Choosing physics: Postdoctoral study
Postdoctoral study can lead to a career as an academic scientist and give you the opportunity to be part of world-leading research projects. So what qualifications do you need? And how can you secure a position?
A postdoc is literally that – the next academic step in your career after your doctoral degree (PhD), and the key to a future appointment to a university position.
Typically lasting two to three years, it’s a temporary position that provides you with the time and space to build the final skills, techniques and network necessary for success as an academic scientist. Offering the freedom of a graduate student, with none of the administrative duties of senior academic staff, postdoctoral researchers are laser-focused on research.
Why should I consider postdoctoral study?
In the past decade, huge physics facilities like the Large Hadron Collider and LIGO/Virgo have transformed our understanding of the Universe. Their achievements are built on the toil of hundreds of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. Without an army of physics postdocs refining theory, coding software, analysing data and performing a slew of other important tasks, Big Science projects like these, which have led to Nobel Prizes and countless new discoveries, would simply not function.
More generally, physics postdocs are usually the researchers with the most energy and enthusiasm to push beyond the boundaries of our understanding of the physical world.
What do I need?
A PhD in physics or a related discipline is a must. Relevant training and/or experimental or industrial experience might be required for certain postdoctoral positions.
What are my options?
Often, postdocs continue to delve deeper into the topic they researched during their PhD work. However, many others apply the skills and experience developed during their doctoral research in a related field, or even a completely different area of research.
Some postdoctoral roles are salaried positions at a university, institution or company. Others are funded through grants, fellowships or scholarships. Like PhDs, open postdoc positions can be found by asking department contacts, searching individual university websites or trawling through dedicated guides such as Academic Positions, FindAPostDoc or Science Careers.
What’s it like?
Though you may work as part of a group and be supervised by a mentor, a postdoc usually offers more autonomy than a PhD. As this will be the last time in your career where you can focus exclusively on your intellectual development, your main tasks will be conducting research and publishing results as often as possible. You’ll also be expected to present your findings regularly, both within the department and university, and at national and international conferences and seminars.
Additional senior responsibilities that prepare you for life as a faculty member – like mentoring, grant writing and teaching – may also be part of your role. However, becoming a permanent faculty member after a postdoc is not a given. After completing their postdocs, many apply for further postdoctoral positions at their institution or elsewhere, or pursue options outside academia.