Exactly one year ago today, I was one week away from defending my dissertation. I was sleep deprived, spread way too thin, and overwhelmed with conflicting emotions of anxiety and excitement. If that wasn’t enough on my plate, I was also in the midst of phone interviews for postdoctoral fellowships. According to the National Postdoctoral Association, there are approximately 79,000 postdocs involved in research across various disciplines in the United States, which has been steadily increasing over the last decade. I remember Googling “questions to ask in a postdoctoral fellowship interview“, “things to consider when choosing a postdoc“, and at the time there wasn’t a whole lot that came up (surprising for how many of us there are). Since hindsight is 20/20 I will share with you some of the things worth considering when choosing a postdoc:
Yes, I said “how” and not, “how much.” This is a really important detail. Just as important as how much you’ll be banking for the next 1-3 years. I made sure to ask this question during each of my interviews because there are huge differences in insurance coverage, responsibilities, protected research time, potential teaching responsibilities that are all tied to where your salary comes from. The positions I interviewed for had funding sources that ran the gamut – NIH (T32; R25T), private funding off a PI’s research grant and funding through the institution itself. Each funding source had it’s own set of benefits and restrictions. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, only 18% (!!!) are considered “postdoctoral fellows”, meaning their funding is through a federally funded postdoctoral grant, like a T32. What’s desirable about NIH fellowships like T32’s is that there is protected research time, secured funding, and insurance coverage built into the terms of grant. Do your research, my fellow researchers – know where your dollars are coming from.
Federally funded postdoctoral fellowships (i.e., T32’s) have pretty much zero wiggle room in terms of salary allowance (see here). However, if your mentoring team has additional funds from grants they are currently working on, you can potentially negotiate for what is commonly referred to as “top-off” funds. It’s important to keep in mind that these funds often have strings attached (e.g., teaching a course, working with a dataset, writing a paper for publication). You know what they say: “mo money, mo problems.” You have to decide if you have the time and ability to take on these additional projects. If you can manage it, additional projects like these are great opportunities to build future collaborations, learn new skills and have a little extra money in your pocket.
A postdoctoral fellowship is meant to kickstart your career with close mentorship. When you are considering where to apply and ultimately where to accept a position at, you need to think about who will be serving on your mentorship team. Mentors are an invaluable asset for furthering your scholarship and professional development (a little more on this in my previous post here). You should make sure there are other people who are conducting research in your area (or a related area) of interest. Perhaps even more important is making sure that your personalities mesh. We get more control over who we choose work with (I know, crazy right?) now and work style, temperaments, and personalities can make or break successful collaborations.
I’m talking resources here – at both the departmental and university level. I’m a cancer researcher so one thing that was critical for me was having access to my cancer populations of interest. Does the university have a comprehensive cancer center? Do they have work groups, special interest groups, or centers that support postdoctoral fellows doing cancer research? Are there departmental resources to support your conference travel? Is there a strong postdoctoral association at the university/research center (yes, these exist!)? As I mentioned in #1, do your research and don’t be afraid to ask these types of questions. The answers to these questions could impact your decision.
The goal of a postdoc, besides helping to mold you into an independent researcher, is to jump start your career. Whether that is in academia, industry, government – depends completely on your research area, but nevertheless, your year(s) in a postdoctoral fellowship should be giving you a golden opportunity to shine up that CV into something competitive. Thus, an important thing to know is how many of the department’s/program’s/lab’s postdocs successfully secured a position in the area of their choosing. This is a statistic that every program should be able to provide without much difficulty. Why? The more postdocs who secure positions at the conclusion of their fellowship, the more successful the program looks. Additionally, you also want to be in a fellowship program that has a solid track record of helping their postdocs secure tenured-track positions, etc. Now ultimately, your successes (& failures) are completely your own, but a supportive fellowship will help you achieve your professional goals.
I was fortunate enough to have a few offers for a postdoctoral fellowship. After considering everything I just listed, the ultimate deciding factor was quality of life. You can’t put a price on quality of life. Ultimately, regardless of everything listed above, you’re going to have to live (e.g., eat, play, hang out, run, make friends) wherever this position is. That means that it’s pretty important that you feel like you can make a life for yourself there. So again, I call upon your skills as a researcher to start looking into the area and really consider if you could see yourself having a good quality of life in your new digs.
What are some other things that helped you make a decision about a postdoctoral fellowship? Faculty position? Industry? Comment below!