American Society of Hematology

To Postdoc or Not to Postdoc, That Is the Question

Andrew Volk, PhD Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

I remember when I realized that my predoctoral training was coming to an end. It was 2014, and the recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) workforce study portended a bleak outlook for newly minted PhDs. I therefore felt justified in telling my dissertation committee chair that I would leave science before pursuing postdoctoral research (or “a postdoc”). But here I am, five years later, reflecting on my postdoc experience. Here are a few fundamentals to consider before making (or not making) the postdoc leap.

Do it (or don’t) for the right reasons.

Pursue a postdoc if you wish to continue your research, either in academia or as a means to go into industry. Maybe you are at the end of your graduate training and find that research does not appeal to you anymore. That’s okay! Upon finishing their graduate training, many of my friends found new passions such as writing, policy, or consulting. If this sounds like you, you might avoid frustration and burnout by directly pursuing those careers.

Find the right location.

At the end of PhD training, many of us have important life responsibilities, so it’s okay to prioritize location when deciding on the postdoc experience you want. Today’s reality is different from 30 or 40 years ago, when it was common to start your lab before your thirtieth birthday, in that most people are only just obtaining their PhD at that age. In fact, NIH reports the average age of U.S. PhD graduates is now 31 years. This means that when you finish your postdoc, it will be much more difficult to simply pick up and move across the country (or world).

Choose the right mentor.

If you decide to do a postdoc, you will absolutely need a mentor with a leadership style that works with your personality and whose expectations match your level of commitment. Observe where their previous trainees have gone, because a mentor who has supported their previous trainees’ placement into the types of positions you want, is more likely to do the same for you. Sometimes your first choice of mentor will not work out. If coming to the lab feels like a slog, you fear lab meetings, and conversations with your mentor leave you agitated, then it might be time for a new mentor. We do not get paid enough to be miserable and we gain nothing from it. Remember that you are allowed to make changes.

Go in with the right attitude.

Come into your postdoc experience willing to focus and be persistent. Keep in mind that science is difficult, and success is never guaranteed. Try to stack the deck in your favor by focusing on what you need to do to advance and by blocking out distractions such as taking on too many projects. While collaborations are important for building relationships with colleagues, there should be a balance between them and your own research. My experience is that first-authored manuscripts from your project will be what ultimately gets you your next job.

Your time as a postdoctoral fellow should be a time to grow into an independent scientist. You have worked hard as a graduate student to get to this point, and now is your chance to lay the foundation that will establish you in your field. Good luck!

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