post-doc’ing in the USA

A guest post by Dr Beth Hellen. Catch her @phdgeek – and read her blog here – Tunnelling Through Academia

On a sunny day lasRutgerst October I stepped off a plane at JFK airport to begin a new postdoc research position in the States, and everything changed. Or actually, mostly, it didn’t.

The experience of being a postdoc abroad can vary widely depending on the country you go to and moving to the east coast of the USA is a fairly easy ride as far as postdocs in a foreign country go. There is so much cross-pollination of culture between the two countries that many aspects of life are exactly the same. Of course that means that the things that are different are much more likely to broadside you if you’re not looking out!

As a British postdoc in the USA, most of the challenges I faced were the same as the challenges I’d face in the UK – research is an international career. Working on much of the same research, publishing in the same journals and writing and speaking in the same language (give or take a few words). Postdocs in every country in the world are essentially doing the same thing; trying to publish as much of the best work they can, to set themselves up with the best chances of an academic career. So why is a post-doc in the USA such a desirable thing to have on your CV?

While the role of a postdoc in the States is pretty similar to the UK, the other positions in the academic career track can be wildly different, and this changes how you, as a postdoc, are perceived by others in your research environment. PhD courses, for example, are much longer in the USA than they are in the UK. This can result in postdocs that are quite a lot older and that may have had many more years of building their research skills and portfolio than a postdoc straight out of a UK PhD may have done. As someone who had already completed 3 years of postdoctoral work in the UK, I found myself roughly at the same level in both age and experience to the 1st year postdoc in the lab. So, securing the job and proving yourself in the competition for postdoc places is already something very CV worthy.

The after-postdoc trajectory in the USA is also different than in the UK and so there may be different pressures depending on whether your plan is to try and forge a career in the states or to come back to the UK. The issue of tenure particularly complicates matters as pre-tenure PIs can build a research team only to suddenly find themselves without a lab or institutional support if denied tenure. This makes the position of the postdocs (and also the PhD students) working in their groups even more unstable than it is in the UK.

In conclusion. The USA post-doc is desirable because:

  • It’s good to prove yourself by competitively scoring that US postdoc job;
  • It shows you have the wherewithal to travel to make the best career move, rather than stagnating in your comfort zone, your research project experience is broadened;
  • Working in a range of environments, research systems, and with a variety of workplace and local cultures means that you are more flexible, and adaptable to different styles and ways of working, you improve your professionalism as a researcher.

But, do choose your PI wisely – tenure matters for you and the groups you join. Good luck!


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