A postdoctoral researcher, also known as a postdoctoral scholar or postdoc, is someone who has a Ph.D., then goes to work for someone else – typically an established professor. The pay is modest, considering the credentials of most postdocs. When I worked at MIT, I was paid $55k / year as a postdoc. Many professors consider postdocs to be extremely expensive and compared to graduate students they are.
Some schools have “research professors”, who are distinct from postdocs. A research professor typically brings in grants to the school – more than enough to pay her salary – and operates autonomously. Postdocs work for a faculty member.
A postdoc should be able to “hit the ground running” as they say in industry. One professor I talked to said that he expects about 1 Ph.D. worth of work out of a postdoc per year. From this research productivity perspective, a postdoc might be viewed as a great deal.
The balance of power and research decisions is a delicate negotiation for postdocs. A postdoc wants to do good research and improve their research profile, however they are employees and are ultimately answerable to their supervisors.
One faculty member suggested to me that a fair division of labor for a postdoc is to work on their own project 1/2 the time and on what their supervisor wants them to work on the other half. This seems fair to me, but not all professors would see it that way. I could see many insisting that they’ve purchased 100% of your time.
This is ultimately the most challenging element of the postdoc role. The person has completed their training (their Ph.D.) and is ready to lead a research group. Instead, they’re subordinate to another academic for an extended period of time.
Setting this up in a productive manner can be tricky.
Postdocs are, like graduate students, in a fairly vulnerable position within the academy. Administrators want to maintain good relationships with their faculty members, and issues that arise with a postdoc who will only be there for a short time are easy to ignore.
Many postdocs will work in another country and therefore have the additional vulnerability of being on a work visa that requires them to remain where they are.
I know 2 fellow students from my Ph.D. days whose academic careers ended during their postdoc. I feel that my postdoc enhanced elements of my academic career and fatally injured other elements.
Much as with a junior faculty member’s Ph.D. supervisor, jobs will expect a letter of recommendation from your postdoc supervisor. This means that if they aren’t wildly enthusiastic about you after working with you a lukewarm recommendation may be an obstacle to your academic career.
Why Do A Postdoc?
The typical reason people do a postdoc is they want to improve their research profile after a failed faculty job hunt. A post-doc will usually be for at least a year, but will often be multiple years. If the school you got your Ph.D. from isn’t top-tier, a post-doc can improve the cachet of your credentials.
Some research areas have an established tradition of a postdoc, and it’s expected. Other, more in-demand, areas will have more faculty members being hired directly out of their Ph.D. program.
When NOT To Do A Postdoc
We joked in my department that doing a postdoc with your Ph.D. supervisor was like moving back into your parent’s house after finishing a bachelor’s degree. It’s a generous offer on your supervisor’s part and may be worthwhile for a few months until your next position starts, but there isn’t much value in doing this if you have any other options.
The husband of a woman I know has recently finished his 7th year of a postdoc. I hope he’s enjoying the work because that is WAY too long to be spent in this sort of position and it’s definitely hurting his employability at this point. (UPDATE: Since I wrote this he’s left academia and opened a business with his brother)
Institution vs. Research Alignment
For someone who decides to do a postdoc and has a few options, they may have to decide between someone who is a better fit for the research they want to do versus a position at a more prestigious institution.
This is a very personal decision, and there are reasons to pick the better fit for research. That being said, from a mercenary perspective I would strongly recommend going to a top-tier school for a postdoc. Doubly so if your Ph.D. isn’t from a well-known institution.
One man I know in my research community told me that his choice of school for his postdoc made his subsequent job search much harder than it should have been.
Have you done a postdoc? What was your experience like? What advice would you have for younger academics considering it?
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