What is a Postdoc?
Most people outside of academia know what a PhD is, but a postdoc is more confusing. Are postdocs students? Do they actually earn a degree? Are they called postdoctoral researchers or fellows or scholars or associates or assistants? Let’s clear up some of that confusion.
So, What is a Postdoc?
In many fields, a postdoc is the de facto next step on the academic career path after earning a PhD (hence the name.) A postdoc is a temporary position that allows a PhD to continue their training as a researcher and gain skills and experience that will prepare them for their academic career. Most postdoc positions are at a university or in industry, but there some postdocs positions at nonprofits and in government. While the vast majority of postdocs work in STEM fields, these types of positions are becoming more common in social sciences and the humanities.
What Does a Postdoc Do?
A postdoc is primarily a researcher who works under the supervision of a mentor as part of a larger research group. As such, they conduct research, either on a pre-specified project or one of their own design and publish that research. At the same time, a postdoc is meant to prepare young researchers to become principal investigators or junior faculty members, so they also take on senior responsibilities like mentoring, grant writing, and teaching.
How Long Are Postdoc Positions?
There is no set length for a postdoc. It will depend on a number of factors such as the university, country of research, PI, or funding. That being said, most positions are two to three years and some can be extended. It is common to do more than one postdoc before applying for faculty positions. Some countries do limit the total number of years a person can work as a postdoc. For example, in Canada and Sweden, it is only possible to be a postdoc for five years total, while there is no limit on postdoc years in the US.
How Are Postdocs Funded?
Postdoc positions can be funded in several ways. Some postdocs are salaried employees of a university, institution, or company. Other times they are paid a stipend from a grant, fellowship, or scholarship. In some countries, the name of the position indicates the funding source. In the UK for example, a postdoctoral assistant works on a project developed for and funded by a grant awarded to the PI, while a postdoctoral fellow is awarded their own fellowship giving them a larger say in the scope of their project.
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