Having two job offers to consider was a nice dilemma to have in the fall of 2008 when I was finishing up my postdoc. One offer was for a research chemist position at a small firm in the Midwest. The second offer was for a postdoctoral position in Boston in a very different field from what I had been working in.
Being a new parent and having asked my wife to bear with me through both graduate school and my postdoctoral fellowship, I was ready to be done with training. So I turned down that second postdoc. Since then, as Boston has become increasingly central to the chemistry enterprise in the U.S., I’ve often wondered whether it was wise to have said no. This is a choice that many postdoctoral fellows will face: How do we know if doing another postdoc is the right course of action?
Not all postdocs will have the luxury of choosing between a second postdoc and a permanent position. But for those who do, there remains a sense that doing a second postdoc is taboo or that it can break your career. I haven’t seen any data to suggest that a second postdoctoral position in chemistry is statistically correlated to any job outcome, positive or negative. In fact, little data exist about how many people go on to a second postdoc. Even the National Science Foundation has not tracked these numbers.
We do know that in NSF’s 2013 survey of Ph.D. holders, 87% of physical science postdocs (that is, chemists and physicists) had defended five or less years before. Another 9% of them had received their Ph.D.s six to 11 years prior. Because we don’t have data on what happens to those who take additional postdocs, what follows are my thoughts on potential reasons to do another postdoc.
A second postdoctoral stint for aspiring academics is by no means rare. In my conversations with those who have done them and have gone on to tenure-track positions, it seems that complementary postdocs (as opposed to ones in the same field) are an important aspect of a successful faculty application. You could even try branching out into a new subfield of science, especially ones in which there are relatively few chemists, such as engineering or biology. International experience is desirable as well, which is something that could be gained with a postdoc in another country.
I haven’t talked to enough industrial chemists who have done multiple postdocs to get a sense of what their experiences have been. Having broader knowledge would be helpful for an industrial position, but many industrial employers would just as likely choose the candidate whose experience is directly applicable to their needs. For those considering a second postdoc, I think it would be important to understand what kinds of technical skills and experiences your future employer might be looking for and seek further training that could give you an edge.
In making these crucial career decisions, I strongly suggest not making them by yourself. If you haven’t already, it’s time to begin gathering a personal board of advisers—a group of scientists whom you respect and whose advice you value. Certainly this can include your current and former principal investigators, but also scientists whom you have met at conferences and other professional events who have positions in academia or industry that you would like to have someday. People love to offer career advice, and it wouldn’t cost you much more than a cup of coffee.
If you are an international graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, you may face special challenges that are related to immigration issues, and those issues may result in a decision to take additional postdoctoral positions in order to train further in the U.S. Choosing wisely and seeking advice is especially crucial.
My final recommendation for those considering a second postdoctoral position is to justify to yourself why you are choosing another postdoc. Are you simply looking for another temporary position while you seek a permanent position? What new skills and techniques will you learn? What do search committees in your target field value? Are there other paths that you should be pursuing? Do the potential gains of the postdoc outweigh any lost wages and benefits from not taking a permanent position? In considering these questions, you can know that you’re not pursuing another postdoc as a default choice, but one that’s one step closer to your goal of landing a permanent position.