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Postdocs: The Definitive Guide

As soon as you step outside the world of academia, the number of people who know what a postdoctorate is, what they involve and how to secure one quickly plummets. Given that a postdoctorate can be a popular option, especially for Science and Technology-related PhD graduates, it’s essential to address this current gap in knowledge.

What Is a Postdoc?

A postdoc is only one of many paths you can take after having completed your PhD. A postdoc (also referred to as a postdoc or postdoctoral) can be best thought as a temporary position designed to refine your research and teaching skills while undertaking practical research work. Because of this, most regard a postdoc position as a temporary stepping stone for developing a career in a more permanent position.

There’s a common misconception that a postdoctorate is an advanced doctoral degree that is undertaken after having completed a PhD. This misconception arises from individuals associating the word “post” in “postdoctorate” with the word “after”. While you will learn a lot during your time in a postdoc position, it is nothing like a degree. There are no fees, coursework, exams or vivas to deliver (thankfully!). A postdoc is, in fact, a job, and as someone in a postdoc position, you will be considered an ‘employee’. And just like any other job, the position will come with its own salary, responsibilities, training and employers.

Most postdocs are awarded by universities or research institutes as temporary contracts. However, they can also be undertaken in private companies, non-profit charities or government bodies.

What Is The Purpose Of A Postdoc?

As mentioned above, the primary purpose of a postdoc is to help bridge the gap between your current skills and your current level of experience. Due to this, postdoctoral positions are popular amongst those who have recently obtained their PhD. This is especially true for individuals who which to pursue a career in academia or research but don’t yet have adequate experience in teaching or publishing.

For the ‘learning’ nature of this role, postdocs provide an excellent option for those to continue their self-development while pursuing research in a field they’re interested in.

What Does a Postdoc Do?

A postdoc works under the supervision of an experienced researcher known as a postdoctoral advisor. What you will do on a day-to-day basis will, therefore, depend on what they require support on at any given time.

While your responsibilities will depend on your postdoctoral advisor, you can expect the following duties as part of your role:

  • Contribute to the supervision of PhD students who are undertaking research projects in a closely related field.
  • Supporting the research team in managerial tasks related to planning, organisation and administration.
  • Undertake research, including but not limited to: qualitative data collection, data analysis and data and lab management.
  • Contribute to the production, review and dissemination of academic and non-academic writing, including publications.

Your responsibilities will also depend on who your postdoc position is with. Positions offered by universities will often place a high emphasis on the academic aspects of the role. This involves aspects such as working more independently, developing your supervisory and teaching capabilities, and improving your communication skills through participation in seminars and conferences. In doing so, they’re helping you to become an individual capable of both conducting research and transferring knowledge – in other words, a university lecturer!

The opposite is true for postdoc positions held in industry, such as a private organisation or government body. As you can expect, these roles will place almost all of its emphasis on conducting research and advancing projects forward, with little focus on anything that falls outside of this.

How Long Should I Be A Postdoc For?

There is no set rule for how long you should remain in a postdoc position. Regardless of this, most individuals stay within a postdoc position for between 2 to 4 years. During this period, it’s not uncommon to move between one or two postdoc positions, with one position being abroad for a more rounded experience.

The time you may choose to spend in a given postdoctoral position will depend on several factors. The most influential of these will be:

  1. The size of the research project’s scope,
  2. The support needs of the principal investigator/postdoc advisor,
  3. The amount of funding available.

Although you could undertake a postdoctorate for a year or less, most will advise against this. This is simply because you will likely not have enough time to gain valuable experience associated with producing publications, writing research grant proposals and speaking at conferences. Although it may be possible to complete these within a single year, most researchers will opt for a minimum of two years for a single position. This will provide them with ample opportunity to contribute a significant amount to a project, publish a handful of papers and attend several conferences. On top of this, it will allow you to develop a deeper relationship with the students you help teach or supervise. This will prove invaluable experience should you plan on becoming a university lecturer.

How Are Postdoc Positions Funded?

Postdocs are usually funded in one of three ways:

  1. The postdoc secures the funding themselves. This can be achieved in several ways, with the most common being applying to opportunities put out by government, research or charity bodies. Examples of these opportunities include the NWO Talent Programme Veni and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. Securing funding under any of these schemes will provide you with a ‘stipend’ (which acts as your salary), and ‘’research funds’ for enabling the project. It’s worth noting that if you secure funding in this way, you won’t typically be restricted to any one university. Although when applying to these opportunities you’ll be required to indicate where you intended to undertake your research, if successful, you can take your funding and associated research project to any university or research institution of your choice.
  2. A Principal Investigator (PI) secures a research grant for a project, part of which will go towards hiring one or more postdoctoral assistants. In these scenarios, the university will employ you to work on the project they gained funding for.
  3. A research body hires postdoctoral assistants irrespective of any new funding. In these scenarios, the researching body, who could be anyone from universities to research centres, charities and private organisations, may put aside their own funds to secure a postdoc assistant as a regular salaried employee.

What is the Average Postdoc Salary?

It goes without saying that the average salary for a postdoc will vary from role to role, with factors such as your country, your employer and your level of experience being influential factors.

If working as a university employee, your salary as a postdoc will be determined via a set pay scale known as the “HE single pay spine“. Under this pay spine, a postdoc can expect to earn an average of £31,000 per year, though, in reality, a postdoc’s salary can range between £29,000 to £34,800.

On the other hand, the stipend (which will act as your postdoc salary) associated with the funding you have secured yourself will directly depend on the opportunity you acquire. Because of the wide range of possibilities, your potential stipend can vary considerably. As well as having a high variance, they also tend to have a higher ceiling compared to the salaries associated with a PI’s research grant or a research body’s employment. For example, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship can be worth over £50,000 per year. However, these types of fellowships are not only highly competitive but are also not an entirely fair comparison to postdoc assistant roles. This is due to the fact that a research fellow will be expected to have a greater amount of experience and to assume a higher level of responsibility than a regular postdoctoral researcher.

In case you’re thinking of working abroad, it would be useful to know that the median salary of a postdoctoral researcher in the United States is approximately $42,000 (£33,000 at the time of writing) per year.

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