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Career Profile: Become a Postdoctoral Researcher

The postdoctoral researcher career at a glance

Education: PhD in physics or related field

Additional training: Published research, programming skill, knowledge of field-relevant equipment and content

Salary: Starting $40,000 - $70,000

Outlook: 62% of recent PhD grads go on to a postdoctoral position.

What they do

A postdoctoral researcher’s work may be a continuation of the work done in graduate school, or an expansion into a different research area or methods. Compared to graduate school, postdoctoral candidates are expected to perform at a higher, more independent level, and are 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
  • Applying for external funding opportunities, such as fellowships and grants

In addition to research-focused postdoctoral positions, there are also a growing number of education-focused postdoctoral positions in physics, which may include education research, curriculum development, teaching, and/or outreach.

Education & background

While earning a 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 and become familiar with the equipment and methods of a typical lab. Undergraduate researchers are sometimes 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 different labs doing different types of research.

For postdoctoral work in physics education research (PER), it is common to switch to PER when applying to graduate school or at the transition to postdoctoral work. This is because many undergraduates are not aware of PER as a field or do not have access to it. Additionally, a significant fraction of PER postdocs receive a PhD from within a School of Education rather than a physics program.

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 their career. In addition to the core courses a graduate student will complete, specialty courses, such as computer programming, mathematical modeling, and research methods and techniques, can be invaluable to the future postdoc. Additional courses in the specific sub-discipline of choice can help supplement one’s knowledge and increase one's 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, gaining expertise in experimental methods and techniques can increase the chances of landing a postdoc and enhance a future theorist’s research career. Meanwhile, postdoctoral opportunities in physics education research are increasingly available, both in the United States and internationally.

Additional training

Apart from that mentioned above, 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 can be helpful.

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. Courses in the social sciences, education, and related fields will be useful to provide knowledge and research skills, especially in PER.

Career path

The postdoc position can start just before or 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 groups for two years each is typical for those preparing for academic careers. In physics education research (PER), one postdoc may be more typical.

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 job candidate.

Postdoc positions are common outside of the United States as well, and the postdoc career phase can provide an excellent opportunity to spend some time living and working abroad. Although long-term international moves will require learning the local language, the working language for many research groups is English. If you are interested in pursuing a postdoc position abroad, a good first step is to connect with colleagues in similar research fields at conferences and through your professional network.


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