What’s a postdoc?
According to the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA):
A postdoc is generally a short-term research position that provides further training in a particular field, and for individuals planning research careers in academia, government, or industry, the postdoc years can be an opportunity to develop independence, hone technical skills, and focus research interests.The postdoc path: understanding the value of a postdoc before you commit (https://www.nationalpostdoc.org/page/postdocket_08171)
Lots of fresh PhD graduates do a postdoc, but it’s not necessary, especially if your career plans do not involve academia. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to do a postdoc before landing a tenure-track faculty position. In fact, I know several PhDs who got a tenure-track position right out of grad school.
Should you do a postdoc?
Now, doing a postdoc is not a bad idea, if you have a clear career plan and you know what you want to get out of your postdoc position. A postdoc can help you get additional training on techniques you want to expand on, networking with people in your field, and expand your CV with a few more publications before you embark on your academic journey.
How I found my postdoc
The way I found my postdoc was through my mentor. He emailed me a posting that was sent to him by the hiring manager. I applied, got a phone interview with my potential PI, and was invited to do an in-person interview in September 2019. My potential PI liked me enough to offer me a position several months in March 2020, and I accepted. Two months later, I defended my dissertation.
A few of my friends did a postdoc with their gradschool mentors for a year before leaving for a permanent position elsewhere. That is if the mentors had postdoc positions (and funding) available for them to stay. If you want to go this route, then you should have a talk with your mentor about a year before you want to defend.
Your mentor will be your best resource on finding postdocs that are relevant to your skillsets and goals. Other resources I’ve found are through the NPA career portal, HigherEdJobs faculty search engine, Science Careers, and Inside Higher Ed. You can also do a postdoc at national labs, which could potentially turn into a full-time staff position at these labs. The other benefit is that most of the postdoc positions at these national labs are higher-paid than academic postdocs, with better benefits. The postdoc postings can be found on their websites:
- National Renewable Energy Lab
- Sandia National Lab (Livermore and Albuquerque locations)
- Lawrence Livermore National Lab
- Los Alamos National Lab
- Oakridge National Lab
- Argonne National Lab
- Idaho National Lab
- Brookhaven National Lab
- Lawrence Berkeley Lab
- Pacific Northwest National Lab
- Jet Propulsion Lab
Salaries and fringe benefits
Now, salaries are a bit low for postdoc positions, especially academic ones. For example, NIH provides a guidance on the salary cap and stipend levels for postdocs. In their May 2022 guidance, a postdoc with 0 years of experience will receive a yearly stipend of $54,840. According to Nature, the median salary is about $47,500, well below the NIH standard. At the national labs, salaries range from $60,000 to well over $100,000. You may or may not be able to negotiate the salary offer; I would consult friends who work there, or ask the HR person what is negotiable.
There are also some variations in benefits provided to postdocs. At the national lab I work at, I get 401(k) with matching, health insurance for me and my spouse, dental and vision, group life and disability, and access to a flexible spending account (FSA) and health reimbursement account (HRA). An academic postdoc may have access to a 403(b). Remember that benefits can be negotiable as well, but this may not always be the case.
I hope this was helpful. Please remember that a postdoc is not necessary, especially if your career path does not require one. But, if you want to expand your research capabilities, increase your network, or add more publications to strengthen your CV, maybe doing a postdoc is a good idea. And while you’re a postdoc and have access to a retirement account, you need to start investing for your future.