When you think of doing a postdoc, do you picture spending a couple of years at a university, working for
a professor on his or her research program? Most postdoctoral positions fit this description. In fact, a 2014 report by
the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reports a “dramatic”
growth in the number of academic postdoctoral positions
financed by research grants that are obtained and managed by
individual faculty members.
1 However, most postdocs will not
find permanent employment in academia when their appointments end, and their future careers might bear scant resemblance to their postdoctoral projects.
Government agencies, national laboratories, nonprofit research institutions, and private industry also sponsor postdoctoral researchers, using fellowships or traineeship programs
rather than a mentor’s grant. Nonacademic postdocs often
enjoy a higher degree of autonomy, including the ability to
choose their own research projects, and sometimes, the location where the research is performed. This setup also provides
more recognition for the postdoc in his or her own right,
rather than as an assistant to a principal investigator.
The NAS report states that only about 11% of postdoctoral researchers work at research-and-development centers
funded by industry or the federal government.
these positions are worth considering because they tend to
be better defined, shorter in duration, and better paying than
their academic counterparts. They also have a clearer connection to career development and often pave the way to a full-time job at the end of the postdoctoral period.
A Change of Scenery
Nonacademic postdoc positions provide an introduction to
the work environments in industrial and government research, which can be very different from those in academia.
• Academic institutions reward advances in scientific knowledge as demonstrated through teaching, publications, conference presentations, and patents.
• Industries focus on developing innovative products to
attract customers, solving problems, reducing costs, and
complying with regulations.
• Government labs can go either way—some projects focus on
applied research related to an agency’s mission, but others
seek to advance basic knowledge. Postdocs at the national
laboratories often assist visiting scientists from academia
and industry in using the labs’ specialized instruments and
Some government and industrial laboratories use the
postdoctoral period to “try out” potential future employees.
This also gives the postdoc an opportunity to evaluate potential employers and gain insight into the organization’s work
environment that it would hard to obtain in any other way.
However, staff openings can disappear as a result of government funding cuts and industry reorganizations, so it’s essential to have a backup plan for these positions.
Some organizations prohibit hiring in-house postdocs,
an important consideration to check out before signing on
the bottom line. Some firms set up competitions, taking on
more postdocs than they have permanent positions for and
A WIDER WORLD
freelance science writer and Ph.D. in solid-state chemistry