If you’re doing a doctorate, you may have heard and wondered about the ‘postdoc.’ But what exactly is a postdoc, and is it right for you?
Like many terms in academia, ‘postdoc’ can mean slightly different things in different disciplines and different parts of the world. But generally, a postdoc is a fixed-term research role open to people who have completed a doctorate. Many people aiming for an academic career will take on one or more postdocs as their first salaried research roles. The term ‘postdoc’ also refers to the person holding such a position, as shown in this charming illustration.
The value and availability of postdocs is highly variable by field. In the sciences, they are more common; and in some disciplines, you would be expected to have one or more postdocs on your CV before you would get a permanent academic position. In the humanities, postdocs are less common; you might see one occasionally advertised, but they are not a required part of the academic career path.
If you are keen on the idea of doing a postdoc, here’s a rough guide of what to expect.
As a postdoc, you are expected to conduct research (or assist with research) and produce publications. Typical daily tasks would include collecting and analysing data, writing for publication, applying for grants, and guiding the work of any research students on the project team. Classroom teaching is not usually a major part of the role.
In New Zealand, a lot of postdoc positions are created through funded research projects. In those cases, the postdoc works for the PI (Principal Investigator) named on the grant, and their employment will last the life of the research project (or for a fixed term within the life of the project).
Unfortunately, you won’t be rolling in cash as a postdoc. They (generally) pay less than roles requiring a doctorate in industry. A report on US-based postdocs found salaries for biomedical PhD graduates started at around US$45,000 for postdocs, and US$75,000 in industry. Those who began their careers with postdocs and later moved into industry missed out on the equivalent of US$239,970 in salary over the first 15 years of their career.
In New Zealand and Australia, you can expect a postdoc role to pay in the region of $60,000 – $80,000 per year (sometimes more if you have post-PhD research experience).
Postdocs have traditionally been seen as a kind of apprenticeship for an academic career. You’ve got the qualification – the postdoc is where you prove yourself as a salaried researcher. However, with more and more doctoral graduates entering the job market, competition for academic positions is hot. Postdocs can no longer be seen as a reliable ticket to an academic career.
The Times Higher Education reports that only a third of European postdocs find a tenured position; and in the US, there could be (anecdotally) as many as seven times more postdocs than there are permanent academic positions.
However, if you are determined to get one of those coveted academic positions, a postdoc may be an important part of your preparation. Some postdoctoral fellowships are highly prestigious, and may help your career prospects immensely. You’ll also work with (and have a chance to impress) some powerful academics. But again, the value of postdocs varies for different fields. Your supervisor will be a good source of guidance on the expectations for academic appointees in your research area.
Bear in mind, though, that job security is also a major issue for many postdocs. With fixed term appointments, you never know where your next job is coming from. Many postdoctoral positions will last a few years, and then you have to hunt again for another opportunity.
Because postdoctoral positions are highly specialised, it’s unlikely that you’ll find one located conveniently close to home. It’s very common for postdocs to move cities and even countries for the right contract; and then to move again for the next one. That can be tricky for people with family commitments.
The hours can be long, depending on the project. But on the plus side, you are likely to have some flexibility to manage your own time. If you have good time management skills, your work life as a postdoc will be much easier.