OK, I’ve made “postdoc” into a verb. Sorry about that, but the question remains “does one need to do one?” The key to considering a postdoc as an optional first step rather than a logical or expected first step is in deciding what your long term goals are before you decide on a postdoc. I’m reminded of a cartoon of an urban “prophet” dressed in a white robe and carrying a sign that says “the end is near.” A man in a business suit is asking him “yes, but what are your goals?” I can’t insert it here because it’s ©, and I don’t have permission.
What do you gain by doing a postdoc? It seems to me there are three major benefits – learning new ways to define and answer (research) problems, getting more publications, and getting to know more people (ie, making your network bigger). Many people, I’m not sure if it’s a majority, get postdocs in the labs of friends or collaborators of their mentors. It may be best to look “outside the box.” All three benefits are important in career development; but, for staying in academia, getting more publications is essential. That may make it easier to answer the question.
Before I attempt an answer, let me digress a bit here. If you are decided on research and teaching at a 4-year university, medical school, or doing government research, a postdoc may be needed because your first applications may not have been successful or because the people you will be working with are using postdoc experience as a means of reducing the supply:demand ratio. An exception? Yes – if you are set more firmly on teaching than on research, explore the opportunities at 2-year or community colleges granting associate degrees. They are full of eager students who will be moving on to finish their final years of bachelor’s study at a 4-year school.
Begin exploring the many non-academic options. Science PhDs have transferable problem-solving and analytical skills that will catch the eye of corporate Human Resource managers and potential team leaders (ie, department heads), in fields even remotely related to their research. They are looking for smart people with backgrounds and experience that corresponds to a job description – where the postdoc “ingredient” is not often included in the “recipe” for success.
Do a little investigation of your own. Look at the backgrounds of the Bio Careers bloggers and see where they are now. When you’ve seen some non-academic options that are interesting, visit some corporate and other non-academic internet sites. Click on the button that lists the employment opportunities to see what the requirements are. Visit LinkedIn and search companies, institutions, and professions to find the profiles of people who have professions of interest to you. Do they list postdocs among their experiences or in their own profiles?
Have you answered the question – yes, no, optional or required? Think about it this way – a postdoc is almost by definition a “stopover” on the way to another destination. You might do well to look for a “direct flight” that arrives a bit sooner.
Cheers for now,
Clement Weinberger, PhD
The Stylus Medical Communications