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To Be or Not to Be a Post-doc? A Recurring Dilemma

A recent article published in Nature, The future of the postdoc, painted a very bleak picture of how there is a “growing number of post-docs and few places in academia”, a concern that I am very much familiar with. As an Early Career Research Scientist, nearing the end of my first post-doc, I am faced with the question of whether or not to do another one. If only I had asked myself a similar question 3 years back when I completed my PhD: “Do I want to do a post-doc?” It would certainly have helped me in making an informed decision and I would not be regretting the years gone by. But at that time, being a post-doc after doing a PhD was a default career path. Now, I know differently. For those of you who are about to complete your PhD and are feeling a bit lost, wondering what to do next, then investing some time and thought to address the points below can hopefully help you to reach the correct decision for your career development.

Should I Pursue a Post-doc?

The answer to this question depends on where you want to end up professionally, and geographically for that matter. Is it a career in academia that you crave? Do you see yourself as an independent investigator someday: writing grants, applying for funding, heading a research laboratory, conducting hypothesis-driven research, lecturing and attending faculty meetings? If you found yourself nodding to each of those points, then yes, you probably should do a post-doc. A post-doc will give you the necessary training, publications, and connections to achieve the above. Providing you strategically choose the laboratory, and the people you want to work with are routinely publishing in high-profile journals. This will require some background research and dedicated effort on your part. However, if your career goals are different, then doing a post-doc might not benefit you, and looking at alternative careers early on will save you not only time, but can also open gateways to numerous opportunities.

If Not a Post-doc, Then What?

Generally, the longer you stay in a post-doc position, the harder it is for you to move into other sectors and even on to an academic position. Therefore, it is vital for you to keep your options open for other occupations. The article published in Naturejobs on Careers for scientists away from the bench, is worth mentioning here. It not only highlights alternative career paths but also states meaningful steps of how to achieve that much desired change that you might crave but also are not sure how to pursue! Many researchers will end up working in industry, for better pay and having access to cutting-edge research facilities without the added pressure of bringing in funding or publishing. The jobs can even be permanent (unlike in academia where post-docs are on short-term contracts). You will find that individuals with science PhDs have made successful transition into other professions (e.g. editorial writers, science writers, teaching, patent law, scientific advisors, clinical trial co-ordinators). The world is your oyster, the trick is not to be on an autopilot and just assume that after getting your PhD, being a post-doc is the natural career progression. If you are nearing the end of your first post-doc and you are not enjoying it, make sure you have planned an exit strategy! Have a look at this very useful website dedicated to wholesome career advice after PhD which deserves a peak.

How Should I go About Making This Decision?

Get Advice From Your Supervisor

Naturally, most individuals enter a PhD with a notion of pursuing an academic career, so who can be better at giving you that advice than your supervisor. I was a little reticent about asking my supervisor for career advice, a trait that I now regret. Maybe it was because I thought he would think I was not good enough to be an academic or that he would put me off it. As a PhD student your supervisor should be your first point of contact when it comes to career advice. Believe me, they will be glad that you confided in them! Your supervisor may have contacts in industry or even in laboratories abroad that you can contact.

Make an Informed Decision

Talk to people other than your supervisor(s) who work in the careers that interest you; ask them whether or not post-doc experience would help you in your career. Talk to career advisors and mentors that you trust. These can be individuals in your department, or even professional career advisors that can help you learn more about your options. Have a career plan early on and an exit strategy, if the need arises.

Choose Your Post-doc Strategically

If after all the soul-searching you still decide to do a post-doc, then be strategic about the one you choose. The people you work with, the institution, the publications, and the location matter a great deal. Make sure your post-doc aligns well with your ultimate career goals and interests. Remember as a fresh PhD graduate you are most employable; use this to your advantage. A successful academic career is more often than not shaped by your first post-doc position. Research students, however, have the tendency to stay on as post-docs with their PhD supervisor without thinking about the long-term options or consequences. You should look for opportunities outside your specialism – even abroad – where your skills can be transferred and you are given a wide range of opportunities.

Start Building Your Networks Early

Being known to people that you want to work with, not just in academia but generally, can maximize your chances of getting that perfect first post-doc position. Identify the areas or research topics that you are interested in, as well as the academics in that field. Try to e-mail and/or meet them at conferences. It could be that you might not find a post-doc position but rather an opportunity for collaborative work. Even better! It highlights your independence, a highly sought-after quality in scientists.

Let us know your thoughts on this topic! How did you decide whether or not to do a post-doc? Do you have any tips for anyone starting to think about their career after their PhD? Let us know in the comments below.

For some more advice, check out some of these Bitesize Bio articles:

Suzanne Kennedy. Choosing a Post Doc Position, 2007.

Vicki Doronina: Career Highlight: Technical Officer, 2015.

Suzanne Kennedy, Alternative Careers For Scientists, 2008.

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