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Postdoctoral Education

As graduate students complete their doctoral training, they have several options for employment. A natural step for a new Ph.D. is to enter the professoriate by accepting a faculty position at a college or university. Others choose to accept nonacademic positions in either private or public businesses. A third option is to enter a postdoctoral position (postdoc), with opportunities for continued research as neither a graduate student nor a permanent university employee.

The National Research Council notes that the "postdoc is difficult to quantify and describe because it as both 'further study' and 'employment"' (p. 2). A senior faculty member supervises (or mentors) the postdoc for a period of one to several years as the postdoc continues to research and expand her knowledge base. The postdoc receives a stipend or salary for the position and in most cases will also receive some benefits such as medical insurance. However, the postdoc is not a permanent position. There is also no standard job description for postdocs as each university, department, and supervisor may have different expectations of postdoctorate education. In the right situation, a postdoc can provide extra time for the new Ph.D. to hone research skills and increase publication productivity. In other cases, it is the best path to choose because of a poor job market and increased competition for faculty positions.

For years, postdoctorate positions have been standard in high-consensus disciplines such as chemistry and other science-based fields. Only at the end of the twentieth century did disciplines within the humanities begin to offer postdoctoral positions to recent graduates in their fields, in order to give these graduates the opportunity to begin a strong research program prior to the start of tenure-track responsibilities.

There are several considerations one must take into account before pursuing and accepting a postdoctoral position. The first is what will ultimately happen to the new Ph.D. by delaying entry into the workforce. Will the position make the new Ph.D. a stronger candidate for future positions, or is she decreasing her chances of finding the best-ranking position by not pursuing a "real" job? Second, it is also important to consider the scope of the postdoctoral position. Will the postdoctorate education allow a Ph.D. to have responsibilities for all areas of a typical faculty position or will he be limited to one or two specific jobs? Either of these scenarios could hinder or assist a new faculty member as he pursues a chosen career path. Finally, those in the hard sciences may have the option to continue a project after the end of the postdoctoral job. This could make the candidate more marketable for prime faculty positions, but the postdoc supervisor may be reluctant to allow this.

Although postdocs have traditionally been temporary appointments under seasoned researchers at universities, a growing trend is for industry to offer postdoctoral opportunities to scholars in fields such as chemistry, biology, and physics. Industry jobs can provide a steady supply of funds and research equipment that may lead to more collaboration with other researchers because of reduced competition for research funds. However, these positions often afford the new Ph.D. less autonomy as companies often have specific research goals set for their researchers. Proprietary research may limit what the postdoc is allowed to publish as well.

The number of recent graduates actively searching for postdoctorate positions is contingent on several factors; the most prominent is the condition of the job market. In the hard sciences, for example, the number of research jobs available each year may be limited due to several factors, including industrial restructuring and reductions in the growth of federal research and development spending. At the same time, the number of Ph.D.s continue to rise in both the hard sciences and the humanities. Thus a greater number of new Ph.D.s are forced to compete for openings, leading many to pursue a postdoc as an alternative.


NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES–NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. 1995. "Ph.D.s and Postdoctoral Appointments. Issues Brief." Washington, DC: Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel.

RADETSKY, PETER. 1994. "The Modern Postdoc: Prepping for the Job Market." Science 265:1909–1910.


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