“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
A postdoctoral researcher, also known as a postdoctoral scholar or postdoc, is someone who has their PhD, then goes to work for someone else – typically an established professor. The pay is modest, considering the credentials of most postdocs. At MIT, I was paid $55k / year as a postdoc. Many professors consider postdocs to be extremely expensive, and compared to a graduate student 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 PhD 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 suggest 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 PhD) 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 PhD 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 PhD 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 many 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.
Some 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 PhD program.
When NOT To Do A Postdoc
We joked in my department that doing a postdoc with your PhD supervisor was like moving back into your parent’s house after finishing a bachelors 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 spending in this sort of position and it’s definitely hurting his employability at this point.
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 the top-tier school for a postdoc. Doubly so if your PhD 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?