How Postdoctoral Admissions Works

Most recent Ph.D. graduates look for postdoc research or teaching positions at universities, but those aren't the only options. See more college pictures.
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After more than a decade of being a university student, you've finally attained a doctorate -- the pinnacle of formal education. After a pomp and circumstance ceremony of flowing robes and wacky-looking hats, you've nailed your doctoral certificate on the wall next to your master's and undergraduate degrees, and maybe you've even started signing your name with the "Dr." prefix -- even if just in private. You've trained for more than two thirds of your life to attain this moment, and now that it's here, you have to figure out what to do next. What does one do with a doctorate, doctor?

For some of you, your stay in academia ends here. Many doctoral graduates -- such as Martin Luther King Jr., British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen guitarist Brian May -- have gone on to lead fruitful careers far from any university campus [source:]. For most of you, however, your time in the Ivory Tower is just getting started. Every year, the vast majority of doctorate graduates flood into postdoctoral academic positions, hoping to one day obtain a senior faculty position [sources: The National Academies Press, NPA:Facts].


More and more, it's a postdoc-eat-postdoc world. Generally, postdoctoral positions are considered to be temporary stepping stones toward more senior positions [source: University of Toronto]. Since the early 1980s, however, the number of postdocs has surged in many fields, while the number of faculty positions has steadily evaporated [source: Lee]. The result has led to many postdocs waiting 10 to 15 years before they even get a taste of a high-level academic position. Unless you're top of the class, being a postdoc might not be as temporary as you may think.

Postdoc positions are becoming much more than just holding tanks for future professors, however. More and more, they are becoming the bedrock of modern academic research -- although you probably wouldn't know it by looking at the average postdoc paycheck [source: Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, Freeman]. For the most part, postdocs can expect to make between $10 and $14 an hour. However, the postdoc world does offer the occasional six figure salary. A government-funded laboratory may pay salaries of only $36,000 to its postdoctoral researchers while a high-profile institution such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution might pay as much as $115,000 per year [source:].

Whether public or private, high-paid or low-paid, temporary or long-term, there are three basic steps to follow to get your postdoctoral future in order. Read on to find out more about the wide world of postdoctoral positions and how to get there.


Types of Postdoctoral Positions

There are approximately 89,000 postdocs in the United States, working in everything from space exploration to ocean science to historical research [source: National Postdoctoral Association]. If you're like the vast majority of these postdocs, you're in your early 30s, and you probably have a spouse and a few children [source: Lee]. More than likely, you're also going to end up working in one of two places:

  • Non-profit or government research institution: These are study-focused institutions not directly linked to a university. Examples include the National Institute of Health, the Heart and Stroke Foundation or the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
  • University: Working under a mentor, you'll assist with research, pursue your own research or even be called upon to lead lectures and tutorials.

Traditionally, postdoctoral positions have not been known for their employment perks. Treated as quasi-interns, postdocs rarely received employee benefits or recognition [source: Lee]. However, the growing build-up of postdocs in longer term positions is spurring a move towards greater employment security. In the near future, more and more institutions are expected to start offering healthcare and other employment benefits to their postdocs [source: NPA: Accomplishments]. Be aware of the type of employment benefits offered by your postdoctoral choice.


Also, don't be afraid to think internationally. Especially if you're coming from a small country with few postdoctoral options, it may be to consider moving to the United States or Europe to do your postdoctoral work [source: Ng]. Moving to a different country, of course, introduces its own set of challenges. You'll need to obtain a work visa and arrange for other basic living necessities. Fortunately, many institutions offer advice and services for their international postdocs. For international postdocs coming to the United States, the National Postdoctoral Association provides an entire handbook of helpful tips [source: NPA: International].

Of course, before you start shimmying up the academic ladder, you can always consider taking up a postdoctoral job or fellowship in the private sector. Even if you don't enter an industry that matches your field of study, your stay in academia has still given you a valuable tool chest of skills that you could use in other industries [source: Ng]. At the very least, during your doctoral dissertation you've likely learned to lead a group, manage a complex project and work a computer -- three skills that should automatically giving you a leg-up for private sector employment. Depending on where you look, private sector jobs may tend to be more administrative than study-oriented, but you'll likely be assured a much higher level of job security [source: Ng]. Also, in certain fields, returning to academia after working in the private sector can be quite difficult, so that should be another factor to consider if you think it might be a temporary decision.

Now that you've got a good idea of what's out there, keep reading to see about finding a postdoc position that's right for you.


Finding the Right Postdoctoral Position

Although academic professions are common for postdocs, don't be afraid to consider government or private sector options.
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There's something about your academic work that made you stick with it for this long. Whether it was the joy of discovery, the thrill of new ideas or even just a love of being in the lab, before you choose a postdoc, it's important to zero in on the aspects of your field that kept you coming back for more. Think long and hard about your academic career, pinpoint what you liked most and then seek out a postdoc that will help you recapture that sort of feeling. As an academic, you're probably used to making meticulous and well-researched decisions, so don't be afraid to use those same skills to plan your own career path [source: Noordam].

Your natural inclination might be to find a postdoctoral position that is as close to your field of study as possible. If you studied philosophy, for instance, you'll probably start by combing through the job postings at some nearby philosophy departments. You may even try to get a postdoc at the same place you did your doctoral dissertation. Even if you're pretty sure you want to pursue your postdoctoral career at a university, take a glance at non-university or non-academic postdocs. It may open your eyes to entirely new career paths.


Since postdoctoral work -- especially when it relates to research -- can be such a personalized and involved process, it's important to make sure that you're a right "fit" with the individual and institution you decide to study with. Don't just check the job description [source: Ng].

Now, it may be tempting to take the first job that comes your way, even if it's not the right fit, but don't be afraid to bide your time until a more suitable position becomes available [source: Noordam]. The more you enjoy your postdoc position, the better you'll do at it -- and the better your prospects to move up the academic ladder.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available for both postdocs and postdoctoral candidates. The National Postdoctoral Association, for example, provides a wide range of links and publications for postdocs and postdoc candidates. Also, ask around. Wherever you did your doctoral dissertation is probably crawling with postdocs, postdoc candidates and faculty with detailed knowledge of the postdoctoral experience.

Once you've come across the right postdoctoral position, read on to find out how to get yourself in.


Applying for Postdoctoral Positions

As a postdoc, you'll probably be doing many of the same things you did as a student. You may still be working in a lab, you may still have an academic supervisor, and you may even still park in the same parking lot. However, the postdoc application process is decidedly un-studentlike. First of all, it does not stick to regular timelines. Whereas your standard undergrad, graduate or doctoral applicant will usually need to apply for a fall entry, postdoc positions can become available with no regularity [source:]. However, there are regular timelines for certain types of fellowships, so if there is one you have your eye on, be sure to check the application deadlines.

Wherever you decide to apply, be prepared for a lengthy application process. For that reason, at least six months before you graduate, you should start reviewing your postdoctoral options [source: Noordam]. Each postdoctoral position will have its own details for what to send in an application package, but you can generally expect to send a resume or CV (curriculum vitae) and cover letter. The cover letter should be well-researched and targeted specifically toward your institution of choice. As with traditional job-hunting, the more they can tell that you've done your homework, the better your chances at getting an interview [source: Powell]. Spelling, grammar and style mistakes must be avoided at all costs. Errors portray you as sloppy -- a very undesirable trait for an academic researcher. Also, be prepared to round up recommendation letters from your previous academic supervisors [source: University of Alberta].


If your application looks promising, your next step will likely be to pass a phone interview. At this point, it's good to remember that applying for a postdoc is also a very back-and-forth process. For as many questions as you're asked, you should probably be asking just as many in return. Here are some good subjects to focus on:

  • The basics: What are the options for sick days, maternity leave and general workload?
  • Funding: Will you need to apply for grants and funding? Will your mentor assist?
  • Term limits: Are there term limits, and if so, for how long?

Another way to get a good idea of what the potential workplace will be like is to ask whether you can speak to current postdocs or postdoc alumni. Ask them their top five favorite and least favorite things about the institution [source: Ferguson].

Once you get a postdoc position, be sure it's the right one. If you feel it's not the right fit, don't be afraid to restart your job search [source: Noordam]. You've probably spent at least a decade and a half getting this far, so don't worry about taking a few extra months to get it right.

Learn lots more about admissions and postdoctoral work by visiting the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bagley, Katherine. "Best Places to Work; Postdocs 2010." March 1, 2010. (March 4, 2010)
  • California Institute of Technology. "Postdoctoral Scholars: FAQ" 2005. (February 23, 2010)
  • Cherwitz, Richard A. and Teresa A. Sullivan. "Postdocs as Intellectual Entrepreneurs." Science Careers from the journal "Science." August 30, 2002. (March 4, 2010)
  • Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies." National Academies Press. 2000. (March 4, 2010)
  • Ferguson, Kryste and Ivonne Vidal Pizarro. "The postdoc interview." May 18, 2008. (February 23, 2010)
  • Freeman, Richard. "Thanks for the great postdoc bargain." Science Careers from the journal "Science." August 30, 2002. (March 4, 2010)
  • Ganem, Don. "The Md/PhD: What comes after?" Science Careers from the journal "Science." October, 24, 2003. (February 23, 2010)
  • Lee, Jennifer. "Postdoc Trail: Long and Filled With Pitfalls." August 21, 2001. (February 23, 2010)
  • National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). "International Issues."
  • National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). "Postdoc Scholar Fact Sheet." June 11, 2008 (February 23, 2010)>
  • National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). "Recent Accomplishments."
  • National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). "What is a Postdoc?"
  • Ng, Carol. "After the PhD, What''s Next?" Science Careers from the journal "Science." November 1, 2002. (February 23, 2010)
  • Noordam, Bart; and Patricia Gosling. "Mastering Your PhD.: Preparing For Your Post-PhD. Career." February 22, 2008. (February 23, 2010)
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  • Powell, Kendall. "A foot in the door." February 3, 2010. (March 4, 2010)
  • "Who pays top dollar?" March 1, 2010. (March 4, 2010)
  • Stanford University Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. "Admission." (February 23, 2010)
  • University of Alabama Office of Postdoctoral Education. "Questions to Ask When Choosing An Advisor." 2007. (February 23, 2010)
  • University of Alberta. "Postdoctoral Fellowship Application." (March 4, 2010)
  • University of California Council of Postdoctoral Scholars. "FAQ." (February 23, 2010)
  • University of Plymouth. "What to do after a PhD." (February 23, 2010)
  • University of Toronto School of Graduate Studies. "Becoming a Postdoctoral Fellow." 2008. (February 23, 2010)