Student Notebook

What We Didn’t Learn in Graduate School

After an exhausting and protracted application and interview process, I (the Fergusson half of the author team) had been matched to an outstanding predoctoral internship with supportive faculty, outstanding clinical experience, and many opportunities for professional development. I could finally take a long sigh of relief. Yet despite my ever-growing list of predoctoral responsibilities — clients, paperwork, assessments, meetings, and training — and my half-hearted attempt to achieve some work-life balance, I could not avoid thinking about the looming prospect on the horizon: the impending search for a postdoctoral fellowship.

Embarking on my search for a postdoctoral fellowship, I asked myself a number of critical questions. Is my dissertation completed and defended? When and where should I start looking? How well do my interests align with the type of training offered at various fellowships? What are the salary and benefits offered by each fellowship? Why am I really pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship rather than a job? Although these questions were by no means exhaustive, they certainly helped me begin the process of some very serious and necessary reflections.

A postdoc is a critical step toward a career as a psychologist in research, practice, or teaching and can provide numerous opportunities to develop one’s skills in specific areas. A postdoc can enhance clinical abilities, add to a publication and funding record, or improve a teaching portfolio. Unlike predoctoral internships, which are meant to widen one’s focus and provide a wide array of opportunities, a postdoctoral fellowship ought to narrow one’s interests and sharpen one’s skills in a specific area of clinical or research practice.

So why pursue a postdoctoral fellowship? Clinical psychologists need a certain number of postdoctoral clinical hours that have been supervised by a licensed clinician. However, these hours need not be in the context of a formal postdoc, as working at a supervised clinical job could also suffice. Research psychologists can also skip the postdoc and secure a faculty appointment without having been a fellow first. These jobs are likely to offer higher salaries and better benefits than postdocs, and you’ll have a wider variety of positions from which to choose. (For more on deciding to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship, see “Getting Hired” in the September 2010 Observer.)

Yet many soon-to-be psychologists will tell you that doing a postdoc is almost a requirement in today’s economy. Jobs are scarce, and the ones that exist set a high bar for applicants. Many available clinician positions advertise for “licensed clinicians only.” Many research positions expect one to have numerous publications and evidence of external funding. A postdoc provides the time and opportunity for new psychologists to gain advanced training in clinical, research, and/or teaching skills, positioning them to be appropriately competitive for a job search in 1 to 3 years.

If you’ve decided to seek a postdoctoral fellowship, it is first important to realistically assess your progress on your dissertation. A significant number of applicants enter their internship year expecting to complete their dissertations during the internship. However, as the demands of the internship mount, many will drift into the category of All But Dissertation (ABD), an untenable position for a postdoctoral fellow. Candidates who fail to defend their dissertations prior to commencing their postdocs may have their expected salaries cut in half, and they will be unable to start accruing postdoctoral hours until the dissertation’s defense and completion. Be honest about your ability to finish on time, and plan to take some extra time to complete the dissertation, if necessary.

The question of when to commence the search for a postdoctoral fellowship is a critical one. I recall being told that I had ample time to find a postdoc, and I was frequently cautioned that an early search and commitment may leave me feeling disappointed when more competitive and more suitable postdoctoral opportunities surfaced. However, when I began my search, I found that most formal postdoctoral programs had early deadlines, and thus starting the search process early is absolutely critical: Begin the search no later than November of the predoctoral internship year. For interns starting in September, this is approximately 90 days into your internship year. At this point, you are most likely still getting adjusted to your work environment and responsibilities with little time available for much else. Resist the urge to delay the process much longer.

Spend some time considering how you would like to spend your postdoctoral year(s). This is a time to specialize and to shore up your weaknesses. What can you do during this period that will facilitate your career goals? Once this has been decided, you will need to start thinking about where to look. Some of the more common resources for postdoctoral fellowships are the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) website, the APS Observer Employment Network, the APA Monitor, and a number of other local network journals. Many postdoctoral openings are posted on relevant e-mail lists, such as APPIC Postdoc-Network, APA’s Early Career Listserv, and various lists within specific divisions and associations. It is also absolutely necessary to use your own networks. Throughout your graduate training, numerous advisors and supervisors have become familiar with your work. These individuals are a necessary referral source and may have ideas and recommendations for postdoctoral fellowships. Contact colleagues, supervisors, and anyone who may be able to help with the search process. It is very common to find positions in this way that have never been posted, and some psychologists may even create a position for you. To increase your chances of netting a postdoctoral fellowship, widen your network of supportive and connected individuals. Conferences can provide a context to meet potential postdoctoral advisors; introverts can seek out a member of their faculty or a colleague to make the necessary introductions.

Once the applications are complete and the interview process has begun, a whole new set of questions arises. This is a good time to learn all the details about what the position entails. If the position is academic, would it involve teaching, supervision, or clinical work? If the position is teaching, is it primarily with undergraduates or graduate students? How much autonomy will you have to explore your own ideas and research questions? Current and former postdoctoral fellows are often an outstanding resource for answering these sorts of questions and are likely to be more forthcoming about the strengths and weaknesses of the position. In addition, find out where former postdoctoral fellows have taken up positions following their fellowships. This will provide a fairly clear picture of where a specific postdoctoral fellowship can lead once complete.

Finally, applying and interviewing for a postdoctoral fellowship can be extremely stressful, not unlike the predoctoral internship process. Therefore, plan ahead, and get as much of your dissertation completed prior to the internship. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to complete the process, and consider seriously whether to pursue a postdoc rather than a job. Cast your net far and wide. Reach out to your networks and recruit their help in locating a suitable postdoctoral fellowship. During the interview process, ask lots of questions to current and former postdoctoral fellows and be clear on the tangible and intangible benefits offered to you. For questions related to postdoctoral hours and licensure requirement, be sure to consult your state licensing board. Finally, find ways of managing the stress and anxiety that often surrounds the process. This is a time when you are likely to feel very vulnerable, so don’t make decisions in a hurry. Consult with someone you trust.

For further reading and resources:

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.