Doing Postdoctoral Work — Should I?

By Brett Pelham, PhD

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the answer to this question was very simple. In the old days, it was extremely rare for psychologists to take postdoctoral positions. Nearly everyone who was interested in an academic job found one and then got on to the serious business of trying to earn tenure at his or her new university. However, as the academic job market became more and more competitive, and as the degree of technical and theoretical expertise required to conduct high level research became higher and higher, many psychologists who had just earned their PhDs found that they needed an extra year or two of training (and a few more publications) to compete for the academic jobs that they would have easily qualified for in decades past.

In other words, as the job market in psychology has gotten tougher over the past couple of decades, the number of postdoctoral opportunities has grown enormously. Whether a specific person should consider a postdoc will depend heavily on that person's vita after he or she has earned a PhD. In some areas of research, a few junior author publications may be enough to land a major job. In other areas, candidates may not be taken seriously until they have published a couple of first author papers in the very best journals. Most candidates who are committed to an academic job track apply broadly for a range of academic positions (including one's dream jobs as well as a large pool of jobs that would be acceptable but not ideal). Then there is often a waiting game.

For the lucky candidates who get one or more desirable interviews, followed by at least one desirable job offer, accepting a postdoc usually becomes a moot point. For many other candidates, however, post-docs become a serious question if and when the candidate does not receive any desirable tenure-track job offers.

How to choose a postdoctoral opportunity

Assuming that one has a choice of more than one postdoc, the next question becomes how to choose a post-doc that will maximize one's chances of getting a desirable faculty position a year or two down the road. The two most important considerations here are usually:

  1. Whether this postdoctoral position will allow the candidate to publish solid research papers.

  2. Whether the candidate will be able to work with a faculty mentor (the postdoctoral adviser) whose skills and interests provide a good match to the candidate.

Of course, it doesn't hurt if the adviser is a likable person who will not only give the candidate plenty of work to do but will also:

  1. Teach the candidate new skills.

  2. Allow the candidate the freedom to pursue his or her own unique research interests.

Ideally, postdoctoral experiences should be productive, healthy collaborations between a senior faculty mentor and a junior person who needs a little more research experience before landing the ideal job. One obvious drawback of a postdoc is that most postdoc positions do not pay as well as new faculty positions (though they typically pay a lot better than being a grad student!). A less obvious drawback is that some faculty advisers do not spend the time to teach and meet routinely with postdocs. A good postdoc mentor is a senior colleague and a caring adviser rather than simply a boss.

On a more positive note, a rarely appreciated advantage of taking a postdoc rather than jumping immediately into a faculty position is that postdocs rarely require any committee work or teaching (which can both eat up a lot of time). So the new PhD who takes a carefully selected postdoc with a good adviser has lots of time to devote him or herself to full-time research. Hopefully, this will usually put this person in a much better position to apply for desirable jobs a year or two down the road.