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.

Strategic Self-Assessment

By Sharon Fleshman

Whether you are exploring careers, conducting a job search, or contemplating a career change, self-assessment can energize the process.  Begin by reflecting on your previous jobs, projects and activities. Don’t limit yourself to the experiences which seem most related to your immediate career goals.  Try to move beyond occupations and job titles. Take a look at your resume or CV and go line by line. Identify where you made the most impact and what gave you the greatest sense of fulfillment.

Next, you’ll want to pinpoint skills that emerge from these experiences. Chances are that these skills can transfer to a variety of career options.  For example, research skills could be applied to meaningful work in any number of areas such as academia, program evaluation for a non-profit, or marketing research for a corporation.

In addition to skills, think about what you valued in past experiences in which you found meaning and success. Identifying your work values will help you to consider the work environment which is the best fit for you.  In other words, you could perform the same job in two different settings but find that you thrive much more in one setting than the other.  What about your interests? Perhaps they would provide clues as to what’s next on your career path.  It may be that you decide to try out some career options by way of internships, volunteer work, or short-term projects to tease out all of this information. There’s nothing quite like hands-on experience to provide a fresh perspective.

Finally, you will need to consider the current priorities in your life and how they relate to your job search.  Are you willing to relocate or do personal commitments limit your geographical options? How do your immediate financial needs affect your choices?

You will find that self-assessment not only helps you identify potential career paths, but prepares you for next steps in the job search.  Your networking meetings will be more focused and fruitful because you have done your homework.  Your resumes, cover letters, and interviews will be more compelling because you have taken a thorough inventory of what energizes you, what matters to you, and what you have to offer.

In addition to our Career Discovery webpages, there are a number of tools and inventories that can help you facilitate the self-assessment process.  As always, Career Services advisors are available to provide guidance as well. Enjoy your summer!

3 tips from one who’s been there…

Part 2 of a series on mentoring opportunities and programs

One of the best ways to prepare for life after Penn – as well as to help you make the most of your time at Penn – is to find a mentor.  Use the Career Services Networking and Mentoring webpage as a great starting point.

Alumnae Anna Tiffany (EAS ’05), Scale-Up Engineer in the Coatings Technology Center at The Dow Chemical Company, volunteers her time as a Mentor through the Penn Engineering Mentoring Program.  Below, she has kindly shared her top 3 tips to help students connect with their mentors….useful advice to help you add value to your experience at Penn…and beyond.

There are so many options available for Penn grads that to decide what direction to take can be stressful, exciting, and confusing all at the same time.  The best way to understand your many options is to talk with someone who’s gone through it already.  That’s where mentors come in; their role is to provide students with perspective and guidance on the many paths that lie before them.  But what is the role of the mentee in the relationship?

In the best mentoring relationships, mentees are not idle sponges simply absorbing information from their mentors.  Instead, mentees – just like mentors – are active participants.  There are three things you can do as a mentee to ensure a successful mentoring relationship, and you have to start even before you contact your mentor for the first time.  Before seeking a mentor, you must determine what it is you are looking to get out of the relationship.  What do you hope to accomplish?   Making a list of questions you’d like your mentor help you answer is a good way to start thinking about what you want from the relationship.  Understanding this (and sharing it with your mentor!) will help guide your mentor’s efforts.

Once you have a mentor, the mentee should be the one to drive the relationship.  Set up meetings (if possible), ask questions, and request feedback.  At the same time though, be respectful of the mentor’s time.  The level of communication needed for each relationship is different, but it would probably not be appropriate to contact your mentor every other day.  On that note, communication can either be regular (say once a month) or on an as-needed basis.  It’s really up to what you need, but the frequency should be established at the start of the relationship.  With my mentors, I like to switch between regularly scheduled meetings and as-needed ones, changing as my needs change.

Finally, as the relationship advances, keep your mentor informed with your progress, particularly about topics you’ve discussed.  We want to know how you’re doing- we wouldn’t invest our time in you otherwise!  Plus, the more your mentor knows about your interests, the more helpful they can be.

So to sum it all up, decide what you want, drive the relationship, and keep in touch.  These three things will help you get the most out of your mentoring relationship.  And who knows, you might end up with a life-long friend in the process.

MAYBERRY R.F.D.- Looking Back and Looking Forward

By Anne Guldin Lucas


Most of our blog readers are probably too young to remember Mayberry R.F.D. (starring Andy Griffith and Ron Howard as a boy) on TV—unless it’s popular in reruns or in DVD collections.  Although my life wasn’t quite as hokey as it was for the characters in Mayberry, the 60s were indeed simpler times.  In my neighborhood, on summer evenings we literally sat on our porches playing cards, and drinking root beer floats or lemonade.  (Personally I never did care for Cherry Coke.)

Last weekend a longtime friend and his family visited us as they were passing through our area.  So please excuse me if this Baby Boomer becomes a bit nostalgic.  I promise there’s a point that will eventually relate to careers (sort of).

My friend arrived with his wife and the youngest of his three children—a 12-year-old daughter.  When my friend and I were twelve, we were neighbors, school mates, and members of the same swim team.  So we spent a lot of time together in our youth.  Since this friend and I have never lived in the same location since our college summers, it still feels strange to see him as an adult, with a wife and family.  I remember us as the same age as his 12-year-old daughter–braces and all!  (In fact, I got my braces off on the last day of 6th grade–the12th birthday of this same friend!)

Yet here we were last weekend—adults—middle-aged ones now, with jobs and families, sitting on the terrace of my house—MY house, not my parents’ house (or porch!).  Who could have imagined that we would actually grow up into reasonably responsible adults who owned homes, held jobs, and raised families?

Aha—that’s the point!  It happens to all of us.  Whether we had a plan when we graduated from college or whether it took years and some job changes, we do eventually grow up.  Whether it’s a straight line or a crooked path, somehow, we usually find our way to a good place—to jobs we enjoy and valued relationships that are so important to a life well lived.

During the past few weeks in my office at Penn I’ve met with triumphant students who are negotiating job offers and making plans to find apartments and move to new cities.  Congratulations to those of you who fit into this category; I know you’ve worked hard.  I’ve also met with students who feel as if they are the only one without a job and a definite plan for after graduation.  I can assure you that you are not alone in this situation.  You have also worked hard, making the most of your precious time at Penn, and you deserve to celebrate Commencement just as enthusiastically as your already employed peers.

MANY Penn seniors will wait until after graduation to begin or to resume a job search.  It’s okay.  In fact, despite the presence of Career Counselor Mother (obviously not to be confused with Tiger Mother) in their lives, neither of my young adult children had jobs upon graduation or had even begun their job searches at the time they walked up on the stage for their undergraduate diplomas.  They are now both gainfully employed, living independently, and one has even earned an MBA.  Believe me—you too will visit an old friend thirty or forty years from now and realize that amazingly, you found direction in your life—and the anxiety surrounding your first post-college job search will have faded into a blurred memory.

Although I have tried repeatedly to find a magic wand and crystal ball to aid me in helping you with your career exploration and decision making, there is ultimately no magic available to make this journey easier.  There may be serendipity along the way—and I wish you a healthy dose of it.  However, I suspect it will take some work and some self-analysis for you to merge your interests, talents, and experiences into a career choice and successful job search.

Please remember that you have lots of people to support you and cheer you on as you begin or continue on the journey to YOUR adulthood and independence—to YOUR own terrace or porch.  You know how to find us in Career Services.  Please reach out and let us know how we can help you get started on the path to your porch—and if you should happen to stumble upon a magic wand or crystal ball, feel free to bring that along too.  Maybe we can use it to look to a future with a little more Mayberry in it for us all!

Good luck with exams, hearty congratulations to the Class of 2011, and Happy Summer Vacation to all!

Where Are They Now? A look at the graduates from the College 5 Years Later…

By Claire Klieger

Ever wonder what happens to a typical Penn grad several years after they graduate? How many go on to graduate school? What are the average salaries? How many people end up working overseas or on the West Coast? Well, here’s your chance to find out. I recently updated our 5-year out alumni report so that you can get a sense of Penn alumni are doing and how they are fairing a few years after graduation. I’ve included some of the big takeaways below but check out the survey for lots of additional details (including salary by industry and job function, jobs by major, graduate degrees obtained, where geographically alumni are working and more!):

Most Penn graduates from the College go on to graduate school within five years of graduation: Sixty‐seven percent of respondents had completed or were enrolled in graduate programs at the time of the survey. Penn alumni work in a variety of industries.
• In comparing first salaries and current salaries, the median and average salaries for Penn alumni almost double in that short period of time.
• Five years after graduation, Penn grads were working in a wide range of different industries, the most popular of which were law, medicine, finance/real estate/insurance, media/communications and education/higher education.
Penn grads get around. Our data showed that Penn alumni were working in 13 different countries and 31 different states.
• Penn alumni also offered many pearls of wisdom for current graduates including taking more time to explore your interests and really doing what you love, networking, gaining professional experience and to stressing less!