Postdoctoral Research: The Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How

As someone interested in research, you may have previously heard the terms “postdoc” or “postdoctoral research” before. But what do these terms really mean, and what does this involve? See below for detailed answers to some basic questions about postdoctoral research, including tips for how you can go about becoming a postdoc.




Who is a postdoc (a.k.a. A postdoctoral researcher or postdoctoral fellow)? The term “postdoc” is short for postdoctoral, which literally means “after earning your Ph.D.”. So, a postdoc generally refers to someone who has already completed their Ph.D. and is continuing to conduct research. However, a postdoc is not yet a professor or Principal Investigator (PI), so they still have a research mentor whose lab they work in.




What does a postdoc do? A postdoc is mostly focused on conducting research. That is, postdocs typically do not spend much time on teaching or other service requirements at their university. Because they already have a Ph.D., a postdoc is usually capable of working relatively independently and conducting studies/writing up research papers. However, a postdoc may also be focused on learning new research skills in this role. For example, if your primary focus in graduate school has been on working with young children, but you’d really like to be able to collect data with babies in the future, you could focus on infant data collection for your postdoc! New research skills could involve working with new populations (e.g., infants versus children), learning new ways of collecting data (e.g., brain scans versus questionnaires), or learning new statistical techniques. If there’s something new that you want to learn, a postdoc is a great time to try to learn it!




Where can a postdoc conduct their research? Postdocs are generally found at universities around the world where most research is conducted. However, some postdocs also may work in research hospitals or other settings. Postdocs can be found where they have a Principal Investigator mentor who they can work with and a lab setting where they can conduct their research. Many postdocs choose to work at a different institution from where they received their Ph.D. in order to work with someone new and gain new skills/experiences. However, some postdocs may also be able to gain new skills and experiences as a postdoc at the same university where they received their Ph.D.




When can you be a postdoc? Essentially any time after completing your Ph.D. you can work as a postdoc. However, typically postdocs are those who have completed their Ph.D. but have not yet received a job as a professor or other more permanent research position.




Why be a postdoc? A postdoc is usually seen as a steppingstone position between completing your Ph.D. and receiving a more permanent position in academia (e.g., as a professor at a university). Working as a postdoc can be a valuable way to expand your research experience in order to become more competitive on the academic job market. As postdocs tend to spend most of their time on research, your postdoc years can help you to efficiently spend your time completing studies and writing up studies for publication so that your application for professor positions is even stronger than before. Often, postdocs also spend this time learning new skills that they believe would be helpful for setting up and running their own research lab in the future, while also hopefully making them more competitive on the job market. Another valuable aspect of being a postdoc is that it can give you an opportunity to work with new people and (potentially) work at a new location to give a broader sense of how different universities and labs work. This can be helpful for people who are on the fence about whether or not they want to stay in academia to decide if it is right for them. It can also be helpful for those who are certain that they do want to stay in academia to learn how other places operate so that they can determine what sort of university they would like to work at or how they would like to run their own lab. Overall, working as a postdoc can be a valuable experience for learning more about academia, gaining skills, and becoming competitive for professor positions.




How does one become a postdoc? Although a potentially beneficial experience, it is often not clear how to become a postdoc in the first place. To be a postdoc necessitates that you have your Ph.D., and that you have a way of being paid for your new work as a postdoctoral researcher. This funding can come in a couple of different forms. In general, there are two main avenues to receiving postdoc funding, which are detailed below:


Applying for Funding: Reach out to potential postdoc advisors/mentors proactively and ask if you can apply for postdoc funding together. If you know that you are interested in working with someone specific, this can be a great option. In short, you can reach out to someone who you know does exciting work in your area that you would love to work with (your potential postdoc mentor) and explain your research experience as well as your goals for experiences you would like to gain in a postdoc. If the potential mentor believes it is a good fit, you can discuss the possibility of applying for funding together. Both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have funding options for postdocs. For psychological research, the NSF SBE Postdoctoral Research Fellowship can be a good option to apply for as well as the NIH F32 Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award. However, it is important to note that these applications are 1) very time consuming and 2) will require a clear plan for the research that you are hoping to complete in your postdoc as well as how it will help you to achieve your career goals. For these reasons if you are interested in applying for funding, you should start reaching out to a potential postdoc mentor early! I would personally recommend reaching out approximately 18 months prior to when you would like to start your postdoc. This should give you an adequate amount of time to discuss with your potential advisor the idea of working together, to develop a research plan, to complete the lengthy application, and to potentially resubmit the application if needed. It is worth noting that these applications are quite competitive, but just applying can be a valuable experience and also help you to get a sense for your potential mentor’s working style! Additionally, if you happen to receive your own funding, you are being paid directly by your funding source to conduct your postdoc research (i.e., you are not paid through your mentor’s funding), so this tends to free up postdocs to spend their time as they see fit. This might include wrapping up old projects from graduate school as well as working on new projects from their postdoc.


Applying Directly for the Postdoc Job: Apply for postdoctoral positions that principal investigators (PIs) post themselves. Sometimes professors/PIs have their own funding and are looking to hire a postdoc to work on research in their lab. Postdocs can be great for PIs to hire because they already have a Ph.D. and can be very successful at completing and writing up research relatively independently. PIs looking to hire postdocs often post applications for these jobs in winter or spring (although applications can pop up at any time of the year). In these cases, seek out postdoctoral positions that involve research within your area of expertise and skill set. These job calls are often posted on listservs (try finding email listservs for organizations relevant to your research area). You can also look on the Psychology Jobs Wiki page ( under the “postdocs” section near the bottom to see any jobs that are posted there. In this situation you do need to apply for the specific job, but do not need to complete a long funding application as with the previous option. If the PI selects you for the job, you will receive your funding directly from the PI. This means that the PI may ask you to work on particular projects or spend your time in a certain way. With this type of postdoc, it is worth having a conversation up front with the PI about how they will expect you to spend your time and make sure that the way your time will be spent is a good fit for you.


Hopefully, these details help to clarify what postdocs are and how you can go about becoming one if it would be beneficial for you! Overall, thinking about skills and experiences that you want to gain after you receive your Ph.D. will be most important for determining if you want a postdoc, and if so for finding the postdoc position that is right for you.

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