How to help postdocs take a holistic look at career choices

After their terminal degrees, many postdocs find themselves at a career crossroads. Here, Karena Nguyen offers four key considerations across background, skills, values and interests to help determine what’s next

Karena Nguyen 's avatar
15 Nov 2023
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After the much-deserved period of celebration that follows the completion of a terminal degree, postdocs often find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to their careers. Whether they have finished a PhD, MD or Master’s in Engineering, the end of mentored training can leave postdocs asking themselves: should I stay or leave the academy?

It’s a question I often hear from postdocs who attend my career development workshops. This decision is commonly presented as a binary choice dependent on individual research productivity, which ignores personal and professional factors that can affect postdocs’ career goals.

As a result, postdocs can feel lost or disempowered to explore the diversity of career options available to them. Indeed, a survey conducted by the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) in 2022 and a request for information from the National Institutes of Health in 2023 found that uncertainty around next career steps and job security were among the highest stressors for postdocs. To assess holistically whether to leave or stay in the academy, I encourage postdocs to reflect on their needs, skills, values and intended impact.

Whether you are a postdoc yourself or someone who supports postdocs, here are suggestions to help determine your next career steps.

Define your needs and constraints

Personal circumstances, preferences and life experiences can help pinpoint factors you need to maintain your health and well-being. For example, being closer to family or remaining in a specific location might be important. Perhaps you prefer to live in or near a major city or are more comfortable in small college towns or rural areas. Think about the overall environment where you would be happy to live and work.

Questions to consider:

  • Where would you like to live (consider factors such as geography, weather and community composition)?
  • What local, state or national policies would you have to consider for a particular area?
  • Does the area offer opportunities to build community?
  • Are there specific amenities that you require nearby?
  • Would you have access to essential resources (such as medical or dental services or specific food)?
  • What personal or family situations might affect your decision? What are the potential impacts? 

Identify your skills

To help you better prepare for a diversity of career options, the NPA recommends developing six core competencies during your training:

  • Discipline-specific conceptual knowledge.
  • Research skill development.
  • Communication skills.
  • Professionalism.
  • Leadership and management skills.
  • Responsible conduct of research.

These competencies can help identify your skillset and areas for improvement. Reflect on projects or activities that support your ability to perform a particular skill (such as mentoring an undergraduate or graduate student, presenting at conferences, analysing data for experiments or organising an event). Request feedback from previous collaborators about what they perceive as your strengths.

Questions to consider:

  • What techniques, methodologies or approaches do you feel comfortable teaching others?
  • What activities do you excel at and enjoy doing?
  • What activities do you dislike?
  • What support might you need to learn or improve a skill?
  • How might others complement your skillset?

Examine your values

Each person has a unique set of principles that guide their decision-making processes. Think about projects, people and organisations you enjoyed working with or found challenging. Researcher and author Brené Brown has a list of values you can use to begin this reflection process.

Questions to consider:

  • What type of environment allows you to show up authentically?
  • What activities, upon completion, leave you feeling energised?
  • When you encounter a challenging situation, how do you decide?
  • Who are your role models? What qualities do you admire in them?

Clarify your impact

Although work can be completed independently, the outcomes will affect a group, organisation or society at large. When considering the next steps in your career, having positive relationships with coworkers and knowing who will be affected by your work can enhance engagement, commitment and job satisfaction.

Questions to consider:

  • Are there certain personalities or workplace cultures that you find challenging? How could you practise and improve your conflict-management skills?
  • In previous projects, what groups did you enjoy collaborating with?
  • Who do you want to be affected by your work?
  • How do you want to contribute to society?

Institutional and national challenges related to postdoc salary, family support and immigration exist and should not be understated. Postdocs are leaving academia at unprecedented rates, and data shows that postdocs who have started families or who belong to historically marginalised groups are more likely to leave. These are systematic barriers that require continued advocacy and policy changes.

At the individual level, you and your mentors can minimise these challenges by normalising discussions about personal and professional factors within the context of career development. Instead of asking “should I leave or stay in the academy?”, consider asking “what are my needs, skills and values and what positions would allow me to produce meaningful, impactful work?” By widening the scope of the question, you can more clearly reflect and assess your situation, discern what matters and choose a career step – inside or outside the academy – that supports your holistic development.

Karena Nguyen is assistant director for postdoctoral services at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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