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How to make the most of your postdoc

Strategies for building a bridge to the next step in your career and avoiding common pitfalls

by Bethany Halford
September 9, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 35


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Credit: Ryan Inzana

In brief

Postdoctoral scholars, or postdocs, play an important role in the scientific ecosystem. Because of their experience, they often do the hard work that makes a project successful. They are also leaders who mentor graduate students and undergraduates and do the grunt work that keeps the lab running smoothly. The pages that follow offer advice to prospective and current postdocs. Also in this three-part package, Office Hours columnist Jen Heemstra advises postdocs to maximize their job search by competing cooperatively. And postdocs describe their experiences in personal essays.

When you’ve spent years working to earn a PhD, you probably don’t want to hear that you’ve got more training ahead of you. But if you’re like many new PhDs, you won’t emerge from graduate school to start a new job. Instead, you will move on to postdoctoral studies—known as a postdoc in the parlance of academia—where you will continue your scientific training for several more years before, hopefully, moving on to a permanent position.

About 57% of US doctorate recipients in physical and earth sciences, which includes chemistry, were headed for postdoctoral studies after graduation in 2017, according to the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. While not every PhD chemist does a postdoc, these temporary positions have become a requirement for anyone hoping to land an academic job. Chemists bound for industry find that a postdoc can burnish their résumé. And for new graduates facing a tough job market, a postdoc can offer a steady paycheck.

But a postdoc isn’t just a place to bide your time toiling away on someone else’s chemistry. It’s a sweet spot in your life as a scientist, where you’re no longer a student but you don’t yet have the full responsibility of running your own research group. It also offers opportunities to expand your scientific skill set, grow your network, and pick up soft skills that will help you in the next stage of your career. What follows are tips on how to make the most of your postdoc from chemists who have finished a postdoc (or two) or are currently immersed in their postdoctoral studies.

Picking the postdoc that’s right for you

Before you start a postdoc, you should ask yourself certain questions, says Joerg Schlatterer, manager of the American Chemical Society’s Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office (ACS publishes C&EN) and a veteran of two postdocs. These questions include What are your personal and professional goals? What gaps in your training need to be filled during your postdoc? Who is the best mentor to guide you through your postdoc?

It’s important to pick a postdoc that will help you achieve your goals, Schlatterer says. To help prospective postdocs make this decision, he and his colleagues have outlined six steps that will help chemists find the right postdoc (see sidebar). His office is conducting a survey designed to study career plans and preparation among postdoctoral scholars in the chemical sciences in the US. Researchers at the University of Chicago are also surveying postdocs to capture their experiences post-PhD.

When it comes to picking your postdoctoral project, many chemists recommend using the opportunity to expand your skill set beyond what you learned as a graduate student. “You want to make your own niche,” says Ahmad R. Kirmani, a foreign guest researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who recently received a PhD in materials science. He recommends shifting fields for your postdoc, but he adds that the fields should complement one another. “The length of a postdoc is very different from the length of a PhD, and you don’t want to start over from scratch.”

Nicole Gaudelli, head of the DNA editing platform at Beam Therapeutics, says to venture outside your comfort zone. For her doctoral work, Gaudelli studied biochemical mechanisms of natural products. When she moved to her postdoc at Harvard University in 2014, her first projects were similar to what she did in graduate school. About a year into her postdoc, she started working in the area of genome editing. That’s when her project really took off.

That work set her up for her current position. “Everybody has insecurities. When you’re in your postdoc, you have a PhD, and there’s this expectation that you’re an expert. So it’s easy to gravitate to projects that overlap with things you know,” Gaudelli says. “I wish I’d taken a leap sooner.”

Taking the time to advocate for yourself is very important.
Carolyn Ladd, chair, Caltech Postdoctoral Association

Perhaps the most important part of preparing for a postdoc is picking the right mentor. A good first step is to figure out which principal investigators in the field you want to study have a good reputation for mentoring postdocs. Then talk with other chemists who have worked as postdocs with that PI.

Laura Fabris, a materials science professor at Rutgers University, recommends visiting your prospective mentor’s lab in person and talking with the students and postdocs working there. What is it like to work in that lab? Will doing a postdoc there be compatible with your lifestyle?

“The way you choose your postdoc adviser is different from the way you choose your PhD adviser,” Fabris says, “and it depends on what you want to do afterwards.” If you’re looking for a job in industry, she says, seek out mentors with industrial connections. If you want an academic position at a top university, choose a postdoctoral adviser who is well known and whose letter of recommendation will carry weight when you apply for those jobs.

Many postdocs don’t realize how critical they are to PIs, says ACS’s Schlatterer, and they don’t represent themselves as accomplished PhDs. “They fall into a trap where they think they are graduate students who have to deliver to the boss,” he says. Postdocs should act like the professionals they are, he says, and start their postdoc “aware that it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Finally, Schlatterer says, if you realize after a few months that your postdoc is not a good fit, it’s OK to leave.

Plan for what comes after your postdoc

Once you’ve established where you’ll do your postdoc and who will be your mentor, it’s a good idea to do some self-reflection about where you want to go when you’re finished. “I think it’s important to start that exploration early on,” says Carolyn Ladd, a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology and chair of the school’s postdoctoral association. “In a postdoc you really have to take time out for yourself and prioritize the things you need for your career. It’s just as important as your research.”

“A postdoc goes really fast,” adds Sharon Neufeldt, a professor at Montana State University who completed a 3-year postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2016. “From the beginning, be thinking about what’s next.”

“I worked hard to make sure that I was making progress on my postdoc project but also that I was preparing my materials to apply for jobs,” says Maia Popova, a professor in chemical education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who completed a yearlong postdoc at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in May. She adds that once she had accepted her position at UNC, she continued to do things that would help her hit the ground running when she moved into the job, like setting up her research website and collecting some preliminary data.

The last thing to plan for when you start your postdoc is when you plan to leave it. Postdoctoral fellows needs to be strategic, says Tracy Costello, chair of the board of directors for the National Postdoctoral Association. The maximum length the association recommends is 5 years. “Once you get beyond a certain number of years, it’s not a training position anymore—it’s a job,” Costello says.

6 steps to a postdoc in the chemical sciences that is right for you

Step 1: Know yourself.

Before you look for any postdoctoral positions, do some self-reflection and self-assessment.

Step 2: Develop goals and make a plan.

After exploring career options and long-term goals, decide whether you’re competitive for the job you want or whether you need more training.

Step 3: Find a postdoctoral opportunity.

The key to finding the best postdoctoral opportunity is to know what you want to get out of the experience.

Step 4: Contact the potential boss.

You have to communicate with the potential boss that you might be interested in working together.

Step 5: Manage the interview.

An on-site interview at the institution of interest is critical to assessing the position and whether you feel you are a fit for the work environment. Present yourself as a potential asset.

Step 6: Transition to your postdoctoral position.

You are an accomplished PhD and not a student. Present yourself accordingly. Give yourself a short time in the lab (about 3–9 months) and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, leave.

Source: American Chemical Society Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office; read the full document at

Develop your soft skills

Chemists say that although their postdoc positions expanded their scientific skill sets, the most important skills they gained were soft skills, like communication, leadership, networking, and mentoring. Mastering those skills will serve you no matter what kind of job you want.

“The postdoc should allow you the opportunity to grow as a researcher so that you can go on and have an independent research career yourself,” says Darryl Boyd, a chemist who finished a postdoc at the US Naval Research Laboratory in 2014 and then took a permanent position there. Boyd says during his time as a postdoc, he learned how to write grant proposals, figure out what he would need to start up a lab in terms of equipment and personnel, and budget both money and time.

Rutgers’s Fabris says during her postdoc, which she completed in 2009 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she learned how to write papers, give compelling presentations, navigate intellectual property matters, and negotiate her salary. With those skills, she says, she also gained the confidence she needed to launch her career.

“The main skill I got was how to balance multiple responsibilities at the same time,” says Montana State’s Neufeldt. Her postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA included a teaching component, she says. “I had to figure out how to get somewhere in research while also teaching these giant classes of students.” That meant writing exams as well as answering students’ questions and emails. All that multitasking taught her how to balance research and teaching before she started her independent career.

Nicholas Ball, a chemistry professor at Pomona College, advises postdocs to “give as many talks as you can to as broad an audience as you can.” For future academics, he says, the more practice you get talking about your area of work, the easier it will be to lecture to students during your first few years of teaching.

Ball says that by mentoring graduate students and undergrads when he was a postdoc at Caltech, from 2010 to 2013, he was able to hone his teaching skills. Those mentoring opportunities also gave him an inkling of what it would be like to conduct research with only undergraduates—something that’s important for professors who, like Ball, work at primarily undergraduate institutions.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity to study how people lead and run a team,” adds Michael Cowley, a chemistry professor at the University of Edinburgh.

Cowley says that if he could do one thing differently during his time as a postdoc, it would be to make more of an effort to network. “I would encourage myself to be more confident and talk to the big scientists in my field about my work.”

“You don’t want to build your network when you need it,” the National Postdoctoral Association’s Costello says. “You want it in place before you need it.”

Don’t isolate yourself

It’s easy to get caught up in your research when you’re a postdoc. But finding a community and using the resources that are available to you can enrich your postdoctoral experience.

Costello points out that many institutions have resources that some postdocs never use. These include postdoctoral affairs offices and postdoctoral associations.

When you start college or graduate school, you enter with a cohort of students, says Raul Navarro, a chemistry professor at Occidental College who finished a postdoc at Stanford University in 2017. That creates a community, he says. “As a postdoc, you’re just thrown into it, so it becomes easy to isolate yourself.” Navarro suggests setting up a support network early in your postdoc by reaching out to lab mates and colleagues and by finding groups on campus that share your interests.

A good support system can help you deal with impostor syndrome, Navarro adds. “It comes up at every transition, and the postdoc is certainly no exception.”

NIST’s Kirmani recommends talking with colleagues in your department and at your university, as well as scientists at other institutions. This can lead to collaborations, he says. He suggests following scientists on social media sites like Twitter to keep up with what’s going on in the world of science and to see what other researchers are navigating both personally and professionally.

It’s also important to be aware of when you’re starting to feel burned out, Caltech’s Ladd says. “Taking the time to advocate for yourself is very important,” she says, even if those conversations with your adviser aren’t easy.

Consider atypical postdocs

While most chemists do their postdocs in academic laboratories, there are alternatives, like industrial postdocs.

Chris Schwalen knew he wanted a career in industry, so he sought out an industrial postdoc. He’s currently halfway through a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research.

He says the industrial postdoc has given him the opportunity to bounce ideas off people who are experts in all facets of drug discovery. “Something that’s tough to replicate outside of a pharmaceutical company or a biotech is seeing the actual drug discovery and drug development process up close and in real time,” Schwalen says.

US-based chemists can also consider going abroad for their postdocs. John Kelly, a chemist at SRI International, moved from the US to Leipzig University for his postdoc, which he finished in 2018. He says he decided to make the move because it would be a completely different experience from studying anywhere in the US.

“It was the best experience I could ask for,” Kelly says. While he enjoyed his research project, he says the most rewarding part was simply living abroad. Of course, he says, he faced hurdles he wouldn’t have if he had stayed in the US, like changing banks and sorting out visas and work permits. But those shouldn’t deter anyone interested in doing a postdoc abroad, he says.

“You could spend a year in the US and learn less than you would in a week in another country,” Kelly says. Working abroad gives you diversity in approaching a way to solve a problem, he adds. “If everybody in the room speaks the same and writes the same and approaches the problem the same, then you’re only going to have one solution.”

Should you do a second postdoc?

While there aren’t hard data on how many chemists are doing more than one postdoc, the National Postdoctoral Association’s Costello says that anecdotally, among scientists there has been an uptick in multiple postdocs in the past several years. Many of the chemists who spoke to C&EN for this story either had done or were planning to do a second postdoc. One said the second postdoc was unnecessary, but others said the experience enriched their training.

The University of Edinburgh’s Cowley says that after his first postdoc at the University of York ended in 2010, he was ready to move on from life as a postdoctoral scholar. “I felt ready to go and start a group, and I suppose I probably could have,” he says. But he ended up doing a second postdoc at Saarland University, an experience he says was tremendously valuable in his development as a scientist.

Reflecting on the experience, Cowley says, “What I think is important is that if you do a second postdoc, you ensure that there is something distinct that you will learn or gain from it that you didn’t get from your first postdoc.”

Costello agrees. She says regardless of whether your postdoctoral studies last a single year in one lab or several years in multiple labs, what you want to focus on is what skills you’ve gained that will help you land the job for which you’ve spent so many years training.


This story was updated on Sept. 11, 2019, to clarify Ahmad Kirmani’s position at NIST. He is a foreign guest researcher and not in a formal postdoctoral position, which is available only to US citizens.


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