Preparing for a Postdoctoral Position

The factors that determine a “good” postdoctoral experience are as various as the personalities involved. But certain key steps deserve careful planning.

Choosing a field. Foremost is the selection of the research area. A postdoctoral research project should be more than an extension of thesis research; it should lead to new skills and a broader outlook. The postdoc should understand in advance what portion of the work is likely to be transportable to his or her next position.

Finding a postdoctoral position. Most postdocs in our focus groups4 found their positions through personal contacts—advisers, friends, and contacts from professional meetings. Many simply approached potential advisers directly with their qualifications and objectives. Few postdocs are hired after a simple response to ads in journals and on web sites, but such sources provide valuable tips about which institutions are hiring in which fields.

Choosing an adviser. Both experienced postdocs and advisers suggest a thorough investigation before signing on. Some postdocs place paramount importance on the prestige of the principal investigator; others emphasize mentoring ability. A researcher of renown has great power to help—or hinder —a career; a newer assistant professor may offer more attention, responsibilities, and a substantial role in building up a lab. In either case, it is desirable to: 1) arrange a personal meeting and 2) talk with current and former postdocs who have worked with that investigator or organization.


Several hundred postdocs, faculty, advisers, administrators, and federal agency staff generously offered their opinions, critiques, and personal experiences at 39 focus groups held around the country.

Practice Description

nings. But clear terms of appointment are essential to prevent later misunderstandings , and they should be established as early as possible.

Higher compensation.

Given the value of postdocs to the research enterprise, one might expect that postdoc salaries would be determined by market forces of supply and demand. The actual situation is somewhat more complex. While some say there is an oversupply of PhDs seeking postdocs, faculty and advisers often perceive difficulty in finding those with the desired skills. Even so, there appears to be little “salary bidding ” for the most desirable postdocs, and low compensation is the most vexing issue for many postdocs, especially at universities. Low pay —the salary range for most postdocs is from $27,000 to less than $40,000 —is an extra hardship for postdocs with families and those who must begin paying back student loans as soon as they lose their student status. At

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