What is the value of completing a postdoctoral fellowship, rather than immediately accepting a faculty appointment after graduation? What resources are available in searching for and/or funding a postdoctoral opportunity?
To answer this issue's Featured Question, ASHA turned to its greatest resource: its members. Shurita Thomas-Tate, an assistant professor at Florida State University, Kumiko Boike, a current postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University, and Renetta Tull, PROMISE Program Director at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, have graciously shared their knowledge and experiences in response to this question. (PROMISE is a program aimed at increasing the number and diversity of PhD candidates, and is sponsored by Maryland's Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate.)
According to Dr. Thomas-Tate, the value of a postdoctoral fellowship lies in its ability to allow an individual time to develop as a researcher without the pressures of a tenure-track position (e.g., teaching and service requirements). Dr. Boike elaborates: "Research is typically the only demand on your time. This means that the postdoc can give you the chance to get up-to-date on current research as well as take the time to learn several different things related to research. For example, if you are asked to act as a reviewer for a journal, you have a bit more time during the postdoc to do this, whereas in a faculty position, you may not have a similar amount of time to devote to learning the ins and outs of reviewing a manuscript." Additional benefits include the ability to develop a new or underdeveloped area of expertise, time to transition from student to professional, and the opportunity to gain a general "portfolio of experience" that may make applying for a faculty position a bit easier later on.
There are a number of points to consider, however, before accepting a postdoctoral fellowship. Dr. Boike states: "The post-doctoral fellowship] will probably be a learning experience that is challenging at times." Other factors she encourages students to consider are (a) a salary that is lower than those offered by faculty appointments, (b) limited opportunities to engage in mentoring and/or teaching activities, and (c) a delay in establishing independence from a mentor.
Despite some of the challenges faced, all of the current and former postdoctoral fellows interviewed consider their postdoc experience to be an invaluable part of helping them prepare for a faculty position. Dr. Tull says, "I was able to make smooth transitions and navigate the campus, the department, and my field from the perspective of a faculty member as opposed to seeing the academic world as a student, [as well as] acclimate to a new state and city without the pressure of the tenure clock." Dr. Thomas-Tate adds: "I developed more confidence in my abilities and had time to write up my dissertation for publication."
Many resources are available to students considering postdoctoral opportunities. Dr. Thomas-Tate had this to say: "I tell my students that they should look for postdoc opportunities with specific researchers and/or specific research labs that they are interested in. They should contact those researchers and see if they have their own postdoctoral funding mechanisms available, or if they are open to accepting a postdoc but don't have funding, students should seek their own funding through sources such as the NIH." Dr. Tull adds: "look for universities with proven track records for addressing ethnic underrepresentation in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Universities with programs similar to the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), and the Advance Program for women faculty in STEM fields are generally good places to start."
Please visit the links below for more information on available postdoctoral opportunities and/or funding a postdoctoral fellowship.
This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Access Academics and Research.