FIGURE 1-5: Median Number of Years Spent in Postdoctorate Appointment for Doctorates in the 1989-1991 Year Cohort, by Degree Field and Citizenship at Time of Degree. Source: 1997 Survey of Doctorate Recipients.

A postdoctoral appointment is a virtual prerequisite for those wishing to carry out long-term, independent research in the life sciences, physics, chemistry, and a growing number of other fields.10 In addition, postdocs with experience in non-research settings (e.g., AAAS Congressional fellowships, National Academies internships) can substantially enhance their potential for employment in government and non-governmental organizations.

Postdoctoral terms.

The length of a postdoc term varies by field (see Figure 1-5). Biologists tend to stay on the longest (five years is common), engineers the shortest (a year is common). Postdoc terms for physical scientists are usually two or, at most, three years, but some physical scientists work as postdocs for six years, while a small percentage of researchers extend their postdoctoral terms indefinitely. There is no difference in the time spent in a postdoctoral position


Nearly a decade ago, Steven Sample, president of the University of Southern California and chair of the Postdoctoral Education Committee of the Association of American Universities, stated that “ an increasing number of fields, the postdoctorate is becoming the terminal credential, with the result that the PhD in those fields, while still very important, is becoming de facto an interim milestone.” See: AAU, Committee on Postdoctoral Education, Report and Recommendations, Washington, DC: March 31, 1998.

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