Most PhD-Students will wonder at some point whether they want to stay in academia or pursue an alternative path. But those who decide in favor of academia need to prepare well in advance to increase their chances of a subsequently paid PostDoc position without a huge gap in between.
Broadly, there are two types of positions: Those that are advertised in running projects and those that are created on your own through fellowships or personal grants. For both, the competition is quite high, even though much higher for the latter. While speaking with dozens of PhD students over the past years I realized, however, that many are not, or only poorly prepared for the competition that follows after the PhD defense.
Indeed, there is quite some luck at play, yet many seem to overestimate the role of luck as part of the equation while underestimating the role of preparation towards such a position. How does this preparation look like? Well, generally speaking, I think that in advertised positions it’s your skill set that counts most while when applying for own mandates it’s a combination of your publication list and your ideas (i.e. the topic you propose to work on) that drives the ranking of candidates.
Yet, while these conditions may sound very obvious in the first place, I see many PhD students with ambitious goals to proceed in science that, however, lack the competitive profile for proceeding. It will be too easy to blame only the student because – let’s be honest here – how should they know when they start? But their supervisors should. Could they do a better job of preparing their students for an academic career after the PhD defense?
The answer is yes – many could do better here. Supervising a PhD student does not only mean to guide the student through their thesis’ research but to see the bigger picture of what comes after. As a supervisor, you can train a student to become a good scientist while failing to make the student a successful scientist too. Being good does not automatically imply becoming well prepared for the post PhD job market. That is an important distinction that supervisors need to consider if they want to do the job right.
To take immediate action I will focus on two topics I found most important.
1. Start publishing as early as possible.
In many countries the duration of a PhD is only three years, sometimes it is five – and with that, the average student eventually ends up with 3 – 5 papers – and not all of them are already published or even submitted after the defense. However, many PostDoc fellowships use the number of papers (in journals with impact factors) as a proxy for the candidates quality. If the candidate wants to rank high, he or she needs to have more publications than the average (while quality counts over quantity that is). That being said, a candidate with an average number of papers (provided these papers are not all in exceptionally high ranked journals) would stand only a very limited chance in succeeding with a personal mandate (when applying for existing positions that is a different story of course).
Supervisors who advise waiting with publishing could therefore already harm the career of a student right from the beginning as the student likely won’t have time to compensate for a paper-free first year. Instead, supervisors should find opportunities for first-year students to publish. Be it in ongoing research where data is available, starting with a training example that can lead to a publication, or by writing a review paper on the main topic of research. The goal here should not be so much to max out for the rank of the journal but for having a solid publication in an international journal fast. Such a strategy also has the advantage that the student starts with writing early on and to learn how the publication process works. Both aspects help to set up a routine and to learn to deal with the frustrations that come with publishing such as dealing with rejection and reviewer comments.
2. Build strong and supportive networks
Science is a team sport and in times where everybody advocates for interdisciplinary work, good networks are mandatory for academic success (learn here how to spend your time for networking at conferences). Yet I encountered many examples where students were not encouraged to build their own network or become an active part of the supervisor’s network. I heard arguments such as the student has to focus on his/her own work and I know at least one example where collaborations were hardly possible because the supervisor feared to dilute his contribution through an excess of co-authors on resulting papers.
However, a strong network is good for two reasons. It can lead to interesting side projects that multiply the number of the candidate’s papers. And more paper will lead to a higher rank in personal mandate applications! Even though I often hear some peers saying that co-authorships are basically worthless apart from first or senior positions, they show that you are part of a productive network. So, as long as there are papers from the own line of research, co-authorships emerging from collaborations are an important plus that strengthens your profile – especially at the beginning of the career.
Next to the immediate benefit of potential side-projects, a network can also help getting PostDoc positions. The more people get to know you, the more people will think about you when it comes to job positions. Either, people from your network have a job to offer or they recommend you to colleagues searching for promising candidates. If you do a great job during your PhD but nobody knows who you are, you will lower your chances that people will consider you. This not only counts for direct recommendations to job positions but also for reviewer reviewing your proposals. If the reviewer knows who you are, even though there is no direct cooperation what might cause a conflict of interest in reviewing a proposal, of course, they can give a much better evaluation of you as a person. If not, a reviewer only relies on the metrics presented in a CV (e.g. publication list). But when there is a personal connection (e.g. through a nice meeting on a conference) people can also evaluate your personality. Having an emotional link to a PostDoc candidate can make a huge difference when it comes to fellowship applications. But also if you apply for a PostDoc within an existing project, your life will be easier if there are people on the jury which already associate positive experiences with you. Even though that did not include a project collaboration before.
The bottom line
Both aspects together may decide over success or failure in maintaining an academic career after the PhD defense. Of course, the student is the main actor here who has to bring the engagement in order to improve his/her chances. Yet the supervisor also has a crucial responsibility here to provide the best possible environment for starting PhD students to make them not only good but also successful scientists who have the best possible foundation to decide on their own which career they want to proceed.
While these two main aspects outlined above will be definitely beneficial when applying on existing positions they are mandatory for personal mandates where the personal profile is at least as important as the scientific context one is working in. Since these personal mandate positions also provide more of academic freedom regarding the framing of own research topics it would be a pity if wrong decisions in supervising PhD students would reduce their chances for success after their defense.