What is the purpose of a Post-doc?

No one has ever sat down with me and explained the various purposes of each degree. I’ve figured out what Bachelors and masters degrees are good for (basic training, specialized training respectively) and the purpose of a PhD was spelled out to me when I was in industry (showing you can take responsibility for your own research).  However, no one has ever explained to me why I should want to do a post doc.

As far as I can tell, the best excuse for a post-doc is to learn a skill that you missed during your PhD, or, failing that, if you didn’t get enough publications during your PhD, you can pump out a few more here.

But, why would anyone feel the need to spend another year or two…. or five (or ten!) doing a post doc to learn a set of skills?  I just don’t see that being a great reason.

I’ve also heard that post-docs are often done to get into a good lab, so that one can add to your network of connections, or perhaps to put a good PI’s name on your resume.

I’m not sure I buy either of those, however.  In this day and age, one can make connections through many other methods.  Working for someone isn’t the only way to develop a network.  And really, I would like to think that your future career is decided on more than just having a good PI’s name on your resume.  Finally, the better the PI, the less likely they are to have the time to invest in one of their post-docs.

Last time I checked, Post-docs aren’t even treated like staff at universities, they don’t get benefits, they don’t get paid like the highly trained researchers they are, and they don’t get an actual degree out of it.

So… why do we have post-docs?  And why should I consider doing one?  As a keystone of the academic world, it might have some merit, but is that the only reason why someone should consider it?

23 thoughts on “What is the purpose of a Post-doc?

  1. I am just at the beginning of my PhD so I don’t ask myself this question that often – though I will sooner than I think.

    Dave, who did his PhD within the same agency as you, and Beth have put a lot of thought into this on their blog The Black Hole (http://scienceadvocacy.org/Blog/). I am sure you will find some interesting discussion there on the topic.


  2. Well, as someone who sorta hopped off the academic train mid-ride, the most common reasons I heard for Post-docs were:
    – Gaining more breadth in your research area, and experience with a broader set of institutions (i.e., the same reason people are pushed to do their Master’s and Doctoral degrees at different institutions)
    – The only chance in your career to focus on nothing but research (i.e. during your Doctorate you’ll be taking classes and exams, maybe a bit of teaching, and once you’ve got an academic job you’ll just be writing grants and supervising people :) )
    – To actually learn the additional skills you’ll need for your job: finding money, writing grants, building collaborations

    You’re right that to some extent you can do this during your doctoral work. While the above are definitely true to some extent, practically, the answer is more like:
    – Everyone else does years of Post-docs, so everyone you’re competing against for academic jobs has those extra years (i.e., degree creep)
    – There are way more qualified applicants than positions for academic jobs, so people end up doing Post-doc research for longer than they’d like

    • Hi Rod,

      You make a lot of good points, and I realize you’re explaining what you’ve heard second hand (the same way I am, actually) but I don’t know if any of that encompasses a strong reason to do a post-doc… although it certainly does explain why other people get stuck in them for long periods of time. Is it fair to sum up your comment by saying that post-docs are a good time to get practice doing research, and that there aren’t enough academic positions for all of the post-docs to move up to become professors? I would agree with both of those points, but don’t find either to be particularly compelling.

      If you are one of the post docs who thinks that you’ll be the lucky ~10% that actually makes it into academica, then it might make sense to suffer through it, as the rewards of tenure might be worth it. Although your description of the arms race required to become a professor (with post-doc terms spiraling out of control) really just sounds like a reason not to go down that path.. For me, I’ve now spent 4.5 years more or less organizing my own research, without teaching or classes, so I’m not sure I see the value… which is one of the reasons why I posted the article above.

      Really, I suppose the crux of my question is: is the opportunity to practice grant writing and self-directed research worth taking a position that pays you about half of what your degree qualifies you to earn, and delays the official start of your career worth it?

    • Yep, and ‘m really hoping someone gives me a really good, compelling reason for it. I don’t object to doing a post-doc… I just want to know WHY I (or any one else) should do it. (=

  3. my postdoc was the most productive three years of my life. I had learned to do research during my PhD, and I had nothing else to do but replicate the research portion, without pressures from teaching and admin. the postdoc gives you research momentum for during your assistant professorship.

    also, for UK scientists, the PhD is only 3-4 years, doing a project that the supervisor originally designed. the postdoc is the stage where those PhDs become independent and can demonstrate creativity. I think that a UK PhD + postdoc is slightly better than a US PhD alone.

  4. Post-doc positions can be rewarding for a variety of reasons beyond the actual research. You may end up taking on many more responsibilities, including but not limited to: grant writing, lab management, purchasing, mentoring, departmental duties (e.g. committee work), acting as lab ‘social manager’ etc. Admittedly, some – if not all – of these things might equally scare you or detract from you wanting to do a post-doc. It’s also possible that you get to do some of these things as a PhD student.

    Like many labs, ours is one where the PI is often not in the lab (teaching, attending conferences, grant writing sessions etc). Apart from my research, I have sort of become a de facto lab manager and the ‘go-to guy’ whenever there is something that needs doing, or whenever someone has a question. I enjoy the mixture of responsibilities as it means my day-to-day activities are varied. I also find the mentoring role of undergraduate and PhD students immensely rewarding.

    Of course, I should add that I am not seeking a PI position and I recently transitioned from post-doc to ‘project scientist’ (a bit more job security, but essentially the same duties). If I was trying to build up a research portfolio in order to get a PI position, I would probably find that many of my day-to-day duties get in the way of the research.

  5. my two cents for doing a Post-doc:

    1. You just love your research (and therefore money comes second)
    2. You want to become a prof

    • Fair enough – in which case, a post-doc becomes the first step of an academic career, rather than the last step of your education.

    • That is the worst reason of all. Postdocs make very little money compared to what their qualifications actually merit, and they are not staff at most universities in North America, which leads to a complete loss of benefits. Where else do people who’ve spent 10 years in school earn less than someone with 10 years of experience in their field?

      • Well no one gets paid based on merit. If that were the case firemen would make a lot more money than bankers.

        We are paid based on supply and demand. Too many with PhDs leads to bad pay and limited career options.

        • I realize that people are paid by supply and demand, but post-docs are vastly underpaid according to their value. The only comparable field would be medical interns, but then they’re pretty much guaranteed to be given a high paying job once they’re done.

          This still fails to explain why someone should do a post-doc, when there are jobs available that do pay better than a post-doc salary. If the best reason to do a post-doc is the salary, then why would anyone take a post-doc salary over an industrial salary?

          (Yes, there are too many PhDs being produced, but that is a completely separate topic…)

          • Ehh, your only value is what the guy’s willing to work for.

            I guess post doc is purgatory on the way to being a professor.

            People seem to like being professors. e.g. I’ve seen women getting hit on at scientific meetings by guys that think they’re hot because they’re tenured. And it’s like, dude, you rolled up in a Celica.

            It’s a weird little industry. Doesn’t seem to obey Darwin much…

            Good luck with your decision!

        • Yeah – I think you might be right about post-docs simply being a stepping stone on the way to academia – and not actually a useful step on it’s own.

          Since I’m not convinced that academia is the place for me (I want to get stuff done, not chase grants), I probably won’t go down that path. Besides, academia places a disproportionate emphasis on grades/marks, which I’ve always considered to be utterly useless, and probably doesn’t make me a great candidate for the tenure game anyhow.

          As for people hitting on tenured profs…. that’s just weird, and I’m not even going to comment on the Celica.

          On the other hand, smart women *are* hot.

          Thanks for the comment and the follow up.

  6. I found it tremendously useful to do a postdoc, even after a successful PhD in a good lab at a top US grad school. Here were my reasons:
    1. It was a great opportunity for my wife and I (we met in grad school and both went to postdocs at the same institute) to live in a different country. We moved to Cambridge, UK for 3.5 years, and we experienced a different science and social culture while retaining a clear intent to return to the US.
    2. I completely switched fields from bacterial chromosomes to mammalian membrane biochemistry. Succeeding in a new field where nobody knew my former PI gave me a great deal of confidence. Also, it is hard to understand how parochial science really is until you practice in another environment (as in asking your new labmates, “you’ve never heard of Dr. W??? He won the Nobel prize!” and then realizing your own shortcomings.) Moreover, in my current industry job, the extra breadth is extremely valuable; having useful depth in more than 1 field makes me more unique and less dispensable.
    3. I had half a dozen papers from my PhD, but also was lucky enough to publish well in my postdoc. I had solid proof that I could quickly contribute in a new field, so I was hired into a job in a third field.
    4. Echoing others, I really enjoyed the pure research focus of the postdoc. I also had this at the end of grad school, but in grad school I felt like I just really got the hang of doing research and I wanted to push myself to see how far I could take my scientific skills. If I had gone straight into industry or (improbably) academia, I would not have felt like I had enough years to play at the top of my game.

    Good luck,

  7. For some PhDs in the developing world, a Postdoc in the US or UK lab is rewarding. The the benefits for such PhDs comes in two ways-Pay and Skills, so such opportunities are taken with excitement. However, the story may not be the same for PhDs in the US, UK or any other deveoloped country where high tech PhD resaerches are undertaken. If Postdoc is a prerequest condition for career jobs in the academia in these countries, then whosover wanst to trial that path should be prepaid to take it. But if the interest is in the pay, then go the way of industry. I thing the whole is a matter of choice between pay and career satisfaction.

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