Monday, November 06, 2006

What does a post doc do?

The past few days a discussion has been going on over at Young Female Scientist and ScienceWoman about what post docs actually do and if we're supposed to do what we do.

When I am not professing in the Arctic I am a post doc too, but boy, I do not recognize myself in many of the commenter's descriptions.

As others have said post docs are people who already have a PhD. We are not in a training phase (at least not more than any academic should be). We are generally a young, enthusiastic, smart and productive bunch of people, and we wouldn't have made it where we are now, if we weren't all these things. Anyway the perception of the post doc - phase as some sort of prolonged graduate education seems to be firmly rooted. Ideas such as "post docs should have better mentors" or should be provided with more guiding or better structure" seems to be flourishing among those who wants to improve our conditions on all continents. Sorry to let you down, guys, but we do not need guiding or structures or mentors more than any young-ish person might need those things, and we do not need any particular help in finding these.

What we do need is for PI's to live up to their responsibilities and treat people on their pay roll with the respect and independence they deserve. Why is it, that anyone in their right mind would hire someone with 20+ years of education and even consider not using this capacity to the fullest? I do not believe in post doc years as a training phase where the person in question should be protected from all other aspects of academic work than writing articles. On the other hand it makes me furious when I hear about post docs (or grad students for that matter) publishing in their advisors name and fame with very little to show for themselves when they need to move on.

It can be done. My own post doc experience has so far been great. Yes, I want a permanent job at some point and yes, I might want to change from my current government research institute to the university environment at some point, but that is for other reasons. My current working environment is really good. In my opinion, post docs are fully educated scientists, perfectly capable of doing the same work as any PI, but who haven't had the luck to find a faculty position yet. In my field faculty positions are incredibly rare and people often work as "post docs" or whatever title is attached to what are essentially the same soft-money positions for years. This does not mean that we will never break into the system, but that we do not have a regular cycle of job openings.


For the past year i have:

revised manuscripts from the dissertation
written a new manuscript based on an old line of research
done the logistic and scientific planning for the field season (with PI and project collaborator)
done field work directly related to my postdoc-grant project
been co-author on a new grant proposal (which is now funded)
developed a side-project with colleagues (not related to postdoc-grant)
attended professional meetings, networked and taken part in developing the department.

Next year I expect to:

Follow up on four different projects (some of these very near and dear to my heart)
Take on my first graduate students
do more administrative work in the department

This is not too different from what I would have spent my research time on in a faculty position, I believe. Last year when defending the PhD I had been pursuing one line of research for a long time. Before that I have worked in another sub field for my Masters degree. Now I feel I am developing as a researcher into someone who works across sub fields and contribute to the department and the group in my own particular way. I could and would not have done this any differently as a faculty member.

*I have the privilege of a four year position with full funding and a realistic chance of landing a permanent position afterwards, and this might influence my views. But basically I think post docs should be treated similarly whether hired for one or several years.

I am off to write a small grant proposal - in my own name.

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7 Comments:

At 7:20 PM, Blogger ScienceWoman said...

How wonderful to make your acquaintance. Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. I think your first point about us not being in a training phase is a good one, but with a caveat. I think that some of the things we do as post-docs (write proposals, review papers), we are still in sort of a training phase - because many people didn't do those things as PhD students. And I find it very odd that some people think that these are exactly the things we should NOT be doing as post-docs.

 
At 6:16 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Hey there,

I like your site. I also like this post. Your photos are amazing.

All of that said, your field is completely different from mine, and so is your postdoc, in many regards.

If I had "full funding" I'd be thrilled and wondering why everyone complains so much! This idea made me laugh, me with full funding as a postdoc, hahahahaha.

Furthermore, I don't know what a realistic chance is of landing a permanent position. 50-50? Is that realistic? In my field it's ~ 1:300. What I want to know is, 300 what? 300 people who are as good as I am? 300 random people who do applications for the fun of it? 300 people who come from rich labs with famous PIs? In which case for me it's more like 1 in a million, because I'm neither.

When you say you'll have your own grad students, you mean you decide what they work on? That also sounds like nirvana to me. As it is I'm mentoring other people's students because I feel bad for the students, not because I'll get any credit for it whatsoever.

How is your salary, compared to grad school vs. faculty? Closer to grad school or closer to faculty? Mine is closer to grad school.

I agree with you that what we need is for PIs to live up to their responsibilities and treat postdocs with respect. But in my field, finding real mentors is really tough, particularly for women. I don't mean that I need scientific guidance so much as career advice from someone who will make the time to talk with me.

Did you see the AAUP report? Out of all professors in the US, tenured female science professors make up something like 2%. You can imagine why it's hard for me to find a mentor.

And, unfortunately, the Official Definition of a postdoc at my university and by my professional society, among others, is that a postdoc is in Training. This is where I get frustrated because I absolutely agree with you that we're not in training. No one is training us, and we don't need any more training than anyone could reasonably expect to get on the job in any profession.

 
At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Zuska said...

Hello, Saxifraga! Just wanted to let you know I added you to my blogroll and I linked to this post at my blog, here
http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/2006/11/the_life_of_a_postdoc.php

 
At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. I was wondering how long was your Ph.D for? I think some differences with experiences might stem from the 3-4 year UK system. Most UK Ph.D students would simply not be capable of what you have done (thats a veiled compliment by the way :)) so need a postdoc to expand their capabilities further. So it is training really...by osmosis.
Also I suppose it depends what kind of field one is in, and the PhD supervisor e.g some some supervisors don't even let their best student review grants or ms.

 
At 1:50 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Thanks for your insightful comments. I am aware that postdocs have different backgrounds and, not to forget, different wishes for future career paths and I think the postdoc experience should be tailored to both. I am also aware that conditions for postdocs in my part of the world are probably better than most places, but I do think it is important to hear the good as well as the bad stories in order for the system to improve.

Where I am a postdoc is considered an employee on equal terms with anyone else. My salary is the same as it would have been in a permanent position and I have the right to supervise grad students independently. Many grants are however restricted to people in permanent positions, so postdocs have to hunt for "young researchers start up grants", which are few and far between. I do think the level of independence here reflects the age and background of the typical postdoc, but also workers rights movements and strong unions. My own background is three years Master's programme and four years PhD (both full time and based on two different independently developed research projects with results of publishable quality).

 
At 12:59 AM, Blogger Betül said...

Hey! After 2 years on this post, I finally made it here :)

I am very glad for you, and I am sure now that you look back, things seem right!

I am graduating in a year and I must say that I really did not have a pleasant experience in my post-doc years. Coming from Turkey with zero background, I made it to PhD program and I must say it took me a while to actually understand what I am doing.

My choice of lab and mentor did not turn so bright either. I have met him in Turkey and when I came to US, I thought he is the one for me. You know, the shiny american profesors who even lets you to call him with his first name.

Then things changed.. Years past, and I did change. My perception of science and my future goals did too. However my advisor was the same and ready to retire. Many problems.. Micromanagement killed me, I did no chance to do whatever I wanted besides the "if you were in Turkey, all these were a dream for you" humiliations. When you come from a 3rd world country, humiliation by a profesor is OK -at first- but I guess years of experience has shown me that is not normal and I spoke up for me.

Anyways, now that I am about to leave and figured ways to properly ignore the problem and just focus on the research, I also know that I want to do something different in my post-doc. I want to do things that I could not as a PhD student. And that means I need training. My ultimate goal is science outreach - the best part of research is to talk about it!- When I see posts like this (which I particulary googled) I feel a little depressed. What if some see post-doc as a second chance? A place where more realization of the self exists? Being more mature in a way.. Then what? PhD experience is not the same for everybody. Aahh.. I am so confused.

 
At 1:00 AM, Blogger Betül said...

"I am graduating in a year and I must say that I really did not have a pleasant experience in my post-doc years."

I am sorry that;s gonna be "phd years"

:)

 

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