years. Although this program is in its final year, I am hopeful that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will continue to fund postdoctoral research in the future (so keep a look out for opportunities on their website).
  • Some universities offer their own postdoc programs, such as the University of California’s President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which has 15 positions per year across its 10 campuses.
  • AERA offers many funding opportunities, including research grants for postdoctoral scholars studying education-related issues using federal databases.
  • Ford Fellowship (for members of underrepresented groups in academia)
  • AAUW Postdoctoral Leave Fellowship (for women already in tenure track positions)

Resources for the Postdoc Job Hunt

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