What is a postdoctoral fellow?

By Juliana Adelman

I think the first time that I truly understood the term ‘existential crisis’ was when I learned that thirty-eight painters are engaged full time to paint the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  It wasn’t the tedium of their work that struck me.  In fact, I doubt that painting 100 to 200m up in the air over some of the world’s most stunning scenery could ever become tedious.  It was the fact that their work would never be done.  Not ever.  They would retire without feeling that sense of completion that I associate with work. Their job is to make something appear as though it never changes.

As the preceding paragraph has made abundantly clear, I should stick to history and stay away from philosophy.  Nonetheless, the past few years have made me increasingly question the point of what I do.  Will anything I write change anything or am I maintaining the paint on the Golden Gate Bridge?  It seems to me that this is a crisis of navel gazing which is almost unique to the postdoctoral fellow, although feel free to tell me that I am wrong.  A faculty member has PhD students and so is very likely to at least have some effect on the ideas of one or two people, even if she never publishes a word.  A PhD student, when not convinced he will never achieve anything, thinks she will change the world and that everyone before her was utterly misguided.  Your examiners provide an audience, however small.  A postdoc has incredible freedom (a freedom which is unlikely to be repeated in ANY type of future employment) but it comes at a price.  You are free because you are largely invisible: you keep the bridge painted.

I am not saying that no one reads your work until you become a lecturer or that all university lecturers and even professors produce the most profound or important work.  In fact, many postdocs have a higher rate of publication than many pensioned staff because they have to (we always have one eye focused on not falling off the bridge).  Nonetheless there is a sense in which developing an influential body of work relies on having a relatively lengthy career and not even the most sanguine postdoc can feel assured of that at the moment.  Also, I often wonder (as many people do) if the pressure to produce publications in order to increase your chances of getting shortlisted for a job is exerting a downward pressure on the impact of those publications.  There is too much to read and it is often too narrowly focused.  Having big ideas requires time to think, read and write and then to rethink and revise.  Postdocs don’t have time: they have one to two years to produce enough publications to become a serious candidate for jobs.

A full-time university lecturer has, of course, even more demands on their time and research must often be confined to times between terms or occasional sabbatical leaves.  Nonetheless, teaching seems to me very likely to have a positive impact on the scope and quality of what you write.  Teaching requires you to read outside your field and to articulate your views to a wider audience than the few specialists in your area.  And occasionally one of your students might even ask a question you haven’t thought of before.

This ramble brings us then, finally, to the question I started this article with.  Who am I?  Am I in training for becoming a lecturer?  If so, it’s pretty poor training and no wonder that a few of the lecturers I had in college were not quite up to the task.  Am I a bridge painter?  If so, it is a very expensive bridge and getting more so every day.  At least the scenery is pretty good from up here.

11 Responses to “What is a postdoctoral fellow?”

  1. Tina Says:

    Fantastic post, Juliana! I often find myself pondering these questions … more and more frequently it seems! However, setting aside the negatives to postdoctoral work that you’ve pointed out, it is a pretty amazing gig all in all, with the primary focus placed on your work and, if you’re lucky, limited teaching and admin responsibilities. Even if it does feel like painting bridges at times, I do think such positions help to promote you as an active researcher and as someone with the potential both to continue such research as a permanent lecturer and to continue bringing in funding comparable to that you’ve already secured for your postdoctoral fellowship. It may not be all that comforting in these insecure times, but it may just be enough to cling to!

  2. Ronan Says:

    A great post but unfortunately most jobs in life are “bridge painters” and most jobs don’t even give you the freedom to determine which part of the “bridge” to paint – if i can push the metaphor. Postdoc life is great, it’s one of the few jobs where you have so much freedom – but your point about research is very relevant. Most research has little impact, but occassionally we come across a nugget that makes it all worthwhile.

    I would note though that if when you start thinking your job is worthless, then usually its time to change jobs – whether in academic or any other job.

  3. puesoccurrences Says:

    @Tina: yes there is lots to be thankful for. Getting paid to do what you enjoy is hardly something to complain about. I just think we need a redefinition, maybe for ourselves rather than for others.

    @Ronan: I don’t think it’s worthless or I would have stopped a long time ago. The bridge painters not only make the bridge look nice, they also protect it from rust! On the other hand, a postdoc is a sort of holding pattern and I wish I knew how to just put away my ambitions for a job and enjoy the present.

    Overall, I think postdocs have proliferated without universities really thinking about what they want from them and without us postdocs knowing exactly what WE want from them aside from a stay of execution and some more time to pursue our research.


  4. Joanne Says:

    There must be something in the air! I received this link only yesterday from a friend who has been a doctor of English literature for many years.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obTNwPJvOI8 food for thought….

  5. puesoccurrences Says:

    Great link Joanne! I think the computerized voices add something. My favourite quote: ‘You cannot seriously be this stupid.’ ‘I am motivated person who loves to read. I am going to be a college professor.’

  6. puesoccurrences Says:

    Great piece Juliana. I think you summed it all up in one of your comments above:

    ‘Overall, I think postdocs have proliferated without universities really thinking about what they want from them and without us postdocs knowing exactly what WE want from them aside from a stay of execution and some more time to pursue our research.’

    The problem seems to be just that. We’re not sure exactly what it is that we’re supposed to get out of it, nor are the institutions and funding bodies who fund us. One could argue, of course, that what postdocs experience is similar to comparable stages in other careers where someone moves from trainee level to assistant level, before making manager, etc. Except that the results that take you up each level are less easily identifiable in the case of postdocs, I think. Plus, there are such varying expectations between disciplines and faculties as to what a postdoc should/can do that it blurs the lines even further.

    We do, as you and Ronan suggested, have space that academics at a later stage in their career don’t have. For which we are all grateful. Yet at the same time, the pressure to publish leaves less time to think things through and less time to allow ideas to ferment and be debated properly before that time comes.

    This is an issue that could run and run, but one important issue that could be added is the fact that most PhD students, even in their final year I would suggest, have no idea what a postdoc is or does. That may have to be addressed soon if the large numbers of PhDs coming out are to be directed on something approaching a career path.


  7. Kathleen Says:

    Good post, and I think most of us probably mull over these things … not least when trying to explain to non-academic friends what exactly we’re doing to justify our use of oxygen.

    Nonetheless, I don’t mind seeing my postdoc as primarily a (paid!) stay of execution. What I do mind are occasional disturbing references to postdoctoral “students”. I also distrust bureaucrats who apparently itch to set up some sort of spectacularly useless generic framework around everything. I’m all for maintaining the ambiguity of the role. It means I can do what I want to with it, up to a point.

    I think universities know very well what they want from postdocs – it just doesn’t sound all that glamorous, so they have to keep the language a bit vague. (Also there’s the dreaded science model – ‘they’ in the labs are always going to outnumber ‘us’ when policy is being discussed.) As for postdocs not being clear on how to use the time strategically – yes, I agree that that’s a problem, but am not sure that any kind of systemic standardization will solve it.

  8. Frank Says:

    While I’m not familiar with the life of a postdoc being a humble librarian, a thought did strike me as I was reading through this interesting post. Point taken about the rushed nature of some efforts to get into publication to adhere to the ‘publish or perish’ doctrine. I think however that the postdoc offers the researcher a golden opportunity to store away references that you come across in the course of your study that may prove invaluable in laying the foundations for a future career. Also anyone who studies history with an eye to pursuing a single avenue of research will quickly find a tempting array of related avenues also worthy of pursuit. Of course you must be disciplined enough to carry out the required body of research but it might also be beneficial to think about compiling a series of folders on side issues that you come up against which may provide you with the bones of a number of articles to fulfill the ‘publish or perish’ requirement when the project is over and give you some breathing space to pursue the big ideas that you talk about.

  9. puesoccurrences Says:

    Kathleen makes a good point about the science model. As a historian of 19th C science I still find it amazing how quickly we have managed to transition as a society from a situation in which science was a marginal amusement to one in which all academic measures of success are based on science models. On the other hand, we can thank the science model for encouraging universities to fund research-only staff in the humanities. Unfortunately, what we have NOT copied from science is some kind career structure or long term security for researchers (not universal in science, either).

    @Frank: I think you’re right about squirreling away future topics. And I think I would do well to put them in actual file folders not label them something obscure in a word document and never come across them again…


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