I don’t remember when I first realized there was something else I might have to do after my PhD, but before I got an actual job academic job. And though I now know what a postdoc is, and that I might have to do one, a lot about postdocs remains shrouded in mystery. As one on the topic notes – being a postdoc is like existing in “some kind of institutional purgatory” and numerous Google searches haven’t been terribly illuminating. One common element to many of the blog posts and articles on postdocs that I’ve read, however, is a certain negativity that is common to disenchanted academics. Some titles I’ve come across include: “The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell” , “Before Professor Comes Postdoc: Lower Career Rung, Just as Much Job Stress” and “The Postdoc Experience: High Expectations, Grounded in Reality”
What I have gleaned substantively is that there is no set definition for what a post-doctoral position actually is, and the importance varies from discipline to discipline as well as country to country. Moreover, what you do in the postdoc may be somewhat dependent on what you did during your PhD – for example, if you did not produce enough publications, you may spend some time publishing work from your dissertation. Another important distinction is if your postdoc position is part of a larger research project, or essentially just funding for you to do your own research (and perhaps a bit of teaching).
However, a survey of postdoc positions identified some common characteristics: the recent completion of a PhD prior to the postdoc position; the position is temporary; the appointment involves substantial research, with a goal towards further training; there is an expectation that work will be published; and the postdoc works under the supervision of a senior scholar.