Life after the PhD: Doing a post-doc

By Dr. Jorrit Kamminga, 22 January 2017

What exactly is a post-doc?

During and especially after the long and often challenging PhD trajectory, many students struggle with the existential question of ‘what next?’. In the most literal sense, the word ‘post-doc’ seems to suggest there is life after a PhD. But what exactly is a post-doc? I certainly did not know while doing my PhD, so decided to find out.

The more articles you read about post-docs, the more complex it seems to become, especially as the term (an abbreviation from post-doctorate or post-doctoral) has many different definitions, as well as different meanings from country to country. At the basic level, the term post-doc refers to the position as well as to the person who occupies it.

Post-doc as a person

Let’s first look at post-doc as a person. The common denominator of all the definitions that I found is that a post-doc is an individual that is engaged in further academic research after the completion of a PhD. The title that goes with such a position can, for example, be a post-doctorate research fellow, associate or assistant. Interestingly, the post-doc as a person is often portrayed as rather unfortunate or disadvantaged because, for example, of low wages, the many side obligations or the lack of faculty jobs afterwards.

Post-doc as a position

beijing-1877354_960_720Looking at the position this individual holds, things start to get more complicated. A first common element is that the position is normally temporal, although the duration seems to vary a lot (1-5 years). In any case, it is often considered as a first or intermediary career step for, often young, academics, or ‘early-career researchers’ who would like to continue working at universities later in more stable positions. From the universities’ point of view, the post-doc trajectory is often considered to prepare someone for a career in academia.

The prestige related to the position seems to vary from country to country. For example, in the US the position is generally considered a real ‘trainee’ position, which means it only serves as a (sometimes obligatory) step towards a so-called ‘tenure track’ position (generally a fixed position but at various levels). In other countries, the post-doc position may have more status by itself and not only as an instrument to get somewhere else.

Deepening of methodological and thematic knowledge

A common element found is that the objective of the position is to further strengthen research skills or to further specialise in a certain research topic. As such, it offers the individual a period of (further) research after the PhD, in which he or she is mentored to grow as an academic. It allows the early career researcher to learn more about certain research methodologies or about a certain field. This research does not have to be connected to the topic of the PhD, but it is logical that there are often direct or indirect links. The post-doc research topic may have been part of the ‘further research’ section at the end of the PhD thesis or it may be used to turn the (often dry) PhD thesis into a book that can be published. However, some post-doctorate programmes are also specifically designed to gain experience in different research areas or different institutions.

You may think at this point: Do the 3 to 4 years of working on a PhD not provide me with enough specialisation, mentoring and training for a career in academia? In some cases, they may, but for many students, the PhD is still very much an exploratory stage, in which you sometimes struggle with research concepts and methodologies. Afterwards, the post-doc may indeed offer the opportunity to dig deeper and further strengthen the research ‘tools and tactics’. But while this suggests intensive mentoring by supervisors, the post-doc may in fact also have considerable independence, with more responsibilities for both the research project and its financing.

The combination of teaching and research

classroom-1699745_960_720Can the post-doc be more than that? Yes, especially when it comes to teaching opportunities. While many post-doc positions have no or few teaching obligations, others are fully designed to gain teaching experience. In general, there seems to be a trend towards more integration of teaching within post-doc trajectories, but again this differs between countries and between universities.

Funding your post-doc

Your local university may advertise post-doc positions it has internal funding for. But becoming a post-doc often depends on obtaining a fellowship or finding external funding. Although there are many fellowships available for scholars of security studies or international relations, these are generally highly competitive. Some examples are: the Henry Chauncey Jr. Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Transatlantic Post-Doctoral Fellowship for International Relations and Security (TAPIR), and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) Fellowship.

As these may be very prestigious, it is a good idea to also explore possibilities with smaller institutions and foundations. Depending on the research topic, external funding may be relatively easy to obtain from smaller organisations if the research overlaps with their stated interests. However, such types of external funding might only fund the costs related to the research and not your salary. Another option is to look into the funding programmes of the national research organisations such as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in Germany or the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO) in the Netherlands. Lastly, there is also the possibility to finance your post-doc position through a grant from a publisher with a view to turn your PhD manuscript into a book. There are websites available that explain the difference between your thesis and a publishable book.

If you have other useful information and experience related to post-docs or to funding opportunities, please do share them with the author at jorritka[at] so we can update the post.

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