by Serena Corsini-Munt
A quick Google search will bring up several (even dozens) of articles and blog posts tackling the decision of whether or not to embark on a post-doctoral fellowship – see the links below. But what makes this post different is my unique perspective and consideration of the benefits and potential drawbacks of completing postdoctoral fellowship as a Clinical Psychology grad.
As I neared the end of my PhD, I made the decision to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship. For some areas of academia, this can often seem like a foregone conclusion as a next step on the academic road. Given that a PhD in Clinical Psychology without a postdoctoral fellowship gives way to a professional career as a clinical psychologist, a postdoctoral fellowship is not necessarily the norm – or at least that has been my personal experience when I consider my cohort, friends and colleagues with PhDs in Clinical Psych. What this means is that you may find yourself weighing this decision on your own, while your colleagues are eagerly pursuing employment in private practice or hospitals. I remember making this decision while working full-time in my clinical residency and simultaneously wrapping up my thesis – I felt saturated in clinical work and immersed in research – a foot in each world. While I could say that I was in a balanced position to make a decision, I know that I felt the pressure to pursue academia first before potentially pursuing clinical work sometime down the road. A gap in one’s clinical career may not hinder job prospects, but a gap in research productivity will almost always need explaining and may make it harder to win fellowships and obtain funding. At the time, I remember thinking that I was pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship to confirm my interests in academia, to broaden my research experiences and to learn from another mentor. Looking back on it now, I see so many more layers (i.e., timing family planning, following that academic road, another checked box on my CV, continuing in academia without requiring my partner to leave their job or move, my age and when I hoped to reach the job market, etc.), and a more glaringly simple reason. I wanted to say “yes” to another learning opportunity.
Aside from family and non-academic friends concluding that you’re just staying in school forever – a postdoctoral fellowship represents an opportunity to continue developing as a researcher and to build your CV to enhance your chances of securing a tenure-track faculty position. A postdoc can help you create a bridge in your research endeavours to distinguish you from your PhD mentor and bring you closer to developing your own program of research. But postdoctoral fellowships can take different shapes. They can include teaching responsibilities, integrated mentorship of junior students, clinical work (NB: There are such things as clinical postdoctoral fellowships that immerse you in more clinical training), the management of running your own study, and application for operating funds. Have a solid but flexible plan – knowing which elements are going to further your profile and contribute to your eventual goals is important. Don’t forget that crucial piece – your research topic – this is the crux of your story and will contribute to how you will be known as a researcher among your peers. It might also shape your future clinical work.
The many shapes and sizes of a postdoctoral fellowship are why it is so important to have clearly considered who you are aiming for when considering postdoctoral supervisors and where you might accomplish your work. Even before starting my PhD, a mentor and close-friend told me that a postdoctoral supervisor HAS to be able to help you transition into your career. She meant that they need enough experience and seniority to provide the scaffolding for you to grow as a researcher and a network to help you get a job. To me, this meant that you should make sure this person has the personal and professional quality of being able to have your best interest at heart when it comes time for you to apply to jobs – and in the lead up in case you should be faced with, discouragement, existential questions and ambivalence about your career path. I’m revealing my age when I reference the Knight of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Choose wisely.” And choose mindfully and purposefully.
That choice is important for funding also. When you apply for that “big” tri-council money, the fit with your selected supervisor counts. Speaking of money – you may have to remind yourself that money isn’t everything. Apart from the coveted Banting fellowships, postdoc salaries are modest compared to industry and private practice – you are still in training after all. This is a very important consideration for many and should be part of your decision process.
As I near the end of my postdoc – continuing on the academic road to a faculty position – here is my take on a list of the rewards and challenges associated with a postdoc. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it might just be right for you.
A postdoc can be hugely rewarding:
- You will learn new things about yourself as a mentor to junior students.
- You will have the chance to work more autonomously.
- You will grow as a researcher and a post-doc gives you PLENTY of time to focus on research.
- You will develop a new appreciation for your mentor (all of your mentors!).
- You will have the chance to increase your publications (both in number and breadth).
- You may have the chance to present your research as a junior researcher (no more PhD Candidate next to your name!).
- You will learn how another lab is run (very important if you plan to run your own someday).
- You may get a job interview or a couple, and you might land that dream job!
- You will feel more prepared – it gives you valuable time to set yourself up for success during your first job, including securing grants, establishing new collaborators, and having data to publish in those first few years.
A postdoc can also be challenging:
- You will struggle with time management (there is a lot more self-starting than during your PhD!).
- You may question your plan to pursue academia.
- You may feel isolated, leaving behind grad school colleagues for a much smaller cohort of post-doc colleagues.
- You will get discouraged.
- You may apply to faculty positions and never hear any kind of response (not even a rejection letter).
- You may interview for jobs and not get them.
- You will face new challenges (particularly if you start your family during this time).
- You may miss clinical work, but fitting it in might be possible.
LINKS to similar and relevant blog posts:
A summary of some US data re: postdoc salaries, gender, identity as a scientist, etc. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/09/these-studies-offer-realistic-view-postdoc-life-and-guidance-making-career-decisions
The original manuscript presenting the data from surveying 7600 postdocs: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/355511v1
Considerations of what you should be looking for and asking about if you are thinking of a postdoc: http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2018/06/25/what-should-you-get-from-being-a-postdoc/
Summary of a poll asking “Why did you decide to do a postdoc?” http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2014/10/03/the-postdoc-decision/
Tips on applying for postdoctoral positions: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/feb/01/applying-for-a-postdoc-job-here-are-18-tips-for-a-successful-application
Suggestions for selecting a postdoctoral position: https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.0020121