Postdoctoral Research in an Academic Institution
What They DoIn most cases, a postdoctoral researcher’s work is a continuation of the work done in graduate school, only with the ability (and expectation) to perform at a higher level. The postdoctoral researcher is expected to take a more central role in guiding the lab’s research while taking initiative in generating new ideas and directions. This includes:
- Becoming and staying familiar with relevant literature in the field
- Learning new skills and protocols necessary for research
- Building collaborative networks
- Writing and publishing academic papers
- Mentoring and guiding the graduate and undergraduate students in the lab
- Teaching courses or labs, though this is uncommon
Education & Background
While earning his or her bachelor's degree, a future physics postdoc can gain a significant edge by doing undergraduate research in a research lab. This provides a valuable opportunity to learn how research is done, to become familiar with the equipment and methods of a typical lab, and to interact with others who are on the academic track. Successful undergraduate researchers are often co-authors on the lab’s research papers, which helps enormously the chances of getting into graduate school and subsequent postdoctoral positions. This is a great opportunity to try working in several different labs with different scientists that do different types of research.
During graduate school, the choice of advisor and research field becomes much more critical. One of the most important factors in one's ability to get a postdoctoral position and a subsequent academic post will be the recommendation of one's advisor. Also, the choice of research will likely determine what the student will focus on for the rest of his or her career as a scientist. Outside of the core courses a graduate student will have to complete to get a PhD, other specialty courses are often offered which can be invaluable to the future postdoc. Courses such as computer programming, mathematical modeling, and research methods and techniques may provide knowledge that will be extremely useful for a postdoc. Additional courses in the specific sub-discipline of choice can help supplement the postdoc-bound graduate student’s knowledge and increase their chances of success in academia.
Finally, due to the realities of funding, there are significantly more postdoc opportunities in experimental physics than there are available in theoretical physics. Thus, even the future theorist should become educated in experimental methods and techniques during their education; such knowledge will increase the chances of landing a postdoc enhance their research career.
For more information on how to successfully apply to postdoctoral positions, please our webinar on launching your postdoctoral position, below.
Apart from that mentioned above, additional training in English is often essential to success as a postdoc if it is not spoken as a first language. Along with this, training and practice in presenting research findings in scientific meetings in a clear, concise, and engaging way is important to every postdoctoral and scientific career. Postdocs are expected to write peer-reviewed research papers with much less supervision than is given a graduate student, and therefore practice and training in this skill should be obtained before applying for a postdoctoral position.
Finally, additional training could be necessary in the particular necessities of the chosen field of research: experimentalists could be expected to be trained in electronics, computer modeling, sample preparation techniques, etc.; theorists could be expected to obtain further training in specific mathematical techniques, predictive software and programming.
The postdoc position can start directly after defending the PhD. The recent PhD graduate who hopes to eventually get a faculty position can expect to spend anywhere from 1-6 years as a postdoctoral researcher. Typical postdoc offer letters are for one-year appointments with the possibility of extending based on the availability of funding and mutual satisfaction of progress. That said, the common expectation is that the postdoc position will last for two or three years. Two different postdoc appointments in two different labs for two years each is typical for those preparing for academic careers.
During the postdoc career, one should expect to build the final skills and techniques necessary for success as an academic scientist. Conferences, seminars, and other opportunities to present research should be expected, both in the university and at international conferences. Additionally, one should expect to publish as much as possible, to gain experience in teaching, to present one’s research at every opportunity, to become expert in the sub-field of choice, to build the mentoring skills necessary to lead one’s own lab, and to generally build one’s resume as an attractive future faculty candidate.
AIP Statistical Research Center Graphs
Initial Employment of Physics PhDs
PhD Starting Salaries
Employment of PhDs by Sector
Initial Employment of PhDs by Citizenship
Initial Employment of PhDs by Subfield of Dissertation
PhD in physics or related field
Published research, programming skill, knowledge of field-relevant equipment
$40,000 - $50,000
62% of recent PhD grads go on to a postdoc position
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APS Webinar: Launching Your Postdoc Position
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