From PhD to Postdoc, Part 1

September 9, 2016

A few people have asked recently about making the transition to a postdoc position after graduating with a PhD, so here are a few thoughts...

A PhD is a beginner's qualification. It's the first proper research project you do and it's mainly about developing your skills as a researcher. When you get to postdoc level, having made all the rookie mistakes during your PhD and with the pressure of the thesis behind you, that's when you can really start to make an impact.

My first postdoc was a lot like my PhD in terms of day-to-day routine. The only major difference was that I knew what I was doing. I didn't have admin duties or teaching, and there wasn't a big exam at the end to worry about, so I could just get on with doing good research.

A lecturer-friend of mine once said to me that "it's at postdoc level that you're dangerous", meaning that this is the perfect time to do your best work, when you have the skill but you don't yet have the admin or teaching burden of a permanent staff member. Also, without a reputation to protect you can do the risky, paradigm-challenging work that's only ever done by the young.

Of course there are also a lot of potential downsides. Postdocs are temporary positions, usually 1 to 3 years, and to find a job that matches your specialist skills often means moving city or country. If you're single that's not such a big problem, but if you have a partner (or worse, an academic partner also looking for a job) or a family then it can be a nightmare. Even if you find a suitable job in a suitable place, there is always the insecurity of not knowing what's going to happen after the contract ends. It is extremely difficult to find a permanent position, so a lot of researchers end up just hopping from one temporary job to another. Many just quit academia after a couple of years.If you're just looking to delay life decisions, a postdoc is a good way to do it (it worked for me). But if you want to be an academic, you have to be extremely driven and make decisions based on clear goals. That means looking for jobs that have the potential to lead into permanent positions and working with people who can mentor you in your career.

If you end up taking a job just because it's the only offer, it's unlikely to lead to a fulfilling career. As with PhD applications, a lot of people worry about being good enough to be accepted. But you need to ask yourself whether the job is good enough for you, whether it's the right work environment and whether your potential colleagues are people you want to work with.Being an academic can be fantastic. It's hard, but if you find the right environment to do something exciting and challenging and important in your research, and if you can inspire the next generation to do the same, that's a special kind of life.

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