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How Postdoctoral Financial Aid Works

A postdoc is a chance for someone with a Ph.D. to get some experience after receiving a doctorate degree. In general, however, salaries aren't high.
A postdoc is a chance for someone with a Ph.D. to get some experience after receiving a doctorate degree. In general, however, salaries aren't high.
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So, you've finally finished your Ph.D. You made it through your dissertation with your sanity more or less intact, and you're relishing being called "doctor" while trying not to think of all the student loan debt you have. Now what?

Postdoctoral research, also called a postdoc, is an option for people who have earned a doctorate, or a Ph.D. A postdoc is a sort of stepping-stone between student life and the "real" world of the workplace. Traditionally, postdocs have existed as a way for young scientists to gain more in-depth training in their field and to supply research institutions with inexpensive labor. Most people choose to do a postdoc for the opportunity to improve their resumes by publishing more of their work in peer-reviewed journals, to make more professional contacts, and to build a solid reputation for themselves as up-and-coming scientists. Some people do a postdoc because another job is not available. Postdocs are most common in the fields of physical sciences and life sciences, and many doctorate holders are working toward a career at a research university or a research career within a government agency, or in the private sector [source: NSF/CPST/Professional Societies Workshop].

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Since postdoctoral fellowships come after you complete your Ph.D. but before you embark on the rest of your professional career, the work environment and pay are also somewhere between the two. Every postdoctoral fellowship is unique, and postdocs vary in terms of pay and benefits as well as research experience. If you're considering doing a postdoc, make sure that you discuss your options with a counselor early on in your studies. Even if you end up receiving offers for postdoc positions, you need to ask the right questions before you decide which offer to accept.

Read on to learn about the postdoctoral experience.

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Studies in physics and biology generally have the highest rate of postdocs.
Studies in physics and biology generally have the highest rate of postdocs.
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Most people who choose a post-doctoral research position are Ph.D. graduates in the science and engineering fields. A 1995 study by the National Science Foundation found that 41.3 percent of recent U.S. Ph.D. graduates in all science and engineering fields were in postdocs. Physics had the highest rate of recent graduates in postdocs (72.9 percent), and biological sciences had the second-highest (71 percent). While fields like physics, biology and chemistry have the most graduates entering postdocs, more graduates from some other fields have been choosing postdocs, too: In 2001, 18 percent of social science graduates, 17 percent of math and computer science graduates, and 12 percent of engineering graduates entered postdocs, which would have been unheard-of in previous decades [source: NSF/CPST/Professional Societies Workshop].

While most people who earn doctorate degrees will go on to work in their field, the ways to do so are almost limitless. A person with a Ph.D. can teach, do research, work for the government or private industry, or even become a writer in his or her field. The Sigma Xi Survey of 7,600 postdocs found that most were looking for jobs at research universities (85.3 percent), followed by industry jobs (64.7 percent) and government jobs (52.2 percent) [source: Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey]. The research experience you gain during a postdoc is an essential part of building your resume if you want to get a tenure-track position at a research university [source: Trower].

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While you should do a postdoc if you want a tenure-track position at a research university or a government research job, some jobs don't require a postdoc. Although it depends on your field of study and the specific job you're looking for, some teaching positions at liberal arts universities, consulting work, or publishing and communications jobs may not require a postdoc. You should discuss your career options in-depth with your faculty advisor early on in your graduate studies. While a postdoc is necessary for some career tracks, it can be an unnecessary expense for others.

Why would a postdoc be considered expensive? The answer is because of the big difference in pay between postdocs and their peers in the outside workplace -- the median salary in 2001 for recent Ph.D. graduates in all fields was $33,000 for postdocs and $62,000 for non-postdocs [source: NSF/CPST/Professional Societies Workshop]. So, while you should consider a postdoc if it's important for your career goals, going straight to the workplace might give you a jumpstart on paying back those student loans.

Just where does the money come from for your postdoc salary? Read on to learn about postdoc funding.

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Some students might supplement a postdoc stipend with a loan.
Some students might supplement a postdoc stipend with a loan.
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The funding for most postdocs comes from the federal government. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the largest government agencies that provide money for the support of postdocs. The way this usually works is that a primary investigator (PI), someone who's is a scientist at a university or research facility, applies for a grant from the NIH or the NSF for a specific line of research. The grant award will be for a sum of money that the funding organization will pay to the PI's institution over a specified period of time. A portion of that grant money is for the PI to pay the salaries of technicians, research assistants and postdocs. Under this system, the PI hires a postdoc to work on a research project for a certain number of years and offers him or her a salary package for that time. Most postdocs work in this sort of scenario.

Another way postdocs receive federal funding is through stipends that agencies like the NIH and NSF pay directly to the postdoc, instead of to the university or research lab. The stipends come from competitive fellowships that postdocs apply for, and the postdoctoral fellow can use the money at any research facility willing to sponsor him or her. The most common fellowship of this type is the NIH's National Research Service Award (NRSA). Only about 15 percent of postdocs are paid directly through a fellowship like the NRSA. The stipend levels for these fellowships actually have an impact on all postdocs, however, because most institutions use them as guidance for how much to pay their postdoctoral fellows [source: Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy].

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Postdoc funding is similar to funding for graduate students, since universities pay a lot of their graduate students stipends from research grants. However, the stipends for graduate students are much lower than those for postdocs: In 2003-2004, the average annual stipend for a graduate teaching assistant was $11,714 [source: Binghamton University Graduate Stipend Survey]. Many graduate students use student loans to supplement their stipends. Graduate students fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and use a combination of grants, scholarships and stipends to pay for their tuition, books and living expenses, while postdocs receive a salary offer and don't fill out a FAFSA.

Are all postdocs created equal? Read on to learn what questions you should ask when applying for a postdoc.

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Make sure that you ask about your postdoc salary during your application process.
Make sure that you ask about your postdoc salary during your application process.
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Before you accept a postdoctoral fellowship, you should ask about the salary. While salary should not be the only factor in your decision, you still need to put food on the table while you're building your career. Be sure to ask how long your salary will be guaranteed for; this depends on the length of the grant that your salary comes from. Ask if you'll have the opportunity to apply for more funding, or if you'll be required to apply for your own grants to fund your salary in the future. Postdoc salaries vary depending on your field of study and the type of job, so comparing the offers you get to each other is your best bet. Remember to research the cost of living in the area of the postdoc when you compare salary offers, since some regions are more expensive to live in than others.

Be sure to ask about health insurance benefits, as well. Most postdocs include health insurance for the postdoctoral fellow, and slightly fewer also offer coverage for the postdoc's dependents. Other benefits that some postdoctoral fellowships offer include disability insurance, life insurance, retirement plans, sick leave and paid vacation, and child care [source: Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey]. Think about which benefits are most important to you, and make sure you understand the benefits package before you make your choice.

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Research experience can vary wildly between postdoctoral fellowships, and the experience you gain can have a huge impact on the rest of your career. Talk to current and former postdocs about their experiences in the lab, and ask them if they would recommend the lab to a friend. Many people won't offer criticism of their own, but most will give an honest answer if you ask them. Another way to find out about the opportunities postdocs have in a lab is to research the lab's publication history. Were previous fellows the first author on many of the lab's publications? Finding out will help give you a good understanding of the research opportunities available to postdocs in that lab.

Since a major purpose of a postdoctoral fellowship is to make important professional contacts, it's a good idea to find out what kind of networking opportunities you'll have. Find out if your lab will sponsor your membership in important professional organizations and your participation in conferences. Some research groups will pay for you to travel to conferences, while others will not.

Choosing the right postdoctoral fellowship will help send you on your way to a lucrative, productive career. For lots more information on paying for school, see the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Binghamton University. "Binghamton University Survey of First Year Graduate Stipends." 2003-2004
  • Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy. "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisors, Institutions, Funding Organizations and Disciplinary Societies." 2000. (March 18, 2010)http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9831&page=1
  • Gamberi, Chiara and Derek Scholes. "Going in With Your Eyes Open: Questions to Ask About Postdoctoral Appointments." National Postdoctoral Association. 2004. (March 26, 2010)http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/graduate-students
  • Manahan, Carol. "Finding the Perfect Postdoc Position." Forum for International Networking in Education. (March 19, 2010)http://u21-fine.ning.com/page/postdoc-scholarship-and
  • National Science Foundation/ Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology/ Professional Societies Workhop. "Postdocs: What We Know and What We Would Like to Know." Dec. 4, 2002. (March 20, 2010)http://www.cpst.org/Postdoc.pdf
  • Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. "The Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey." 2005. (March 19, 2010)http://www.sigmaxi.org/postdoc/all/index.html
  • Trower, Cathy Ann. "Perspective: Advice on Achieving Tenure." Science. Oct. 23, 2009. (March 20, 2010)http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2009_10_23/caredit.a0900129

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