Some people who have been in academia for a while are familiar with this term: postdoctoral researcher (a postdoc). Likewise, many undergraduate students in the sciences have heard the term. It’s a path they may one day take, but it still is a little vague. For those who are new or unfamiliar with the term, a quick guess may lead them to another question, “Is that another degree after you finish your PhD?” For some of us, who just submitted the first draft of our dissertation and set up our defense date, it seems that a postdoc position is the default path after finishing your PhD. Particularly, when you start to worry about finding a job as soon as you graduate. But, before you apply for a postdoc position, you may want to explore more details about the types of postdoc positions and the job responsibilities of postdocs.

what is a postdoc? learn what a postdoc is, how to become one and survive in this postdoc survival guide full of articles and interactive sheets free to download

What is A Postdoc?

A postdoc is a PhD research scientist working temporarily under the supervision of a mentor, commonly the principal investigator of a research project. The goal of a postdoc is to gain more training, experience and skills, before entering a more permanent science career.

What Are Some of the Job Responsibilities of a Postdoc?

A postdoc usually performs research designed by the mentor. Following their research, a postdoc will potentially publish their work in a peer-reviewed journal. In addition, a postdoc who works in academia may have to help their mentor write a grant proposal to apply for research funding and they may also help train a mentor’s graduate students.

Types of Postdocs

Based on where they work, there are three common types of postdocs:

  • Academic postdoc : An academic postdoc is a scientist who works at a university. As an academic postdoc, you will receive training before entering a tenure-track position at the university under the supervision of a professor. You will assist the professor with his or her research projects, conduct your research experiments, and publish your research. Many professors post a postdoc position opening on the university’s website, social media (such as LinkedIn), or other employment search engines. Follow their posted instructions about how to send your cover letter and curriculum vitae to the professor.
  • Industry postdoc: An industry postdoc works at a company. Many scientists pursue an industry postdoc position because they can perform research, gain higher salaries, and get access more resources (equipment, facilities, and research materials). Most importantly, this position may help them get their foot in the door of a major company. Some companies have industry postdoc opportunities posted on their websites, job search engines or LinkedIn. They may ask you to send your resume to their human resources department or directly to the individual researcher who will become your future mentor.
  • Government postdoc: A government postdoc is a scientist who works to perform research and probably other science-related tasks (such as reviewing products, patents, and grants) in various government positions. Scientists usually publish their work in this position. Some scientists prefer a government postdoc position because it offers the satisfaction of serving the country, provides relatively good benefits, and usually provides a healthy work-life balance. In the U.S., some agencies that hire a postdoc are the NIH (National Institutes of Health), FDA (Food and Drug Administration), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and USDA (U. S. Department of Agriculture). If interested, you may find postdoc opportunities on the government agency websites, on the USAJOBS ( website, in journals, and on the website of some professional societies.

How long is a Postdoc Appointment?

A postdoc appointment is typically 2-4 years. However, the length of your appointment as a postdoc usually depends on the funding for your research project. In academia and government, the expectation of the mentor is for you to finish and publish your research within a given timeline.

Some postdocs usually extend the length of their appointment by applying for more funding. Particularly, if they think they still need more training as a research scientist.

In industry, a postdoc appointment depends on a team’s particular research goal. For example, a goal might be to introduce and establish a new technology for that team. Therefore, the length of time for the postdoc appointment in industry depends on the accomplishment of that goal.

During your interview, it’s better to ask your prospective mentor about your timeline so you can start preparing your plan for a more permanent career.


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