Final Thoughts: To Postdoc or Not to Postdoc?

October 21, 2013

CarmenMcCallumAs a former postdoctoral fellow for the associate provost of undergraduate education at Michigan State University, I can attest that pursuing a fellowship is an excellent career decision.

In less than a year, I enhanced my research agenda, published scholarly articles, taught an interdisciplinary course, and gained evaluation and assessment skills. At this point, I definitely feel more prepared to enter the professoriate.

Postdoctoral fellowships provide unique opportunities to enhance skills for an increasingly demanding job market. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you consider a fellowship:

1. Know why you want a fellowship

Before applying, it is important to reflect on why you want a fellowship. Being cognizant of the skills you want to obtain and the goals you want to achieve during the fellowship will help you better articulate why you are a perfect match. Some are heavily focused on teaching, some are focused on research—others expect fellows to teach and conduct research. Knowing how you can contribute to both areas is key.

2. Understand time commitment

Just as the work expectations vary, the time commitment required also varies. Understanding these expectations in advance of accepting a position is crucial to having a productive fellowship.

3. Think outside the box

Fellowships in higher education are limited. As a PhD recipient, the skills you have acquired are extremely transferable. Broaden your horizons and search for positions in disciplinary programs, national and local government, and academic and student affairs departments. These atypical positions have the potential to be rewarding, challenging and helpful in preparing you for your future academic career.

4. Network

Fellowships are often not advertised, so use your networks—this cannot be stressed enough. It is often in the midst of informal conversations that the best opportunities arise. Ask your advisers, mentors and peers if they are aware of any upcoming opportunities. Utilize conferences and business meetings to articulate your research interests with those outside your immediate circle. Sometimes faculty members have discretionary funds, and they may be willing to use them to create a position—IF they believe your research agendas are aligned.

5. Individualize your research and teaching statements

Most fellowships require you to write a research and/or teaching statement, so prepare them early. Ask faculty, advisers, friends and colleagues to critique your statements so that they represent the polished scholar you are. Prepare three distinct statements that can be used as your foundation documents:

  • A research statement
  • A teaching statement
  • A research and teaching statement combined

When you are ready to apply, revise each statement to align with the goals of each fellowship.

6. You are your best cheerleader

Ultimately, it is up to you to sell yourself to future employers. Your adviser can make a recommendation, but it is you who must articulate your career goals and explain why you are perfect for the position. Practice. Give practice job talks with colleagues and have them critique your presentation. Practice explaining your research agenda to those outside your field—this is a good metric to determine if you are explaining concepts with clarity. The time you invest in these activities will help you stand out from the crowd.

Postdoctoral fellowships will further develop essential skills needed to become a higher education professional. Is the goal to be a faculty member? A fellowship will set the stage for the tenure track. Is your aim to be an administrator? A fellowship can add professional experience to your resume. As graduation approaches, consider exploring fellowship opportunities—the possibilities are endless for those who receive a PhD in any field.