What is a postdoc? Finding answers amidst ambiguity – Part 1

It’s 8pm on Friday evening. You’re halfway through the experiment you had to restart because you forgot to add a crucial control sample in the first assay. You forgot to add the control in the first place because you’re extremely stressed. You’re stressed because you need to finalise a grant submission that you already worry isn’t good enough, aren’t receiving enough support with and aren’t sure if it will actually be enough to apply for an assistant professorship. You hear the last of your colleagues’ laughter as they disappear off to the bar and you’re left alone in the lab. A weekend at the bench and your computer looms ahead.

My name is Mathew Tata and I am a postdoc in the life sciences, so the example above is based on the experiences of a lab rat. But I’m sure similar events have happened for researchers in Social Sciences, Arts or Humanities.

I would say most of us have been in this position, with some variations of course. The question is: How did we get here? Is this acceptable? How can we fix it?!

A problematic position

Over the last year, I have acted as Chairperson of the Karolinska Institute Postdoc Association (known as ‘KIPA’). Through conversations with postdocs, doctoral students and university staff, I have slowly understood what are the key issues for postdocs both here in Sweden and internationally.

It’s time for things to change. Postdocs need to understand their situation, both at work and in their personal lives, so they can move ahead with their careers and have both purpose and satisfaction. Over a three-part series, I aim to outline the five key obstacles and insecurities that characterise the postdoctoral career stage and will provide some ideas on how to overcome them.

Don’t worry, there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

Mathew Tata_What is a postdoc_Part 1_Final draft_fig2
Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay
  1. The career stage lacks a specific definition or job description

It’s a little-known fact that the concept of a ‘postdoc’ is a relative after-thought in the academic career path. Historically speaking, research was carried out by a few privileged white men, with big egos and little adversity. As such, the subsequent job title after the PhD was most often ‘assistant professor’. Thankfully, research has become a more accessible professional sector and many more people undertake doctoral training. However, its clearly unfeasible for everyone to be given an assistant professorship afterwards and the concept of postdoctoral training was born as a consequence.

Unfortunately, the ‘postdoctoral researcher’ was a placeholder title, a notion devised primarily to reduce the demand on assistant professor positions and to a lesser extent, provide an opportunity to train further. Moreover, ‘postdoc’ means a hundred different things to a hundred different people. To many principal investigators (PIs), a postdoc is a trainee with a similar capability to a senior PhD student. To others, they may be expected to supervise a student as extensively as a professor would.

Different disciplines demand varying levels of independence. Additionally, some nations expect some subservience, where a PI dictates to postdocs. In other nations, independence is obligatory and mentorship is sparse. Postdoctoral conditions even vary between labs, where postdocs look enviously over at their more motivated neighbours.

In short, the position is so variable and vague that postdocs need to assert some order and organization themselves. My advice is to establish expectations early, both for you and your employer. Sit down and explain what you want from this training, and what they want from your employment. You may have to compromise on something to achieve your own ideas, such as continuing a challenging, pre-existing project to balance being given lab funds to drive your own experiments.

Mathew Tata_What is a postdoc_Part 1_Final draft_fig3
Image by AI Leino from Pixabay
  1. Very little infrastructure exists, compared to doctoral students

 The stage after the doctoral dissertation is often called ‘postdoctoral training’, and even called ‘postdoctoral studies’. But no qualification awaits you. A dedicated office for postdoc affairs is extremely rare, and if they do exist, are generally understaffed given that universities do not have the same formal obligation towards postdocs as they do for doctoral students. The extent of this ‘postdoctoral training’ is highly dependent on the expectations of the supervisor, demands of the research project, and sadly, down to a big slice of luck.

Even more frustratingly, despite the ‘training’ label given to postdocs, actual standardized postdoctoral training programs are often lacking. Although the considerable course attendances for doctoral students are unrealistic and unnecessary for most postdocs, the offer of core training modules and subject-specific classes would be appreciated. Postdocs especially seek leadership and management training, in anticipation of attaining a group leader position, but can’t find them locally. In many cases, postdocs need to wait long times for the few courses offered at an institution and more worryingly, carry out crucial tasks without the contemporary and impactful training needed to perform rigorous, ground-breaking research.

In some cases, postdocs are not included in the organisational structure of a university. A common strategy is to include them under the umbrella term of ‘junior faculty’ but this is both inappropriate and an obvious misnomer. It is inappropriate because this grouping includes researchers further along the academic career path, such as assistant professors, who may actually employ postdocs. Is it therefore reasonable to include employers and their employees in the same organisational cluster? And it is a misnomer because ‘faculty’ implies that these researchers have formal faculty positions. Postdocs certainly aren’t faculty members and can only dream of the permanent contracts that accompany these positions.

Postdocs ultimately need to make their own way. Seek out professional development opportunities, both internally (if offered) and also externally. International research organisations like EMBL and CSHL offer world-class lab training, whilst Science Careers and the Cheeky Scientist Association can help with career planning inside and outside academia, respectively. But don’t stop there – speak up for better postdoctoral support. Adding your feelings and ideas to surveys, as well as joining a postdoc association helps produce a clearer picture for universities to consider in their decision making.

         Check out Part 2 next week, where I’ll discuss the importance of independence, and the competition that comes with it.

Feature image by felixioncool from Pixabay

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