Full Chapter List - So You Want To Be A Physicist... Series
Part I: Early Physics Education in High schools
Part II: Surviving the First Year of College
Part III: Mathematical Preparations
Part IV: The Life of a Physics Major
Part V: Applying for Graduate School
Part VI: What to Expect from Graduate School Before You Get There
Part VII: The US Graduate School System
Part VIII: Alternative Careers for a Physics Grad
Part VIIIa: Entering Physics Graduate School From Another Major
Part IX: First years of Graduate School from Being a TA to the Graduate Exams
Part X: Choosing a Research area and an advisor
Part XI: Initiating Research Work
Part XII: Research work and The Lab Book
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal
Part XIV: Oral Presentations
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal (Addendum)
Part XIV: Oral Presentations – Addendum
Part XV – Writing Your Doctoral Thesis/Desertation
Part XVI – Your Thesis Defense
Part XVII – Getting a Job!
Part XVIII – Postdoctoral Position
Part XIX – Your Curriculum Vitae
If you intend to pursue an academic/research career, chances are, you will need postdoctoral experience. This is typically a 2 to 3-year appointment either at a university, national laboratories, or industrial laboratories such as Bell Lab. It is not uncommon for someone to do 2 postdoctoral positions before finding a suitable employment. So this part of your career could drag on longer than expected. However, for most candidates, this could easily be the most productive part of your career and when you can effectively make a name for yourself.
A postdoctoral position is usually created out of a research grant. It means that funds have been allocated to hire a person at that position for the duration stated. Once that duration ends, the position will also end. This is why it is a temporary position. In some cases, if the institution has an opening, they might consider you for a permanent position. However, you should not depend on this and should always consider it as temporary.
The reason why a postdoctoral experience is usually deemed necessary to obtain highly sought-after position in leading universities and national laboratories is that these institutions want to employ individuals who (i) have shown the ability to carry on world-class research work on their own (ii) have the creativity to find new and important things to study (iii) can seek funding. These are the skills that one obtains and can demonstrate while a being a postdoctoral appointee (seeking funding may not be relevant for a postdoc in many areas such as theoretical work, or in large projects such as high energy physics).
Unlike your position as a graduate student, a postdoctoral appointee is expected to hit the ground running. Presumably, with your Ph.D, you were hired for your expertise in a particular area. You also have quite a bit more freedom in pursuing the particular area of research. While the broad outline of the area of study is set by your supervisor, you essentially can, in fact, discuss with him/her a line of research that you think should be pursued. You are expected to be able to work independently and show your creativity in that field of study. Your supervisor is no longer there to hold your hand the way your Ph.D adviser did.
If your appointment is with an academic institution, part of your responsibility may also involve some form of teaching or academic responsibility. Again, while such responsibility may take you away from doing research work, consider it as added experience that you can add to your resume as you continue to seek a more permanent position. It can only be an advantage to be able to include teaching experience in your job application, especially if you apply to an academic institution. So do not look at such responsibility with disdain.
During your postdoctoral appointment, you are highly expected to publish a few papers, preferably in leading journals. You are expected to know how to go about doing this. You may also be expected to supervise graduate students who will learn from you and your expertise. This is your chance (and even responsibility) to give back what you were given while you were a graduate student.
The issue of funding is a bit difficult to tackle because in many cases, it really depends on the institution. In some institution, the very fact that you can get research funding on your own might be the impetus for them to continue to hire you as a staff member. In national laboratories, you might be expected to be able to seek funding via what is known as the LDRD (laboratory-directed research and development), which are short-term fundings for projects that are potentially capable of receiving larger external funding. Remember that you are there only temporarily. Your ability to attract funding may in fact make you more attractive to be hired, or simply lengthen your postdoctoral appointment. However, you should try to learn as much as possible (probably from your supervisor) on how to seek research funding. Try asking him or her to see an example of a research funding proposal that has gotten through. In physics, the majority of research funding comes from the US Dept. of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Go to their websites and look carefully at the requirement and format to submit a research funding proposal, even if you don’t intend to write one. Chances are, you will need to know how to do one of these sooner or later.
Throughout your appointment, you should not stop continuing to look for job opening. It may turn out that as your appointment ends, you may have to seek a second postdoctoral position. Note however that for US National labs, there is usually a 6-year limit from the date that you received your Ph.D to qualify for a postdoctoral position. So if you have received your Ph.D longer than 6 years ago, you no longer qualify for a postdoctoral position.
As temporary and as uncertain as it is, to me, the postdoctoral period is when one truly begins to feel like a physicist. One is now doing directly the type of work one has been dreaming off all those years. There is also little to no other distractions away from one’s work, so this is what a physicist truly is, in the purest sense. You will realize later on that as one finally obtain a more permanent position, one is also saddled with other administrative responsibilities that come with the job. So look at the postdoctoral position as the buffer, or transition between your life as a student having a mentor, to being a physicist where you now have to make your own decisions. This transition period may be your most productive and the last time you get to be single-minded on a particular area of physics.