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Working with postdocs

In this article we cover what we consider to be the key points around working with postdocs as a staff group. You may not have worked directly with postdocs before, so this article is aimed at getting you up to speed quickly. If you’re experienced in working with postdocs you may want to skip ahead to the challenges and recommendations.

What is a postdoc? What do you call them and why it matters

Postdoc is a term that is short for postdoctoral researcher. They are usually employed on fixed term research contract as part of a grant awarded to an academic (principal investigator). Some may have independent fellowships (postdoctoral fellow) but still work within a research group headed by an academic. You’ll find postdoc contracts advertised ranging from around 6 months to 5+ years. Both examples are extremes, many postdoc contracts fall within 1-3 years in length. If they are on a ‘permanent’ contract this may be ‘permanent with insecure funding’ so their employment ends when the research grant they are paid from ends. For more information on what a postdoc is see our blog part 1 and part 2.  

Postdoc are members of staff who hold a PhD qualification, not to be confused with post graduate students (PGRs) who are working towards completing PhD. Postdocs are professional researchers and are often responsible, as part of their job, for (co-) supervision of students (undergraduate, masters and PhD) and, in many cases, delivery of teaching (such as tutorials and lectures). Note that as they are staff they will not be tracked (their next career destination) by your institutions Alumni team.

The terms you use matter. Not all postdocs will self-identify with the term early-career researchers (ECR) so bear this in mind when advertising sessions. For some, the term ECR refers to tenured (permanent) academic staff, so junior lecturers for example, and does not include postdocs.

How many postdocs are there?

There are around 50,000 postdocs working in the UK (Woolston, 2022).  If you work in a research-intensive HEI your postdoc population will likely be greater than the number of permanent, tenured academic staff.

Globally there are likely something of the order of 400,000 (p.8, Albrecht and Schaffartzik, 2013), although counting is tricky as there is no clearly globally defined definition of what a postdoc is so this number is very much an estimate.

In broad terms, Biological and Biomedical Sciences typically has the greatest proportion of postdocs, followed by Physical and Environmental Sciences, with Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences having by far the smallest postdoc population. This is the overall postdoc population breakdown, the proportions at your institution may well differ. If you want to read about this in more detail check out our blog.

Understanding postdocs career development needs

It goes without saying that all postdocs are different but here we highlight some things you may find that they have in common or approaches we recommend.

Challenges you might encounter when working with postdocs

In addition to the challenges included in ‘my own development’ page we’ve included some extra challenges you may encounter when offering postdoc career development.

Recommendations

  • Encourage postdocs to prioritise their own career development, particularly setting time aside to do it.
  • Emphasize the importance of a thriving community of researchers.
  • Support postdocs to raise their gaze, expand their horizons and look carefully and critically at all career options open to them (not just within academia alone).
  • Highlight the importance of career development regardless of remaining length of contract or career pathway your postdocs are on.
  • Get to know what the postdocs at your institution want in terms of career development.
  • Challenge the postdocs to explore any assumptions they hold about particular careers, especially if they are holding them back, and get them to discover if there is any truth in their assumption/belief.
  • Persuade postdocs to think about their skills development more broadly than in terms of gaining an additional qualification.
  • Refresh and revisit your own assumptions about postdocs regularly.
  • Celebrate all career development progress and outcomes within or beyond academia.

References and footnotes

*The chances of becoming a faculty or tenure tracked academic are increasingly slim, with the rise in the numbers of PhD graduates coupled with a decrease in the rate at which academics are exiting the career due to better health/healthier aging and the removal of the compulsory retirement age (OECD, 2021, pp.15-16).

PhD graduate production is escalating year on year (Albrect and Schaffartzik, 2013, p.8). This increase in the number of PhD graduates has led to an increase in the number of postdocs. As an example the number of postdocs in the USA grew by 160% from 19,000 in 1987 to 49,000 in 2014 (Andalib, Ghaffarzadegan and Larson 2018). Looking on a global scale, Albrect and Schaffartzik predicted a postdoc population of around 400,000 by 2013 (p.8). This steep increase in the number of PhD graduates and postdocs has not been mirrored in the number of academic positions available, which have remained broadly static across a similar time period (Schillebeeckx, Brett and Cory 2013 p.938).

References

Albrecht, F. and Schaffartzik, M.  2013. Postdoctoral Career Paths 2.0: The Golden Triangle of Competitive Junior Investigators, Adequate Academic Systems, and Successful Careers. https://www.humboldt-foundation.de/pls/web/docs/F3356/iab_brochure_2013.pdf: Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Andalib, M. A., Ghaffarzadegan, N. and Larson, R. C. 2018. The Postdoc Queue: A Labour Force in Waiting. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 35, 675-686.

Edwards, K. A., Acheson-Field, H., Rennane, S. and Zaber, M. A. 2023. Mapping scientists’ career trajectories in the survey of doctorate recipients using three statistical methods. Scientific Reports, 13, 8119.

Menard, C.B. and Shinton, S. 2022. The career paths of researchers in long-term employment on short-term contracts: Case study from a UK university. PLoS one, 17, e0274486-e0274486.

McConnell, S. C., Westerman, E. L., Pierre, J. F., Heckler, E. J. and Schwartz, N. B. 2018. United States National Postdoc Survey results and the interaction of gender, career choice and mentor impact. eLife, 7, e40189. 

OECD, 2020, Main Science and Technology Indicators, Volume 2019 Issue 2, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/g2g9ff07-en

OECD, 2021, Reducing the precarity of academic research careers, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, No. 113, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/0f8bd468-en  

Sauermann, H. and Roach, M. 2016. Why pursue the postdoc path? Science, 352, 663-664. 

Schillebeeckx, M., Maricque, B. and Lewis, C. 2013. The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nature Biotechnology, 31, 938-941.

Tzanakou, C. 2017. Dual career couples in academia, international mobility and dual career services in Europe. European Educational Research Journal, 16, 298-312.

Woolston, C. 2020. Uncertain prospects for postdoctoral researchers. Nature, 588, 181-184. 

Woolston, C. 2022. Lab leaders wrestle with paucity of postdocs. Nature

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