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Should you do a postdoc?

An explanation of whether this is the right fit for you.

by Jo VanEvery

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The closer you get to finishing your PhD, the more you start to wonder what you are going to do next. If a research career is what you want, you might seriously con­sider a postdoctoral fellowship. A normal stage in the career trajectory of academic scien­tists, it is becoming increasingly common in the social sciences and humanities.

A postdoctoral fellowship is a way to dedicate a year or two to really establishing your program of research without the extra responsibilities of teaching and participating in collegiate gover­nance. You will begin the next phase of your research, publish material from your dissertation and begin to establish an academic identity sep­arate from your doctoral supervisor – a crucial career step.

In framing a suitable postdoctoral project, consider the following:

  • What are the big questions that interest you?
  • What specific questions are arising out of your dissertation that could be explored further?
  • Do you need to examine more sources or col­lect more data to investigate those questions?
  • What skills do you need to advance your research that you didn’t gain during your doctoral research?

Frame the project in relation to the big ques­tions that drive your research. Then focus on one specific question that will advance your pro­gram of research and make a significant contri­bution to knowledge in the field. It doesn’t have to be Earth-shattering or paradigm-shifting, but it needs to be a contribution nonetheless.

Initially, you’re likely to think in terms of what you want to do – data you want to collect or analyze, an article you want to write – but you need to ask yourself what contribution to cur­rent debates in your field you hope to make by doing the proposed research. What do you hope to achieve?

You need to identify a supervisor, preferably not at the institution where you did your doctoral studies. Your postdoctoral supervisor might use different methodological techniques, work in a different theoretical tradition or help you expand your networks. You’ll need to work with this per­son for a year or two, so it is worth doing some research and informal networking to make sure the two of you will be a good fit.

Your potential supervisor might have a strong positive contribution to make to the design of your postdoctoral project. He or she may even have research funds to support your research or be in the process of putting together a grant application that could include funds for a post­doc fellow. This doesn’t have to mean a loss of autonomy.

In the sciences, programs of research are often understood as a series of projects, some of which are undertaken by students and postdocs. The same system can be applied in social sci­ences, though this way of approaching research is less familiar to faculty members in the social sciences and humanities. It is not uncommon for a SSHRC Standard Research Grant proposal to have two or three specific objectives under the main objective. One of those specific objectives could be a discrete project that contributes to the general objective, but is assigned entirely to you and is your project.

Working with an established researcher on a Standard Research Grant, Discovery Grant, or operating grant application is worthwhile expe­rience that will serve you well in your future career. As long as the research contributes to advancing your longer-term research, you can be flexible at this stage.

Of course, you should also apply for a post­doctoral fellowship from one of the research granting councils. You will still need to discuss your proposal with your potential supervisor. The fit with the proposed institution and supervisor is one of the evaluation criteria, and your super­visor will need to write a supporting letter. The better they know you and the project, the more supportive that letter is likely to be.

A postdoctoral fellowship does not guarantee you an academic career. However, it does make you a better candidate for tenure-track positions and may provide opportunities to build the skills, experience, and relationships on which you could build a career outside academe that still makes good use of your extensive academic training. Clarifying your long-term research goals and building relationships with people who can help you achieve them is an important first step – even before you have finished your doctoral dissertation.

Want another point of view? Watch the Career Corner video Challenges being faced by postdoctoral fellows in Canada.

Jo VanEvery, a private career coach, has a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex and was formerly a program officer at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Read her own blog at http://www.jovanevery.ca/.

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