The PSI PhDs and Postdocs

The young talents at PSI are all individuals, with their own values and life experience. Just like with any group, there is no such thing as ‘the’ PSI talent. However, they share the common experience of having worked at Switzerland’s largest research institution, they have invested time in cutting-edge research at the forefront of their disciplines, and they have received extensive training in research methodology, data analysis and visualization, and communication of results to various audiences. In addition, they are used to working independently and in international, multidisciplinary teams, organizing and managing projects, and constantly finding solutions for new problems. Here is a quick guide of what you can expect from someone having done their PhD or postdoc at PSI.

Our PhDs hold Master degrees in physics, chemistry, engineering or related fields, and spend ~4 years on specific research projects to advance their scientific, methodological and transferable skills. During their PhD, they are part of a research group at PSI, enrolled at a university, and may collaborate with other groups worldwide. Their work consists of planning and managing their research project, evaluating and choosing (or developing) methods and strategies, acquiring, processing and visualizing data, and presenting their results at conferences or in scientific articles. They are constantly pushing the boundaries of our knowledge, adapting their research to new results or developments in the international scientific community, and contribute to controversies that are an inevitable part of generating new knowledge. Each year, about 50 PhD students complete their thesis projects at PSI, and are awarded Dr. titles by the universities involved in their projects. The ENE (Energy and Environment) division hosts the largest number of PhD projects.

Overview of PhD students leaving PSI each year. Dir – Directorate; CPT Center for Proton Therapy; BIO – Biology and Chemistry; NUM – Research with Neutrons and Muons; NES – Nuclear Energy and Safety; ENE – Energy and Environment; PSD – Photon Science; SCD – Scientific Computing, Theory and Data; GFA – Large Research Facilities; LOG – Logistics:
Division 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Dir (mainly CPT) 3 - 2 2 1
BIO 3 4 10 10 7
NUM 5 9 8 12 7
NES 8 6 10 5 7
ENE 12 17 10 15 15
PSD 3 10 5 7 6
SCD - - - 1 4
GFA - - 1 - -
LOG - 1 - - -
Total 34 47 46 52 47


Postdocs have successfully completed their PhDs, and continue developing skills while working on another research project. Often, they change research fields, research groups, or even countries between their PhD and postdoc projects, to broaden and strengthen their expertise. In addition to the tasks outlined for PhD students, postdocs often have more responsibility in their groups, and may teach university courses, advise and train students, or take responsibility for instruments or resources associated with their project. Between 50 and 60 postdocs successfully complete their projects at PSI each year, with the PSD (Photon Science) division hosting the largest group of postdocs.

Overview of postdocs leaving PSI each year. Dir – Directorate; CPT Center for Proton Therapy; BIO – Biology and Chemistry; NUM – Research with Neutrons and Muons; NES – Nuclear Energy and Safety; ENE – Energy and Environment; PSD – Photon Science; SCD – Scientific Computing, Theory and Data; GFA – Large Research Facilities; LOG – Logistics:
Division 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Dir (mainly CPT) - - 3 2 -
BIO 2 6 2 4 4
NUM 13 10 8 8 8
NES 5 11 8 10 12
ENE 11 11 14 11 7
PSD 24 19 16 15 15
SCD - - - - 3
GFA - 3 2 2 1
LOG - 1 - - 1
Total 55 61 53 52 51


Individual competencies differ based on personal backgrounds, interests and experience. However, some competencies are required from anyone who wants to complete a research project at PSI. Based on the PSI Competency Model for personal, interpersonal and leadership skills, and the PSI Career Center's compilation on scientific and methodological competencies, these include:  

  • Managing data and information: PSI PhDs and postdocs are used to filtering large volumes of information, finding information that is relevant to their current project and of high quality. They are also used to organize, describe and store data according to the FAIR principle, i.e., in findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable ways.
  • Evaluating, choosing and developing methods: Choosing or developing a suitable method is crucial in research; therefore, PSI PhDs and postdocs have learned to define quality criteria, and evaluate methods against one another based on scientific, technical, economic, and feasibility aspects.
  • Acquiring and processing data: Reliability and reproducibility are key aspects when producing data for research. PSI PhDs and postdocs know how to define and follow standard operating procedures, treat quantitative and qualitative data, test for and avoid factors that may influence results, and estimate and report data uncertainty or other quality measures.
  • Visualizing and reporting complex data: Communicating results while respecting time constraints or page limits requires clear figures, concise text, and well-organized presentations. Similarly, teaching or outreach activities put high demands on a PhD or postdoc’s abilities to present data and concepts.
  • Communication: This includes collaboration and reaching common goals in diverse, multi-national and inter-disciplinary teams, and also written or oral presentation of new findings and ideas to the scientific community, students users, or the public. Passing on knowledge to others in lectures, or by training students also needs well-developed communication skills. Because of conference presentations or lectures, most PhDs and postdocs are familiar with public speaking.
  • Project management: PhDs and Postdocs have to organize their work such that they reach project goals, meet deadlines to present their work at conference, coordinate instrument times with the needs of other users, anticipate challenges and continuously adapt their work to new developments. They also handle the communication with collaborators, and are responsible to deliver their output on time.
  • Acquiring funds and managing project resources: Mainly postdocs may be responsible for their own projects, meaning that they are experienced in budgeting, acquiring funds, and allocating resources in line with project goals and new developments in the research field.   
  • Excellence and quality: PhDs and postdocs are used to working towards ambitious goals, ensuring a high quality of their work, following and reviewing processes and procedures, and operating state-of-the-art equipment with care. They continuously push boundaries
  • Commitment and balance: PSI PhDs and postdocs take responsibility and initiative, and view changes and challenges as an opportunity to expand their knowledge and for personal development. They find solutions when an experiment does not work, or an instrument fails. Finishing a PhD takes a lot of commitment and dedication, and the ability to stay motivated despite difficulties. It also requires the ability to find balance, set the right priorities, know when the study is good enough, and deal with constant uncertainty and stress.
  • Self-reflection and development: PSI PhDs and postdocs are committed to life-long learning, and value feedback as a way to improve their knowledge and skills. Scientific articles undergo peer review before publication, so that in particular postdocs are familiar with giving and receiving expert feedback. They can work independently, evaluate their progress and performance critically, and act accordingly.
  • Curiosity and innovation: PhDs and postdocs stay up to date with developments in their field, and constantly adapt their work to the newest findings. They anticipate difficulties and find alternatives, or use their creativity to solve unforeseen challenges, such as an instrument failure in a remote area. Research is a constant mission to find solutions to problems most people are not aware exist.
  • Respect and integrity: Principles of scientific integrity include the objective and comprehensive gathering of information – including the information that is inconvenient because it may prove a hypothesis wrong – and honest data analysis, giving others the credit they deserve by citing their work or adding them as co-authors, and transparent communication. PSI PhDs and postdocs are trustworthy, they care about others and find solutions that benefit everyone.
  • Challenge and empowerment: When teaching others or supervising students, our PhDs and postdocs create learning environments where mistakes and failed experiments provide opportunities to learn and move forward. Research collaborations only work when others are valued and appreciated, their ideas respected, and risks or challenges discussed openly. This mindset will foster mutually beneficial relationships in the workplace.
  • Communication and involvement: Good communication is key for any scientist: sharing facts and ideas, giving and seeking feedback, asking and listening, are pre-requisites to adapt one’s work to developments in the research field and remain at the forefront of the discipline. Their experience with scientific debates helps our PhDs and postdocs resolve conflicts or misunderstandings.
  • Awareness and empathy: PSI PhDs and postdocs are trained to not jump to conclusions based on initial personal impression, but instead focus on understanding someone else’s thoughts, ideas, and needs. Most scientific advancements are based on combining others’ ideas with own findings.
  • Vision and strategy: When setting up their projects, especially postdocs make a strategic plan, identify opportunities and build sustainable relationships of collaboration partners. When presenting their work to the public or at conferences, they represent their group or institution. They contribute to shaping the future of their research field.
  • Diversity and inclusion: Because PSI PhDs and postdocs are used to working in diverse international and interdisciplinary teams, they embrace diverse cultural and professional backgrounds and motivations, and actively include everyone with their talents in the workplace. Many PhDs and postdocs speak several languages and have experience working abroad.
  • Team building and leadership: Especially PhDs and postdocs who worked on large-scale experiments are used to working towards team goals, establishing common procedures, and finding solutions as a team. Those who supervised students know how to set an example by showing personal commitment, and how to acknowledge contributions and achievements.
  • Health and safety: PSI PhDs and postdocs take responsibility for shaping a safe work environment, e.g. by defining standard operating procedures and observing laboratory rules. They manage resources responsibly, and foster a culture of mutual support, e.g., by introducing students and guests to their laboratories.