If you are thinking about postdoctoral positions, you have likely survived graduate school, the internship match, a doctoral dissertation defense, and are close to being able to tack “Dr.” to the beginning of your name for the rest of your life. Congratulations!
After the relief of securing internship training, it may come as a surprise when your internship supervisors encourage you to think about postdoc fellowships in just the first weeks of internship. Regardless of career goals, most clinical psychology students end up pursuing postdoc training. Postdoc training is required for licensure in most US states, and also required for American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) certification.
Some postdoc positions are exclusively clinical, some are mostly research-based, and many have a combination of clinical and research responsibilities. This article focuses on how to find the research-oriented postdoc that’s right for you, particularly if your career goals include research positions in academia or working in any number of industry settings.
For clinical psychologists seeking academic research positions, postdoc research training has increasingly become the norm. For those of us considering industry options, many entry-level, non-academic research positions for PhD graduates require 1-3 years of professional experience beyond graduate school, and postdoc training may tic that box. So, for most of us, it’s not a questions of “to postdoc or not,” but rather choosing which postdoc position is right for you.
Identify your remaining training needs and career goals
The first question to ask yourself is, what unmet needs or holes are there in your training? If you are interested in a research-focused career, there may be study or analytical design approaches you want extra training in before launching an independent career.
You may be interested in branching into a new area of research. You may also desire connecting with a particular researcher in the field. Of course, considering future career goals will be central to your decision of where to do your postdoc.
If you are on the fence about a research versus clinical postdoc, know that a research postdoc will not necessarily preclude you from obtaining a clinical job afterwards (so long as you meet licensure requirements). This is especially true if you are interested in academic medical center jobs. Most academic medical centers looking for psychologists advertise primarily clinical positions. Even if they are interested in your research potential, they will likely expect you to obtain your own funding to buy out your clinical time.
Similarly, if you aspire to a primarily research-oriented career, know that a research postdoc does not guarantee you a research faculty position. There are unfortunately far more research postdocs than there are research faculty positions.
Keep these practical considerations in mind
After contemplating your training goals, a number of practical considerations may influence your decision. If you are interested in an academic research career in psychology, chances are you will need to be licensed. Each state has a different set of requirements: in some states, postdoc hours are not required at all (though a minimum number of predoctoral training hours are); in others, clinical research can count towards licensure.
Others are stricter, and cap (or altogether restrict) research hours counting towards licensure. If you expect to be looking for jobs in particular geographic areas, check what is required for licensure to ensure the postdoc you chose will allow you to meet the basic requirements.
Of course, many of us have additional priorities based on geographical preference, family, and other personal factors that play a role in where we choose to postdoc. Uprooting your life for another temporary position can take its toll!
Prioritize research productivity
If you aspire to a research-oriented career, research productivity is an important priority for your postdoc experience. As you consider different positions, be sure to investigate the research productivity of past postdocs in the lab and inquire about opportunities for publications.
Don’t assume the opportunities and standards for authorship will be the same in a new research lab — expectations vary wildly, and can come as a (sometimes unwelcome!) surprise.
In addition to publications, consider less tangible academic resources. For example, what sorts of networking opportunities are available in the lab? Your network will be important for seeking and securing academic jobs. Will you have the opportunity to collaborate with others in the lab besides your principal investigator (PI)? With faculty in other departments or universities?
Consider the possibility of designing independent research projects, whether other postdocs in the lab have been able to complete independent projects, what resources are available to help you achieve such a project, and the priorities of the PI. Some research postdoc positions can feel like a glorified research assistantship, so get a feel from the PI about how he or she sees postdoc training. Consider asking the PI how he/she views a postdoc’s role in the lab and as a member of the larger research team.
Keep future employment in mind
If your goal is landing an academic position, then your PI will likely be heavily involved in your job search. Consider how well your PI supports his or her fellows through the job search, and where past fellows have ended up.
In academic medical settings, it is not uncommon for postdocs to transition to faculty, either as positions open up in the department, as postdocs are extended employment through the research lab, or through writing a career development award (e.g., NIH K award).
If staying in the same location for your faculty job is a priority for you, explore what opportunities are possible through your institution or research lab, and consider looking for postdocs in cities with multiple universities. This might expand your options for faculty employment, additional postdoc placement if needed, or other professional research positions (e.g., research scientist).
Negotiate to meet your needs
A research postdoc position typically comes with a degree of freedom to build your own experience. It may differ in comparison to a highly structured graduate and internship program, and it may offer more freedom than many clinical postdoc positions.
In a research postdoc, you should have some power to negotiate the structure of your training experience. For example, if you are considering a 100% research position, you may need to negotiate a percentage of clinical time, either to ensure license eligibility or because of personal preference. Before accepting a postdoc position, discuss important training goals with your potential PI. If your PI is amenable, try to get these stipulations in writing.
Choose the right atmosphere for you
A supportive and encouraging environment is crucial to your success and satisfaction as a postdoc. Compared to your previous stages of training, you will likely have less support and structure as a postdoc. You may also have a smaller community of peers. If you relocate for your postdoc, these challenges may be exacerbated.
Consider what kind of support potential research labs offer, how satisfied current and past lab members seem, and potential communities that surround you (e.g., will there be multiple postdocs in your research lab? Are you at a large university with a network of other postdocs?). Consider the type of leader you work best with, and to what extent potential PIs align with your preferences.
It is easy to let personal satisfaction take a backseat to professional goals, but low quality of postdoc life can have significant personal and professional consequences. You have a unique skill set and knowledge background which you have worked hard to cultivate. Make sure you are in a setting that recognizes your contribution and supports you.
A postdoc position is a great opportunity to receive specialized training, to achieve desired training goals, and to engage in valuable career exploration. You have worked very hard to get to this point, and it is important that you find a position that is well-matched to your needs and preferences. Good luck — and enjoy this transition to independence!