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Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory / flickr

Choosing your postdoc position

If you aspire to have an academic career, of all the decisions that you must make along the way, choosing a successful postdoc is probably one of the most important.

With far more postdocs in training than permanent positions available, principal investigator (PI) posts are very competitive these days. To increase their chances, postdocs must make sure that they use those years to not only hone their research skills, but also to develop the transferable skills that universities and research institutions are looking for in junior PIs: teaching experience, leadership ability, fundraising and writing skills, resource and people management skills, and so on. These skills can also serve you well in industry or even if your career eventually takes you away from the bench.

There are many factors to consider when choosing a postdoc, and a good number of them come down to personal choices and circumstances. The kind of environment you work best in, whether you are considering a research career in industry, or whether you have a family, for example, may all greatly influence where you choose to do your postdoc. But there is a range of attributes that a postdoctoral position should present in all cases, such as sufficient funding, access to adequate facilities and mentoring, and a healthy likelihood of yielding interesting and publishable results.

Finally, perhaps as important as finding a good postdoc is recognizing when not to take yet another one, should a permanent position not materialize. To avoid the postdoc trap, young scientists need to be aware of the state of their career progression in academia, and they need to keep an open mind to the myriad of other sectors where they can also apply their skills and find highly rewarding careers.

Over the years, Science Careers has explored all these issues and offered advice on how best to tackle them. Here is a roundup.

A different kind of postdoc experience, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 3 June 2015.
An industry postdoc can be a very good option, as postdocs at MedImmune, the biologics R&D arm of the international biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, explain.

Advice to a young scientist, by Elisabeth Pain, 12 May 2015.
When deciding where to do your postdoc, pick a PI who will support you as an aspiring academic rather than treat you like “cheap labor at the service of a great project,” says physicist Pedro Miguel Echenique.

A time limit on postdoctoral contracts: The French experience, by Elisabeth Pain, 30 April 2015.
A 2012 law that ordered French public employers to offer stable employment after 6 years of short-term contracts backfired, making it impossible for many postdocs to extend or get a new contract in academia.

Charting the careers of European researchers, by Tania Rabesandratana, 15 April 2015.
Adherence to the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers may be a good indicator when choosing an institution for your next career move, but it’s not the most important.

A European postdoc for the family, by Michelle Gabriele Sandrian, 16 January 2015.
Michelle Gabriele Sandrian and her husband didn't go to Europe to start a family—their goal was to experience a new culture and remain competitive in their fields—but when a baby came along, they recognized almost immediately the advantages of Austria's support for young academics.

Ed O'Brien and his wife, Stephanie, standing in front of the Bridge of Sighs at St. John's College, Cambridge.

Ed O'Brien and his wife, Stephanie, standing in front of the Bridge of Sighs at St. John's College, Cambridge.

CREDIT: Edward O’Brien

The not-quite-stated, awful truth, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 8 January 2015.
For all but a small percentage of aspiring researchers, doing a postdoc at a university is a lousy idea because it will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance one’s career.

An American Postdoc Abroad, by Edward O’Brien, 15 January 2014.
If you want to be successful in academia, you need to identify and choose the best training opportunities, wherever these might be.

Goal-Setting Strategies for Scientific and Career Success, by Cynthia N. Fuhrmann, Jennifer A. Hobin, Philip S. Clifford, Bill Lindstaedt, 3 December 2013.
According to a 2006 survey, postdocs who devised a structured plan and discussed it with their mentors were more satisfied with their postdoctoral experience.

Big Pharma Ramps Up Postdoc Programs, by Michael Price, 28 September 2012.
One cost-effective way that pharmaceutical companies are finding people with fresh minds and good ideas is by creating or expanding postdoctoral programs.

The Postdoc Experience: High Expectations, Grounded In Reality, by Kendall Powell, 24 August 2012.
In the 2012 Science Careers postdoc survey, respondents rated opportunities and support for career advancement and funding as the two most important ingredients for a successful postdoctoral experience. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

Recovering From Postdoc Mistakes, by Alaina G. Levine, 18 March 2011.
There are many unwise reasons to choose a postdoc, including not having a career plan and joining a lab only for the fame of the PI. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

The Postdoc Experience: Taking A Long Term View, by Laura Bonetta, 27 August 2010.
According to the 2010 Science Careers postdoc survey, PIs may view the postdoc years mainly as an opportunity for young scientists to improve research skills, but more and more postdocs are seeking to position themselves for their future careers. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

The World Is Your Lab on a Postdoc or Sabbatical Abroad, by Chris Tachibana, 30 July 2010.
Going abroad for your postdoc has a wealth of scientific and personal benefits to offer, but it takes some planning. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

Coming to America: Doing a Postdoc in the U.S., by Lucas Laursen, 1 January 2010.
The prospect of navigating work visas, securing health care, and adjusting to the American work ethic can be intimidating, but for Europeans who choose to do a postdoc overseas, the experience can turn into a calling card.

Audacity, Part 2: A Blueprint for Audacious Science, by Anne Sasso, 9 October 2009.
Following your passion and choosing a PI with a personality that matches your needs is a big part of being able to do audacious science.

Choosing the Less Traveled Road, by Elisabeth Pain, 4 September 2009.
A talk that Lars Jansen gave halfway through his Ph.D. won him accolades and postdoc offers, but after graduating, he decided to leave his well-established field to enter an emerging research area.

The Evolving Postdoctoral Experience, by Laura Bonetta, 28 August 2009.
When planning their careers, young scientists should bear in mind that many U.S. and European universities and funding bodies now have limits on the length of time a postdoc appointment can last. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

The Ups and Downs of Doing a Postdoc in Europe, by Lucas Laursen, 7 August 2009.
Former expatriates say that the experience of going to Europe to do a postdoc is worth it, both culturally and scientifically.

Independent Postdocs, Part 1: Gaining Early Autonomy, by Elisabeth Pain, 31 July 2009.
Gaining independence as a postdoc is a critical factor for future academic success, and dedicated fellowships and junior investigator programs may help young scientists make the leap.

Independent Postdocs: Resources, by Elisabeth Pain, 31 July 2009.
Any funding you can get as a postdoc gives you more leverage—and helps you cultivate independence more effectively—than if you are paid out of your PI's grant.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Life, by Elisabeth Pain, 17 October 2008.
For Radha Krishnakumar, choosing synthetic biology for a postdoc was a risky move, but it soon opened the door to job opportunities in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors.

The Postdoc Experience: Not Always What You Expect, by Laura Bonetta, 29 August 2008.
As highlighted by the 2008 Science Careers postdoc survey, only a fraction of young scientists who want a tenure-track academic position eventually get one. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

Industrial Postdocs: The Road Less Traveled, by Laura Bonetta, 13 June 2008.
Industrial postdocs often provide higher salaries and greater access to resources than in academia, but how do you find out about available positions and whether they are a good fit for you? (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

© iStockPhoto.com/ Trifonov_Evgeniy

Training Postdocs: Communication is Key, by Laura Bonetta, 31 August 2007.
Communication, closely followed by mentoring, ranked as the most important factor contributing to a successful postdoc in Science Careers’s survey of postdoc supervisors in 2007. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

Escaping the Postdoc, by Amarendra Swarup, 22 June 2007.
After 3 years doing a Ph.D. in biochemistry and 6 more years spent in two postdocs, John Bothwell is looking to break out of the postdoc rut and prove that he can be an independent researcher with his own funding.

Mind Matters: Culture Shock, by Irene S. Levine, 20 April 2007.
When going abroad for their postdoc, trainees may improve their chances of adaptation by choosing the right lab.

Tips for Publishing in Scientific Journals, by Katrina Kelner, 6 April 2007.
When choosing your postdoc lab, look for consistent output of good publications. This will tell you that the lab is run well and that the PI manages research projects successfully.

Success Factors for Postdocs: Be Prepared! by Peter Gwynne, 15 September 2006.
According to the 2006 Science Careers postdoc survey, young scientists based their postdoc choice primarily on the research topic, the PI, and good publication prospects. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

A Non-Traditional Science Postdoc, by Meghan Guinnee, 2 December 2005.
It’s possible to find postdoctoral positions that combine doing science with exploring other activities, such as science communication projects in a museum.

Success Factors for Postdocs: Ensuring a Fruitful Fellowship, by Peter Gwynne, 1 August 2005.
PIs describe the capabilities—their own and those of their mentees—that help produce the most effective postdoctoral work. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

A Kangaroo Jump, Back to Science, by Alain Rival, 4 March 2005.
Alain Rival decided to take his European Commission Marie Curie Fellowship to Australia largely for his family’s desire to undertake a new expatriation experience.

Choosing the Right Postdoc, by The Career Doctor, 8 October 2004.
The Career Doctor advises a postdoc torn between staying in a poorly funded lab and moving to a wealthier group that has a reputation as an unhappy working environment.

How to Avoid the Postdoc Trap, by The Career Doctor, 9 July 2004.
As postdocs move from one short-term contract to another, they can find it increasingly difficult to find posts that offer funding to more experienced researchers.

Knowing When to Break Free from your PI, by The Career Doctor, 27 May 2004.
A young scientist doing a postdoc in his Ph.D. lab is wondering whether he should make a move and, if so, whether it should be to another postdoc position or a more independent one.

A Catalan Adventure, by Bernhard Baumgartner, 23 January 2004.
Marie Curie Fellow Bernhard Baumgartner describes how, to choose the place for his postdoc position, he visited several laboratories, discussed possible projects, and made an evaluation table with marks for each lab.

The Perfect Postdoc: A Primer, by Jim Austin, 21 November 2003.
It’s OK to take a short postdoc position to buy time exploring alternative careers, but if you’re serious about an academic career, you must identify the postdoc lab that will maximize your chances of long-term academic success.

Science Advisors Part 2: Getting On, by Kirstie Urquhart, 10 October 2003.
Going abroad for a postdoc can be a great opportunity to learn another way of conducting and valorizing your science.

Science Advisors Part 1: Starting Out, by Kirstie Urquhart, 26 September 2003.
One of the most important criteria when choosing a postdoctoral group is its active, productive, and high-quality science.

Postdoc Policy Forum: Think Globally; Act Locally, by Sharon Milgram, 13 September 2002.
Young scientists should become more discriminating when choosing a postdoc: In addition to scientific excellence, they should expect a greater level of commitment and concern from their mentors.

Choosing a Graduate or Postdoc Advisor, by John Andraos, 16 August 2002.
There are advantages, and disadvantages, to having a young, midcareer, or senior faculty member as your PI.

Writing a Research Plan, by Jim Austin, 26 July 2002.
Even if you’re just starting out as a postdoc, putting your research ambitions on paper can be an excellent way to map out your career progression.

A Tale of Two Fellowships, by Cristina Pelizon, 22 March 2002.
If you can get into a good lab and secure a fellowship, a postdoc can be a very happy, rewarding, and well-paid experience indeed.

Academia or Industry: Considering the Fit, by Dolores Bartholomew, 25 August 2000.
Should you try an industrial postdoc if you don't want to close the door on academia completely?

Industrial Postdocs: Choosing an Industrial Postdoc to Finally Get a Life, by Janie Dubois, 6 August 1999.
The opportunity for a change of scenery and the impression that you're finally moving on make an industrial postdoc a good choice.

Find out more advice on postdoc-relevant issues in our content collections on international mobility, mentoring, and gaining independence, and get help mapping your career success in or out of academia with myIDP.

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