Being a postdoc – What does it mean?

I am a postdoc in a developing country and I exactly know what this means.

Often, I find myself in situations when others do not know it. Sadly, I am not talking about people from outside academia. I do not expect them to know. I am talking about the Home Affairs Department of the country where I am living that does not know what kind of visa I should apply for, so different foreign postdocs have different kinds of visa. For some of us, it means that we have to go back to our home countries at our own expenses every time we need to renew/extend the visa.

I am talking about the government that does not include us in its unemployment insurance and pension fund policies. I am also talking about the University itself! Last year, the University Postdoctoral Researchers Association here organized a very nice workshop to help new postdocs coming from other universities to get familiarized with the University. At the end of the seminar by the IT person, I asked about the expiration date of our institutional e-mail account and the answer was “after you graduate”. When I pointed out that we are postdocs and do not graduate anymore, I got a puzzled face back. Unfortunately, this is only one example of the many times when we are treated as grad students by the University where we work.

As a woman in science, I am talking about funding agencies that ignore completely that, at this stage in our lives, many of us are thinking about having kids and leave out information about maternity leave from fellowship calls and contracts. It is scary to realize that many women postdocs rely on “kind and understanding” supervisors to get some time out after having their babies when this should be a right clearly stated in our contracts. From those that have the right to maternity leave, few get paid during this time.

I am not writing here to scare women from doing postdocs in universities in developing countries. I do not regret my choice. However, I strongly believe that we must consider all these points before we chose this path for our careers.

I would like to believe that the origin of all these issues is the lack of information, so I am writing this text to clarify what postdocs are and, as importantly, what postdocs are not.

Starting with what postdocs are not: We are not students.

We have finished our studies. The doctorate is the highest academic degree in any field of knowledge and we have finished it already. Postdocs are not academic staff members either. Being a postdoc is not a career in itself and our goal should not be to become a “permadoc” (perpetual postdoc). However, many of us find themselves trapped in multiple postdoc terms for many years, unable to get own funding to set a research group and depending on a PI to be hired over and over again. In response to the permadoc phenomenon, some “superdoc positions” (senior staff scientist) have been created for talented postdocs with no desire to start their own labs. Although this seems to be a good option, funding for these positions is a real struggle, as they are considerably better paid than postdocs, and some Universities, especially in developing countries, are simply not open to it.

Postdocs are in training to be independent researchers. A postdoc is a temporary position for gaining additional education and training in research and, hopefully, become a professor in a not too distant future. It is a stepping-stone. Thus, it is important to keep in mind what we want to be trained at in each postdoc term and that our supervisors give us enough freedom to pursue what we think would be valuable. A postdoc is an opportunity to be trained in supervising students, teaching and writing grant proposals. These are important skills that will help to construct and manage our own careers. Postdocs are critical to universities and science itself! Most principal investigators are too busy to carry out experiments and rely on postdocs to drive projects and guide Ph.D. and MSc students on a day-to-day basis.

Finally, postdocs are people looking for some stability in life both by having a permanent academic position and by settling down in the personal level.