Becoming a Postdoctoral Researcher
Written by Hannah Slack
For many, becoming a postdoctoral researcher is the first career step towards being an academic. Sometimes referred to as research assistant or research associate roles, postdoc positions are an interim career stage which offers consolidation of the knowledge you gained during your PhD. As a member of staff, postdocs engage in temporary mentored research and scholarly training to develop the skills needed for a desired career path. While the most obvious progression is in academia, many postdocs also go on to work in private research or industry.
This guide covers everything you need to know about postdocs so you can decide if this should be your next step after completing a PhD. We’ll look at what a postdoc is, what you’ll do as a postdoc, how funding works and how to apply. We’ll also cover what people go on to do after completing a postdoc position.
What is a postdoc?
A postdoc is a temporary funded research position at a university or in industry taken on within a few years of completing a PhD. Commonly, these positions are externally funded by Research Councils, supporting individuals to work in specific institutions. Although postdoctoral researchers are considered members of staff, many will be assigned a supervisor or mentor as support. Additionally, most positions involve working as part of a team of postdocs, often headed by an academic.
As postdocs work on temporary contracts there is no guaranteed internal academic career progression. Instead, you will be required to apply for higher level roles. Throughout the contract you are primarily responsible for your own career progression and identifying training opportunities.
Postdoctoral positions are more common in STEM fields or the Social Sciences, however are increasingly available in the Arts and Humanities. This is because Art and Humanities subjects can lend to ad hoc production of research that can be completed independently. Early career researchers therefore may not need previous contracted research experience to prove themselves as viable academics.
How long is a postdoc?
The length of a postdoc can vary widely depending on the funding available and the nature of the research. Typically most postdoc contracts are between six months and three years. These may also be extended depending on whether additional funding can be secured.
Typically, PhD graduates wishing to enter academia will complete multiple postdocs before applying for a permanent university position.
What does a postdoctoral researcher do?
The role of a postdoc will vary depending on the field. In addition to completing research, disseminating findings and running public engagement activities, postdocs may undertake teaching, act as supervisors to postgraduate students and assist in grant and funding applications.
Postdoc vs PhD
Unlike a PhD, a postdoc does not end with a thesis or a thesis defence. Postdoctoral researchers will be required to produce results, and promote these in various publications, internal reports or at conferences.
Why do a postdoc?
There are many reasons why a PhD graduate may want to do a postdoc. For some, it’s an opportunity to complete any unfinished research or pursue lines of enquiry that had to be excluded from the doctoral thesis. Others may want to further develop certain skills for a career in research or industry. Finally, working as a postdoc is a common route for many early career researchers looking to gain the experience, expertise and network needed to succeed as a permanent academic.
How does postdoc funding work?
Typically, postdoctoral researchers are externally funded by large research organisations such as the UKRI Research Councils. However, some positions may be funded by the universities themselves or private companies. Usually universities or organisations will submit a grant or funding application detailing the amount of postdoc positions they require and for how long. As this has to be approved, it is consequently the funder who determines the length of the postdoc and research to be conducted.
The average salary for postdoctoral researchers in the UK is £34,124. Although postdocs are externally funded, usually by Research Councils, the salary is different from PhD funded stipends. As an employee your salary counts as taxable income. You may also make pension contributions and be eligible for student loan repayments.
However, as a member of staff, you will also be eligible for any benefits offered by your employer, such as healthcare or insurance.
How to get a postdoc position
Applying for a postdoc position is the same as going for a job. You will be required to submit an academically focused CV, cover letter and references. You may also be asked to provide a research proposal or statement of research intent if there is scope within the position for your own objectives.
Who can do a postdoc?
Each postdoc position will have its own eligibility criteria. Make sure you check with the advertised listing before applying. Typically, you will need to have completed a PhD. Some postdocs will accept students who have handed in or have passed a viva but have not yet graduated. Previous publishing may not be required, however you will have to demonstrate that you are capable of producing research with valued outcomes.
As postdocs are designed for recent graduates, most will not accept applicants who graduated from a PhD five or more years ago.
Where to find postdoctoral positions
There are many places where you can find postdoctoral positions. Universities and research institutes typically advertise internally as well as externally. Make sure you’re signed up for emails from relevant career hubs. There are also many independent websites specialising in job postings for academics, such as FindAPostdoc. Additionally, you may find positions on popular career websites like LinkedIn.
Some aspiring postdoctoral researchers also hear about positions ‘through the grape vine’. Networking is a prominent part of being an academic and so attending conferences can be a great way to keep in touch with upcoming research projects.
What is the next step after a postdoc?
Completing a postdoctoral position can prepare you for a range of careers in various industries. Most aspiring postdocs want to know how these positions can aid them in the journey of becoming an academic researcher.
As mentioned, you will likely have to complete multiple postdocs before you are qualified to apply for a permanent academic role. You will need to demonstrate you are capable of producing successful research, securing funding, supporting students and disseminating research effectively throughout the academic and public communities.
Some go on to secure prestigious fellowships which grant greater independence to complete independent research. Others build up their reputation as a researcher through continued postdoc positions, research outcomes and engagement. Building an impressive CV and networking within the community is usually the best way to eventually secure a permanent academic position.
Can you transfer to industry after a postdoc?
Simply put, yes. Not every postdoc choses to further a career in academia. To transfer to industry you will need to be able to articulate how the skills you gained, developed and utilised are relevant to the jobs you apply for.
The Life of a Postdoc: An Overview
Ever wondered what being a postdoc is really like? We've chatted to Kshitij Tiwari, a postdoctoral researcher in robotics, to find out about his academic career path and what his everyday work involves.Read more