My international travels in recent years have given me the opportunity to talk with many Ph.D. students about their research and their plans for the future, and I have noticed that there is a rather dramatic difference between U.S.-based and international students in their approach to finding postdocs.
European Ph.D. students in my field of science, for example, are much more likely to wait until they finish their degree, or are extremely close to finishing, before looking for a postdoc. In the U.S., the hunt for postdocs typically starts earlier -- sometimes a year before the expected Ph.D. completion date. I am generalizing, of course, and there are many exceptions, but I have encountered this situation enough to believe there is a difference. This difference is likely related to the different funding structures and academic cultures than to anything more profound.
Nevertheless, despite my having spent significant time abroad and despite having a high level of interaction with international colleagues, the U.S. system is so ingrained in me that I am always taken aback when I hear a Ph.D. student say that they are going to finish their degree and then starting looking around for a postdoc. I had this experience today, so I have been thinking about it and about why my instinctive reaction was to feel anxious for this person.
I don't know which system is more effective at matching Ph.D.'s with postdoctoral positions, and I don't know which system involves less stress -- it could well be a tie. It seems that it might be initially less stressful to be in a place where you don't have to do so much pre-postdoctoral planning, and may have some expectation that someone somewhere will have funding for you and will hire you when you get your Ph.D. But, as time goes by and Ph.D. completion nears, perhaps the respective stress levels switch and it becomes more stressful to be in a place where you don't know what you will be doing after your Ph.D. as compared to a place where you've known for months what you'll be doing after your Ph.D. (see Figure, which illustrates this hypothesis based on the assumption that the U.S. Ph.D. student finds a postdoc in advance of Ph.D. completion, as is typical in my field).
3 hours ago