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I am seeing many people doing postdocs for years, or even nearly a decade, well into their late thirties. Do they usually have progressive salary and responsibility, as one could expect in a job? Is your fifth or sixth year as a postdoc essentially the same as your first month after PhD., but with some extra publications?

For clarification, this is what I mean by progress.

In your later years, do you get to build and lead a small team of junior researchers who you hire from your grant, whom you can give some instruction, or you divide the tasks of a more ambitious project and you take some supervisory role in addition to your own hands-on research? I do not expect it to be completely managerial because I know postdocs love the actual research…but at least some mark of seniority and experience?

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    It depends on the institution and supervisor. Salary progression seems pretty common. – Anonymous Physicist May 30 '16 at 5:09
  • Also depends on the field and country. – Bitwise Jun 1 '16 at 2:37
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Of all the kinds of academic positions, the postdoc is probably the most variable. The common ground across (almost) all postdoctoral positions is: you should have a doctoral degree when you start the position, and the position should not be permanent or tenure-track. That's really about it. (Added: I agree with @StrongBad that most postdoctoral positions have an expectation of "advanced training" of one kind or another.)

It is rare for a single postdoc position to last more than 4-5 years. In my understanding, the ones that do are soft-money positions and thus are more explicitly doing specified projects for the PI / grantholder. I am not aware of any kind of formal seniority across multiple postdocs: generally the reason that someone does a second postdoc is because they want a permanent academic job and haven't gotten one yet. They may also want additional specific training / the chance to work with other researchers, but this really is "additional" rather than on top of.

In terms of salary: in my experience [mathematics, US], postdoc salaries are rather flat across the period of employment. (I previously had more detailed information, but I am less confident that it is representative even among math postdocs in the US.) In my department we have one kind of postdoc that pays about $10K per year more than another postdoc is funded by an NSF grant, and the salaries for the latter postdoc are set by the NSF, so will be the same unless / until we get a new grant (or an updated version of the same).

When it comes to skilled labor, wherever you work for a year or more, you gain knowledge, experience and seniority in some informal sense. One might say that a postdoc is a process of laundering a student into a faculty member, so late-career postdocs resemble faculty members more than early career postdocs. Most postdocs in mathematics find their way from a combination of completing / continuing their thesis work and starting new projects with their new supervisor to developing a distinctive and independent research program. Although the particulars differ across fields, I think that something like this is the goal of most postdocs: if a postdoc only does their supervisor / PI's work then it will be difficult for them to portray themselves as a valuable faculty hire.

For math postdocs, the only formal seniority comes from teaching obligations: namely most math postdocs start out teaching freshman / sophomore level courses. If they are competent at their teaching and interested in teaching other courses (not all postdocs are), many postdocs move on to teach a junior/senior level course for majors in their second year and some postdocs teach a graduate course in their last year. (In my fifth semester as a postdoc I was able to teach a topics course in the arithmetic of Shimura varieties. I have since taught about a dozen graduate courses, but none as advanced as that.)

In your later years, do you get to build a small team of junior researchers who you hire from your grant whom you can give some instruction,,

Some postdocs are not associated to a grant in any way; they are rather temporary faculty funded by their department. Some postdocs work under their PI's grant, in which case the answer to the question is up to the PI (and the grant proposal). Some postdocs receive grant funding of their own, in which case some kind of money for junior personnel may well be included. Also some postdocs work with graduate students, in a variety of different ways. My current postdoc is for instance a member of the dissertation committee of one of my students.

or you divide the tasks of a more ambitious project and you take some supervisory role in addition to your own hands-on research?

That could happen. Some large research groups employ postdocs in a kind of managerial role.

I do not expect it to be completely administrative or managerial because I know postdocs love the actual research…but at least some mark of seniority and experience?

Keep in mind that any seniority you acquire as a postdoc is ephemeral. Spending too much time doing administrative / managerial work as a postdoc sounds very risky if you are aiming for a permanent faculty position. Some departments somewhere must be hiring some faculty largely for their administrative skills...but I confess I have never seen it with my own eyes.

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    When you say the salary is for 9 months, does that mean that your postdocs aren't expected to work over the summer, or that they are expected to bring in other funding, or that they are expected to work 33% more than the words in their contract would seem to indicate? – user4512 May 30 '16 at 8:56
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    @Chris: It means the first thing, if by "work" you mean anything that contributes to the department / university rather than the postdoc's own research program. Such a postdoc would be free to (i) get an outside, even non-academic [though it seems unlikely] job over the summer, (ii) apply for summer research funds (e.g. NSF provides some), or (iii) try to teach a course over the summer if they really want a "12 month salary". For postdocs interested in a tenure track job at a research university, the last is a pretty bad idea, IMO. – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 15:22
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    I do not believe math postdocs can be usefully compared to postdocs in any other field. Accordingly, although this response is excellent (as usual), I do not think it answers the original question. – Tom Church May 30 '16 at 19:40
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    By the way: non-STEM fields also have postdocs. See e.g. academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/…. My guess is that in many of these fields, postdocs are close to the kind of "visiting assistant professor" position that they often are in mathematics. – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 20:39
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    @gnome: By "not competitive," I meant that the majority of math departments we consider to be our peers or aspirational peers [a lovely term I learned from a dean on a job interview many years ago] offer more. I didn't mean to imply that (i) no else pays this little or (ii) we can't fill the positions. But it is not an attractive feature of the offer, if you take my meaning. – Pete L. Clark May 30 '16 at 20:45
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In order to answer this, we first need to define what a post doc is. I have talked about how the NIH defines a post doc in this answer. Both the NIH and NSF define a post doc as

An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and definedperiod of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path.

In terms of salary progression, the NIH has a scale: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-16-047.html. It starts at $43,692 for a new post doc and progresses to $57,504 after 7 years of experience.

Within the NIH framework post docs are either funded through a grant to a PI (e.g., R01) or an NRSA postdoctoral fellowship (e.g., F32). The post doctoral fellowships do not provide funding for hiring staff. After finishing their training, many post docs choose to stay in the lab of their mentor as a research scientist on soft money. They can then apply for research grants and hire and supervise staff.

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This varies quite a bit from country to country, field to field and even group to group.

In the US and Canada, I've never seen a lab where the postdocs are officially ranked (e.g., Sarah is a senior postdoc and has some sort of authority over Nick the Newbie and Jamie the junior postdoc). However, it's not uncommon for an informal hierarchy to arise, where a senior postdoc does his own research and works closely with newer staff interested in a very similar topic.

This is partly a matter of seniority and experience (a postdoc has a PhD + a few years of experience, versus a brand new masters' student). It is also influenced by how research happens: new projects often involve a lot of work that is difficult to parallelize, but once they are up and running, there is often a surfeit of directions one could take: existing data could be analyzed in many new ways; it might also suggest obvious follow-up experiments using the existing setup. Having new students/postdocs work on this can be a great way to get new staff up to speed (or could even be a complete project for undergrad/masters' students), while helping the postdoc get publications out.

The postdoc probably would not independently hire new staff, but they might get some say in choosing between potential lab members.

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At a UK institution, pay is often set to a single pay spine system where pay goes up annually (this can be automatic or based on merit).

In terms of supervisory roles, a PI may ask for help supervising student or postgraduate projects. But this is usually informal.

It would be unusual for a postdoc to be PI on grants big enough to hire from, and the postdoc would be able to get a lectureship with ease off such a grant.

  • " get a lectureship with ease off such a grant."---what does that mean? If he brings the big grant, then the school will promote him to a faculty? – Della Jun 1 '16 at 4:59
  • One of the main roles of lecturing staff is to bring in grant money. If one can bring in large grants(i.e. one big enough to hire other staff with), it would be trivial to make a case for promotion/move to another institution into a lectureship. The same is true for lecturers, if they can bring in a very large grant as PI (>£1 million, say), the school will likely promote them to professor. – David E Jun 1 '16 at 19:12
  • So the grants are tied to the person? If he moves to a different institution, the grants he got (on behalf of the school) will leave with him? – Della Jun 3 '16 at 4:47
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As others have said, it varies. In Australia, I have seen:

  • Postdocs on insecure soft money go from one postdoc position to another for years on end, with only cost of living salary increases and no change in title or responsibility;
  • Postdocs on more secure soft money gradually working their way up the academic ranks, with job titles changing from "research associate" to "research fellow" to "senior research fellow", or from "postdoctoral fellow" to "research projects officer", and becoming more and more involved in writing grant applications and managing stakeholder relations as they go;
  • Postdocs who are told in advance that they have three years in which they will be given advanced research training and financial support, but with no chance of extension;
  • Postdocs moving from one institution to another either at the same level or with an increase in pay and job title.

I've never personally seen a postdoc given official management responsibilities, but it is common for even first-year postdocs to unofficially be managing postgraduate students and technical staff.

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