I just saw an ad for a new Statistics course that will be offered this fall semester and it states:

For postdoctoral, graduate, and advanced undergraduate students ...

I am surprised and a little bit shocked from seeing "postdoctoral" in the ad as a potential attendee of that course. Is it usual to have postdocs take courses?

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    I have seen courses that were advanced enough, so both postdocs and faculty attended them.
    – the L
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 7:34
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    I know of a postdoc in computer science who goes to courses in premodern languages...for fun. So that's definitely a valid reason.
    – xuq01
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 8:24
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    Also, I've met a professor at a short summer school. He was already doing research way before I was born!
    – xuq01
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 8:26
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    @TheHiary we mostly can learn anything on our own. That doesn't mean that it's the best way. Especially for things that are not in our specialised topic. By analogy, I help out on courses in software development for scientists, where we have everybody from undergrads to professors. Statistics are less "new", perhaps, but are a tool in just the same way.
    – Flyto
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 8:57
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    Just to note it, the course advertisement explicitly mentioning postdocs is a little weird.
    – Nat
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 9:56

8 Answers 8


Adding to the other answers to reply to the comment: sure, a postdoc would have the skills to learn the subject on their own. But do they have the time? It's (usually) faster to learn when you get a world expert to teach you, than trying to do it on your own in your office. You can ask questions to the expert, and depending on the format of the course and your questions, the expert can even adapt the course to the audience (a book can't do that). You also have a few other motivated people learning the same thing beside you, and you can ask questions to them. It also provides motivation: if you have an appointment every Monday at 10 to learn something, it's harder to blow off than "I'll read this book some day during the week... maybe...".

Finally, well, learning is fun. Maybe the course isn't strictly necessary for what the postdoc is working on right now. But it's always nice to take a couple of hours every week to learn about something new, open up new perspectives. And it's quite refreshing when you know you are doing this for yourself and not for some exam at the end of the semester. (Almost?) nobody has learned all there is to learn during their PhD. And who knows, maybe you will have a revolutionary idea by attending the course and thinking "wait a minute, I've seen this sort of phenomenon before...!"

Of course, as the others said, I don't think any postdoc would "take" the course to get credits or something like that. Postdocs aren't students.

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    Just to add to this, for many practical skills there is a whole set of "implicit" knowledge that a trainer can impart, but that you would never find in any book or journal article. Tricks of the trade, common pitfalls, things that even most books get wrong, etc. etc. Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 10:03

I run short courses and have post-docs (and professors and PhD students and...) as participants regularly. For example, you may need a methodology you haven't used before to deal with some aspect of your research question. You don't stop learning just because you've finished your PhD. Conference workshops, short courses and other training opportunities are full of postdocs. It's unlikely a postdoc would attend a course 'for credit', but auditing a course where you work is an easy way to find out new ways of doing research.


I'll just drop it here in a response to Maarten's fine answer (see the Dunning-Kruger effect):

enter image description here

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    Dunning-Kruger states that the yellow line will drop below the blue line.
    – DonFusili
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 8:33
  • It's a fun graph, but this doesn't answer the OP's question. You should post it as a comment to the answer you're responding to.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 9:35
  • @Sneftel: Actually, while labelled as a response, this can stand as its own answer (which could do with a bit more explaining).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 10:35

Learning never stops. In your PhD you should have gotten a good overview of the relevant methods in your field, and gotten an in depth knowledge of the methods relevant to your thesis. That leaves a lot of methods you have "heard of", but not quite know. The more you know, the more you know you don't know. So it is perfectly normal that a postdoc starts a new project where (s)he needs to apply such a method. If a course is offered on that topic, then that is great. In fact, as a postdoc you know the people who can offer such courses, and you can just ask them if they can offer such a course next semester. I offer such methods courses and I get such requests quite often. If the request is halfway reasonable, then I'll try to fit it in.

This does not end with postdocs. Faculty often want to follow such courses as well. It does not happen that often for two reasons. First, the courses are typically offered in a period when the faculty also has to teach, so they just don't have time. Second, some feel uncomfortable showing they don't know something in front of collegues and/or in front of students. Others feel uncomfortable when teaching in front of colleagues. If the atmosphere in the department is good, then that is not a big problem. If there are tensions, and there often are, then that could inhibit faculty to attend. For those two reasons faculty tend to more often attend courses from outside facutly offered in a compact format (a couple of days intensive course on ...) outside the teaching period.

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    For me the most important thing in courses is not the methods I have "heard of" but hearing of other methods. I can learn the former myself but the latter? Only if I come by those by accident...
    – Džuris
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 12:22

It is extremely common for a post doc to audit a course. The auditing post doc is not officially enrolled, does not pay tuition, earn credit, take exams, or grade papers, or teach.

They just sit there, auditing.


It is odd to have it advertised but sure, I've had Profs attend courses I've given (many) and as a former Asst Prof in Mathematics, I attended some Grad level Econ courses which I thought quite interesting. Postdocs don't take exams and don't pay fees, so the course shouldn't be geared to them.

It's a different experience of course--I made friends with all the senior people in my courses and the prof whose course I attended, and they're all possible collaborators, something you're always on the lookout for when in academia.


It is a little odd as post docs are not generally formally enrolled in a program that leads to a degree and hence do not typically need credits. That said, post doc training can involve work outside the lab/classroom. For example, NIH funded post docs need to complete training on Responsible Conduct for Research (RCR). Some key excerpts from that guidance include:

Instruction should include face-to-face discussions by course participants and faculty; i.e., on-line instruction may be a component of instruction in responsible conduct of research but is not sufficient to meet the NIH requirement for such instruction, except in special or unusual circumstances.

Most RCR plans include a component on

data acquisition and laboratory tools; management, sharing and ownership

The RCR training also has a core component on reproducability.

It is possible that a stats class could be tailored to provide training to satisfy the NIH RCR requirements (or maybe requirements by the NSF or some other large funder). For administrative purposes, post docs (and faculty and others) may be forced to enroll in these courses as non-degree seeking students.


Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: people change, and fields change. At my institute, technical computing courses are regularly run, and attract postdocs. E.g. someone who did their PhD using Stata or Excel and now want to learn a package like R, or is starting to use High Performance Computing facilities and need to learn Unix. Your example is for a statistics course. The postdocs in attendance may not be from a heavily statistical background, having statistics issues in their current projects and need a wider knowledge of statistical theory to help with their research. At the start of my postdoc, I attended many courses as I completely changed fields for my postdoc, going from mathematical modelling to biomedical statistics, and needing basic knowledge of genomics. A PhD in applied mathematics doesn't make me immediately able to learn genetics independently, as I knew virtually nothing about the field going into the postdoc, I was hired for my numerical skills.

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