What is a postdoc? Finding answers amidst ambiguity – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of this series exploring the principal problems plaguing the postdoctoral period.

Part 1 discussed the poorly defined expectations of a ‘postdoc’ and the lack of infrastructure available to them. If you haven’t yet read Part 1, you can do so here.

  1. Still a subordinate but expected to demonstrate independence

Let’s face it. Until you run your own group, you are still working ‘under’ someone else. That someone else is the principal investigator (PI) and the relationship between the postdoc and PI is a well-chronicled narrative within academia. These relationships become strained so often over one crucial conflict: independence.

The dynamic between doctoral candidate and PI is much clearer, with the latter often referred to as the ‘supervisor’ or ‘mentor’. The focus is on completing the thesis, achieving the doctorate and learning a handful of key research skills in the process. In contrast, the targets for a postdoc can be more abstract. ‘Independence’ isn’t a qualification or certificate that can be earnt in an exam.

Developing independence depends heavily on the PI. Why? The quest for independence creates an obvious conflict. It requires the employer (PI) to yield some autonomy to the employee (postdoc) and for the PI to place some trust in a postdoc. It also requires some patience and understanding from the PI, as the postdoc will undoubtedly make mistakes but these errors are, of course, vital to a postdoc’s overall development in academia.

Even with the most sympathetic and supportive of group leaders, there are no guarantees that everything will be OK. It’s a fine balance between instructing postdocs and allowing them space, whilst some postdocs unknowingly choose a more subservient role in a research group, inhibiting their progress towards being independent. Furthermore, academia has few practical activities to develop independence. Sure, as a postdoc, I have been expected to manage projects, supervise students, navigate discipline-specific regulations, and devise experimental strategies to explore research questions. But these activities are relatively ‘everyday’ and often exist even as a PhD student.

We need more ‘existential’ practices that promote gradual maturation. With this in mind, I will draw your attention to the Individual Development Plan (or ‘IDP’). The IDP has been in practice for some time but not widely – now is your time to take advantage of this deceptively powerful tool. Often taking the form of a questionnaire, postdocs interrogate themselves on their desired professional development, technical competencies, leadership skills and long-term career goals. For example, I used mine to outline my professional interest in research governance, as well as my desired role in specific projects in my laboratory. PI and postdoc can then use the IDP to create tangible objectives (with appropriate deadlines) to achieve your overall aims.

Mathew Tata_What is a postdoc_Part 2_fig2
Image by skeeze from Pixabay


  1. The second major bottleneck in the academic career path

Sadly, there are just not enough positions, research funding or overall infrastructure to provide permanent employment for researchers throughout their careers. Figures from the Royal Society nearly a decade ago painted a dark scenario where only 1 in 70 early career researchers in Britain became a professor. Although more recent data is not yet available, the likelihood is that obtaining a faculty position has become even harder.

Having a competitive edge is key. The usual currencies of funding and papers are clearly valuable in the eyes of peer reviewers assessing applications, yet there are other factors that elevate your application above your rivals’. Many of these are acquirable and include those discussed in this series, such as leadership and independence, as well as management of personnel and projects. Yet some competitive advantages are dependent on auxiliary support from your university.

Mentorship and coaching are two crucial examples of this support, but are either overlooked by universities or under-funded if they are actually considered. In an academic context, ‘mentoring’ reflects impartial advice from a senior researcher, typically found outside the mentee’s academic network, on how to progress in academia. ‘Coaching’, on the other hand, is often provided by non-researchers and recipients receive more general professional advice, such as improving teamworking skills.

Some advantages, I’m sorry to say, are just down to who you are. Personality types are surprisingly influential over career progression. Introverts may have more difficulty forging a professional network, and similarly, may struggle to compete for academic prizes based on research communication. What is less reasonable are the numerous implicit biases that still dominate academic evaluations, especially for faculty positions. In addition to overt sources of discrimination, more subtle ones can be important. International attitudes towards modesty are one such example and postdocs with honest intentions can be surpassed by more brazen peers in the academic ‘rat race’.

There is no magic formula for success sadly, but being properly informed and guided via mentorship can help postdocs garner prerequisite skills and experience needed to beat the bottleneck. It is also vital to consider the culture and etiquette that a postdoc will need to integrate into if they apply for an assistant professorship. Try and build a network in your target nation or discipline to ensure your research questions and overall persona are well-suited to your next position. You can also attend careers events where faculty members share their own experiences of how they fought to have their own research group.

Check out the final part next week, where we’ll face up to fear and why a Japanese philosophy may be the answer to our problems.

Featured image by rawpixel from Pixabay

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