There is a postdoc from another group in my department that frequently helps PhD students in his area when they have questions or want to talk about a particular subject. I would like to know if this is expected/normal. In other words, can I go to a postdoc looking to talk and ask questions related to our field?

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    Discussing research with postdocs and other graduate students and asking for some advice is usually encouraged, but you have to give alot more detail for us to be able to provide a useful answer to your situtation. Mar 13, 2016 at 7:15
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    You could ask the postdoc (or the professor) if it's part of their contract to help supervise PhD students. I'm not saying that if it's not part of their job you should never ask for help, but it does change things a little bit if you know they're going above and beyond their usual workload to help you.
    – Moriarty
    Mar 13, 2016 at 10:11
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    They are humans. Sometimes they just like to help. Be prepared that, at some point, they may find their time is made too much use of, and than they pull back from helping so many people. Mar 13, 2016 at 13:52
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    When I was a lad (ok, postdoc) I certainly thought that working with grad students in the group was a big part of my job. It helped both them and I get lots more done quickly and efficiently.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 13, 2016 at 15:34
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    This seems like a strange question to me with something missing. At least in my experience, EVERYONE is more than willing to help EVERYONE else, regardless of level (well not truly everyone, but most people at all levels). It would never even cross my mind that asking a postdoc for help would be inappropriate.
    – user41631
    Mar 14, 2016 at 16:07

4 Answers 4


In other words, can I go to a postdoc looking to talk and ask questions related to our field?

It depends on what you mean by "can", as well as the culture in your field and department.

If you are asking whether it's an ethical and reasonable thing to do, then the answer is certainly yes. You can talk with and ask questions to anyone you'd like, provided you appropriately acknowledge any assistance you receive.

If you are asking whether the postdoc has an obligation to provide substantial assistance or tutoring, then the answer is quite possibly no. It's hard to give a definitive answer, since precisely what the word "postdoc" means varies between fields and departments, but you shouldn't assume supervising graduate students is a serious part of the job unless you have some confirmation that this is true in your scenario.

If your questions are genuinely interesting and thought-provoking to the postdoc, then they will probably be happy to chat with you. You may also get a good response if you ask about topics that are truly difficult to learn about elsewhere, so that the postdoc will be sympathetic. On the other hand, if you try to lighten your workload by asking the postdoc relatively routine questions so you don't have to bother looking things up, then they will probably lose patience with you.


Yes. Helping students is commonly part of a postdoc's job. They are not obligated to help with every problem a student brings, but they probably will if they can.


Part of the idea of gathering professors, graduate students, postdocs and others is precisely to encourage exchange of ideas.


Yes, it's definitely ok as other answers suggest; I'd like to add a few more points though:

  • Remember if you receive help beyond a certain level, you have to give that person credit afterwards, either in a thank-you note in a paper/poster, or perhaps even a coauthorship. I'm not saying that to discourage you from getting help, just so you don't forget later on.
  • You can sometime reciprocate by offering them help with problems they're working on, if you feel it's too much of a one-way communication.
  • Try to use the opportunity of getting help on something specific to maybe get a broader perspective on your research directions from someone who's pursuing something else. You don't have to agree with what he says but these can be useful reality checks sometimes.

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