The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell


New Ph.D. recipients, welcome to the next stage of your career! It’s a time-honored tradition of academics, research, and stagnant purgatorial nonprogression. That’s right: It’s your postdoctoral appointment!

As a postdoc, you’ll contribute vitally to the progress of science, simultaneously filling the roles of scientist, scholar, and sucker. But first, a few basic facts about postdocs:

Unfortunately, many postdocs are treated like glorified lab techs … and it’s very sad that you felt a little good just now about the ‘glorified’ part.

  1. The earliest postdoctoral appointment was in 1931. That postdoc hopes to go on the faculty job market sometime in the next couple of years.

An important semantic note: The term “postdoc” refers both to the position and to the person who occupies it. (In this sense, it’s much like the term “bar mitzvah.”) So you can be a postdoc, but you can also do a postdoc, which unfortunately isn’t as sexual as it sounds.

Because the term “postdoc” warrants clarification, you’ll find yourself regularly explaining your status to family members who were so excited about you finishing grad school and now are just confused. When describing your postdoc to an unfamiliar audience, use the following script:

“[Relative’s name], I’ve chosen to work in a branch of the sciences that doesn’t want me to start actually doing things until I’m in my early forties. That’s just the norm at this point, and I blame [politician/funding agency/some kind of national institute of, say, health]. Your patience is appreciated during this trying time.”

  1. Make sure your prospective lab has sufficient funding to pay your salary. Ask indirect questions such as, “Do you have sufficient funding to pay my salary?” If your prospective employer responds by diving under a desk and whimpering, then welcome to 2013.

Being a postdoc has advantages and disadvantages. Here are the three worst aspects:

  1. There’s such a thing as a second postdoc. WHAT THE HOLY HELL. It’s true. You can sail through 4 years of undergrad, survive 7 years of grad school, and suffer a half-decade postdoc, and then do it again. It’s like getting to the end of World 1-4 of Super Mario Bros. only to learn that our princess is in another castle. Some people even do apostdoc, which is more like Super Mario Bros. 2, because it is nonsensical, tedious, and was never intended to exist in the first place. Also, giant turnips may play a role.

But fear not! Here are the three best aspects of postdoctoral fellowships:

  1. Best of all, and ostensibly the point of your postdoc, you’re supposed to control your own project. If you worked in a lab as an undergrad, you were told, “This is your project, and here’s how you’ll do it. Stop stealing beakers.” Then, in grad school, your adviser said, “This is your project, but how you do it is up to you. Stop sleeping.” But principal investigators generally tell postdocs, “Choose your own project. Choose how to do it. Stop envying my tenure.” (At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, many postdocs are treated like glorified lab techs … and it’s very sad that you felt a little good just now about the “glorified” part.)

At this point, you may be asking, “Why would anyone be a postdoc?” The answer, of course, is that people who have jobs you may fill someday say that you have to. “Hire someone right out of grad school?” they ask. “With no more than a science Ph.D., which is notoriously simple to achieve? How could we expect such a person to have the skills necessary to work in a laboratory setting?”

So welcome, young postdoc, to your new position. Sit back, smell the filtered air, and gaze at the haggard assistant professor anxiously working 20-hour days while fretting about tenure. And think, “Someday, all this may be mine.”

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