Broadening research horizons
Postdoc’ing is often seen as a stage of increasing specialisation. However, there is much to be gained by doing something new at this stage too. I was very fortunate to spend two years as a postdoc at the University of California Davis, after having done my PhD at the University of Oxford. My postdoc provided me with a unique opportunity to be based in an anthropology department, switching my field from evolutionary ecology to primatology. During my time there, I attended every department seminar, and even went to very specialised primate conferences! While I remain fairly critical of many of the approaches used in that field, I came to better understand the motivation and underlying theoretical approach used in the field, and (here is my confession) have built a real appreciation for what primatologists do. I now actively follow (and understand) research and a body of theory that I would otherwise probably have glossed over. I should admit here that my research perhaps did specialise in terms of the questions and methods (collective movement and decision-making), but that does not detract from the opportunities to explore those questions in quite different systems and discipline. More broadly, as a result, of my postdoc, I also now know how NSF funding works, and how US grad programmes function. My time in the USA also linked me into a whole new research community—I had the opportunity to visit many different universities, and forged several valuable collaborations.
Seeing the world and meeting new people
A postdoc can provide an opportunity to see new parts of the world. While many (myself included) already move to new countries for their PhD, I think it is much more common to move to do a postdoc. I know that the community pressure to postdoc overseas is hard for many (e.g. it often coincides with the time we settle down and start a family), but I believe it is a valuable experience for those lucky enough to do it. The formation that one receives during a PhD really depends on the supervisor, department, university, and even the country where they were enrolled. Moving overseas provides new insights into how research operates in different countries, how funding works, what PhD programmes are like, and so on. Moving to a new country also gave me the chance to explore amazing new places, and thus also expand my personal horizons. Not only did I get to travel, I also got to make many friends that are now found all over the world. One advantage of moving to a large university is that there will always be an international component (and often a very rich postdoc community). Some of these friends I still collaborate with, and I am sure they will remain my peers throughout my career. These connections are really invaluable—we have shared a common experience.
Getting a better picture of academia
The PhD is really quite a unique education. We’re often given quite a lot of freedom, but with a very clear goal and someone (hopefully) looking over our shoulder. However, doing research as a PhD student is really quite different to doing research as an academic. For a start, a PhD student often has loads of time (I know it’s cliché and often doesn’t feel like it, but trust me it’s true), and can devote entire days or weeks to focus on solving just one problem. Of course it can be beneficial to continue on the same project for a postdoc, particularly in terms of scientific outputs (read: papers). However, moving projects, fields, and location has presented me with many challenges that have trained me for my current position (as a non-permanent PI). For example, I have students at all different levels and from lots of different places around the world, and I feel that I better understand their needs and motivations. They often also have quite different ideas to me, and I feel better equipped to move across fields of literature after having been exposed to very different schools of thought during my PhD and Postdoc. I feel that I also have many ideas to contribute to their research that have come from putting ideas from different disciplines together. Finally, I also have a better idea of what kind of options are available for me when I reach the end of my current position (e.g. different types of teaching and research jobs), and the pros and cons of these (from my own perspective).
If you are coming to the end of your PhD, and have the ability to make a move, I highly recommend looking widely for positions. I believe that moving has made me more competitive, not only in terms of my CV, but most importantly in terms of my ideas, scientific ability, and knowledge.
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