How can you ensure you get the most out of your postdoc?

Gain experience outside of your primary projects

Consider attending professional development opportunities, writing for a local paper, teaching, mentoring students, serving on committees, or participating in outreach to the local community. No matter if you stay in academia or not after a postdoc, these experiences will be important to obtaining and thriving in your next position. 

Talk to people in your field or in different fields

Networking is key to looking for academic and non-academic jobs. Tell people about your work and ask about their work and experiences. Reach out to people who wrote an article or book you enjoyed. Ask a few of these people to be your career mentors, and build relationships with them over time. Contact Duke alums through the Alumni Association Directory. Meet with other researchers and employers at conferences. 

Schedule an appointment with a career advisor

Develop a strategy with a career advisor for navigating your postdoc. Strategies can consist of networking with alum who have postdoc experience, finding ways to gain professional development opportunities, and identifying transferrable skills that align with your postdoc and future career goals. Book a career advising appointment via Handshake.

Skills & credentials to build during a postdoc

Based on core competencies identified by the National Postdoc Association. For example skills that are highly valued on the academic job search at various types of institutions, see this Academic Career Readiness Assessment from UCSF. 

Broad research skills 

  • Identify research opportunities and challenges 
  • Define question 
  • Design and manage research project 
  • Gain additional knowledge of current research areas 
  • Gain knowledge of new research areas 

Technical research skills 

  • Learn new techniques and methodologies 
  • Read and critically analyze the literature 
  • Analyze and interpret data 
  • Design research protocols (IRB, IACUC, etc.) 
  • Facilitate safety inspections
  • Conduct research with human subjects
  • Conduct research involving animals
  • Conduct research using mathematical modeling

Networking skills

  • Attend conferences 
  • Meet people at institutions or organizations where you may want to work in the future 
  • Develop relationships 
  • Find people to write letters of reference 

Exploring career option skills

  • Create an individual development plan 
  • Conduct informational interviews 
  • Gain experience in non-faculty career path(s) of interest 
  • Utilize mentor’s network 
  • Gain exposure to the life of a faculty member (e.g., going to faculty meetings) 

Interpersonal & management skills

  • Select new lab members 
  • Recruit, hire, and terminate personnel 
  • Train students and staff 
  • Manage people 
  • Develop and manage a budget 
  • Administer grants 
  • Leadership 
  • Motivate and inspire others 
  • Mentor others 
  • Conduct a performance review 
  • Demonstrate professionalism 
  • Establish and maintain collaborations 
  • Partner with government agencies, foundations, and nonprofits 
  • Identify and manage conflicts of interest 
  • Work with people from diverse backgrounds 
  • Practice responsible authorship 
  • Conduct a meeting 
  • Delegate 

Skills Evaluation Activity

 1.    For the lists of skills above, determine if each skill is important for your career path(s) of interest (check the box). 

2.    Next to skills you chose as important, score on a scale of 1 (very) to 5 (a little important) how important those skills are for your career path(s) of interest. 

3.    Use the results to evaluate how potential postdocs suit your goals. Talk with potential postdoc mentors and postdoc offices about how they can help you grow in these areas. 

Succeeding as a postdoc

Use Resources of The National Postdoc Association. The NPA has information and resources useful for postdocs to maximize their postdoc experience and connect with other professionals in their field. Duke Postdoctoral Services is a member of the NPA. Register for your free Duke affiliate membership using your Duke email address.

Create an individual development plan (IDP) with your postdoc mentor. Use the skills and credentials you identified earlier as a guide. Write out your plans and check on your progress together at least a couple times per year. 

When getting started at a postdoc, focus on fewer projects until you feel settled. Taking on too many projects at the beginning can slow down your initial progress. By making early progress, you can demonstrate your abilities to your postdoc mentor and build momentum in your research. 

Since you come in as a postdoc by yourself, it can be hard to feel a sense of community. Meet other postdocs through the institution’s postdoc association. Also try Meetup to participate in social events in your area.  

If this postdoc position is not what you expected or not helping you progress in your career, there is always the option to do another postdoc. Many people do a second or third postdoc for different reasons, both personal and professional. Some fields even expect you to do multiple postdocs before landing that first tenure-track faculty job. If you start a postdoc and it’s not working out, don’t feel bad about leaving in the first 6-12 months. Try to leave on good terms, and move on to what’s going to work better for you.

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