Questions to Ask in Choosing an Adviser

The best time for a postdoc to evaluate a potential postdoctoral position is before signing on. It is difficult to adjust the major conditions of an appointment once it is underway. Experienced postdocs and advisers suggest the following questions be asked of (and about) a prospective adviser:

  1. What are the adviser's expectations of the postdoc?

  2. Will the adviser or the postdoc determine the research program?

  3. How many postdocs has this adviser had? Where did they go afterward?

  4. What do current and past lab members think about their experience?

  5. Will the adviser have time for mentoring? Or should I seek out other mentors?

  6. How many others (grad students, staff, postdocs) now work for this adviser?

  7. How many papers are being published? Where?

  8. What is the adviser's policy on travel to meetings? Authorship? Ownership of ideas?

  9. Will I have practice in grant writing? Teaching/mentoring? Oral presentations? Review of manuscripts?

  10. Can I expect to take part of the project away after the postdoc?

  11. How long is financial support guaranteed? On what does renewal depend?

  12. Can I count on help in finding a position?

  13. Will the adviser have adequate research funds to support the proposed research?

Best Practices

the other extreme, a few “award”-level fellowships at national labs pay more than $80,000 a year.

Most salary decisions are made by funding agencies seeking to balance multiple budgetary demands. In 1998, across all fields of science and engineering, the median postdoc salary for recent PhDs was $28,000, half the median salary of recent PhDs in industry and almost one-third less than for PhDs in tenure-track positions.5 Salaries were even lower before the recent 25 percent increase (effective October 1, 1998) of the National Research Service Award (NRSA) stipend by the NIH, which constitutes a de facto standard for much postdoc compensation.6 Responses to the COSEPUP survey (see Box) indicated that most universities follow the NIH's lead in establishing minimum salaries and yearly increases, with considerable variation, while national facilities tended to have standardized, higher rates than universities, as well as annual increases. About one-third of the respondents said they had no fixed stipend levels because postdocs were paid off grants, because different schools and departments treated them differently, or because stipends were controlled by extramural funding agencies.


NSF Issue Brief December 2, 1998.


Numerous universities and some other institutions where COSEPUP held focus groups cited the NRSA scale in describing their mechanisms for setting postdoc stipends/salaries.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement