ALL ABOUT POSTDOCS, PART I: WHAT ARE POSTDOCS, AND WHAT DO THEY DO?

 Bright and Eager Postdoc in 2014!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

What in the world is a “Postdoc” in the arena of science?  Why do most new science Ph.D.’s spend at least one additional year as a Postdoctoral Fellow?  What do Postdocs work on?  What do Postdocs get for their efforts? How are Postdocs important for scientific research?  Most people in the general public have no idea about answers to these questions!  This article is the first of a pair about Postdocs.  All in Part I is intended for general readers who are not scientists, but who have curiosity about scientific research and wonder how it is accomplished; it will  inform you about the why’s and wherefore’s of being a Postdoc.  The subsequent Part II will not have interest for general readers, and is specifically aimed at advising graduate students and current Postdocs. 

What are Postdocs?  Why are 2-8 Years in Graduate School Not Sufficient to Make a Scientist? 

             Postdocs officially are Postdoctoral Research Fellows. They aim to become much more experienced, independent, knowledgeable, skillful, and versatile than are the raw products of any graduate school program.  As nascent research scientists, Postdocs work (e.g., 1-4 years) to greatly expand their understanding and insight in experimental science, broaden their research skills, increase their research publications, advance their reputation as a productive researcher, and, mature into independent professional scientific investigators. 

             Why would any new doctorate in science need to get this advanced training and additional experience in scientific research?  The basic answer is that a new science Ph.D. mostly has knowledge only in one subject area, and practical experience with only a small number of research approaches.  The training acquired during coursework and the laboratory experiments that served as the basis for a Ph.D. simply are just a foundation that is not sufficient to make the young researcher qualified for university employment as a faculty scientist.  New graduates need to go far beyond what their graduate school training and experience provided.  They need to greatly widen their experience, deepen their expertise, and more firmly establish their professional identity, before they are qualified to find employment as a professional scientist.  To do that, Postdocs work with new kinds of research instrumentation, new research systems, and new research questions.  They also learn much about being a professional scientist and dealing with all the non-science problems that will arise during their later career.  Postdocs thus work to become fully-fledged independent professional scientists.  Postdocs do not receive any certificate or diploma for successfully completing their efforts; instead, they obtain confidence that their new high-quality research publications and advanced know-how will be a big help in finally finding a good job as a scientist and researcher. 

             Readers who are not scientists might better understand the purpose of the postdoctoral period if they will view it as being analogous to the advanced training of a professional chef.  Being able to make a mousse dessert or cook a stuffed goose is not enough to be a master chef.  To achieve that rank, they must work in a number of different apprenticeship positions before finally having enough of both specialized culinary knowledge and on-the-job experience to become a head chef, and later a restaurant owner.  For hiring new university faculty in science, the postdoctoral experience is essential.  For hiring at industrial research and development centers, there is a less rigorous demand for postdoctoral training, particularly because these employers generally have an extended and highly specialized training program for all their newly hired scientists; that program can be considered as being equivalent to a mini-postdoctoral experience.    

 What Do Postdocs Actually Do? 

             Being a Postdoc almost always is a particularly exciting time.  It involves intense learning, development of skillful expertise in hands-on experimental investigations, maturing of critical judgment and ability to organize efficient research efforts, and, establishing one’s identity and reputation as a professional research scientist.  Each year, hard-working Postdocs analyze their new data and then publish their research results, give presentations at a national or international science meeting, and ponder exactly what sort of job they will seek later.  Postdocs must dive right in and try to produce good publications with important new research results within their first year of work.  Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs are much more intense than was the case during their years of graduate school studies. 

             In addition to their laboratory experiments, Postdocs seek to learn many new skills outside the laboratory.  These include observations and instructions about how to handle rules and regulations, deal with problems of time and money, criticize both their own work and that of other scientists, compose manuscripts, present research reports orally, apply for research grants, and, work in coordination with a team of laboratory co-workers.  In their research investigations, some Postdocs even are given the opportunity to direct the operations of a research technician or graduate student.  All of these instructive situations vastly increase the competence of the Postdoc to deal successfully with future activities and responsibilities arising later in the course of their career. 

             Many research scientists hold more than one postdoctoral position, either by choice or of necessity, before they find a good job in academia, industry, or elsewhere.  Postdoctoral salaries now are at good levels so that this is a realistic proposition; quite a few Postdocs already are married.  In modern times where good jobs are not so plentiful, some scientists even work in postdoctoral positions for over 10 years.  I myself held 2 postdoctoral positions, one in France and the second in the USA; both were unique, exciting, utterly wonderful, and very valuable experiences for me!  

What are Postdoctoral Mentors, and Why are They Important? 

             Not all university scientists have Postdocs in their labs, largely due to their relative lack of success with the research grant system.  The supervisor of Postdocs, denoted as the Postdoctoral Mentor, is a successful research scientist who can offer time, financial support, good research facilities, experienced critical judgment, and professional guidance to their Postdoctoral Fellows.  For the Mentor, Postdocs are a big prize and contribute greatly to the success of the Mentor’s research projects.  The several Postdocs in my own research laboratory all were invaluable for research progress and much fun to work with. 

             The Mentor has a very important role because it is during the postdoctoral period that most scientists solidify their professional identity as a researcher specialized in some particular branch of science (e.g., microbial cell biology, or virology; materials science, or alloy metallurgy; lithium inorganic chemistry, or geological chemistry; astrophysics, or theoretical physics; etc.), and establish their basic reputation as a researcher.  The Postdoctoral Mentor guides the maturation of the new scientist and often serves as a role model for what a Postdoc aims to become.  Both the Postdoctoral Mentor and the thesis advisor certainly deserve some credit for what their younger associates later accomplish in the world of research. 

 How are Postdocs very Valuable for Science? 

             Postdocs have several characteristics as researchers that are different from both graduate students and employed scientists.  Postdocs typically are: (1) semi-independent workers, and so do not need constant supervision; (2) particularly suited for carrying out difficult experiments since they are ambitious, eager, energetic,  and highly motivated; (3) still young and more readily able to adapt unconventional approaches and make improvements to experimental research practices; and, (4) dedicated to completing research projects with efficiency (i.e., on time), so that they can publish their new results and thereby increase their reputation.  These characteristics mean that Postdocs play an important role in grant-supported research, and comprise the next generation of scientific researchers. 

 Concluding Remarks

             In Part I, I have presented the role of Postdocs within modern scientific research, and explained the importance of Postdoctoral Mentors as shapers of future research scientists and leaders.  Those who have never previously heard of Postdoctoral Research Fellows now should be able to understand and appreciate their important role in the research enterprise.  Questions about this topic and article are welcome via the Comments section.  

 

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