I am often asked by Ph.D. students how they should search for postdoc positions and make the most of them. Recently, I gave a presentation on the topic to a graduate class at North Carolina State University. I am sharing it here for those of you debating should you do a postdoc, how to find a good postdoc environment, and how to make the most of this training period.
Scientific Workforce, Job Search, Opinion
I have written about weighing the value of pursuing a postdoc after completing your Ph.D. in a previous blog post. And while that post focuses on my own personal experience and opinion, I wanted to use this space to emphasize more practical advice on how to network your way to postdoc opportunities and consider the training environment in the lab/group/institution to make the most of your postdoctoral experience.
I am often asked by Ph.D. students how they should search for postdoc positions and make the most of them. Recently, I gave a presentation on the topic to a graduate class at North Carolina State University. I am sharing it here for those of you debating should you do a postdoc, how to find a good postdoc environment, and how to make the most of this training period.
Scientific Workforce, Ph.D. Career Pathways
The United State's National Science Foundation (NSF) collects a wealth of data on individuals who received their doctorate degrees from US universities. Back in April, they released their most recent batch of data from their 2019 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR). The SDR provides demographic, education, and career history information from all individuals with a research doctoral degree in a science, engineering, or health (SEH) field from a university in the United States. As the SDR seeks to capture the full scope of US SEH Ph.D. employment, it surveys anyone with a Ph.D. in SEH fields from a US university regardless of year of graduation: some SDR respondents received their Ph.D.s a few years ago and some 20+ years ago. This is different from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) which surveys new US Ph.D. recipients and whose data I shared in an earlier blog post. Here, I will delve into some of the trends observed in the 2019 SDR data to give those with a Ph.D. in a SEH field more insights into employment possibilities after they receive their degree.
SDR data is from a survey of US doctorate recipients and therefore does not reflect the full scope of Ph.D.s employed in the United States. In addition, as it only surveys those who received their Ph.D. in the United States, it does not capture individuals who obtained their doctorates outside the country and then came to the US for additional training (ie, postdocs) and employment. Finally, as with all surveys, there is certainly some selection bias regarding who completes the SDR. Discussions and insights here are based on SDR data and will be limited in their generalizability based on inherent limitations in the SDR.
For more on the SDR methodology, see the Survey Overview details on their website.
Where are SEH Ph.D.s Employed
Across all doctorate recipients surveyed in the 2019 SDR, the US states with the largest proportion of science, engineering, or health Ph.D.s employed in them included the District of Columbia (technically not a state but represented in the state-level data; ~2.5% of the population are SEH Ph.D.s), Massachusetts (0.8%), and Maryland (0.6%). The median percent of any state's population consisting of employed SEH Ph.D.s was 0.2%. While DC, Massachusetts, and Maryland remained the top states employing biological, agricultural, and environmental life science Ph.D.s, others with high proportions of bio science Ph.D. employment included Vermont, Montana, Connecticut, North Carolina, Nebraska, California, & Washington state. Note that as these are calculated as proportion of a state's 2019 population, states with relatively low population counts (Vermont, Montana, & Nebraska) have many less Ph.D. scientists employed in them than larger states. For example, according to the 2019 SDR, there are 32,900 biological, agricultural, and environmental life science Ph.D.s employed in California (with a population of 39.5 million in 2019) while Vermont has 600 (among a population of ~600,000).
Top 10 states for employing computer science Ph.D.s: DC, Washington, Massachusetts, California, Maryland, New York, Utah, Virginia, Oregon, New Jersey
Top 10 states for employing physical science Ph.D.s: DC, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut, California, New Jersey
And many of these states are also top employers of engineering Ph.D.s.
Given these data you may have more luck pursuing Ph.D.-level employment in certain areas of the country over others.
How many Ph.D.s are working as postdocs?
Across all SEH Ph.D.s surveyed in 2019, ~3.3% of those employed worked as a postdoc. However, the percent of employment represented by postdocs varied by field of doctorate with ~6.1% of biological, agricultural, and environmental life science Ph.D.s employed as postdocs while ~1% of computer science Ph.D.s were employed as postdocs. The percentage of engineering Ph.D.s employed as postdocs was ~2%.
Given a postdoctoral position is by definition temporary, one would expect the percent of all employed SEH Ph.D.s in a postdoc would be rather low. While the general proportion of Ph.D.s employed in postdocs is relatively low, some of the trends in postdoctoral employment are concerning.
Unfortunately, many postdocs have been in their positions longer than the 5 year post-Ph.D. guidance outlined by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited report released in 2014 (see press release). According to the 2019 SDR data, 19% of all science postdocs were >5 years from the date of their Ph.D. being awarded and this percentage was slightly higher (21.3%) for biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences postdocs. So, as many as 1 in 5 postdocs employed in the US are 5+ years past receiving their terminal degree.
In addition, over the past 10 years a larger proportion of the US postdoctoral population is being filled by those 5+ years post-Ph.D. In the 2010 SDR data, only 13.1% of all science postdocs and 14.9% of bio, ag, and environ life science postdocs were >5 years from their Ph.D. being awarded. And while the 2019 data is off the peak of >25% of postdocs >5 years from their Ph.D. seen in 2015, the proportion of Ph.D.s employed as postdocs >5 years from their terminal degree is still ~45% higher in 2019 than 2010.
Percentage of all postdocs employed each year of SDR collection who received their Ph.D.s more than 5 years ago. Note the rapid growth in the percent of postdocs >5 years from their terminal degree from 2010 to 2015 and that 2019 data is still ~45% above 2010 levels. SEH= Science, Engineering, & Health
So, while improvements have been made around limiting long postdoctoral training periods, more needs to be done to assist these individuals in transitioning into more permanent positions either within or outside academia.
How many SEH Ph.D.s work for colleges or universities
Across all science ("all science" refers to all SEH fields surveyed except engineering and health) Ph.D.s surveyed in the 2019 SDR, ~48% work for and educational institution while ~30% are employed by a for-profit company and ~8% work for either the federal or state government. The distribution of sectors employing Ph.D.s in 2019 differed markedly by the field of the individual's doctorate degree with employment by educational institutions quite high for the social sciences (~67% of employed Ph.D.s) and for-profit companies being the largest sectors employing computer & information science (~54%) and engineering Ph.D.s (~58%).
While educational institutions are the top employers of social science Ph.D.s, they employ ~47% of those with Ph.D.s in the biological, agricultural, and environmental sciences. The proportion of engineering and chemistry Ph.D.s employed by educational institutions is even less with for-profit companies employing 50%+ of Ph.D.s from these fields.
These data suggest certain sectors of employment may be more available to particular Ph.D. fields than others. It is difficult, however, to disentangle whether engineering and chemistry Ph.D. skills, for example, are more valued by for-profit companies than those in the social sciences or whether there is a greater openness to pursuing non-academic careers in these areas. It is possible there are things to learn from specific departments and programs who place Ph.D.s into diverse career areas that could be modeled by others. Certainly, providing diverse career pathways for Ph.D.s is critical as the "traditional" path of obtaining faculty positions becomes less available in many fields.
Ph.Ds. Employed at Educational Institutions Who are Tenured Faculty or on Tenure-Trac
Among the ~108,000 respondents to the NSF SDR 2019 survey who reported being employed at educational institutions in the US, 44.5% were tenured or on the tenure track <10 years since receiving their doctorate degree. This percentage jumped to 69.1% in those 10+ years from degree award. However, there were noticeable differences by degree field in the percentage of Ph.D.s employed at educational institutions who were tenured faculty or on the tenure-track <10 years from their Ph.D. with ~25% in this category among the biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences to 60%+ for computer and information sciences and social sciences Ph.D.s.
One might speculate that looking at these data for those <10 years from their Ph.D. points to a potential bottleneck to obtaining faculty positions among certain fields. Also, the length of postdoctoral positions and/or use of more contingent positions (lecturer, research associate) in educational institutions could be higher in some fields than others. The SDR data can offer some insights as the proportion of postdocs who are 5+ years from obtaining their Ph.D. is higher in the life sciences fields which also had the lowest proportion of Ph.D.s employed at educational institutions in tenured or tenure-track faculty positions (plotted in green in the graph below and above, respectively).
While certainly the life sciences have the highest percentage of Ph.D.s employed as postdocs 5+ years from their Ph.D. and the lowest percentage of those <10 years from Ph.D. in tenure-track or tenured faculty roles, there is not perfect correspondence between lengthy postdocs and percentage of early-career Ph.D.s employed as tenured or tenure-track faculty. This could be for a myriad of reasons as the SDR data is not perfect. Remember, it only surveys individuals who earned their Ph.D.s in the United States. Thus, fields where a high percentage of workers obtain their Ph.D. outside the US are going to have less respondent representation in this survey.
For instance, we know that many postdoctoral scholars in the United States are international, who either obtained their Ph.D. in the US and continued in postdoctoral training via various visa types or who received their Ph.D. outside the US before doing a postdoc in the US. The 2019 SDR shows that ~54% of US Ph.D.s employed as postdocs are US citizens and other data from NSF shows ~49% of postdocs in the US were born oversees. In some fields including computer science and engineering, NSF estimates 55-60% of Ph.D.s working in those areas in the United States are foreign-born. Thus, the various employment trends shared so far can be affected by various limitations to employment for those individuals requiring visa sponsorship by their employer, the frequency of which may differ by Ph.D. field and the proportion of international students and scholars working in that area in the United States. I discussed some of the challenges around being an international scholar in the US (including visa restrictions) in an earlier series of blog posts.
Regardless of how international scholar dynamics may affect these data, it is clear from the 2019 SDR data that there are vast differences in the proportion of "early career" Ph.D.s in tenure-track or tenured faculty positions based on their degree field.
Decline in "Early Career" Ph.D.s Working in Tenure-Track & Tenured Faculty Role
Much has been made of the decline in faculty positions available to Ph.D.s over recent years. The SDR data allows us to partially look at this trend by asking how the percentage of Ph.D. recipients employed at 4-year educational institutions has changed over the years. Here, I decided to look at the SDR data from 2010 and compare it to 2019.
Over the past 9 years the percentage of tenured faculty who are less than 10 years from the Ph.D. in most science fields has declined by 25-30%. The decline is less steep for tenure-track faculty in the life and physical/earth sciences. Furthermore, the proportion of engineering Ph.D.s <10 years from degree employed at educational institutions in tenure-track positions has actually increased from 2010 to 2019 based on the SDR data. Even in the engineering group, though, securing tenure by 10 years post degree has become less common, presumably as the need and/or length of postdoctoral positions have increased.
The 2021 SDR data collection is currently underway and I will be very curious to see how these data look post-COVID. Will the percentages of early career Ph.D.s able to enter the faculty ranks fall even further? Only time will tell.
Median Salary Data for Science & Engineering Ph.D.s
As mentioned earlier, the prevalence of Ph.D. labor in the US who are supported on temporary visas is quite high. Many international students come to the US for their graduate training and seek employment in the country after finishing their degrees. The SDR data reports out median salaries for Ph.D. holders by citizenship status, which is plotted below by doctoral degree field.
It is clear from these data that median salaries are lower, in aggregate, for temporary visa (J1, H1-B) holders in virtually all Ph.D. fields except mathematics & statistics AND social sciences. US permanent residents' median salaries also tend to be lower but not in all fields. In fact, in computer & information sciences and mathematics & statistics permanent residents earn slightly more than US citizens.
It is difficult to speculate too much on these data but one potential reason for lower median salaries for temporary visa holders in particular could be the result of many of these individuals working at US universities where the visiting scholar (J1) visa category is commonly used when an individual is working as a postdoctoral scholar or some other contingent, non-tenure track position (research associate). When a temporary visa holder is employed by a company, however, they require H-1B sponsorship which is subject to a "prevailing wage" which should prevent these individuals' salaries being below "market" rate, at least in theory. The largest sponsors of H-1Bs in the US are typically companies working in the computer & information sciences or data analytics where Ph.D.s in the areas of computer science, math, and statistics would be in high demand. So, the increased salaries for temporary visa holders in those fields could be driven by who is employing the doctorate recipients (technology companies paying high wages).
Beyond who employs Ph.D.s what work they do can drastically affect their level of compensation. As seen in the graph below, Ph.D. recipients whose primary work activity is teaching have lower median salaries than those in research & development (R&D) roles or focused more on professional services, administration, management, or sales. Clearly these data are also colored by who is employing Ph.D.s as teaching roles are almost entirely within universities whereas R&D roles could be at companies, universities, government agencies, or other employers.
Note, however, that SDR data show the percentage of Ph.D.s whose primary work activity is teaching is ~10-15% of science and engineering Ph.D. recipients (see table, below). And there has been relatively little change in the percentages of Ph.D. recipients reporting their primary work role as teaching over the past few years. The general distribution of primary work roles for science and engineering Ph.D.s from 2017 to 2019 has remained relatively stable. And, as has been discussed in a previous post, the fact that greater than a third of science and engineering Ph.D.s report their primary work role as falling in areas outside research and development or teaching emphasizes the fact that there are many positions in administration, communications, management, and more that fall outside of the main boxes of teaching and research available to Ph.D. holders. I will be interested to see whether these distributions of work roles shift post-pandemic in the 2021 SDR data. Will there be less teaching roles? More R&D, especially in the life sciences? Or will the "something else" category continue to grow as Ph.D.s pursue more diverse career pathways?
Salary Growth for Science & Engineering Ph.D.s with Additional Years of Experience
The previous two salary graphs plot median salaries for all US Ph.D. recipients who completed the 2019 SDR. So, there are individuals in those data who are 20+ years from receiving their Ph.D.s and those who graduated only a few years ago. NSF also reports data by Ph.D. field filtered by years since doctorate which shows that the median salaries 5 years or less from being the Ph.D. awarded tend to hover around the $80,000 level though it is higher in some fields (most notably computer & information sciences). Median salaries are less different across Ph.D. science and engineering fields the further from the doctorate one looks.
This final graph nicely illustrates the value Ph.D.s provide to their employers. One could speculate that as individuals with Ph.D. skills including critical thinking, problem solving, and knowledge synthesis also gain work experience post-Ph.D. employers value them more. Fifteen years from receiving their doctorate the median salary for all science & engineering Ph.D.s is $100,000+ and many are making well over that amount. Ph.D. training provides a valuable skillset when coupled with practical experience and knowledge of how to apply those skills through working with diverse employers. Perhaps training programs can do a better job of providing some of the practical skills valued by a variety of employers during graduate school to help aid Ph.D.s' transitions to employment after their degree?
The NSF SDR data is an essential tool to help science and engineering graduate students, postdocs, and those who support them understand how the landscape of employment continues to evolve over time. Information on employment sectors and median salary data can also be helpful as recent Ph.D. recipients plot out the next step in their careers and understand their worth.
There are certainly glaring issues that are evident in the NSF data as well. The fact that many Ph.D. recipients <10 years from their degree employed at educational institutions are not in tenure-track faculty or tenured faculty roles speaks to the erosion of the faculty career path for many.
Furthermore, the proliferation of postdoctoral positions and other contingent roles is a problem. And while the number of those who received their Ph.D.s from US institutions officially employed in extended postdoctoral positions (5+ years post-Ph.D.) may be diminishing, we have less data on how many of these individuals have been captured by other job titles (such as research associate) when they "age-out" of the postdoc which may similarly lack pathways to permanent, well-compensated employment.
Certainly there are many unanswered questions in understanding the evolution of the Ph.D. workforce but NSF data provides critical insights which, when collected over time, allows for us to begin to observe changes in various employment metrics.
I encourage you to explore the data for yourself at the links below.
For Further Reading
Job Search, Academic Job Search
As we approach the fall, faculty job ads will begin to be posted. How can you prepare yourself for a competitive job market? I have 5 pieces of advice from my own experience applying for faculty positions and work supporting postdocs in their job search.
Self-assess & consider fit
Before any career search process, you should spend time self-reflecting on your skills, interests, and values. Consider what types of roles and employers would best fit where you are in your life. Note that there are many roles in higher education beyond tenure-track faculty and there are many colleges & universities to work at beyond name-brand or research-intensive institutions.
For more see:
Gather intel & information
What does it take to successfully land a tenure-track faculty position? While the ACRA referenced above assessed the faculty search committee's perspective on hiring new assistant professors, other work that I have collaborated on seeks to present data from the applicant's side.
See A survey-based analysis of the academic job market for more info on our applicant survey findings and variables that were associated with applicants successfully landing faculty job offers as part of the 2018-2019 job market cycle.
While our survey data and ACRA provide some insights on what it may take to land a tenure-track faculty position, the best means to gain personalized insights from your discipline is to talk to individuals that have recently landed faculty positions in your field. Conducting informational interviews with newly-hired faculty at a variety of institutions can also help you better understand what being a faculty member looks like in different contexts as well as learn about these new faculty members' experiences on the job market. Some may even be willing to share their application materials with you to serve as models and inspiration as you construct your own documents.
Start early preparing application materials
Arguably, the research statement is a good place to start for many STEM trainees as you probably have a good sense of what you have accomplished in your research and why it matters. However, a research statement needs to be forward looking and focused on what you plan to research as a new assistant professor. As such, you should think critically about where your field is going and how your training, skills, and interests can best be leveraged into a research program that is value-add to the department and institution you are joining. And if you are targeting research-intensive institutions, you must also seriously consider how your research will be funded and fit into funding priorities of key federal agencies and foundations.
It's important to really think about your vision for your research first before tailoring your materials to a particular institution. I believe you shouldn't try to present the research you think a hiring committee will be excited about but rather research YOU are excited about. You want to be hired based on who you are and what you aspire to be and be OK with the realization that many hiring committees won't see a fit between your interests and theirs. That is OK because fit is so critical in any job search and you want to find it so that you can thrive in your new role and be your true self.
For additional tips and advice on other faculty application documents, see:
And see the job search resources section of my website for documents I submitted on my own faculty job search, including a research statement for a research-intensive and primarily undergraduate-serving institution.
Cultivate peer support
If you are currently a postdoctoral researcher interested in a faculty career, you should join Future PI Slack NOW. This community of nearly 4,000 postdocs is AMAZING and a great place to solicit advice and feedback from your peers. There is a channel in the Slack group devoted exclusively to reviewing one another's job application materials (#jobapp_reviewers) that you can join to solicit and provide feedback. It is a truly great way to see a variety of examples of faculty application materials and get additional feedback on your own documents from individuals who will often be outside your discipline. This type of feedback is critical as asking your current supervisor or lab-mates for feedback may not give you a sense of how someone outside your research domain views your documents...and faculty search committees will almost certainly be composed of a diverse set of individuals lacking a deep understanding of your particular area of research focus. So, getting broad-based feedback allows you to refine your documents to convey your points effectively to a wider audience.
You can also form your own peer support group at your institution or amongst others in your network. Find trainees also planning to go on the job market soon to meet with regularly to discuss your experiences and share your approach to the job search (where did you find job postings?, how are you handling requesting letters of reference?, etc...). Ideally, having this group be composed of individuals going on the job market this year and those planning to go on the job market next year is a great way for trainees a year out from applying to learn from those going through the process this year. As the hiring cycle progresses, your group can think learn from those who have had interviews with search committees about their experiences and serve as a space for feedback on the job talk and chalk talk (and see this presentation or this one on YouTube for more) your group members plan to deliver at institutions who have invited them for a final round interview. Through this experience, you'll gain a wider perspective on navigating a job search as you learn and support one another.
Consider diverse career options
While a faculty role may be what you aspire to, it is always good to have options for the next step in your career. Consider using self-assessment tools such as myIDP, ImaginePhD, or ChemIDP to learn about the breadth of career paths that could fit your skills, interests, and values. Make plans to develop the skills and networks needed to pivot into careers beyond the tenure-track. There are so many amazing careers out there to pursue and remaining open to those possibilities will help you realize that there is no one path to "success" when it comes to your career.
See my recent Standing Out from the Pack presentation for a summary of some of the resources and tools mentioned above as well as advice on navigating the faculty job search.
We've also curated a variety of resources and perspectives on the academic job search and how to craft compelling application materials on the NC State Graduate School's ImPACKful blog under our "Academic PACKways" category.
I also highly recommend this Faculty Corner YouTube playlist from Michigan Medicine's Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies to learn more about the faculty job search and hear from faculty on how they manage their work & responsibilities.
Further Reading from the Blog
Scientific Workforce, Ph.D. Career Pathways
This post originally appeared on the North Carolina State University Graduate School's ImPACKful blog.
Marcus Lambert, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Research Strategy and Operations at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and his colleagues have been interested in understanding factors that affect whether biomedical postdoctoral scholars pursue career paths as faculty, particularly at research-intensive institutions. They have published two studies on the topic over the past few years:
Training and mentorship often do not align with careers available for Ph.D.s and postdocs.
Academia has traditionally viewed graduate education and postdoctoral training as preparation for a faculty career. However, estimates of the number of PhDs who enter tenure-track faculty positions range from 8 percent for life science Ph.D.s within 5 years of graduation to 20 percent for biomedical postdocs.
Thus, our training programs must reimagine the pipeline to address the needs of a changing scientific workforce, particularly as they relate to diversity.
Lack of Diversity in Faculty: A Leaky Pipeline
Perhaps one of the more striking datapoints Dr. Lambert presented during his talk is that while the percent of underrepresented minorities earning bachelors, Ph.D.s, and entering postdocs in the biological sciences has risen over the last 20 years, their representation in full professor roles has not increased since 2001.
Data have shown that underrepresented groups including women and certain racial/ethnic groups are less interested in a faculty career at research-intensive institutions than well-represented male researchers.
Surveying Postdocs to Understand Their Career Choices
Dr. Lambert presented data he and his colleagues collected from postdoctoral scholars regarding their motivations for academic research careers. This research group was specifically interested in understanding what factors motivate postdocs to persist in academia. In total over 1,200 postdocs from 50 universities were surveyed.
What were the results?
Nearly 50% of respondents reported a faculty career at a research-intensive institution as their top choice.
The Importance of Outcome Expectations & Research Self-Efficacy in Determining Faculty Career Choice
Two key metrics, outcome expectations and research self-efficacy, were higher among those interested in pursuing a faculty career versus those who chose career paths outside academia.
Female postdocs rated themselves lower in research self-efficacy and had lower outcome expectations than male postdocs. Self-worth, the sense of one's own value or worth as a person, was also a strong factor in determining career choice. In fact, the strongest predictors of underrepresented minority postdocs indicating an interest in pursuing a research-intensive faculty career were positive self-worth and high research self-efficacy. Similarly, the best predictor for women indicating an intention of pursuing an academic research position was positive self-worth.
Research self-efficacy is associated with higher rates of first author publications, particularly for female and underrepresented postdocs. Thus, programs that increase research self-efficacy could have positive impacts on supporting postdocs and their overall research productivity.
Underrepresented Postdocs Desire More Specialized Training
Underrepresented postdocs were more likely to indicate a desire for more specialized training to assist them in pursuing a faculty career including:
Qualitive Insights - Advice for Pursuing an Academic Research Career
These results, just released in PLOS One, focused on investigating advice postdocs would give others pursuing academic research careers.
Specifically, the authors investigated text responses to the question:
"What advice would you give someone thinking about an academic research career?”
Data from 994 postdocs were analyzed for common themes and sentiments among a diverse sample (56% US Citizens; 62% female; 13% underrepresented minorities).
A theme that continued to emerge in the qualitative data was the role "passion" plays in pursuing an academic research career. In fact, the authors organized many of the postdocs' responses about academic research into the concept of it being a lifestyle where one's research work and life are often one in the same.
With that in mind, other common advice centered around the need for those considering an academic career to engage in self reflection to determine if an academic research lifestyle was congruent with their values, life priorities, and personal and professional needs. Are they willing to commit long hours and much effort into academic training with no guarantee they will land a faculty position that this training traditionally prepares them for?
Pros and Cons of Postdoctoral Work
Other concepts that emerged from the postdocs' responses were that while the challenges of working as a postdoc are many (low pay, demanding workload, unanticipated setbacks, & a competitive funding and research climate), the positives in a postdoc position are scientific creativity, academic freedom, the ability to travel, and building problem solving skills.
Luck Plays a Part in "Success"
Many of the postdoc respondents mentioned that luck can play a significant role in the success of experiments, publications, funding, and job opportunities. Thus, ensuring your self-worth is not defined by "success" in your research work is essential to maintaining your mental health and wellbeing. You only have so much control of the various outcomes that are traditionally associated with academic success but you can control how central academic success is to your life.
On a side note, I routinely encourage graduate students and postdocs to get involved in things outside the lab/work as you need other outlets to feel accomplished and successful, which can help guard against allowing research or academic success to fully define you as a person.
Need for More Postdoc Support & Resources
Several responses to the advice for prospective academic researchers prompt emphasized the importance of strong mentorship and support while conducting postdoctoral training. Many recommended those interested in pursuing an academic research career to be proactive in researching and choosing the best work environment to complete postdoctoral training. In addition, the importance of finding multiple mentors, beyond your primary faculty supervisor, building a community of support, and asking for help are critical to success in your postdoc and beyond.
Realizing there are multiple career paths available to those with Ph.D.s and postdoctoral training and being proactive in researching your post-postdoc career options can also bolster postdocs' confidence in their futures and lessen the feeling that they must "win" the faculty lottery to be considered a "success".
Take-Home Points from Dr. Lambert's Research
Advice to Current Postdocs
To make the most of your postdoc, Dr. Lambert recommends:
For further reading...
Explore more posts related to the academic career search in the Academic Packways section of the NC State Graduate School's ImPACKful blog.
Career Exploration, Personal Perspective
In Fall 2018, I started writing a series of pieces for the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) Student/Postdoc Blog. As these pieces are no longer accessible online, I wanted to re-share them in a continuing series NIH BEST Blog Rewind. Here, I will add some additional thoughts to what was originally authored in 2019, denoted in bold (dark red) throughout the piece.
Original Publication Date: March 2019 NEW Perspectives, Comments, & Insights
Part of a series revisiting my NIH BEST Blog pieces.
“Find your passion. Do what makes you happy.”
We hear this advice all the time and think, yeah, it would be great to find a career one is passionate about, that makes one happy, pays one well, and fits one’s skill set and interests. But is it reasonable to expect this out of one, single job? Maybe, but we Americans are, too often, allowing our careers to define us (termed “workism” in this Atlantic piece and see also this piece by the New York Times), which can be problematic.
The challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic that have persisted over the past 13+ months are many and further highlight the fact that work should never come first. People have had to juggle many priorities this past year:
In this blog post, I will talk about some of the key aspects of work we find fulfilling. According to the book Drive by Daniel Pink, and based on research by Edward Deci in the 1970s, we perform best when we are intrinsically motivated. The three key factors that determine intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I will break down those three concepts in terms of work satisfaction (I will use my new job as an example; with new reflections 2+ years into it added), but other activities can also fill these human needs.
By autonomy, I mean feeling in control of your situation in life, work, etc. Autonomy in terms of work means not feeling micromanaged in your job, having the ability to prioritize your schedule, and choosing to do things in an order and manner that work for you.
I can say in my current position that I have a lot of autonomy: I decide how to prioritize and order my day, the tasks I need to accomplish, and my larger goals for the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at North Carolina State University. This is great and a huge plus for my current role.
Now, it isn’t like I have complete autonomy and one shouldn’t expect such autonomy, unless you are self-employed and, thus, your own boss. In my current role, there are still somewhat mundane tasks that I have to do.
For me, that is human resources-related tasks associated with the postdoctoral appointment and hiring processes at NC State. Would I say completing human resource actions in the multi-layered systems at NC State is my passion and makes me happy? No. Is it an essential component of my job and the function of my office (at least as currently defined)? Yes.
Over the past year, my administrative load has INCREASED by at least 30% as we now have additional processes that must be undertaken to hire postdocs given UNC System-wide restrictions on new hires. There have also been more requests by faculty to extend postdoctoral appointments past our 5-year limit this academic year. I have worked to accommodate these requests as these are unprecedented times we are living through and pauses to research projects have necessitated a need for many postdocs to stay in their position longer. In addition, many faculty advisors want to shield their postdocs from a tough job market or a need to move to secure other employment and so I am supportive of them staying here longer until conditions improve. Note, though, that many of our postdocs were able to land jobs in 2020 despite the pandemic.
The blurred lines between work and home have certainly not helped detach from work...I think I work more now than pre-pandemic. This challenge of disconnecting from work started long before the pandemic but like so many things was exasperated by it. The ability to always be connected to work via one's phone (I probably should discount my work email from my phone Gmail app) has led our leisure time to be turned into what some researchers describe as "time confetti". Time confetti are the little bits of seconds and minutes lost to unproductive multitasking often aided by our devices and super connected world. The term was coined by Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.
We live in an age where our attention is increasingly fragmented, which often prevents us from focusing on high-value work AND our personal lives. It is so easy to let those work email pings distract us from being present at home and with our loved ones. We all need to work on being more present and our employers need to more effectively encourage us to disconnect after 5 PM or on the weekends (in fact, France has a law seeking to restrict after-work emails).
Back to my administrative work: I take the approach of framing my human resource tasks as critical to the purpose of my job – to improve the postdoctoral experience. This is important because it ties to another key factor of intrinsic motivation – purpose. I need to review these hire actions to be sure the institution (and the faculty supervisors) are treating postdocs in an appropriate way that both follows our institutional policies but also ensures the postdoc’s best interests are considered.
Despite a taxing year in 2020-2021, I am proud of what my office and our postdoctoral association have been able to accomplish this year to support NC State postdocs from virtual social hours to professional development awards geared toward online learning or networking experiences. Many other institutions have also taken efforts to support their postdocs during COVID. So, in spite of the increased workload and administrative burden, I know I am making a difference by facilitating needed processes to keep our postdocs employed, supported, and connected during a difficult year.
Life is a matter of perspective and having the right mindset of WHY what your doing is important/necessary can get you through some mundane tasks and tough times.
People want to feel like they are making progress in their lives; that they are improving and getting better. Humans seek mastery in their work.
As a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you have spent years mastering your experimental, analytical, and communication skills to produce a dissertation, publications, and conference presentations. It feels good to know you are making progress and, as a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you are keenly aware of how frustrating it feels to not make noticeable progress. And this past year of COVID have certainly interrupted early career researchers' progress and job prospects, which we much seek to address at our institutions (for more see this article & this one).
A career is also filled with both sides of the mastery coin: moving forward and spinning one’s wheels. Sometimes it is very clear you are progressing toward mastery in a key task/component of your job or nearing completion of some large project or deliverable. Sometimes, though, you feel like you are not progressing. That is life and sometimes measuring progress is tricky.
So, while a sense of mastery and self-improvement is important for fulfillment, you can define what that means to you. If you feel like you have learned a little more than the day before, that you are a little more comfortable in your role than the day before, then you are making progress. It is often dangerous to put too much stock in measurable progress as it doesn’t usually capture subtle aspects of one’s job. As anyone in the sciences knows, the number of papers one publishes does not, in and of itself, denote the degree of mastery or accomplishment one has achieved in your training. I have only been in my new role for a few months, but I feel like I am making progress in understanding the key responsibilities of my position, including learning how to best interface with key people at NC State and how to interact effectively with our postdoctoral community.
In some ways, progress has been made over the past 2 years on the job and in some ways not. It helps, I think, to look back at accomplishments of my office and our postdoctoral population. So, I started at the end of each calendar year to construct a "Postdoc Year in Review" document to highlight the impact of my work. Constructing this document each December and looking back at the 2019 & 2020 versions remind me that much progress has been made by my office.
I know much more needs to be done to improve the postdoc experience here and nationally but progress takes time and effort. I have worked over the past 18 months to advocate for more resources for myself and the postdoc office here and those efforts have been only minorly successful (and further budgetary challenges due to COVID have certainly not helped). I hope that as I continue to build awareness of myself and my work on campus and make connections with more stakeholders, more resources will follow. I continue to persist and strive for what I believe is possible for our office and our postdocs in the future.
Please define mastery and self-improvement in a way that makes you appreciate the slow, incremental progress that accompanies much of work.
Working toward a larger purpose can help one persevere when times are tough. It allows you to keep in perspective the reason you do the work. Ideally, your career fills your need to be doing work that has a purpose. In my case, I focus on improving the postdoctoral experience at NC State University. I know firsthand that the postdoctoral years can be challenging and filled with uncertainty (even more so now after living through a pandemic that threatens progress and potential job prospects for postdocs), and I hope that I can help current postdocs identify the unique skills they can bring to the workforce and match that to a career that fits them. I will know if I am successful if I see our postdocs moving on to satisfying careers of their own. And that is certainly happening as evidenced in the career outcome data reported in our 2019 & 2020 NC State Postdoc Year in Review documents mentioned earlier.
All work does not have a higher purpose, though. Sometimes you are in a bull*hit job (which are common in academia, too) or, as others have labeled them, a rent-seeking job—jobs that don’t produce tangible products or results. These jobs are plentiful and involve processing transactions, moving money around, lobbying, etc. While it could be argued they produce something, their value to society is debated. I won’t get into economic theory, but the point here is that it is difficult to find purpose or feel like one is making the world a better place in some careers. That is OK, though, because you aren’t just your career.
Too often in America, we allow our careers to define us. I am as guilty as the next person; I often ask at social or networking functions, “So, what do you do?”. This question doesn’t specifically ask about someone’s job function, but often that is how individuals interpret the question.
Perhaps even worse than that question is the awkward response, “well, I am between jobs right now.” A paying job doesn’t have to define what we do with our lives. You can volunteer for an organization you are passionate about, you can stay at home spending quality time with your kids, or you can take time off to travel the country with your loved one(s), making memories along the way. COVID has forced many to reconsider their life priorities and make difficult choices, which while tough in the moment, may ultimately lead people to lead happier, more fulfilling lives. And a new YOLO (you only live once) movement post-pandemic is emerging as younger workers seek greater meaning, autonomy, and real-world experiences (travel).
I took my new job to be closer to the people who mean so much to me. I plan to frequently visit my aging parents who live on the coast of North Carolina (a 2.5-hour drive from my new job), I will reconnect with old friends from Furman University and UNC-Chapel Hill who live in the area, and I want to see more of my sister who lives a couple of hours away. I also am plan to take the time to visit my other sister in Memphis, TN, from time to time. The flexibility of my new role gives me all these opportunities and I am thankful for that. Furthermore, there is data suggesting recent graduates who value time over money report greater well being and more intrinsically motivated activity pursuits—pursuing work that they find meaningful in itself versus work they seek for financial/status reasons.
The past year "working from home" has truly been a blessing for me, particularly as a result of my choice to take this job in North Carolina. I have essentially been working from the home my parents retired to on the NC Coast (the home my mother grew up in) since March 2020. I occasionally go back to my actual home in Cary, NC, to check on things, pick-up mail, and go to various appointments. But being able to spend most of my free time with my parents this past year has been an unexpected treat. I know it wouldn't be for everyone, living with your parents, but I have really enjoyed it. It is the little things that truly matter in life. It is not like this year of COVID on the NC Coast has been eventual. We, ironically, have only been to the beach a few times given initial visitor restrictions at the start of the pandemic but also as a result of a general contentedness in staying home, watching TV, talking, laughing, and just being together. I have enjoyed (mostly) every minute of it. Time is something you can't get back and I have appreciated these 13+ months of extended family time.
If I had chased another career opportunity further afield geographically after my postdoc, this year together with family might have been far more difficult to achieve if not impossible with the challenges and risks traveling via plane. Obviously, we can't predict the future but we can try to prioritize what is important to us when making big career decisions. In retrospect, I now know I made the right choice 2 years ago taking this position, motivated in large part by the location and proximity to family.
You Are More Than Your Work
It is essential to have activities outside of work that give one’s life meaning. What those are will vary from person to person, but you should seek out activities that fill the key components of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
If you can’t find purpose in your job, you could volunteer for an organization whose mission statement aligns with your interests: tutoring, helping the homeless, advocating to Congress regarding some issue, etc.
If you don’t feel like your job allows you to achieve mastery, take up a new hobby and learn how to knit, build a chair, speak a new language, etc.
If you don’t feel like your job gives you autonomy, take control of some other aspect of your life. Maybe you decide to take up a new exercise routine or re-connect with an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Do something that gives you a sense of control and brings with it self-fulfillment.
Keep that COVID hobby you started this past year (it's great for your health) and lean into the increase in empathy and volunteerism that has emerged during and as a result of the pandemic...you will never regret finding ways to help others.
In closing, be careful in your search for the elusive “dream job.” Finding a job that fills the needs of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, plus pays you well and fits your interests and skills is a tough, perhaps an impossible order. The good news is that your job doesn’t have to define you as a person nor should it be your only sense of self-worth or fulfillment. Even the best job has its tough moments, and that is when you need to have other activities (volunteering, hobbies) and roles (sibling, parent, son/daughter, friend) that give your life meaning and purpose. You are more than your job, and you can define what a successful, fulfilling, and meaningful life looks like for you.
Hopefully as we adapt to a "new normal", post-COVID, we will be able to find increased flexibility in our work with potential hybrid roles where we spend some time physically in the office and some time working from home. We need some balance of in-person human connection with our coworkers while also having the capability to work virtually to balance family and personal needs with those of work. And, as the ability to engage with others face-to-face returns, we should also look for ways to collaborate and contribute to something bigger than ourselves by joining groups or volunteering for organizations with a mission we can get behind.
If the past year has taught us anything it is that life is too short to not find purpose in something and seek each day to grow, evolve, and make a difference if only in the smallest way. 365 days of making a 1% improvement in some aspect of the world results in it being 37x better at the end of each year. Whether you make that difference via your job or in the community at large through volunteer or other efforts, just be sure that you do.
“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you.” - Carl Sandburg
For Further Reading
The Impact of COVID-19 on Boundary Management, Work/Life Integrations, and Domestic Labor for Women in STEMM, report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine
Designing Your Life
The Future of Work Post-COVID
Prudential's Pulse of the American Worker Survey (March 2021)
The new negotiation over job benefits and perks in post-Covid hybrid work
Other Blog Posts of Interest
A neuroscientist by training, I now work to improve the career readiness of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.