Friday, April 17, 2009

What does a postdoc do?

There's been a cluster of very interesting posts in the last few days on what a PI/lecturer/assistant professor does, and how different that is to a post-doc's perception of what they do. It is fascinating reading for me, and the sort of thing that got me following these blogs - the inside view on my possible future. But, to be honest, they are a step too far ahead for me.

I realised a few (maybe 6) months back that I needed to work out the next step of my career and broached the subject with my supervisor. He said that he saw my future being in academia, and that the next step would most likely be as a postdoc. We talked a bit about possible locations but afterwards I realised that I don't really know what a postdoc does. Keep in mind that a) I'm not in a lab-based science so much of what I am reading online doesn't apply; and b) we have no postdocs in our research group. So I have been gathering (sometimes conflicting) information on the role of a postdoc and I'm going to jot down my random observations here to try and make sense of them.

I know two postdocs in our department (from different groups, so I tend to see them over lunch, rather than at work). One seems to do an awful lot of admin type work - organising meetings and paperwork, but also workshops and conference tutorials, so hardly sectretarial. The other seems so laid back and casual he makes the job look like the perfect post-PhD sinecure. We do discuss his research on occasion so I know he is doing something, but he hasn't published in the year he has been here. The one thing they have in common is they both teach. Although I don't think they had to design the courses they taught.

A friend doing his post-doc in a different European university told me that he really enjoyed his new role since finally he could follow all the interesting sidelines that he had had to put away earlier to keep his thesis focussed.

A lecturer from the land far, far away told me that a post-doc was "like a PhD, but more constrained by the goals of the project. Also, it pays better."

One of the mentors I met up with at the conference 2 weeks ago told me that my goals during postdoc should be a) to get my own funding, b) to get teaching experience and c) to get supervision experience.

A lot of the blogs I read mention paperwork and supply ordering as postdoc tasks, but I suspect that mostly relates to being in a lab.

So, so far I have postdoc being
  • a stressful time with a lot of admin added to research
  • a relaxing chance to focus on your own research without the pressure of a thesis to write
  • a chance to broaden your research interests, since the thesis no longer restricts your scope
  • more focussed research with your direction restricted by the goals of your project
And, in addition to research, I should learn about funding (grants, fellowships), teaching and supervision. Comrade PhysioProf comments over at PiT that "Post-docs are completely fucking delusional about what PIs do." I'm going to claim uninformed, rather than delusional, but I would like a better idea of what a postdoc does.


  1. I've got absolutely no idea what a postdoc in computer science would entail. It might be worth asking Phizzle Dizzle for her thoughts as she's been looking into postdoc options in what I assume is a similar field (all I know is computer something which means very little to me!).

  2. Pit: thanks for the pointer. It is nice to find blogs to read from 'people like me'.