What is a postdoc? part 1

Posted on: 27 April 2020 by Catherine Kennedy in Blog posts

Since Prosper began, we've often found ourselves facing the question 'so what is a postdoc?' Our Research Staff Developers, Dr Catherine Charlwood and Dr Fiona McBride, look at defining the term and what it means in relation to Prosper.

TL:DR PhD = Student, Postdoc = Staff/employee, Postdoc ≠ student, Postdoc ≠ independently funded researcher in control of their own research direction.

As we’ve talked to employers and third parties about Prosper, it’s become clear that for many outside the academic world, the term ‘postdoc’ is often misunderstood or has no meaning. Even within academia, the specific terms used can vary. In the first of a two-part blog, we’ll seek to clarify what the Prosper project means when we use the term ‘postdoc’. In part two, we’ll explore what a postdoc is in terms of skills and outlook. We’ll also cover the attributes that postdocs bring that make them desirable employees in whatever sector they choose to work.

If you work practically anywhere other than a University, you may not have ever encountered a postdoc in the wild. Perhaps the term means nothing to you whatsoever. If that’s the case, this is the blog post for you! Even for those in the know, are you aware of terminology differences between different disciplines? If not, you’re in the right place.

What is a postdoc?

In many ways, it can be easier to define a postdoc by what they are not. First and foremost, postdocs aren’t students. At a simple level a postdoc is someone who has a PhD, and is now working as a researcher, most typically in a university setting. As former postdocs ourselves, we labour this point as many postdocs find even their own families continually asking them “When are you going to get a job?” or “Still studying? Don’t you get bored?”. While a PhD student is a student studying to achieve a qualification, a postdoc is a member of an organisation’s staff. America’s National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) answers the question ‘What is a Postdoc?’ like this:

A postdoctoral scholar (“postdoc”) is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.

As members of the Prosper team, we particularly like this definition as it doesn’t foreclose the outcome of a postdoc: not all postdocs will become academics, and many will choose not to do so. The hidden ‘p’ behind ‘postdoc’ is preparation, because being a postdoc prepares you for a variety of futures in a whole host of ways.

So far, so good. However, this is where some difficulties can start, as specific postdoc job titles can vary. Typically, UK postdocs can be Postdoctoral Research Assistants, Postdoctoral Research Associates (often abbreviated to PDRAs), or Postdoctoral Research Fellows. This last title can be a source of particular confusion, as a fellow or a fellowship holder usually refers to an independently-funded researcher, on their way to becoming a fully-fledged academic. The difficulty is that many fellowships offer no guarantee of a permanent role afterwards (or ‘tenure’ to use the American term), so fellowships are fixed-term and can be precarious like postdoctoral positions. Research Assistant is another tricky category, as sometimes these positions don’t require a PhD, but increasingly (given the saturated market) they are filled by those holding doctorates and become postdoctoral positions by default.

A postdoctoral role is not a permanent position and thus, as What Every Postdoc Needs to Know puts it, “Being a postdoc is not a career”. Researchers can have multiple sequential postdoctoral positions, sometimes even in the same research group, team or institution, but also often relocate for work. A postdoc role has traditionally been viewed as a preparatory role before embarking on an academic career: according to the Medical Research Council’s Interactive Career Framework, a postdoc position constitutes the ‘consolidation’ after your ‘training’ (i.e. your PhD), with a second or additional postdocs described as an ‘exploration’. This makes clear that being a postdoc is an interim career stage, but it’s one which takes you far beyond your student days.

Prosper is keen to gain the insight of the Principal Investigator (PI) community in terms of understanding how best to support postdocs. Speaking recently to Professor Rachel Williams, of Liverpool’s Institute for Ageing and Chronic Disease (IACD), she noted that often postdoctoral positions aren’t viewed as roles that prepare postdocs for moving towards their chosen career path. As such, not enough consideration is given to allotting time and funding to those all-important career development opportunities. In a recent video case study for Prosper, new PI and UKRI FLF fellow Dr Ruth Nugent characterised a postdoc as someone who “wants to explore how they want to proceed [… who] may be upskilling,” again underlining the importance of the development undertaken in a postdoc.

Differences between disciplines

Another important distinction to make for our purposes in Prosper is the difference between a postdoc and an early career researcher (ECR). In STEM subjects, a postdoc refers to someone who holds a PhD and works as a researcher under a supervisor or principal investigator (PI), whereas an ECR is someone who is now at the start of their career as an academic (possibly on a tenure track), who holds their own funding and doesn’t work under a PI. This is where there is a disciplinary difference: postdocs have existed in STEM subjects for a long time and are relatively numerous, but postdocs (as a role) are much newer and scarcer in arts and humanities. Typically, anyone in the arts and humanities with a PhD could refer to themselves as an ECR, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are contracted to an institution in a research capacity – they may be in other roles within universities and conduct their research in their spare time, often unpaid.

What does this mean for Prosper?

In summary, a postdoc holds a PhD, is an employee, is not fully independent (i.e. is not on a tenure track to become a permanent member of academic staff) and is on a short fixed-term contract. This is the definition the Prosper project means when it refers uses the term ‘postdoc’. So, even if your formal job title is not ‘postdoc’, you may identify yourself as fitting our definition of the term ‘postdoc’. We’re looking to be inclusive of all postdocs, working across all disciplines.

Hopefully this piece helps to clarify the myriad terminology used to describe the postdoc population. It’s important to note that in this piece, we are referring to generalisations – things that are typically correct in the UK academic setting. There are exceptions to these rules but we have tried to keep things as clear and concise as possible.

Are there any uses of ‘postdoc’ we’ve missed? Let us know! We’re finding it’s a much more complex picture than you can know from individual experience!

Do you have thoughts, experiences or reflections relevant to Prosper? We’d love to hear from you – get in touch at at prosper.postdoc@liverpool.ac.uk, or tweet us @ProsperPostdoc. 

References: Liz Elvidge, Carol Spencley and Emma Williams, What Every Postdoc Needs to Know (London: World Scientific Publishing, 2017).