Postdoctoral Positions: Pros and Cons

By Julie Griffith posted 10-13-2022 14:10

Woman in a science lab. She is wearing safety glasses and a white coat.

What is a postdoctoral position? More commonly known as a postdoc, it is a short-term/temporary research position that bridges PhD completion to a career in academia (FindAPostDoc, n.d.). Postdoc positions can provide further training in a familiar or unfamiliar field, hone a specific technique, or propel an individual to an academic tenure-track position (Tipper and Street 2017). Most postdoc positions are at universities, but they can be done in industry, nonprofits, or government (Academic Positions 2018). These positions are held under a primary researcher/mentor and entail a predetermined project or one that combines the postdoc’s and mentor’s research projects. Postdoc contracts are usually two to three years (FindAPostDoc, n.d.), but as of 2017, on average, a postdoc position lasts 4.5 years (Kahn and Ginther 2017). This is creating a unique problem to those graduating with PhDs and the desire to continue in academia or for those who feel they have no other option. There have been concerns raised about mental health, long hours, lack of benefits, and the required/forced geographic mobility challenges that postdocs face (Kahn and Ginther 2017; Gloria and Steinhardt 2013).

A study published in 2017 (Kahn and Ginther) that looked at biomedical postdocs over 30 years may help provide some insight to soon-to-graduate students who are considering postdoc positions. This study found that of those who completed a postdoc in 2013 35.1% went into industry, 14.7% were employed in non-tenure-track research academic positions (i.e., the research and position was dependent on grants), and about 21.0% were employed in tenured-track positions. As reported by the Royal Society (2010), only 0.45% of PhD holders or one in 200 PhD graduates in the United Kingdom will become a professor.

Another factor to consider regarding postdoc positions is financial outcomes and constraints. Over the first 15 years of their career, those that held a postdoc position in industry earned 21% less than non-postdocs, and in government, those with a postdoc earned 17% less than those without a postdoc (Kahn and Ginther 2017). One thing that should also be noted here is that a postdoc is not required for an industry position and can make you overqualified for those positions.

Another consideration of taking a postdoc position is your mental well-being. A study of 200 postdocs found that 35% had scores at or above anxiety cutoffs for diagnosable clinical anxiety disorders; this is three times the rate of the general population (Gloria and Steinhardt 2013).

After looking at the cons of doing a postdoc, what about the positives to doing one? It enables you to develop your skills as a scientist and define scientific questions with even more independence than when a graduate student and to have more practice at managing a lab on your own by helping guide graduate and undergraduate students. It helps diversify your skill set, fill in gaps of technical knowledge, provide more time for research goals, and expand publication records. It also allows one to travel to conferences and make more professional connections, although industry, government, or other employers allow conference attendance, too.

With all these points in mind, do you still want to complete a postdoc?

If “Yes,” keep the following suggestions in mind:

  • Get advice from a variety of people, including your adviser, colleagues, university career service office, alumni, and graduate friends
  • Build a network by talking to current postdocs at your institution, in other fields, and at conferences about their research and experiences
  • Focus your research on things that will benefit you the most in the long term. Remember to keep your end goal in mind and choose a postdoc position that will help accomplish that goal or bridge gaps in your research techniques
  • Be strategic and don’t waste your time applying to positions or research in which you have no interest.
  • Don’t do a postdoc because someone told you to or stated that the research fits a mentor’s box for you
  • Don’t do a postdoc because you think that it is “only option” (it is not) or because you think it will increase your market value (it may or may not)

Postdocs are a great resource for some people, but you should only undertake one if it is the right decision for your goals and career path.

If you do not want to complete a postdoc, investigate industry, government, and science policy/writing positions. These are just a few non-postdoc options for individuals with a PhD. Look for future blog posts from the SOT Graduate Student Leadership Committee that will explore these other career options in more detail.


Academic Positions. 2018. “What Is a Postdoc?” Academic Positions Career Advice Blog, April 20, 2018.

FindAPostDoc, n.d. “What is a PostDoc? – An Introduction.” Accessed September 29, 2022.

Gloria, Christian T., and Mary A. Steinhardt. 2013. “Flourishing, Languishing, and Depressed Postdoctoral Fellows: Differences in Stress, Anxiety, and Depressive Symptoms.” Journal of Postdoctoral Affairs 3, no. 1 (August): 1–8.

Kahn, Shulamit, and Donna K. Ginther. 2017. “The Impact of Postdoctoral Training on Early Careers in Biomedicine.” Nature Biotechnology 35 (January): 90–94.

Royal Society, The. 2010. The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity. London: The Royal Society.

Tiper, Irina, and Ian Street. 2017. “The Postdoc Path: Understanding the Value of a Postdoc before You Commit.” The POSTDOCket 15, no. 8.