Are postdocs beneficial?

Dr. Joseph Barber

Many of you may be considering whether or not to pursue a postdoc after you have received your PhD. The postdoc can serve several purposes:

  1. To give you additional training in your research field that expands the sometimes narrow focus you may have had during your PhD
  2. To allow you to build and practice more technical skills that help you to be a more rounded researcher
  3.  To give you some time as you apply for academic positions in what remains a very challenging job market
  4. To give you some time to figure out what it is you actually want to do next if you realize that pursuing an academic job may not be for you
  5. To gain industry-relevant experience if you seek out some of the postdocs funded by certain research organizations and employers

There are many reasons for taking on a postdoc position, and also many considerations in terms of what you want to do, with whom, where, and how long you should stay in a certain postdoc position. You will need to think carefully about these considerations, but as you do, here are some general thoughts for you to ponder:

Diversity of research experiences:
Depending on the type of career you are seeking, using a postdoc to gain additional experience can help to fill out your skills and research experiences section on your CV/resume. So, choosing a postdoc that is slightly outside of your current sphere of research, or in a different lab, can offer you some new and rewarding challenges. You can also bring your different perspectives into this new research and perhaps contribute effectively to more interdisciplinary research (even within a subject) because of your new ideas and different approaches. Of course, the downside to switching labs or research topics is that you may have some catching up to do before you may be in a position to publish papers – something that is considered important in the selection of candidates for some (but certainly not all) careers.

Diversity of non-research experiences:
If you are thinking about non-academic careers, then it is important that you can focus on a wide diversity of experiences and accomplishments in your resume that are not all focused on research. This will allow you to think about many of the career opportunities that are available to someone with a doctorate. Some of these experiences might include having the opportunity to mentor other students, to lead a committee within a student/postdoc organization, to gain additional editing experience working with other researchers, to serve as an intern/fellow in a tech transfer office, or to join graduate student and postdoc groups that focus on careers such as biotech and consulting. Of course, all of the experiences I have listed here (and others that I have not) are available to postdocs at Penn, and it would be important to think about whether a different institution could offer similar experiences. Indeed, even having access to a Career Services office could be an important factor to consider – not all universities offer their postdocs this resource. If you are transitioning out of academia, then the more you have done, experienced, investigated, achieved, outside of your direct research, the easier it will be to convince an employer that you do have a good track record of using your skills to get things done. It is not easy – a postdoc can take up a lot of your time, but expanding your horizons (and your network) by getting involved in other activities will always be beneficial, even if you choose to continue on in academia.

Where should you look for postdocs, and how long should you stay?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but there is some interesting research out there related to these issues. In the paper: “Postdoctoral training, departmental prestige and scientists’ research productivity”, Su (2011) explores the influence that postdocs can have on ultimate career success (as it relates to academic positions in this case). In brief, some of the findings suggest that researchers are the most productive in the first three years of their postdoc post-graduation, and more so than researchers who continue on within academia but who did not do a postdoc. The prestige of the institution also seems to have a positive effect. Read this paper – you can find it on Web of Science – and I have provided the full reference below. While you are at it, do a literature search for similar papers on the career paths for researchers, whether you are a scientist, social scientist, or a humanities researcher. There are always interesting papers out there that might help you make an informed career decision. For example, here is another one: “Onto, Up, Off the Academic Faculty Ladder: The Gendered Effects of Family on Career Transitions for a Cohort of Social Science Ph.D.s” (full reference below).

These are just some general thoughts about postdocs. Chat with your colleagues, your advisors, your thesis committee, and with someone at Career Services – we can all offer different perspectives that might help you in your decision-making if you are thinking about postdocs.


Morrison E, Rudd E, & Nerad M. (2011). Onto, Up, Off the Academic Faculty Ladder: The Gendered Effects of Family on Career Transitions for a Cohort of Social Science Ph.D.s. The Review of Higher Education 34(4): 525-553.

Su, XH. (2011). Postdoctoral training, departmental prestige and scientists’ research productivity. Journal of Technology Transfer 36(3): 275-291.

Pointers for summer networking

Do your palms get sweaty at the thought of networking? Have you been invited to an industry event, corporate function, or alumni happy hour but have some concerns about attending?

You should attend. Every event is an opportunity – to learn something new, meet new people, deepen existing relationships, and practice interpersonal skills. If you’re attending one this summer, boost your confidence by being prepared. You can find tips on the Career Services website. Here are some highlights:

Business Etiquette – one of the most concise guides you will find on handling social events, dining, small talk, etc.

Informational Interviews – comprehensive resource including tips on how to ask for an informational interview, how to conduct one, and sample questions

Building a networking for your Job Search – a webinar and a video on how to network

And if you’re trying to connect with people with similar professional interests, you can look for fellow students/interns, alumni, graduate students, and industry professionals through databases compiled here.


Try a Job Aggregator

By Barbara Hewitt

Two jobs sites that I love to “see what’s out there” are and Both are job aggregators – search engines that crawl the web for jobs and then return a list based on the criteria you input. Both include job listings from thousands of employers as well as a wide range of job boards. You can start with a basic search including a keyword and a location for where you want to work. If you get too many results, you can always narrow your search further by criteria such as salary estimate, type of job (full-time, internship, contract, etc.), date of posting, etc. Both also allow you to set up a search agent so you will be alerted via email if jobs matching your criteria are posted.

Of course, given the huge number of jobs that can result from a search, you will want to be sure to try a variety of keywords that best describe what you are seeking. When I typed in “Analyst” and searched for jobs within 25 miles of Philadelphia on it returned 3762 jobs. Including “Marketing Analyst” returned 27, and “Operations Analyst” returned 41. Trying a variety of keywords is a smart move, as employers might advertise similar jobs with different keywords and titles.

Even if you aren’t actively looking for a job, aggregators can be great for researching what is out there. Let’s say you are studying Spanish and would really would like to use it in your job, but aren’t quite sure how. Type in “Spanish” and you will see all sorts of advertisements for jobs that would utilize this skill. Searches can also be extremely helpful in determining how you might best prepare for a specific type of career. Perhaps someone mentioned to you that you would make a good copywriter but you aren’t really clear what copywriters do. Enter it into one of the aggregators and very quickly you will find both the duties of copywriters at various employers and the kind of background they seek in candidates.

While aggregators will not find all the possible jobs out there, they can give you a broad overview of the market and lead you to opportunities you might otherwise never uncover. Of course, the most effective job seekers do more than just search the web – they also network, attend related conferences, and spend time crafting effective cover letters and resumes.

Independence Day

In observance of Independence Day, Career Services will be closing at 2pm on Friday, July 1st until 9am Tuesday, July 5th.

We wish you all a safe and happy fourth of July.  Remember, that if you need assistance over the holiday weekend, this blog and the Career Services website can provide you with answers to many of your questions, along with a vast range of career related resources.

Happy 4th!

– Your Penn Career Services staff