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As I'm currently pursuing an academic job search (in parallel to the industry one), which includes potential postdoctoral positions, I would appreciate some clarifications on the following aspect.

Freedom. I assume that there are two major options for postdoctoral positions in regard to academic (research) freedom: 1) postdoctoral researcher joins a group, lab or project and contributes to one or more of their research projects under PI's guidance; 2) postdoctoral researcher joins a group, lab or department and contributes to one of those entities' research portfolio by conceptualizing and performing her/his own research (still under PI's guidance), based on previously negotiated agenda, which fits and supports larger groups' research themes.

Question: are my my assumptions correct; does a postdoctoral title reflect the type of freedom (or lack of) of the position?

Note: My field is Information Systems, a discipline, which can be considered as a sub-domain of Management Science, which, in turn, is a social sciences discipline.

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    Note how the PI/professor views the postdoc in the following: How people in science see each other ;) – Mad Jack Jun 10 '15 at 19:50
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    I believe this varies strongly between different research cultures. It would be helpful for the answers to note to which countries and/or fields they apply. – Mangara Jun 10 '15 at 21:25
  • @MadJack: Thank you for the link - the meme is funny and, likely, somewhat true. :-) – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 11 '15 at 1:42
  • @Mangara: I'm applying almost exclusively to US institutions. Note on my discipline/field is at the bottom of my question - you most likely missed it. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 11 '15 at 1:44
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The answer is a resounding Yes.

That is, it's not "either-or", but "both". On the one hand, as a postdoc, you will be expected to start coming up with your own research ideas and projects and take an active role in pitching your ideas to funding bodies, possibly even become PI on smaller grants yourself. Your supervisor will of course still play a major role.

On the other hand, your research should still tie in to your supervisor's area of expertise. Otherwise, why do you work with him and not someone else? And how should he help you with advice and contacts?

In the end, there will be a mixture between the two options you describe. When you join a group, you may respond to a job opening for a specific project, but even then, you will need to develop your own ideas in relation to this project and pursue your own interesting questions related to the project. Or you may have your own idea, possibly even your own funding, and more-or-less cold-call a potential supervisor, but even then, for the supervisor to accept you as a postdoc, you will need to explain to him how your idea ties in with his own work.

  • Nice answer (+1), and positive as well - thank you very much. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 10 '15 at 10:26
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    Excellent answer. This was my experience - I was expected both to go find new and interesting things to work on myself (preferably leveraging what the lab was good at) but also to contribute to the major projects of the lab. – Fomite Jun 10 '15 at 19:42
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Follow the money!

At the end of a grant, the PI usually has to demonstrate to the funding agency that it was used for more or less the same research as was set out in the original proposal. If a postdoc is funded through such a grant, there will not usually be too much flexibility - someone has to do the work the PI has proposed, and it will probably be you. In large research projects, other people may be dependent on your piece of work being completed in a timely fashion. While many PIs will encourage you to develop your own ideas in parallel, the 'main' project must come first.

On the other hand, if the supervisor is not financially accountable to anyone for the funding (e.g. the postdoc is supported through the supervisor's startup grant), there may be more scope to pursue your own ideas. Whether the supervisor is happy with this depends on (a) the quality of your ideas, and (b) the supervisor's character.

At the most extreme end of the scale, you might be able to get a postdoctoral fellowship. These typically allow you to work entirely independently, on research of your own choosing. As such, you will not have a supervisor (but often one or more 'advisors' will be involved.

  • Excellent points (+1), very useful. Thank you so much for clarification. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 11 '15 at 1:35

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