The Plight of the Post-Doc


Is "post-doc" passé?

In Spanish and French (and probably some other languages too), you introduce yourself by saying "me llamo __" or "je m'appelle __," both of which literally translate to "I call myself __."  I like this, for unlike the passive English "my name that someone else chose for me is," it suggests that you have at least some active role in defining yourself.  Here in America, alas, I don't get much chance to exercise the old français, but I do find that it's often necessary to define myself.  And it's not easy!

The post-doc is without question the most amorphous and uncertain of stages in an academic's Life Journey (not to mention the most hair-graying, ulcer-forming, and soul-crushing). And with the past decade's advent of even more nebulous terms like "super post-doc," it's more than likely that we struggle with identity issues--especially when faced with the task of defining ourselves, particularly to non-academics.  

You grad students and professors have it easy--people have ideas, however misguided, about what it means to be one of those.  But how do post-docs tell people who they are?  You know, like at parties with people who aren't in science?  A fellow blogger recently argued that the term "post-doc" is dead--it's lost what little cachet it might once have had, and is meaningless to those outside of academia, anyway.  He opts instead for "short term contract researcher," an expression that sounds to me like the kind of thing you should say if you didn't want to talk to the person anymore.  Whoops!  Looks like I need another drink / have to find the restroom / remembered I left the stove on! The other thing I don't like about it is that it doesn't convey the fact that you have a schmancy degree!  I mean, come on--I once had to fix my Old Navy sandals with a stapler, at least let me impress you with how educated I am!

No but seriously, fair enough--all the term "post-doc" really does say about you is that you should be addressed as "Dr" (something on which you should insist whenever appropriate!). When someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I am a scientist, and smile to indicate that I know how goofy that sounds.  They like that, because "scientist" is one of those jobs that might have been in your when-I-grow-up list when you're five--you know:  1) astronaut; 2) firefighter; 3) artist; 4) vet; 5) scientist**.  Only the most hardened of souls isn't at least somewhat intrigued by someone who describes herself as a scientist, and then they get to ask you the right questions to help paint a clearer picture of what you mean, rather than you launching into a jargony mish-mash about your PI or whatever.  

In the end, I think what's important when we step outside the Ivory Tower isn't necessarily what we call ourselves, but that the words we choose foster, rather than quash, conversation.  Scientists have a notorious reputation for not being able to communicate well to the public.  If we want that reputation to change, we should at the very least find a way to define ourselves, even when that definition is in constant flux.
** My parents are in possession of paper proof that as a 4-year old I told my nursery school teacher that when I grew up I wanted to "play in institutions."  I have no idea how I'd even have known what an institution was at that age, but I mean, way to follow my dreams, right?


Gerty-Z said...

I always go with "scientist" when I'm asked what I do by a lay person. Just so you know, getting a TT job doesn't really help this problem. This is how these conversations go for me now:

person: what do you do?
me: I'm a scientist
person: That's cool. What do you study?
me: I'm a (assistant) professor at BigU. My lab studies Very Important Research Problem
person: what do you teach?
me: I don't teach the first 2-3 years.
me: I am setting up my research lab, then I will teach a little later on. Right now my job is to get VIRP going and bring in funding.
person: oh

So, instead of teaching people what a "post doc" is, now I'm teaching them how academia works. SSDD

Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug said...

I completely agree with Gerty-Z, as I've just got a TT job. It's hard to explain to people how academia works, if you're outside from the two extremes of the chain: student or full-professor.
In Brazil, defining yourself as a scientist will probably sound snobbish, even if you have the best intentions about changing the non-academic idea of what a scientist do.

Just to know: in Brazilian Portuguese, both are used: "Eu me chamo..." or "meu nome é.."

Female Computer Scientist said...

I was just talking with someone about this today. In CS, "Research Scientist" is super-snazzy sounding in some circles.

Candid Engineer said...

I never tell people I'm a post-doc unless they are also an academic and/or scientist. I *do* introduce myself as a "scientist" to lay people. Or, sometimes if I'm feeling bold, as an "X engineer". Engineer is usually more difficult to explain though, because I don't physically manufacture anything macroscopic through cunning and strength. Lol.

Micro Dr. O said...

I usually say microbiologist or bio-med researcher, sometimes scientist, depending on the individual I'm talking to. This still begs more questions, but about science instead of semantics.

And I agree with Gerty...when I talk about the fact I'm looking for faculty/assistant professor positions, most peoples' minds go to teaching, not research. I frequently end up doing just as much explaining about where I'm (hopefully) going as where I am now.

EthidiumBromide said...

I'm a graduate student, and I still introduce myself as a scientist (or scientist-in-training) unless it is to a fellow scientist. I tend to find that outside of science, everyone assumes I have the typical graduate school role of having 2 years of classes and then sitting on my computer wherever I want and "working" on my dissertation from a coffee shop... which is not at all the case. The only way people seem to grasp that I am actually working, in a lab, during all normal working hours, plus many more before and after and on weekends, is by going the scientist route, rather than the grad student route. It has really cut down on the number of people who call me mid-day thinking that I can just chat since obviously, I'm just sitting around with nothing to really do as a "grad student"!

Anonymous said...

"short term contract researcher"

That's everybody from grad student to professor now.

I tell border control I'm a scientist. And you can't lie to them.


Jason said...

I have a similar issue. I tell people I'm in Developmental Psychology, and the immediate assumption is that I'm studying to be a therapist. Which couldn't be farther from the truth. So if I want to be any more detailed than "scientist" i usually tell people that i do research in psychology and neuroscience. That gets the idea across reasonably well.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

For most purposes I go with "scientist" too. I do a bit of teaching, and other stuff, but mostly I do science.

Recently our college hosted an information panel for undergraduates interested in grad school and careers in the biosciences and/or academia. Grad students and faculty were invited to serve on this panel. As leader of our newly formed postdoc association I offered my services, along with a list of postdocs who would be willing to share their perspective too. Unsurprisingly, my college was not interested in bringing the postdoc experience to attention of aspiring grad students!

Bashir said...

I don't think the term postdoc is any worse than professor, graduate student, or whatever you call your field. That there are issues explaining things to "people at parties" is not novel to the term postdoc or to academia.

I tell people I'm a researcher.

Anonymous said...

You're usually dead on, but I take issue with the position that: "The post-doc is without question the most amorphous and uncertain of stages in an academic's Life Journey (not to mention the most hair-graying, ulcer-forming, and soul-crushing)."

Sure, it ain't no picnic, but compared to being junior faculty and responsible for bringing home the bacon both for yourself and your staff (while somehow promoting a research agenda), it's a life of leisure. Though if you can make it work, senseless as it may sound, it's worth the effort.

Anonymous said...

Don't bother trying to explain academia. There's no way anyone living in a democracy will ever be able to get their heads around the logic. The concept of "Academia" is the most elitist, privileged and snobby kind of cultural framework in America today. How do you explain why it is that massive amounts of taxdollars are spent so that academics get to sit around in cushy chairs congratulating each other about how smart they all are, with absolute job security and no responsibility to society, only their own sense of "intellectual freedom"? When almost every other American taxpayer works their ass off for the man in order to barely scrape by with zero job security?

Just tell them you're a scientist and very lucky. Don't insult them by trying to explain why it's the world's greatest profession.

I do empathize with the difficulties of being a post-doc. But who says America's brightest most energetic young people need to spend the best years of their lives wasting away as ass-kissing slaves trying to work their way out of the bottom of a pyramid scheme anyhow? You are one of the most educated and skilled people in the world living in the land of opportunity. Maybe there's a few other career options out there?

Prof-like Substance said...

The post-doc is without question the most amorphous and uncertain of stages in an academic's Life Journey (not to mention the most hair-graying, ulcer-forming, and soul-crushing).

Oh, Dr. Becca. The fact that I long for the "happy-go-lucky" days of my postdoc might be an indication that the second part of this sentence may need to be refined in your next career step.

Anonymous said...

I long for the "happy-go-lucky" days of my postdoc

Next time I hear another TT lottery winner reminisce about the good ol' carefree days of her postdoc I'm gonna puke.

Ask the postdocs now working at McDonald's and they might recall differently.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

P-LS and Anon 5:58, Haha! I knew when I was writing that sentence that some junior faculty would beg to differ. And maybe, if I'm lucky enough to get to the next step, I'll beg to differ with myself, too. But for now, the uncertainty of knowing whether there IS a next step is fucking terrifying. So yeah, I know that when you're a new PI you've got a whole new set of shit to deal with, but at least, you know, you made it!

Prof-like Substance said...

Yes, yes. We could go back and forth on this all day but I always find it interesting that those who contend that the postdoc is the most difficult time are the ones who have never been a PI :) We'll talk in a couple years.

In any case, I agree that the uncertainty is unnerving, especially when you have a partner or family involved. Those aspects of the postdoc "life-style" are certainly not fun.

Oh, and somebody get a bucket for Anon.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking up the chain and down the chain from the super postdoc perspective.

Up the chain is looking exponentially harder. A postdoc I work with has also just noted the same thing 3 months after her transition.


Anonymous said...

Who knew so many scientists went to parties with non-scientists : )

namnezia said...

I never tell people I'm a neuroscientist, because then I get questions like – "Did you say Nurse Scientist?" or "Really, Euro Scientist? You study science in Europe?". So now I say I do brain research.

I never say I'm an assistant professor because then I get asked which professor I assist. It's like Amelia Bedelia.

When I was a postdoc, I would explain that it was equivalent to a medical residency but in the sciences.

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