Friday, 07 March 2014 00:00

To Be or Not To Be…A Postdoc

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Young scientist at a microscope"What are you going to do when you're finished?"
"Have you started looking for postdocs?"
"When you choose where to do a postdoc, you should consider..."
"Where will you do your postdoc?"

If you are near the end of graduate school, you probably hear these questions a lot. In fact, you may even think that a postdoc is the only logical next step after receiving your PhD. But is a postdoc right for you? Consider this: What are your career goals, and will a postdoc help you achieve these goals?

To answer this question, first, another question: What exactly is a postdoc?
The NIH definition of a postdoc is "An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path."

From this definition, here are some points to focus on –

- A postdoc is a temporary position. At many institutions, postdocs are in a separate employment category for temporary workers. Even though the duration of postdoc positions has lengthened considerably over the past few decades, a postdoc is not intended to be a long-term position.
- A postdoc is a mentored position. This is a transitional role that capitalizes on the abilities you have developed in graduate school, but the work is still done under the guidance of a mentor and should fit in with his/her research program and goals. A tricky, but essential, part of postdoctoral training is matching with a mentor who will help you achieve your professional goals, and this requires communication between the postdoc and the mentor from the very beginning.
- A postdoc is a training position. This is the time to develop the skills you will need for the next step in your career. Specifically, in an academic postdoc, this is time to learn a new area or expand your technical skills. Training in writing grants and papers is also essential – make sure you can be involved in these processes.
- A postdoc is to develop research independence. There can be many skills learned from an academic postdoc, but generally the primary focus is to prepare an individual for a career in research.

Now, what skills will you need to reach your career goals? Many goals can be achieved through postdoctoral training, but careful planning is needed to make sure a postdoctoral position matches your expectations. For example, if you seek an academic research position, a postdoctoral lab that will provide mentorship and resources to help you build an independent research program is essential. If you are interested in scientific editing or writing, a postdoc where you can participate in manuscript writing, editing, and reviewing would be essential. Are you interested in teaching? If so, it will be important to determine ahead of time if this will be an option while working in your mentor's laboratory.

If an academic postdoc does not sound like a match for your goals, what other options are available? Perhaps you enjoy research, but know that you do not want to be an independent investigator. If so, a more technical or staff scientist position might be a better fit. If you are interested in teaching, seek out a training program with a specific emphasis on scientific education, including curriculum design and classroom instruction. Larger universities with education departments can be great resources for learning skills and being involved in these processes. If you are interested in industry, consider an industry postdoc, or an entry-level industry position. Industry postdocs are somewhat rare, but some industries do offer training programs for individuals interested in careers in biotech. Also, consider if you need additional training for your career goals, such as a law degree or business management training.

So, rather than asking, "Where will you do your postdoc?" perhaps the better questions for a graduate student, or for anyone in a training position in research, are, "What are your goals? What is the next step?" One of the reasons I was initially drawn to a PhD program was the individualized path of research training, and of research itself. Similarly, the options after graduate school should be equally customized to best match the individual. Considering the increasing duration of postdoc training periods, and the increasing challenges facing the biomedical workforce, it would be an advantage to put yourself in the best possible position to reach your career goals through a post-graduation plan tailored to your goals.

So...what are the next steps for you?

Gina Razidlo

Gina Razidlo is a cancer biologist by training, and is interested in the mechanisms underlying tumor cell migration and invasion. She earned her PhD at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, NE, and is now in the laboratory of Mark McNiven at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

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