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The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell

New Ph.D. recipients, welcome to the next stage of your career! It's a time-honored tradition of academics, research, and stagnant purgatorial nonprogression. That's right: It's your postdoctoral appointment!

As a postdoc, you'll contribute vitally to the progress of science, simultaneously filling the roles of scientist, scholar, and sucker. But first, a few basic facts about postdocs:

Unfortunately, many postdocs are treated like glorified lab techs … and it’s very sad that you felt a little good just now about the 'glorified' part.

  • Postdoc positions were established to prolong the awesomeness of graduate school, which everyone loves, while simultaneously postponing the ability to make money, which everyone hates.
  • Many postdocs are foreigners who come to the United States to enjoy the abundant opportunities this country offers for scientific advancement. We reward their enthusiasm with postdoc positions. We hope they forgive us.
  • Postdocs are very small and hard to see. If you encounter a postdoc in the wild, approach with extreme caution! You can frighten away a postdoc by asking, "Shouldn’t you be in the lab?"
  • Despite its masculine undertones, the term "postdoctoral fellow" is actually gender-neutral. This has led to much confusion when female doctoral students have told their friends or family, "I’m planning to become a fellow."
  • Because tuition is not a factor, a postdoc actually impacts the annual lab budget less than a graduate student. Then again, a postdoc impacts the annual lab budget less than an order of Pad Thai (if Pad Thai were an allowable expense on National Institutes of Health grants).
  • Postdocs have many natural predators, including vapid undergraduate trainees, negligent advisers, erratic funding sources, unsympathetic significant others, and the predator from Predator.
  • The earliest postdoctoral appointment was in 1931. That postdoc hopes to go on the faculty job market sometime in the next couple of years.

An important semantic note: The term "postdoc" refers both to the position and to the person who occupies it. (In this sense, it's much like the term "bar mitzvah.") So you can be a postdoc, but you can also do a postdoc, which unfortunately isn't as sexual as it sounds.

Because the term "postdoc" warrants clarification, you'll find yourself regularly explaining your status to family members who were so excited about you finishing grad school and now are just confused. When describing your postdoc to an unfamiliar audience, use the following script:

"[Relative's name], I've chosen to work in a branch of the sciences that doesn't want me to start actually doing things until I'm in my early forties. That's just the norm at this point, and I blame [politician/funding agency/some kind of national institute of, say, health]. Your patience is appreciated during this trying time."

Now we come to the all-important decision of where to do your postdoc. (In this case, "postdoc" refers to the profession; see semantic distinction above. Where you do your postdoc-the-person is between you and the presumably consenting postdoc.)

  • Ask whether your adviser has any collaborators. Actually, if you have to ask this, you haven't paid attention in graduate school.
  • Check the job boards. This is the best way to convince your spouse that you're making progress.
  • Think about the region of the world in which you'd most like to live. Then go to Arizona State anyway.
  • Network, network, network! This is a process that involves giving your contact information to lots of people who simultaneously believe they're networking with you.
  • Some scientists elect to remain in their grad school labs for a postdoc. These people either fear change or married someone in the lab.
  • Make sure your prospective lab has sufficient funding to pay your salary. Ask indirect questions such as, "Do you have sufficient funding to pay my salary?" If your prospective employer responds by diving under a desk and whimpering, then welcome to 2013.

Being a postdoc has advantages and disadvantages. Here are the three worst aspects:

  1. The hours and the pay. You work long hours, but on the other hand, your salary … wait, let's look at it the other way. The pay may be abysmally low, but on the other hand, your hours … shoot. What's the way to phrase this? Oh, right. The hours are long and the pay is low, but the prestige … damn it.
  2. For every available opening for a tenure-track professorship in the United States, there are roughly seven postdocs. That's not an exaggeration or a joke. That's not me being all like, "Yo yo, postdocs are so screwed—('How screwed are they?')—they're so screwed that there are seven times as many postdocs as there are academic openings! And that's pretty screwed!" No, this is a freaking fact. Look at the postdoc on your left, and look at the postdoc on your right. Then look at the postdocs on the left and right, respectively, of the postdocs on your left and right. Finally, look at the postdocs on the left and right, respectively, of the postdoc on the left of the postdoc on your left and the postdoc on the right of the postdoc on your right. Only one of you will get a faculty job.
  3. There's such a thing as a second postdoc. WHAT THE HOLY HELL. It's true. You can sail through 4 years of undergrad, survive 7 years of grad school, and suffer a half-decade postdoc, and then do it again. It's like getting to the end of World 1-4 of Super Mario Bros. only to learn that our princess is in another castle. Some people even do a third postdoc, which is more like Super Mario Bros. 2, because it is nonsensical, tedious, and was never intended to exist in the first place. Also, giant turnips may play a role.
Credit: Hal Mayforth

But fear not! Here are the three best aspects of postdoctoral fellowships:

  1. Grad students will look up to you. That's something, right? They'll envy your scholarship, your ability to regularly buy groceries, and the proof you offer that it's possible to finish grad school.
  2. You've checked all the boxes necessary to become a professor! Then again, next year, when I turn 35, I will have checked all the boxes necessary to be president of the United States. And that doesn't make me president. (I just asked my 2-year-old daughter, and she says the president is grandma.)
  3. Best of all, and ostensibly the point of your postdoc, you’re supposed to control your own project. If you worked in a lab as an undergrad, you were told, "This is your project, and here's how you'll do it. Stop stealing beakers." Then, in grad school, your adviser said, "This is your project, but how you do it is up to you. Stop sleeping." But principal investigators generally tell postdocs, "Choose your own project. Choose how to do it. Stop envying my tenure." (At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, many postdocs are treated like glorified lab techs … and it’s very sad that you felt a little good just now about the "glorified" part.)

At this point, you may be asking, "Why would anyone be a postdoc?" The answer, of course, is that people who have jobs you may fill someday say that you have to. "Hire someone right out of grad school?" they ask. "With no more than a science Ph.D., which is notoriously simple to achieve? How could we expect such a person to have the skills necessary to work in a laboratory setting?"

So welcome, young postdoc, to your new position. Sit back, smell the filtered air, and gaze at the haggard assistant professor anxiously working 20-hour days while fretting about tenure. And think, "Someday, all this may be mine."

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