On Being a Postdoctoral Researcher

Tags: musings, research

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This is one of the posts I wish I had available when I was pondering options1 after my Ph.D. So if you, dear reader, are in the same position, I wrote this just for you.

Postdocs or postdoctoral researchers are arguably the middle children of academia—not getting the attention Ph.D. students should be getting while also not counting as faculty, making them ineligible for numerous grants and other programmes. Many academics therefore see this time as something that is to be endured until the ’next step’ finally beckons, i.e. they become faculty members. I want to offer another perspective here, viz. one of cherishing this time.

Here’s why: as a postdoc in a good lab2, you are in a perfect position. First, you enjoy a certain freedom to pursue your own research directions, create your own own research agenda, and in general just play around with whatever tickles your fancy. This is more freedom than you probably had as a Ph.D. student, and it can be extremely liberating¬†(so much so that it might make you dizzy at first). Second, you can also assume more responsibilities! You can serve as a mentor to Ph.D. students and undergrads. You can learn how to supervise them and how to manage projects. This is a privilege, but it also carries a certain weight—suddenly, you are supposed to be the experienced person in the room. The saving grace of this situation is that you are still in a protected position! You are not responsible for running a whole lab; you are not responsible for acquiring more funding for all your employees; you are not responsible for ensuring future collaborations.

This is why I think that a postdoctoral position can be an excellent one, having just the right amount of responsibilities and competencies. Or, to paraphrase the inimitable Terry Pratchett:

It is a very useful rank for the right person. The optimum balance of power and responsibility.

Therefore, enjoy and cherish this time as long as it lasts. And if you are still on the fence whether you should look for such a position: consider the postdoc to be a ’taste test’ for academia, directing research, and mentorship. That way—regardless of what your personal next step should be—you will be able to make an informed decision.

What you should not do is treat your postdoctoral time as a ‘Ph.D. 2.0’. By this I mean that you should not just continue your research as a ’lone wolf’. Treat this time as a period of growth; try out different directions and see where they will take you in the end. And most of all: enjoy yourself.

Good luck with this incredible adventure, until next time!

  1. I had even less of a foggy idea of academia than I have now. ↩︎

  2. Meaning one that is run by a supervisor who cares about their employees. I concede that there are some places you do not want to work at. ↩︎