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Many of us often talk about Bachelor's and Master's students, PhD students, researchers, professors, and postdocs.

But, do we know what we actually intend when we say "Post-Doc"?

We all know that a Post-Doc is a person who, after finishing his/her PhD, works for one or two years as a scientist in a scientific research group. Beyond this simple definition, I would like to know what you think about Post-Doc roles inside a laboratory and a group.

What is actually a Postdoc fellow?

Is he a debutant researcher? Or is he just a ultra-super-student? Or is he half a super-student, and half a researcher?

What is a Postdoctoral fellow supposed to do?

What do you expect from a Postdoctoral fellow?

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In my neck of the woods, we call debutante researchers PhD students. –  JeffE Jun 26 '12 at 17:45
    
Things get even more confusing if you consider pre-doc positions. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Jun 28 '12 at 17:33
    
@ArtemKaznatcheev Naaaaahhh... don't think so, they're just graduated students. –  DavideChicco.it Jun 29 '12 at 10:20
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In general a postdoc is someone that soon realizes he made a huge mistake about his career. –  Stefano Borini Jul 2 '12 at 21:39
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"We all know that a Post-Doc is a person who, after finishing his/her PhD, works for one or two years as a scientist in a scientific research group." Sorry to say: we don't even know that much. There are many postdocs who are not scientists, and many who work for more than one to two years. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 24 at 16:41

8 Answers 8

In addition to Suresh's answer, I'd say that a postdoc is no longer a student. A PhD student is expected to demonstrate that she can do research, and this is sanctioned by the PhD degree. A postdoc is rather expected to demonstrate that she can be trusted with a permanent academic position.

In my field, postdoc positions usually denote fixed-term positions (between 1 and 3 years) with limited "official" administrative responsibilities (i.e. no involvement in the long-term management of the department). Most postdocs are usually funded on some project, which implies some concrete duties w.r.t. to the project (such as taking care of the "deliverables"). Some are more like "fellowships", where the applicant must come up with her own research agenda. But there is no common basis, and it can varies greatly from one position to another.

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There are many formal roles that generally fall under the category of "post-doc":

  • The simplest is as a post-Ph.D researcher working with a faculty mentor and doing their own research
  • Some postdocs have a role as "lab manager": they help with advising students.
  • In addition, if given an appropriate title, a postdoc (as "visiting/research faculty") can write their own grants or collaborate on grants that might support them.
  • The limit of the above is a pure soft-money position that is not "supervised" by a faculty member. Such faculty are also often called 'research faculty', and may be many years away from a Ph.D
  • In wetlabs, a postdoc role might also be as a lab technician or lab manager, handling supplies, tech work (making knockout mice for example).
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I think a post doc is also a temporary/transitory position. I know of some permanent "lab managers", with PhDs, who have no desire to write their own grants or move on. I don't consider them postdocs. –  StrongBad Jun 26 '12 at 17:30
    
Joining @DanielE.Shub, I think research faculty is more or less a permanent position while post-doc is not. –  Stat-R Aug 6 '12 at 16:54

To quote (jokingly) a rather blunt friend of mine, a post-doctoral fellow is "someone who has a Ph.D. but is still nobody." I don't quite subscribe to so dismal a view, but it usually means someone who hasn't achieved full independence yet (inasmuch as they still have at least a nominal advisor).

I expect a postdoctoral fellow in my group to be a competent researcher who doesn't need much instruction on the basics of how to do research, but might need some training on the particular skills needed in my group. She should be capable of taking over virtually any duty in the group, and would be expected to take on some of the duties that would be associated with being a professor (or staff member in a research lab somewhere). That would mean being responsible for supervising undergraduates doing research projects, occasionally covering lectures, and being responsible for supervising the lab (purchasing equipment, and so on).

That said, the post-doctoral fellow would not be left entirely to her own devices: since she is still effectively in a training situation, she would be given help and advanced notice. I would not just surprise her with duties; they would be assigned per mutual agreement, and always with a specific purpose in mind. (In other words, I am not simply "dumping" duties on the post-doc.)

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In my field, a successful PhD student is already not nobody. –  JeffE Aug 2 '12 at 21:56
    
@JeffE: Fair enough. I don't think that it's quite so dismal. But I do think a postdoc is by definition not quite a fully established individual. I've edited my answer accordingly. –  aeismail Aug 3 '12 at 13:35

This answer is a bit different from the others. The other answers deal with what a postdoc is. My answer describes the difference between the roles of grad students and postdocs in two ways.

The first distinction is this: A graduate student is an apprentice, while a postdoc is a journeyman.

The academic system in which a student earns a doctorate and eventually becomes an academic is based on the apprenticeship system.

The graduate student is the apprentice . The graduate student is learning his or her craft from the adviser (master). The graduate student hones his or her research skills performing the research of the adviser. Completion of the PhD defense signals that the student has completed the apprenticeship.

The post-doctoral fellow is the journeyman, one who has completed training in the basic skills, but is not yet considered a master. To this end, the postdoc seeks out other masters to learn from. Since the postdoc is not an apprentice, the postdoc is given more freedom to design and implement his or her project. The postdoc is also expected to be able to work with minimal oversight from the adviser. A postdoc journeyman becomes a master upon successfully securing his or her own academic position.

The second distinction is in terms of classification and compensation. At most US institutions, the graduate student is a student. The grad student may receive a stipend and benefits, but someone pays tuition for that student. A postdoc is an employee who receives a salary and benefits. No money is paid back to the institution by (or on behalf of) the postdoc.

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I like and use the apprentice, journeyman, master description I'm not sure that it is correct to say that the academic career path is based on the the ranking system of the old craft guilds. It is just a convenient way to describe the relationship to people outside of academia. –  dmckee Jun 27 '12 at 13:43
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The two systems are related. They both came about in Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. See the similarities described in these wikipedia pages: medieval univeristy and Guild: European History. –  Ben Norris Jun 28 '12 at 11:45

A postdoc is also someone that needs to be hired by academia to do a task, that is, a contractor for academia. I am a scientific programmer, but I am hired as a postdoc because that's the only kind of contract they can give in academia. I publish no papers, have no interest in an academic career, and I have no other duties other than coding (or at least that would be the plan).

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In some institutions, you'd be deemed 'research staff' –  Suresh Jul 2 '12 at 22:54
    
In my university, you'd be "research associate" (assegnista di ricerca), not PostDoc. –  DavideChicco.it Jul 3 '12 at 7:52
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@Suresh it all boils down to the wild west academia lives in when it comes to hiring contracts. Companies trying to hire with the academic terms would be eaten alive by worker unions, but in academia this is somehow considered the norm. –  Stefano Borini Jul 27 '12 at 12:33
    
Because postdocs don't get unions - they are the equivalent of migrant labor –  Suresh Jul 27 '12 at 14:48
    
@Suresh Postdocs ate unionized at Berkeley. –  JeffE Jun 24 at 13:21

Thanks to the recent PhD Comics, I have a link to a pretty definitive definition PhD Comics post doc definition.

The NIH link is: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/all_personnel_report_faq.htm#774

This links to a letter to the US National Postdoctoral Association: http://grants.nih.gov/training/Reed_Letter.pdf

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At some universities, a Post-Doctoral Fellow is a different title than a Post-Doctoral Researcher due to federal regulations in the USA.

The Post-Doctoral Fellow is paid through a different funding mechanism (e.g., NRSA training grants) and is not considered an employee (thus is excluded from health insurance and retirement benefits) and is treated more like a student (may take classes or do a clinical residency; receives a non-negotiable stipend which is not ordinary income). There may be a citizenship requirement for this funding mechanism.

The Post-Doctoral Researcher is an employee (qualifies for benefits but does not take classes or receive training). It may be easier to deal with visa requirements through this position.

In both cases, postdocs do research. Neither is guaranteed to advance your career to being a professor, but pretty much everyone has to do it.

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"Whatever else they may be, postdoctorates are one of the greatest bargains in the US economy. Where else can one hire Ph.D.s, whose training and smarts put them among the best and brightest in the world, to work 60 hours a week for $30,000 to $40,000 a year, with limited benefits and little power to influence their working conditions and pay?" -- Richard Freeman, Thanks for the Great Postdoc Bargain

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2002_08_30/nodoi.4149859741665864757

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This does not seem to answer the question. –  StrongBad Jun 24 at 19:10
    
Interesting link. –  Faheem Mitha Jun 26 at 23:35

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