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Survival guide for postdocs

Updated: Mar 20

This blog is inspired by a recent survey I was invited to participate in, as well as my personal situation as a postdoctoral researcher trying to survive in academia. In the survey, it was asked what information I would have needed to be better prepared for my career. Instead of keeping this to myself, I thought this might help others. So I share it in this blog post.


You might have heard of the postdoc trap. That is you are unable to move up the career ladder and remain stuck in a series of precarious appointments. I am now in my second postdoc and I have set myself a limit of postdoc positions I will take before I will either get a tenure track position or exit academia. The number of tenure track positions is limited and even if one tries hard, one might have to accept that one has to choose another path. The years as a postdoc are decisive in getting all the skills needed to qualify for tenure. Though, as I experienced it, one does not get informed about what to do and the conditions under which you will have to acquire those skills. Learning about these issues only when you are a postdoc is probably already too late. You have to know these things before you finish your Ph.D., so you start your postdoc life well-prepared.


I am not tenured, so the information I am providing is not based on my success. Furthermore, I am mostly focusing on the EU area, thus requirements for tenure in other areas of the world might differ. Though, if you are focusing on another geographic area, do what I did. Have a look at tenure track positions, and check what you have to provide for the application. This will give you insights into what you need. You will see, that those things cannot be achieved in a short period of time. Thus, you have to start as soon as you start your postdoc life. Even better, start while you are a Ph.D. The ironic thing is that while you are a Ph.D. you might be required to do certain courses and fulfill certain tasks. These things will partly prepare you for tenure. However, as soon as you are a postdoc your institution might care little about your career development. I am not entirely sure why that is. Though from talks to higher-ups, I learned that it might be because of brain drain. Institutions know that you will leave after four years at the latest (depending on the country and regulations). Thus, when they invest in you, they know that the investment is lost after four years. This means that they will only invest as much as needed and mostly only if it benefits the institution as well for the time you are there. That is why I think institutions should be obliged to provide career development opportunities to postdocs as well (thus not only to PhDs). What I also noticed in terms of coursework for postdocs is that you mostly are offered the Ph.D. courses. That however is a mismatch. Hopefully, as a postdoc, you do not need most of these courses anymore. For example, as a postdoc, you should have presented at several conferences and written papers. Thus, the courses on academic writing or presenting should have been attended at the beginning of the Ph.D. trajectory. There are certain courses that might still be relevant, such as grant writing our courses about teaching and supervising. Thus, institutions need to be more creative in offering courses for postdocs and researchers.


As stated, this blog is based on my experience and I hope that there are some universities out there that are more progressive and provide more support. However, I think that in many instances universities might not provide you with what you need in terms of courses for career development. And unfortuntely not every supervisor will support you in cour career development. Thus, you need to be on top of the game, know what you need and figure out how you can work towrds these goals. This blog is not to discourage (aspiring) postdocs. It is to give you a heads up that can prepare you for success.


It is clear that to get tenured you need to have published and presented your work on international conferences. I am not going to cover this, as it is the obvious. The list below outlines what I will cover:

1.        Funding

2.        Teaching

3.        Research plan

4.        Network, collaboration, research exchange

5.        Management and leadership


1.      Funding

You should have experience in grant writing and even better have managed to get funding. You have a head start if your Ph.D. project was financed by a grant. After your Ph.D., it is hard to get funding. Not only because of the competition but mostly because of time.


You will start your first postdoc which might not be a perfect continuation of your Ph.D. research. So you cannot continue working on what you did before. I think that is good to increase creativity, but it might be bad for grant writing. To apply for funding, you need to have a research idea and you need to develop a proposal, which obviously needs to be based on the state of the art. If your postdoc is somewhat new it will take you some time to develop an idea, etc. If you base your idea on your Ph.D., you need to do this in your spare time as you must work on another topic during your work hours. Ideally, you have a research idea when you finish your Ph.D., so that you can already work on the proposal (yes, I know, as if finishing the Ph.D. would be a relaxing time).


Having an idea and a proposal is though not enough. You may want to apply in the country you are currently based. However, that might not be possible. For example, the Marie Curie Postdoc Fellowships have a mobility clause. That means that you cannot apply in the country you are currently staying in if you are there for a certain period already. That means that you have to apply in another country. You might not know a suitable institution and supervisor in another country. And I experienced it once, even if you find a supervisor, that person might jump off the boat in the last second.


Then there are national fellowships. Though, you might not be able to apply for them being with the institution you are employed with at that moment. In many countries, there is a limit to how many years you can stay with them. That ranges between 3 and 5 years (maybe more, you have to check this for each country). Let’s say you got a postdoc position in a country where you can stay a maximum of 3 years with one university. You are on top of the game and manage to apply for a fellowship in the first year. You will get notice about the result in the second year, in which you can start your project. The project might have a duration of 2 years. That means that you can only do one year of the suggested project. Thus, you might have to apply with another university in the same country. That again leaves you with the problem that you have no connections with another university and supervisor. You see that quite some planning goes into this. Furthermore, every time you change country you have to get acquainted again with the peculiarities of the respective funding pots.


The other timing-related issue is that several fellowships have a time limit in terms of how many years have passed since your Ph.D. For example, there are fellowships for which you can only apply within the first three years after your Ph.D. Three years sound long but, trust me, time is flying and you will not always be able to apply. Consider this situation. You have your first postdoc position with a contract for 2 years. You try to apply in the first year, but something does not work out. In the second year you might not have the headspace, because you are on the job hunt and have to move country again. Then we are already in year three. And it is not that writing a grant is your main activity, it is a side hustle.


So, I recommend starting as early as possible. Have an idea and a proposal in the works when you are about to finish your Ph.D. At this time start to scan the field for potential institutions and supervisors. I also think that it is better to try than not to try. Even if the chances are small, at least you gain experience. The other recommendation is to go for small grants. Maybe there are small project grants within your university you can apply for. It might depend on your supervisor if he/she allows you to apply for those (which I think they should, but not all supervisors are supportive…).


2.      Teaching

Many PhDs are obliged to teach during the Ph.D. That is good as it gives you a head start. I know it has its downsides as it can place substantial time pressure on you while you do your Ph.D. If you did not teach during your Ph.D., the same applies as for funding. Start as early as possible. The problem here really is that this might not be at all in your hands. You cannot just take over a course or give guest lectures. Your institution needs to provide you with these opportunities. Again, I think they should be obliged to at least provide you with the opportunity to hold guest lectures. But you might find out that you will not be provided with such an opportunity. There is not much I can recommend here other than to clarify this during the job interview. Ask them about teaching opportunities and conditions.


Let me be also clear that some institutions may do the opposite and want to overburden you with teaching. That then comes at the expense of your research excellence. You neither want that unless you want to go for a lecturer position in the future. Make sure that when you get a job that includes teaching that the amount of teaching does not compromise with your research endeavors.


Apart from teaching, supervision is key too. Depending on the institution, it might be super easy to get access to this experience. Other institutions might rather block you from this. You once more have to discuss this during the job interview. Once you are at the institution you might have to be proactive to get master students. For example, some institutions have (digital) platforms where thesis topics are posted. This might give you access to students. In any case, it might be that you will not be allowed to be the official supervisor (even if you do most of the supervision work…). This is due to regulations, and you cannot do anything about that. Officially you might have the role of an advisor.


For teaching as well as supervision make sure to track your activities and get certificates for your work. Write down who you supervised as well as the title of the thesis. You will have to provide numbers when you apply for tenure. Thus, know how many master and bachelor students you supervised. The same applies for teaching. Write down the course name and number, the semester, etc. If possible, get some sort of official certificate for your teaching activity (e.g. a letter from the teaching coordinator).


Part of teaching is acquiring teaching skills through courses. The courses you can do differ from country to country and even from university to university. Thus, there might be some difficulty in completing all modules offered on teaching and supervising. The teaching and supervising courses are usually good to get an understanding of the teaching tradition at the respective university. I recommend doing these courses, even if they are not standardized across Europe. These courses add to your CV and your teaching skills. Of course, get certificates for all the courses you do.


3.      Research plan

Already when you apply for a postdoc position you might be required to provide a research plan along with your application. Though, the plan required when applying for tenure is usually a bit more elaborate and might include things like a vision. The research plan asks of you that you have your own line of research. Frankly, that is tricky as every postdoc position pulls you in a new direction. It is the same as for writing a grant proposal. You have to develop your own ideas, investigate them, study the literature, etc. If your postdoc position does not align with your own ideas, you are again left to develop this in your spare time.


I also have to highlight that staying employed and following your research interest is a balancing act. Even if you have your own research line (developed in your spare time), if you cannot publish papers on it (as your day job is on something different), you have trouble proofing your experience in the field. Thus, it is important to stay as close as possible to your reach interest when applying for a job. I know that is not always easy.


Say you are a behavioral scientist and apply this to sustainability issues. You want to work on practice theory connected to food choices. But your postdoc positions ask you to deviate from practice theory and use other concepts or you have to apply it to the field of energy transition and mobility choices. You kind of work on what you want to, but not quite. You stay employed, but might not be able to establish a profile as a practice theory expert in the field of food choices. If you now submit a research plan that focuses on that, your future employer might question your expertise. I do not know what to do about this other than have good creative arguments that connect your latest work with your research plan.


In terms of how specialized you need to be, I can report conflicting statements from seniors. One former supervisor told me that I should specialize and not be all over the place. On the other hand, in a hiring process, I was told that they appreciate my diverse profile and that I publish in various journals. I guess, it is a gamble, and it will depend on what your future employer appreciates in a candidate.


I know that some universities offer courses on how to develop a research vision. It might be worthwhile to check such courses out. I should do so too. Though the problem for me is not to develop a vision, but rather to follow it in an institution that does not support you. If you have ideas that follow the mainstream, it might be easier to combine your own ideas with what your supervisor wants. If you are more out of the box, you might have significant problems. Also, some supervisors push you to replicate their ideas. I was for example told by a supervisor: “I do not care about your ideas.” That was stated although I presented my ideas during the job interview, and I thought I was hired for these ideas. Turned out, I was wrong. To get tenured you have to develop your own profile. While you are a postdoc you might deal with superiors who do not allow you to individuate. Quite a stretch. I’m going to tell you what my mentor told me: “Look out for yourself”. I will expand on collaboration and networking below. However, first, it needs to be highlighted that not everyone out there has your best interest in mind. And if you want to survive in academia, you might have to meet people the way they meet you (I am not a fan of such Old Testament behavior… but what can you do…).


I want to add here that this is, I think one of the most unfortunate things in academia. Not necessarily those with the best ideas survive. It is rather those with thick skin, capable elbows, and a good support network. This is how academia is stunting innovation… The amount of time you have to invest in planning strategic maneuvers could be invested in doing research, being creative, and collaborating with people who support each other.


4.      Network, collaboration and research exchange

On several occasions, I found that one has to provide information about one’s network when applying for tenure track. Often that means active participation in a network rather than just paying some membership fee. As, if one would not have enough to do (with surviving in this pond full of sharks). Admittedly, not my strong point. I am in an interdisciplinary field and not sure what groups I really belong to. However, if you use a certain method or clearly identify with a group, get a membership and get engaged.


For example, if you use systems thinking, become a member of the System Dynamics Society and seek ways to be somewhat active in the Society. They have topical and regional suborganizations that allow to connect to others more easily. It might be a good idea to submit an abstract to a specific conference every year to build a network (though if you are in an interdisciplinary field that might be difficult). If you do not have an abstract to submit, think about hosting a session. Hosting sessions is a great way to connect with people! Maybe your university has a postdoc network. You may want to join that (and advocate for better conditions).


Apart from building a new network, do not forget to maintain your existing network. I am lucky, I had great colleagues as a Ph.D. and thus, I am happy to at least loosely keep in touch with them. The same applies to your past supervisors. If you are on good terms, try to stay in contact with them.


A good way to stay in touch with people and build a network is through collaboration. The obvious route is via publications. For example, I organized a special feature through which I could collaborate with existing as well as new contacts. In the process of organizing the special feature, I could reach out to old contacts (as I asked them for advice). Even if they did not contribute to the special feature, it is a nice way to reach out. Going to a conference, I could connect to a colleague as I was impressed by her session. Connecting to her marked the start of multiple collaborations. When you are a postdoc things change in terms of collaboration. As a Ph.D. your supervisor is your main point of contact through which collaborations are established. As a postdoc things are different. Nevertheless, your supervisor might not allow you to individuate and block you from collaborating with others. If that is the case, you need to develop strategies to circumvent this. As a postdoc, your world has to expand beyond your university, and you need to find your tribe out there.


Tenure track job openings at times also ask one to be connected to relevant experts and stakeholders in the field. Thus, the network is not only about being an active member of a club. Here you can see how important it is to be connected to people beyond your university. Connections to other people might also be needed if you want to write grant proposals as a consortium. The more people you know that you have a good, trusting relationship with, the better. Thus, do not hold back and reach out to others (i.e., postdocs).


I also have to note, that you have to make sure that you do not spread yourself too thin. I like to collaborate and try to be opportunistic. However, I had one opportunity to collaborate and as the collaboration seemed to take too much time (too many people involved), I decided to retract and focus on other collaborations. Thus, you need to have a priority list in place. If you spread yourself thin and people are unhappy with your contribution no one will reach out for another collaboration. Part of good collaboration is that all partners involved meet expectations (and yes, there are many free riders out there. Scratch these people off your collab list).


Research exchanges might be another point on the tenure track list. I find this a little funny, to be honest. I do not live in my home country and constantly move. Every new job is basically a research exchange. But what can you do, that might not suffice. I do not have much experience with research exchanges. You have a head start if you had an exchange during your Ph.D. I find organizing exchanges during the postdoc difficult as your supervisor may not want you to leave and work from somewhere else. They hire you for two years and in that time, they might want you to stay at the respective university rather than staying somewhere else for some time (which is differnt to a Ph.D. where you have 4 years). To stay abroad you might need a support letter from your supervisor. Thus, they can block you. If they do, it potentially tells something about them and the work culture at your institution. Research exchanges can be short, and they can provide the possibility to kill two birds with one bullet. You might have to apply for funding for the exchange. If granted you managed to get funding and a research exchange.


5.      Management and leadership

Management and leadership skills are vital for tenures as now you are in the driving seat. This illustrates how important it is to individuate from your supervisor. In fact, if you have a supervisor who treats you like his possession, take it as a training opportunity. You have to learn to stand up for yourself anyway. Also take good note of all of your experiences, the good and the bad. With this experience, you can develop your own leadership style. For example, I look up to my mentor because he has done many things right and I want to imitate that (but with my own twist).  


There are courses about management and leadership offered by universities, usually already at the Ph.D. level. Taking some of these courses might not hurt. I also got myself a business coach. She helps me deal with tricky situations. Of course, not everyone might have the resources for that but if you do, consider getting tailored support. I also know that some universities offer coaching in-house. However, I am always a bit critical of such in-house services. The service provider is paid by the university and thus may ultimately have the benefit of your employer in mind. Use your own discernment to decide if you want to use in-house services or not.


Gaining management and leadership experience might again depend on the opportunities that are presented to you. I try as much as possible to be proactive and create opportunities. But again, some people might want to block you, which requires you to develop strategies.


I was lucky to generate a lot of management experience during my Ph.D. as I was part of a big project consortium, and I was handling the project part of my host university. From my experience, I can tell that getting experience with such projects is great (even if pressure is high at times). I do not recommend managing fuzzy projects. Thus, towards the end of the hiring process request insight into the project documents. If they do not have a good research plan including milestones and deliverables, think twice… I find it hilarious. When you apply for a postdoctoral fellowship, you have to provide quite detailed information about your project plans. But it seems that university internal funding is handed out to applicants who have provided a two-pager. What I want to say, if you do not want to get in a pickle go for a project that is well structured from the get-go.


Other ways to get leadership and management experience is by organizing conference sessions, a whole conference (or similar), organizing a special issue or editing a book. You can also try to found a new group. For example, if your university does not have a postdoc network, see if you can establish one. I also know of a group of young researchers who founded a new journal. Thus, I think there are many opportunities within academia to show leadership and management skills. Though, it will mostly depend on you to create these opportunities. You will also have to learn to maintain them while changing jobs. For example, organizing a special issue can take about 2 years or more. Thus, you have to take these projects with you when you change jobs in between.


I also think you can show leadership and management skills outside of academia. You could be part of a local NGO, interest group, or non-profit. Maybe you have a key part in your sports club? I think such experience cannot be underestimated and should be mentioned. I should take my own advice here, because I am usually quiet about the fact that I had my own business, which taught me a lot.



 

I guess much more can be said about this topic. No advice will be complete, and it will depend on your field and the geographic area you focus on. You will have to do your own research. Check job postings and see what is required. Talk to people who are higher up the career ladder, and try to get a mentor who can advise you. As things are not standardized, talk to several trusted people and see what Venn diagram this creates.


This is a marathon, not a sprint. This means you need to set up a long-term plan and you cannot expect to achieve your goals quickly. While having a plan, you need to stay flexible and evaluate new opportunities that arise or that you can create. If you are at a place that is stunting your potential, work on an exit strategy and evaluate what teachings you can take from it. With academia being a rather hostile environment, a network, and a community is not only for your career development but also for your mental health. Find those people who support and believe in you and be that support, cheerleader, and role model to others.


All the best on your path!


Related reading:

Oliveira, T., Nada, C., & Magalhães, A. Navigating an Academic Career in Marketized Universities: Mapping the International Literature. Review of Educational Research, 0(0), 00346543231226336. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543231226336



The most epic climbing photo I have from one of the most daring boulder problems I have attempted. I am not necessarily a risk taker, but at times I rise to the challenge.

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