What the heck is a post-doc?


Before I signed up for a PhD, I did my homework. I wrote three different PhD proposals for three different universities and chatted to PhD students and lecturers about the academic career path. Still, it wasn’t until half way through my first-year that post-docs crossed my radar. At first, post-docs were a mystical phenomenon. Something that people spoke of in awed and sometimes despairing tones. It wasn’t until I attended my first conference that it became clear I had it all wrong.  Post-docs were not the optional extra I’d thought they were, but for most aspiring academics of my generation, a necessary step in pursuing an academic career.

So what the heck is a post-doc?

Post-doc is shorthand for a post-doctoral position. Essentially, this is the first academic position you earn following the submission of your doctoral thesis/dissertation. Job descriptions vary, but generally, a post-doc is a short-term contract or scholarship completed by someone 0-5 years post their PhD. They tend to last two to three years and to be geared towards research though there are exceptions. A post-doc can sometimes be more teaching based, reflect a combination of teaching and research and in psychology at least, clinical work too.

So it’s like doing a second PhD?

Not really. As a post-doc you’ve made the jump to independent researcher. Sure, you’ll have a boss to report to, but the buck stops with you as you devise, manage, complete and publish research projects. Unlike a PhD when we tend to pitch a project and apply for a scholarship, most post-docs will do the reverse, accepting a position offered and funded by the university and often with a set project. In the US post-doc salaries range from approximately 39,000 – 51,000 USD, in the UK £25,000 to £40,000, and in Australia from $60,000 to $82,000. As always though, there are exceptions to the rule and some post-doc candidates will  create these jobs, winning grants and using this money to pitch a post-doc to a university that they would like to work from.

How do I get a post-doc?

Honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to work out. This post just reflects what I’ve worked out so far. From what I can tell, hunting for a post-doc is a highly competitive process with many people having to move state or even overseas to secure a position. What can give you the edge as an applicant also varies widely, though publications seem virtually essential. The other trick seems to be having an ear to the ground about what’s on offer. Post-docs typically aren’t advertised in the local paper but through specialist listings (which are often erratic) and word of mouth etc.

All I know is that I’ve decided that for me it’s challenge accepted. It may be near impossible, but I’m going to do my darndest to put myself in the best position I can to get a post-doc, because as much as I like clinical work, I really can’t picture myself not doing research too. Wish me luck.

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Filed under academic culture, Clinical Phd, Goals, PhD, postgraduate applications, Research

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