Making the Most of A Postdoctoral Opportunity

postdoc mazeBy Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

You are finally on the job market after five or six years of envisioning yourself happily ensconced on the tenure track at a college or university. If this sounds like you, I can completely understand why applying to postdoctoral positions may not be at the top of your mind right now.

But it should.

Since the application cycle for postdoctoral positions mirrors that for other faculty jobs, one usually needs to apply in fall or early spring for the following academic year. So if the tenure-track job market does not swing in your favor this year (something that may not be apparent until late spring), you won’t at that point be able to explore many postdoc opportunities.

You may decide that this doesn’t worry you. Perhaps you can work out a one-year position in your department or elsewhere at Duke so you can refocus, start revising your dissertation, and make another run at the job market next fall. For students who have compelling reasons to stay in the area (such as family ties), this strategy can make a lot of sense.

If, however, you are mobile and flexible, don’t rule out postdocs. We may think of them merely as fallback positions or temporary safety nets, but a good postdoc—chosen carefully and strategically—can be a powerful professional development tool. In this post, I offer a few takeaways from the recent Academic Job Search Series conversation on postdoctoral opportunities, which was cosponsored by VH@Duke. (Note that this discussion focuses on postdocs that–while including some teaching components–allow considerable time for academic research. Be aware, however, that other kinds of postdocs may expect significant participation on institutional priorities such as collaborative research projects.)


A Good Postdoc Is …

A good postdoc is set up to help you develop professionally. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s something to remember when you’re trying to choose between a bona fide postdoc and a one- or multi-year lectureship or visiting assistant professorship. The latter types of positions are designed to fill short-term teaching needs, so you may struggle to balance your research agenda with all the needs and expectations and the hiring department. A good postdoctoral fellowship also serves the needs of the institution, but it will be structured in ways to help you grow—usually as a researcher, but sometimes (depending on the type of postdoc) also as a teacher. As a postdoc you may be assigned a dedicated mentor, have a light teaching load and nonexistent service requirements, and the salary and benefits on offer may pleasantly surprise you (so do your research).

There may even be situations where the postdoc opportunity is so potentially beneficial to longer-term career prospects that a grad student may decide to choose it over a tenure-track opportunity that doesn’t seem like a good fit.

A good postdoc can be a dress rehearsal for a faculty career. There are numerous advantages to exposing yourself to a different institution and departmental culture after six or more years in a relatively insular Ph.D. program. Showing up in an entirely new place without the “graduate student” ID tag attached demands that you begin developing a new, postgraduate professional identity. Even if you are not on the tenure track, your new colleagues will begin relating to you as a faculty member, and you will find yourself thinking of yourself and your professional relationships in an entirely new light. (If you don’t navigate this transition with complete ease at first, it may be comforting to remember that the bar is relatively low—you aren’t on the tenure track yet!)

A good postdoc can be “finishing school.” I use this metaphor both in the sense of developing confidence and finesse (yes, you will probably start dressing differently), and also in tying up loose ends of your graduate education. Although you will be very busy as a postdoc, your tenure clock has not yet started, so make the most of this time to get a head start on revising your dissertation, publishing articles and chapters, scoping out new research, and reading more widely within and beyond your discipline.


Postdoc Pitfalls

Although all of the postdocs (present and former) on the panel were enthusiastic about their experiences, they also identified challenges and potential pitfalls to avoid:

A postdoc is not a vacation. This may seem like a no-brainer, but panel participants stressed that after the rigors of completing a Ph.D., it can be tempting to stop driving yourself so hard. And on some level, you should. But while you may be able to attend to a healthier work-life balance, remember that you currently have more time to work on your scholarship than you will likely have as an assistant professor.

A postdoc is transitional. A fancy grad-school term for this is “liminality,” which can be a difficult psychological space to inhabit. Even if it is a multi-year position, you likely will immediately begin (or more accurately, continue) your search for a tenure-track job. If you’ve postponed certain things while completing your Ph.D. (for example, everything that falls under that amorphous heading of “settling down”), the ongoing lack of stability can be anxiety-inducing. A postdoc will likely make you more aware of your tolerance level for transition, and this knowledge should be factored into answering a very important question in the current job market: How many postdocs and temporary opportunities am I willing to accept in my search for a tenure-track position? (If that number is extremely low, let’s talk.)

For those postdocs who make the most of the experience, the opportunity can be an important stepping stone. When I was a postdoc in an especially collegial and mentoring-intensive program, I sensed even then that I might forego faculty life someday. What I never expected was the degree to which I would maintain the close relationships I formed in the program, and how those colleagues and mentors would continue to support me as I explored new professional trajectories.

So the final takeaway on this topic is to never underestimate the value of a strong professional network outside the institution where you end up working as a faculty member. Even if you retire happily from that institution after a long, productive faculty career, a network of professionals who know you as a colleague and scholar (not as a grad student) can help open the door to new opportunities, and perhaps most importantly, help you remember that life doesn’t begin and end within the place you currently inhabit.


Note: I am particularly grateful to current postdocs Wenqing Zhao (Philosophy, Duke) and Kathryn Desplanque (Duke art history Ph.D. graduate now at UNC), and former postdoc Adam Mestyan (assistant professor of history at Duke) for generously sharing with us their experiences and insights on the panel. Molly Starback, director of the Duke Office of Postdoctoral Services, also provided valuable information and context.