How well did prior postdoctoral appointments prepare PhDs for their careers? Length, value, and skills of postdoctoral experience

By Enyu Zhou


Among recent PhDs recipients who work in faculty positions, many had prior postdoctoral experiences. Although postdoctoral opportunities are intended to provide further professional development and training for PhD recipients, it is unclear how postdoctoral experiences directly align with future job demands and career aspirations (Mitic & Okahana, 2020). Using survey data from the Council of Graduate Schools’ (CGS) PhD Career Pathways project, this brief provides new insights into the experience and career outcomes of 1,465 PhD holders with postdoctoral training experiences.


Key Findings


Sector of Postdoctoral Appointments. A large majority (73%) of the survey participants (n=1,465) held their postdoctoral appointments at a university, while some held postdocs at some other type of institution or entity (20%), and a few held postdocs both in a university and outside of a university (8%). This was true across different broad fields of study (Figure 1).

Length of Postdoctoral Appointments. The length of the postdoctoral appointment varied by broad field of study. The average length of postdoctoral appointments was longer in Life and Health Sciences (37.3 months) and Physical and Earth Sciences (34.7 months), compared to Engineering, Math, and Computer Science (27.0  months), Social and Behavioral Sciences (26.3 months), and Arts and Humanities (21.6 months) (Figure 2).

Diverse Career Pathways. Not all former postdocs at universities subsequently went on to faculty positions. For postdocs in STEM fields, a large percentage were working in industry at the time of participation in this study:  36% of postdocs in Engineering, Math, and Computer Science and 27% in Life and Health Sciences worked in the private sector. In contrast, 74% of former Arts and Humanities postdocs at universities went on to become faculty members. Combined with those who worked as administrators and staff at the time of survey participation, 92% of Arts and Humanities who had held university postdocs later went on to jobs in the postsecondary sector. A small number of Arts and Humanities postdocs were employed in the non-profit and private sectors (4% and 5%, respectively) (Figure 3). In contrast, those who held non-university postdoctoral appointments were more likely to go on to jobs in the non-academic sector (Figure 4).

Perceived Value of a Postdoctoral Experience. When asked to rate the value of their postdocs in securing subsequent employment on a 5-point scale, from not valuable at all to extremely valuable, former postdoctoral associates recorded favorable views on how their experience helped them securing subsequent employment. Those with doctorates in Social and Behavioral Sciences had the most favorable views, with the average score of 4.0 out of 5 (Figure 5).

Preparation in specific skills. Participants were asked how well their graduate programs prepared them in specific knowledge and attributes in the baseline surveys and the same questions were asked about their postdoc experiences in the follow-up survey. To understand how postdocs experiences added to career preparation compared to graduate study, we compared the mean scores of skills preparedness between graduate programs and postdoc experience for participants who participated in both the baseline and follow-up survey. Across the board, former postdocs reported higher marks for professional development opportunities during their doctoral studies than in their postdoctoral experiences. Moreover, respondents across all fields reported less postdoctoral preparation in specific skills and attributes such as grant writing, networking, and awareness of cultural values and biases and using culturally appropriate interpersonal skills (Table 1).

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