Postdoc Land: the Wild West

What is a postdoc anyway? Grad students are fairly well-defined: If you are enrolled at an accredited university, working towards a Masters or Doctorate degree, you are a grad student. If you are told someone is faculty somewhere, or a lecturer, then you might have some questions about exactly what type of position the person has. But you nevertheless understand that the person is employed by a university to teach undergraduates and/or do research, with (depending on the type of position) possible additional duties including teaching and mentoring graduate students, institutional service, and the associated responsibilities that go along with those main tasks.

But a postdoc… There is really no universally accepted definition of a postdoc (but see here). For one thing, postdocs can be employed by organizations other than universities. The federal government employs many postdocs. Some non-profit organizations, do too. So do government labs and government-supported research centers.

A postdoc is traditionally thought of as a short-term, usually fixed-length position held shortly after the attainment of a PhD, but before attainment of a permanent position. What’s weird is that there are many jobs out there that fit this description that are not called “postdoc”. What I’ve seen is that the term postdoc itself generally applies to jobs where the employee is underpaid (with regard to their abilities and credentials) in exchange for the nebulous promise of an enhanced skill set, professional network, and CV. In theory (and perhaps sometimes in practice), the postdoc is building towards a permanent position, and in ecology that position is typically a tenure-track position.

But because of a lack of definitional cohesiveness, postdoc positions can be confusing. If you’re a postdoc, you’re probably doing at least a little bit of research, but not necessarily. You might be a support person enabling others to do research. You might be managing a team of field technicians, you might spend all your time in a lab, or you might be in front of a computer all the time. You might be teaching or doing outreach or science communication as your primarily responsibility, as part of your job, or not at all. You might be mentoring undergraduates or graduate students, or you might not.

The way postdocs are classified can be confusing. For example, a ‘Postdoctoral Fellow’ isn’t necessarily on a fellowship (but sometimes is). A postdoc can be a regular employee of an institution or can be an independent scholar loosely affiliated with an institution. A postdoc can be classified as “student” or “staff” or “academic personnel.”

If you are a grad student looking for a postdoc position, you should do your homework carefully. Because of the wide range of postdoc appointments, nothing is guaranteed. And there are many surprises. For academics who have gone straight from college to grad school, a postdoc position may be your first (and possibly only) experience being a full-time employee. While many postdoc positions are, in theory, a mentoring relationship, the financial and legal contract is usually one of employee-employer (unless you get an independent fellowship).

One surprise is you may find  yourself on the clock. Some universities and the U.S. federal government require that employees — including postdocs — fill out timesheets. Forty hours per week, timed to the quarter hour, butt in the office (or lab or field). Perhaps some flexibility from week to week — or perhaps not. (Much flexibility for U.S. federal postdocs was removed following the Sequester.) Such a regimen can be challenging to someone used to working his or her own hours.

Another surprise: as a postdoc, you’ll likely be paid monthly. This can be very difficult for anyone who doesn’t happen to have a month’s worth of living expenses (or more) in savings for that first month. It’s also challenging if you’re living close to your means (likely if you have dependents), as you need to keep close tabs on your finances to make it to the end of each month.

Got a prestigious fellowship? Congrats, you won’t be an employee. You probably won’t have to fill out timesheets. But if you’re in the U.S.,  you also won’t likely have access to healthcare and other benefits through your institution. When deciding whether a fellowship is worth it, make sure the stipend is enough to account for the extras — health care being the most expensive — but also short-term disability and other benefits, especially if you need to support dependents.

Postdoc positions can be great. Depending on your advisor/boss and the details of your position, you may have a lot of flexibility over your time and/or research direction. You will probably learn something new and develop new skills. You will probably meet new and interesting people. You will hopefully contribute to scientific knowledge. But remember to vet possible postdoc positions carefully — just as you did graduate school. Make sure that there is a match not just in terms of research topic and boss/advisor personality, but also in terms of the raw logistics and economics of the job.

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