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.