Postdoctoral research

Start planning for your career 

Seeking a postdoctoral fellowship should begin a year before you graduate. You may need to arrange a visa. You will need to ensure that you are adhering to the rules set by funding agencies. After securing a grant or position, continue to watch for funding opportunities that could help your CV and allow you to extend your fellowship. Throughout your time as a postdoc, volunteer for tasks that can help you develop new skills.

 

The postdoc-supervisor relationship

Supervisor-postdoc relationships have a significant effect on productivity and the overall experience of a postdoctoral fellow (Scaffidi & Berman, 2011). With this in mind, choose a supervisor with whom you feel comfortable and who is supportive of your research and career choices.

Some supervisors might be reluctant to support your attendance at transferable skills training workshops because they feel time away from the lab is wasted time (Phillips, 2010). Take the time to talk to your supervisor about the importance of additional skill training and push for time to attend such workshops. Consider attending SKILLSETS workshops such as Would You Fund It,  Basic Business SkillsLearning To Teach Day, and AGSEM TA Training.

Individual Development Plans (IDPs) for Postdoctoral Fellows

An IDP provides an opportunity for postdocs to identify their short term research and professional development goals, and long term career goals. Making goals explicit and sharing them has been shown to enhance goal completion. An IDP is an action plan for the next 6 to 12 months. It is a tool for postdocs to self-assess their skill set, reflect on their progress, and highlight their achievements. The IDP helps students to make more informed decisions about their next steps and think beyond the present to envision a trajectory beyond the postdoctoral fellowship. A key aspect of an IDP is the self-assessment of skills, interests, and values.

The resources below will help you develop your own IDP.

Around the time you complete your PhD

If you would like to do a postdoctoral fellowship (PDF), start thinking about potential supervisors and projects a year before you expect to complete your PhD. Ask your supervisor for help in setting up contacts, but don’t feel restricted by her or his suggestions.

If you think you might like to complete a PDF in another country, start looking into visa requirements as soon as possible.

Make sure you are familiar with Canada’s Tri-Council funding agencies’ rules for PDF awards. These may change from year to year, so keep up to date and don’t rely on word of mouth regarding eligibility requirements.

Don’t lose touch with your PhD supervisor; he or she can also be a valuable source of advice and will most probably provide a reference for you in the future.

During your postdoctoral fellowship

Keep up to date about what funding opportunities are available in your field, be they from the Canadian Tri-Council or from private funding bodies. Don’t become complacent if you are being paid through your supervisor’s research grant. Salaried fellowships and travel awards are important for your CV.

Most PDFs are planned to be one year in duration but often extend to two or three years. Be mindful from the beginning about what you want to accomplish in your PDF in the short term and the long term. In Quebec, it is important to remember that you may only be a postdoc for up to 5 years after the award of your PhD degree.

Work with your supervisor to ensure that, as your PDF continues, you have room for professional growth. For example, ask to supervise an undergraduate student project or offer to play a more active role in grant writing. Work with others to establish collaborations outside of your host university. PDFs are highly mobile and it is extremely useful to have connections, academic or otherwise, around the world. These connections can be invaluable when deciding what comes next.

Ultimately, you can evaluate your position (including your supervisory relationship, your funding, and the intellectual climate) and decide when to move on. Remember that, unlike a PhD, you can finish a postdoctoral fellowship on a schedule over which you have much more control.

With a PhD and postdoctoral fellowship on a CV, what else can help?

If you are a postdoc, there is no magic "line on the CV" that can conjure up a tenure-track job immediately. There are, however, postdoctoral training programs that can help with academic careers. Furthermore, for people looking for opportunities outside of academia, training can help people to articulate their skills, transfer them to non-academic contexts, and recognize commercial value in their research.

 

Comprehensive postdoctoral training programs can offer measurable benefits in terms of productivity and later career success (Rybarczyk, Lerea, Lund, Whittington, & Dykstra, 2011). Although the 2009 Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS-ACSP) survey suggests that more postdoctoral researchers want career training courses than have access to them, McGill's SKILLSETS program includes a great many workshops designed to offer training in transferable and career-related skills. Phillips (2010) suggested that postdoctoral fellows tend to be unaware of the financial value of their research and would benefit if universities offered what he calls "enterprise training" to help them capitalize on their work in the private sector, given the lack of academic jobs and the security and salary they entail.

For many scholars, commercial opportunities are far from their goals, and much of the discourse about postdoctoral research in the media (e.g., The Chronicle of Higher Education) critiques changes in academia, such as reduced public funding and the shift to "academic wage labour" (Cantwell, 2011).

Employment, research productivity, and mentorship

Most recent scholarly publications on postdoctoral education focus less on academic education than on future employment. Postdoctoral fellowships have been becoming increasingly common and postdoctoral researchers have very different degrees of optimism about the availability and stability of careers in academia.

 

Postdoctoral research has, in some fields, become an unofficial credential rather than an elective, extending a new scholar's study period even as academic jobs become more scarce (Akerlind, 2005; Cantwell, 2011). Akerlind (2005) noted that some postdoctoral fellows see their work as a stepping-stone to a more permanent job, whereas others understand it as another phase in a career that will probably always depend on temporary contracts and uncertain funding. In fact, most postdoctoral researchers do not get tenure-track jobs.

Dealing with this scenario, some scholars have turned their attention to factors associated with academic success, such as rates of publication and federal funding (i.e., research productivity) (Ross, Greco-Sanders, Laudenslager, & Reite, 2009).

Postdoctoral research often requires relocations, and some evidence suggests that that the longer one is a postdoctoral researcher the more likely one will need to relocate. McGill’s 2013 survey of PhD graduation outcomes shows that, of those who were working as postdocs, an overwhelming majority (92%) from the class of 2011 chose to work in North America (60% in Canada, 32% in the USA); yet those from the class of 2008 spread to both North America and Europe.

Scaffidi and Berman (2011) have shown that postdocs correlate quality supervision with their research productivity. Furthermore, they stated that "supervisors who are perceived to be mentors are five times more likely to be supportive of non-academic career paths." This suggests that mentorship involves caring for a person and his or her career and not only the person's research.

 

References

2013 PhD graduation outcomes survey. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. McGill University.

Akerlind, G. (2005). Postdoctoral researchers: Roles, functions, and career prospects. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(1), 21-40.

Cantwell, B. (2011). Academic in-sourcing: international postdoctoral employment and new modes of academic production. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(2), 101–114.

CAPS Survey of Postdocs in Canada (2009). Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS-ACSP).

Phillips, R. (2010). Encouraging a more enterprising researcher: the implementation of an integrated training programme of enterprise for Ph.D. and postdoctoral researchers. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 15(3), 289-29.

Ross, R., Greco-Sanders, L., Laudenslager, M., & Reite, M. (2009). An institutional postdoctoral research training program: Predictors of publication rate and federal funding success of its graduates. Academic Psychiatry, 33(3), 234.

Rybarczyk, B. Lerea, L., Lund, P. K., Whittington, D., & Dykstra, L. (2011). Postdoctoral training aligned with the academic professoriate. BioScience, 61, 699–705.

Scaffidi, A. & Berman, J. (2011). A positive postdoctoral experience is related to quality supervision and career mentoring, collaborations, networking and a nurturing research environment. Higher Education, 62, 685-698.

Further Reading

Bonetta, L. (2009). The evolving postdoctoral experience. Science Careers.

Bonetta, L. (2010). The postdoc experience: Taking a long term view. Science Careers.

Bonetta, L. (2011). Postdocs: Striving for success in a tough economy. Science Careers.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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