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A postdoctoral fellow (colloquially, a "post-doc") is a temporary research position held by a person who has completed his or her doctoral studies. Postdoctoral fellows commonly last for periods ranging between six months and five years, and have traditionally been dedicated purely to research; so-called "teaching post-docs" are now being offered for those who seek to focus on teaching in their careers, however. The appointee is typically given a title such as fellow or research associate, or sometimes research assistant professor. Postdoctoral positions are most often taken in the sciences and the arts. Although postdoctoral positions are available to engineers as well, the lucrative salaries available in industry to engineers with doctoral degrees causes relatively few engineering PhDs to attempt an academic path unless their field of specialization is such that no jobs exist. In the UK, only a quarter of natural science PhDs go on to postdoctoral work.
Definition of a postdoc approved by the National Postdoctoral Association
A postdoctoral scholar (“postdoc”) is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing. Postdoctoral appointees can pursue basic, clinical or translational projects so long as their primary effort is devoted toward their own scholarship. Postdocs are essential to the scholarly mission of the mentor and host institution, and thus are expected to have the freedom to publish the results of their scholarship.
National Postdoctoral Association views regarding postdoc appointments
The Association believes that the following are essential to a proper postdoctoral experience:
- Transition to career independence through the development of professional skills that enable the postdoc to actively pursue a career of his/her own choosing.
- Supervision by at least one senior scholar who actively promotes the postdoc’s professional development.
- An individual development plan (IDP) that incorporates equally the postdoc’s career and training goals and the mentor’s research goals.
- Pursuit of basic, clinical, or translational projects so long as effort is focused primarily on research.
- Publication of the results of the postdoc’s research and scholarship during their appointment.
- As the postdoctoral appointment is temporary by nature, the aggregate amount of time spent as a postdoc is recommended to not exceed five years.
- As postdocs are important members of the host institution’s community, appropriate levels of compensation, health care, and other benefits commensurate with their essential status should be afforded, independent of the postdoc’s source of funding.
Advantages to working as a post-doc
A post-doctoral period, under the most ideal circumstances, could possibly offer an opportunity to further one's research interests. Normally postdocs may travel freely to conferences and administer their own funds. Working hours are usually flexible, allowing for the possibility of having children.
Also, whereas faculty positions frequently use the 40%, 40%, 20% workload division between research, teaching, and service, respectively, post-docs can devote 100% of their work hours to research. Advising students, going to faculty meetings, preparing lectures, etc. are not compulsory. Many postdocs however, accept responsibilities for day to day supervision of PhD. students. Importantly, the research and data collected during the post-doctoral period may benefit the individual in question for years beyond. Methods or subjects established during the postdoctoral period are usually the basis of one's first independent laboratory.
New faculty having postdoctoral training often begin at higher salaries than their peers who have not. This can not only affect starting salary but also each raise or promotion to come, as compensation is sometimes calculated in part based on starting salary. [How to reference and link to summary or text]
Problems associated with employment as a post-doc
About half of Ph.D.s choose this route of career progression, often in order to obtain a faculty position; however, a very large percentage of post-docs never achieve this. In the USA, about one-third of post-doctorates go on to be a member of the faculty at a university
In the UK 85% of research-only staff in universities are on fixed term contracts - the second highest proportion for any industry after catering .
The common 'lore' is that before entering certain fields, a post-doc appointment may be a necessary step in order to gain greater knowledge and experience, make connections, and build a name for oneself in research circles.
However the conditions of employment for many post-docs are often very poor. Some typical problems raised are:
- There are no job duties or job descriptions given for a postdoctoral fellow.
- The employment of the fellow is salaried and 'at will' well below industry salaries.
- Fellows can be expected to work very long hours (although the same may be expected of many recent graduates working in industry).
- A postdoctoral fellow is not typically given the status and benefits of institutional employees, even though they often perform the same functions at a severely reduced rate.
- Postdoctoral appointments last from 1-5 years on average with a decreasing yield of between 17-20% of postdoctoral fellows obtaining a permanent faculty position .
- The valued currency of a postdoctoral fellow is often the prestige of publication, which is often at the whim and control of their employer. Cases occur where the lecturer in charge of the project will publish the research done by their post-doc without acknowledging the person who did the work.
- The fixed term nature of the employment means post-docs are particularly vulnerable to bullying and unreasonable demands.
To quote the President of the University of Southern California, “One of the reasons postdocs have become increasingly popular is because a postdoc is less expensive than a PhD student--you have to pay the PhD students' tuition plus a $15,000 stipend. And the postdoc spends 80 hours a week or more on research while the PhD has to go to class. That makes postdocs very, very attractive."
In traditional lore a postdoctoral fellowship may also be seen as a valuable tool to distinguish oneself from other candidates when entering the job market. Such appointments are often the "stepping stone" whereby a graduate student can improve their publication record and hence progress to a permanent position.
In many academic fields, post-doctoral appointments — traditionally optional — have become mandatory as tenure-track positions are simply unavailable for those who have not completed post-doctoral or adjunct positions. Without post-doctoral experience, most fresh doctorates lack the connections and prominence needed to secure a better academic job.
As the doctorate degree is, by definition, the highest awarded in a field, no degree is given at the completion of a post-doctoral position. Some post-doctoral positions share more in common with low-paid adjunct jobs than continuing education. In some fields (especially life sciences) in some countries, like the United States of America, there are so many graduates that post-doctoral work is almost necessary.
Often academics will take a succession of post-doctoral positions before achieving a faculty position or leaving academia.
In many countries including the United States of America, most post-doctoral positions are filled by foreign nationals rather than local PhDs, putting further pressure on wages and working conditions. [How to reference and link to summary or text]
- UK GRAD Programme: Physical sciences and engineering PhD graduates from 2003 at a glance. URL accessed on 2007-12-04.
- Association of American Universities Committee on Postdoctoral Education Report. URL accessed on 2007-12-04.
- The blight of casualisation. UCU. URL accessed on 2007-12-04.
- Mark C. Regets. What Follows the Postdoctorate Experience? Employment Patterns of 1993 Postdocs in 1995.
- Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implications of Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists. Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists.
- includeonly>Joanne P. Cavanaugh. "The Postdoc's Plight", Johns Hopkins Magazine, February 1999. Retrieved on 2007-12-04.
- Articles at PhDs.org: Postdoctoral Life.
- European Research Charter
- EURODOC — the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers.
- PhDs.org: Postdoctoral Life
- The National Postdoctoral Association
- Listing of Postdoctoral Positions
- The Swiss Mobility Portal for Researchers.
- Comment and rate labs all over the world.
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