A Word About Postdocs

What are postdocs?

Postdocs are temporary appointments granted to individuals that have received a doctoral degree. These appointments are traineeships to prepare scholars for a career.

Why do a postdoc?

  • Contingency Strategy: job market candidates that were not able to get satisfying offers might choose to do a postdoc for a few years and try again.

  • Pedigree: many very high research activity institutions (R1) will have opportunities for postdocs. The experience can help professionals who didn’t attend top programs to have an R1 affiliations and network with well-known scholars.

  • Gain Experience and Skills: a postdoc experience might allow a candidate to learn new skills or a topic by working with top researchers in the field or a well-structured funded project. For example, for federal jobs using the General Schedule salary tables, a newly minted PhD will qualify for a GS-12 position. A job market candidate after a two-years postdoc, can quality for a GS-14 position.

Types of postdocs

Postdocs can be quite different in a number of dimensions:

  • Timing: 1 - 3 years (some may be fixed / flexible term or renewable annual appointments)
  • Research Portfolio: Time/effort allocation for own-research might range from 0%-100%.
  • Teaching Responsibilities: There are 100% research appointments while others might have course load of 1 - 2 classes a year.
  • Organization: The appointment may be to work with a researcher, a project team, or a lab.
  • Publication Focus: Not all the work as a postdoc might lead to publications within the timeframe during the postdoc’s subsequent job market. It might depend on the timeframe of projects. For example, multi-year projects in early stages are unlikely to be matured enough for the postdocs to have a publication about it within the first two years.
  • Funding: Postdoc appointments may be funded through a sponsored project (e.g., NSF / NIH) or institutional funds. The salaries for postdocs that are funded through programs tend to be lower given the funding institution guidelines. For example, NSF/NIH salaries are usually between 50k - 60k. Institutionally funded postdocs tend to have about a 10k premium for around 60k - 70k.
  • Postdoc Model: Some institutions use postdocs as a way to find talent which they evenutally hire. Others may have a regular stream of postdocs to continue having a new pool.
  • Next Steps: Some postdocs help prepare early career researchers for a tenure-tract academic career. Others may be more suitable for government or industry positions. It is important to understand how the experience prepares you for each possible career option.

Benefits

  • First job (for some): postdocs allow you to gain around ≈ 40% - 60% of your next job salary as well as benefits such as health insurance, tax advantage instruments (e.g., retirement plan matching contributions).

  • Directed work: postdocs will be able to work on projects that have been designed and developed to some extent allowing the postdoc to learn the domain and take and active and meaningful role in the project / initiatives.

  • Network and mentoring: postdocs will likely have both formal and informal mentorship as well as many opportunities to network with research communities within the organization and externally.

  • Experience new roles: as a postdoc, one may have new roles such as a being a PI, work on funding proposals, supervise / lead teams, work with sponsors, serve in new capabilities (e.g., develop or maintain a lab, work on clusters, etc.).

  • Apprenticeship vs Practice: postdocs may want to hire postdocs such that they may be trained to work on the field of interest. Other institutions may prefer to hire postdocs that already have all the necesary skills or a high-level competency in those for them to have experience applying said skills.

Warnings

  • Forever Postdoc: just as with a doctoral program, a crucial part is having an exit plan. Too common for postdocs to remain as a postdoc for more years than anticipated or do postdoc after postdoc. Work towards using the postdoc experience to find a career that is well-compensated, has potential for advancement / progression, and job security or other alternatives (e.g., entrepreneurship).

  • Funding Security: postdoc call may happen as part of a developing project and may depend on the final funding decisions. In other words, the position may not be available or may be cut short if funding is not secured.

  • Toxic Environments: make sure to talk with previous postdocs (especially those who might have insights into your potential experience). There are too many examples of labs being toxic environments with cases of postdoc exploitation (e.g., overwork), harassment, academic dishonesty (e.g., plagiarizing work by postdocs / students), etc. At the bare minimum, faculty should not be treat postdocs as students but as early-career colleagues. Likewise, postdocs should be supported and given the opportunity to receive credit for their work. Lastly, the experience should allow for work-life balance.

  • Assigned Work: the work assigned to the postdocs should be at an appropiate level. It should be intellectually challenging and there should be support for the postdoc to accomplish it. In some cases, the work needed for the project may be “grunt”-work and rather than assigning it to a research-assistant or such, it may end up being assigned to postdocs.

Choosing a Postdoc

If you decide a postdoc appointment might be a choice in your career, you can start with narrowing down what kind of experiences might be helpful for you.

  1. Do you want to continue your independent research (e.g., dissertation)?
  1. Do you want to teach?
  • Some postdocs have teaching as part of the responsabilities of the appointment (e.g., J-PAL). Others have the option to teach (e.g., Global Priorities Institute at Oxford University).
  1. Do you want to work on a particular topic?
  1. Do you want to work at a traditional economics department?
  • Postdocs may be based at an economics department (e.g., Princeton University) or at interdisciplinary units (e.g., CSIS at the California Institute of Technology).

Advice

Make an informed decision by asking all relevant questions you care about. For example, I chose to do a postdoc with a group which I had worked with previously through a summer program. I already knew the people I would be working with and the projects I would likely be assigned to work on. Other considerations I weighted when making a choice included the mission / scope of the organization. Our work included working with government entities to help them achieve their mission from a position of an academic partner (public university). The experience favors a careers with the federal government (e.g., in the federal statistical system), data science / computational social sciences academic appointments or industry.

The job market for postdocs usually follows the main econ job market. Most if not all the positions I have used as examples have deadlines coming up around mid January. Apply early to schedule interviews during ASSA.

Feel free to reach out for questions or leaving me a comment or suggestion.

Best of luck!

José Bayoán Santiago Calderón
José Bayoán Santiago Calderón
Research Economist

🇵🇷 Economist by training. Data scientist / software developer by accident.