I’m afraid this question is mostly opinion-based, but I was wondering if there is any piece of material out there that covers the spectrum of opinions.

What exactly is a post-doc? Is it an education, an employment or something in between? This question is particularly bothering me, since in Sweden post-docs may be financed either through stipends – not paying taxes nor receiving social benefits (remember, in one of the most socially-oriented countries in the world) – or salary. One could argue that, on one hand, post-doc is an education towards becoming an independent researcher, on the other hand, a post-doc is expected to already produce knowledge for the benefit of humanity.

I tend to ask myself the same question about PhD students. Why would PIs bother recruiting PhD students for doing research, if an “army of post-doc-like researchers” would probably be more productive? For example, our university tends to recruit PhD students on H2020 calls which are for research, in addition to H2020 calls targeted for research training.


6 Answers 6


The legal situation in Israel

I mention Israel first since am involved in a legal case before the Israeli national labor court on this very question: Arguing that those PhD candidates who are required to work all week long, who are forbidden from working outside the university, who can be required to teach up to a limit according to the needs of their academic departments etc. etc. - who contribute significantly to the research (and teaching) "outputs" of the university, should be considered its employees, and the monthly "stipends" that they get should be recognized again as their salary. This is case ע'ע 5439-04-16 (Labor Appeal 5439-04-16). I've authored a booklet on the history of this struggle, which has an English version:

"These are student recipients of prizes":
On the erasure of the Technion's junior researcher class

Or get the Hebrew version; in fact, if you can read Hebrew, you can find the court case documents here.

The legal situation in the US

Another, perhaps more relevant, legal treatment of this matter can be found in the recent ruling of the National Labor Relations board, in the case of Graduate Workers of Columbia University, UAW, AFL-CIO vs the University of Columbia (NLRB 364-90: HTML PDF, all case files): The court has found that, indeed, Graduate students who perform meaningful research or teaching work as part of the course of their PhD program (and are paid), are considered university employees to the extent of the applicability of US labor law, especially the laws governing unionization and collective bargaining.

That decision reversed the unfortunate (3-to-2) decision in the 2004 case of Brown University (NLRB 342-42: HTML, PDF), which had itself reversed the 2000 decision in the case of NYU (NLRB 332-111: HTML, PDF).

See also the AAUP description of the Columbia U case and their position.

The actual answer

I can talk for hours, literally, about this subject, and I actually have... but in a nutshell:

  • Being an employee and being undergoing a process of education are not mutually exclusive; and you always learn when you're starting out in a new career path, be it in industry or in academia.
  • The common labor-legal criteria for being considered an employee can and do apply to many/most/all PhD candidates (depending on which state in the world, which kind of PhD work etc.)
  • A university is an organization whose ongoing objectives are to produce research findings and to teach students. If you contribute towards those goals (by performing research and teaching), even if you're also undergoing a process of education yourself, you should be recognized and remunerated as such.
  • Post-Docs only undergo any sort of education through their practical research work (which, of course, involves learning - but that's the case also for the most high-ranking Professors); they don't take classes, get homework and take exams to see whether they've studied well enough. so about them there should not be any doubt of being in relations of employment.

as for why have PhD candidates when you can have Post-docs - I've already written enough, let others discuss that :-)

  • 1
    Just wanted to say that the report you cited ("On the erasure of the Technion's junior researcher class") is worth reading. Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 15:57
  • @user1202136: It was published as a chapter in Precarious Employment: Systematic Exclusion and Expoitation in the (Israeli) Labor Market' - a book edited by Dr. Daniel Mishori and Dr. (and former MK) Anat Maor, available for download at the link - but again only in Hebrew. An English table-of-contents is available though.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 16:40
  • 2
    In many countries, PhD students, like postdocs, learn and are educated through practical research work, and do not take classes, get homework or take exams. Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 22:34
  • @Significance: Really? I did not know that. At any rate, in those countries I would think the case of PhD is as clear-cut as for post-docs.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 22:46
  • @einpoklum Agreed. The distinction is that PhD students are working towards a qualification, while postdocs are not. Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 22:47

The distinction between postdoc and PhD student is orthogonal to that between employment and education.

First, both PhD "students" and postdoctoral "researchers" may or may not live on stipends. In Germany, for example, both PhD students and postdocs are in most cases employed by their university or research institutions. In some cases, PhD students live on a grant that is paid directly to them, without the social benefits etc. that come with a work contract. Less frequently, even postdocs may live on a grant. AFAIK, the prestigious Marie Curie grants are paid out directly as a stipend. On the other hand, many postdocs are indirectly living on research grants, but these are paid out to their host institution, which in turn pays their postdocs a regular salary.

Second, both PhD "students" and postdoctoral "researchers" continue their own education while, at the same time, preforming work in research and (often) teaching. A defendable PhD thesis is not only the "final" assignment in an education program. It also has to make a real contribution to its field and contains the published (or to be published) results of a research project. A postdoc does real research, but she will also have to continuously broaden her knowledge of the field she works in and her experience with the latest methods in order to make a living in academia.

Regarding your last question: PhD students are less expensive and in less scarce supply than postdocs. Moreover, the education of (many, talented) PhD students is part of a professor's assigned job, and it adds to their prestige.

  • 1
    In addition to your point about the cost of PhDs, I've always assumed it's easier to offload teaching onto PhD students than postdocs, at least when students are internally funded. Certainly, I've worked in departments with vast numbers of PhD students with relatively large teaching loads, whilst those of us who were postdocs did nothing but research.
    – Ian_Fin
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 10:38
  • 1
    @Ian_Fin Interesting. I would guess this depends (as often) on the country and the institution. For example, I had no research duties as a PhD researcher (regular employment contract in a soft-money project). The postdocs at my institution, who where partly financed by the university's core funding, and those PhD students who were outside my institution and entirely financed by the unversity's core funding both had teaching obligations (some small, some larger). Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 10:44
  • 3
    I used to work in a department where, on the People section of their website, you could figure out whose PhDs were internally or externally funded because while externally funded students had the title "PhD Student", the many internally funded students had a title that was instead a very low-level teaching position. As you say, it'll vary from location to location, but certainly in the UK there have been suggestions of PhD students as slave labour.
    – Ian_Fin
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 10:56
  • 1
    @user1202136 Here's a 2012 article from the UK's Independent newspaper. My recollection is that 2012 seemed to be something of a peak for people writing about their concerns with doctoral training in the UK. Times Higher Education had a few articles popular at the time on some of the issues.
    – Ian_Fin
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 11:36
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    @henning The ERC starting grant is just used to pay (part of) your normal postdoctoral salary (in Germany).
    – VonBeche
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 11:46

In the United States, post docs fulfill an important, but legally nebulous role, which is why you often see such confusion over tax status http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2002/11/postdocs-and-law-meet-irs. Some institutions refuse to give advise about tax status, some do. Many note that, basically, your income will not be reported to the IRS so the onus is on you. Moving on...

To answer your questions directly: A post doc is a Phd who's role is primarily research. In many cases, a young Phd takes a post doc both to increase publication record as well as learn new techniques, theory, and analyses. Some take a post doc as a sort of continuation of graduate school, due to lack of adequate job opportunities, but the former is considered more fruitful, and more promising from a hiring perspective. It is becoming quite rare for a graduate student to migrate into a TT position without a post doc, unfortunately.

On why a PI should even consider graduate students over post docs: If you haven't already suspected (h/t @henning), post docs are actually often cheaper from a financial standpoint. At least at top universities with graduate apprenticeships, PIs are responsible for paying grad student tuition on top of stipend. So grad students are more expensive and less productive. But, it's part of your duty as a PI, and newer faculty often receive some subsidization from the university until tenure comes up. Also, graduate students often become the front line labor that post docs make use of as they lead lines of research overseen by the PI. They are indispensable, and honestly a lot of fun to have around. Furthermore, the 'half life' of a grad student might be longer than a post doc -- I'm speculating-- but in my experience true. If a PI wants to pass on a theoretical lineage it'll be through grad students foremost, less post docs.

You can convince yourself the above is true by comparing new vs established PIs. In many cases, the new PI has an army of grad students, a couple post docs, while the established PI has an army of post docs and a few graduate students. Not always true, but in my experience quite common.


Practices vary between countries.

Here in the UK PhD students usually get a tax-free stipend provided through the University (but ultimately funded by either a research council or sometimes an industrial partner), this stipend is not considered employment. They may also work for the University on the side doing lab demonstrating and similar tasks. The PhD is mostly research-based culminating in the assement of the thesis, some programs may also require students to take courses.

"Postdocs" (or PDRAs to use the technical term) on the other hand are employees. There is an expectation that postdocs will have either completed or be close to completing their PhD.

From the point of view of a research funder PhD students are cheaper than postdocs but obviously less experianced.

  • This situation in Australia is the same. Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 22:36
  • There is a more substantial differences from the point of view of a research funder. In most Research Council funding call, and in fact other funding bodies, salary is an eligible expense while a stipend is not. So paradoxically, it is much easier for a PI (supervisor) to obtain funding for a (single) PDRA (post-doctoral research associate) position than a PhD. PhD funding seems to be moving towards multi-year multi-position grants awarded to Universities (or specific Schools) to organise "training programmes" or "centres".
    – penelope
    Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 10:22

I am fully with the statement by henning that "The distinction between postdoc and PhD student is orthogonal to that between employment and education." I would argue that this holds for a lot of positions outside of academia as well. If you are hired by some company, there is often a large learning component in your job for the first years. If you are in research and development this component may never really go away (buzzword "lifelong learning"). However, some things are special about academia:

  • Almost all contracts/employments/position are time limited (except tenured professors and a few more positions).

  • On top of that, most positions provide something that is seen as a necessary step to take to get to the next level. So you are expected to learn something and develop further in each career step.

Also, there are several distinctions between a PhD and a post doc (all of them having nothing to do with a distinction of education vs. employment):

  • As a PhD student you work towards one specific goal, namely the PhD. In that endeavor, you work on a project your supervisor formulated and work under his guidance. The goal (besides the PhD) is to develop skills to do independent research.

  • As a post doc you work on projects, often in teams and often more than one. You are expected to be able to do research independently. But you also should learn how to develop and plan your research independently. A goal is to develop skills to lead a research group.

One consequence is that "an army of post docs" is not necessarily more effective in achieving a specific goal since they are supposed to work more independently (and are also motivated to do so, since showing independent research work is crucial to proceed to the next career level).

But what is also true is that these distinction do not always apply. Some PhD students may also work on several projects, and some post docs will not be able to work independently…

A last thing: Being tenured does not mean that you are not educated anymore. You may not have a mentor research wise but you still may receive training (e.g. for administration or teaching) and of course you keep developing skills and acquire knowledge for your field.

  • As a PhD student I worked on a fairly broad topic. Explored many avenues, some you could call separate "projects", some collaborations. During my postdoc I worked on a very specific project that my supervisor formulated and obtained funding for.
    – penelope
    Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 10:13

Broadly speaking, A PhD is something you need to embark on your journey of research in your field. It will teach you everything you need to have in order to be a good researcher. Its duration varies from 3-5 years. Usually in Europe, you are offered a 3-year PhD and it is viewed as a job. On the other hand, in countries like the U.S. and India, it is a 5 year course. Starting two years are usually devoted to coursework and it helps you understand the basic as well as advanced topics in a better way. After two years, your complete focus is on carrying out research and publish at least 3-4 research papers and defending your thesis in the last year. A post doc is something you can do after your PhD, as obvious from its name.In this way you can continue to work in your field with a supervisor and broaden your knowledge and experience. Usually 2-3 post docs are considered good. Speaking of duration, it can take around 18-24 months. Hope it gives you a basic understanding.

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