How To Choose the Right Postdoctoral Vacancy for Your Career
If you are nearing the end of your doctoral work, you are no doubt dedicating considerable, perhaps anxious thought to what you will do next. Whether you are hoping to continue your research activities in a traditional academic or scientific career or thinking of working on the industrial or entrepreneurial side of research-based innovation, a period of postdoctoral research can be enormously helpful for gaining essential skills, achieving intellectual independence, producing quality publications and ultimately landing the job you desire. Choosing the postdoctoral vacancy that will most effectively enable you to accomplish these goals and more may not be easy, however. The most important criteria for the decision will vary among PhD graduates, but the following tips focus on concerns that tend to be central for most academics and scientists who are shopping for a postdoctoral vacancy that will suit their research expertise and set them on the career path of their choice.
1. The type of research you will be doing is of the utmost importance. It should not only interest you, but be exciting and challenging work that you will remain enthusiastic about for the full term of the postdoctoral position. It should also be the kind of work you have been trained to do because, as a postdoc, you will likely play a senior role in the research even if it is a large project involving many experts, and you will definitely be expected to complete tasks efficiently and effectively. You may want to continue with research precisely like or very similar to your doctoral work, a strategy that usually makes it easier to undertake teaching duties or publish quickly and one that might be particularly wise if you are considering a very short postdoctoral vacancy. You may, on the other hand, want to shift gears and pursue research of a somewhat different kind in order to obtain new skills and knowledge. This can demonstrate the kind of independence that ideally comes with doing a postdoc, and the versatility you gain can increase your marketability for employment and grants. Keeping your personal interests and career plans clearly in mind is essential when weighing options.
2. The senior academic or scientist who will be acting as your mentor, guide or advisor and perhaps as the primary investigator (PI) for the research project you will be working on should be chosen with great care. Some researchers would say that the mentor or PI a postdoc works with is even more important than the research itself and certainly the two should be considered together. Meeting the PI and discussing the research, your role in it and your personal plans are essential, and be sure to mention matters that are of greatest importance to you. Will the PI be providing a lot of supervision and managing your activities or will you have considerable freedom to pursue your work and perhaps sideline projects as well? Which approach would you prefer? Will the PI be supportive of your research and career plans? Does he or she have the knowledge, reputation and influence to help you obtain grants and employment? It may be difficult to answer these questions based on a single or even a few meetings or email exchanges, so learn as much as you can about the person who will be your mentor and consider the career paths of other postdocs who have worked with that researcher. A primary question might be ‘Will this PI or professor help me on my path to becoming a PI or professor myself?’
3. Publications are paramount. High-quality research documents published via reputable scholarly presses and peer-reviewed journals with a decently high impact factor are necessary to be competitive when applying for research grants and academic positions, and such publications can also help your CV stand out if you are planning to work in other sectors. Research projects, the teams that undertake them and the senior investigators who manage them all vary markedly when it comes to publishing and enabling postdoctoral members of the team to achieve publication, particularly the first-author publications that tend to count most, so the likelihood of your obtaining during your postdoc work the journal articles, conference papers, scholarly book or whatever kind of publication would best serve your aspirations is an extremely important consideration. Look into the publication record of the PI and his or her research group, and if publication patterns and plans for the future are not clear, ask about them and voice your wish to achieve first-author or single-author publications based on the research you will be doing as a postdoc. This can be difficult territory to navigate, but that is precisely why it is so essential to map it out before beginning the journey.
4. The research team you will be working with can make all the difference in the world, and even if you will be conducting most of your research on your own, interaction with other postdocs, collaboration with members of your own and other departments or laboratories, and participation in research and writing groups may be vital to your success. Meet and connect with everyone you can at the university or lab where you are thinking of taking up a postdoc vacancy and try to determine whether the people, the work and the research ethic suits you and your needs. Will the reputation of the research group, university or laboratory be a benefit in relation to your professional aspirations? Will the position offer an environment in which you can succeed at what you want and need to do? Your decisions about your research environment might include practical, cultural and social considerations as well as professional ones. Are you willing and able to overcome any language challenges if you choose to do your postdoc in a different country? Is there affordable housing available or nearby schools and childcare if necessary? Do members of the research group or department interact socially? Does it matter to you?
5. Funding is of enormous significance for conducting advanced research successfully. Your financial focus should be twofold as you consider postdoctoral vacancies: the research project requires funding and so do you personally. As far as the project goes, there must be sufficient work space, the right supplies and equipment, and perhaps technical assistance to conduct and analyse the research, and that funding should be available for the full term of your postdoc or your work could be cut short and your career path hindered. Funds for travelling to research sites and presenting results at conferences are necessary, and you will also require a reasonable salary that will provide your personal and family needs. It may be that a major grant held by the PI of a large research project will provide funding for you and your work, but in some cases you will be expected or required to bring your own funding with you. This is often encouraged in university settings, and coming to a research institution equipped with your own fellowship can not only increase your chances of obtaining the postdoctoral position you want, but also earn you greater freedom in your research activities.