Usually I go with Grey's Anatomy references to explain academic ranks, hence the photo above, showing the season 1 cast. An intern (in Canada a 1st year resident - light blue above) is a bit like a PhD student just embarking on their research career, a resident is like a postdoc (light blue + lab coat) working with significant autonomy, each of whom works under an attending physician (dark blue above) who in turn takes their cues from the department chair (dark blue + lab coat). Here Christina takes a different tack.
By Dr. Christina Smith
Bonus points for anyone who gets the early 2000s song reference in the title there.
So this is a question I come across quite often – and I know other post-docs do too. When asked what I do for a living, I’ll often start with “I’m a researcher” for simplicity, but in reality I’m a “post-doctoral fellow” or even more confusingly, a “post-doctoral visitor”. There are a number of other names for people who do similar jobs to me, but they all tend to have the same word (or hyphenated word, but let’s not get onto the postdoctoral vs post-doctoral debate) at the beginning of the title, so often we just call ourselves “post-docs”.
But that doesn’t really answer the question: what is a post-doc?
Well, at the basic level, we are researchers who have completed grad-school, now have our shiny PhDs in hand (or framed and hung on the wall - we worked hard for those!), and are now generally employed on relatively short term contracts (1-3 years are fairly common, often with chances to extend by a year or two) at universities or facilities to do research, be it laboratory-based, theoretical, observational, or some mixture. Often, post-doc positions are working for a particular professor doing directed or supervised research on a particular project or topic, but some are much more, or entirely, independent research positions.
Beyond that, the experience of a post-doc is very different depending on the department, the particular group they’re in, and the professor or organization they work for. Some post-docs will dabble in lecturing from time to time, perhaps as a guest lecturer, a co-director of a course, or a “special topics speaker” which is a good opportunity to learn the ropes of lecturing without being thrown in at the deep end. Some post-docs are required to do operational support for facilities like telescopes or missions. Sometimes they provide managerial or technical support to a group. Sometimes they produce or maintain software. Some post-docs supervise or co-supervise undergraduate or graduate students – the latter I have seen more of back in the UK where masters degrees are only a single year and thus fit better into the sometimes uncertain duration of a post-doc’s time at a university. But even if it’s unofficially, there is often a mentoring component to being a post-doc if you’re in a group that has graduate or undergraduate students in. Post-docs, at least in my experience when I was a grad student, are much less scary than professors to come to with potentially daft questions and can sometimes be more easily accessible, especially if mixed post-doc/graduate student offices are common in the department.
So what about my experience as a post-doc?
Well, I did a mini-post-doc position (a 6 month fixed-term contract) before I moved to the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory back in 2015 – I’ve been pretty lucky to have had a long contract here where I can really settle into a place. In both post-doc positions, research is/was the primary focus, with the main aim being leading and conducting research, writing up findings, and disseminating those findings out into the community through talks and posters at conferences and meetings. But I also found that there was a fair bit of mentoring in both places, which I do also enjoy. I’ve also tried my hand at teaching – who knew that blackboards were so tall??? And how do you avoid getting completely covered in chalk while you lecture??? I’ve also had the opportunity to write grant proposals in my time as a post-doc. I did do some proposal writing back as a graduate student, but they were technical proposals asking for time on a telescope rather than requesting funding for a project or to join a collaboration, so a little different (casual plug for the last blog post I wrote...). I also do outreach when I can. And last but by no means least, about 3 times a month I have an operations role for the Mars Science Laboratory Rover (Curiosity) Mission which, if I’m honest, is the bit most people outside of academia focus on these days!
So for the TL:DR: post-docs are kind of a weird ill-defined subset of academia who’s responsibilities and roles vary considerably from person to person, place to place. They tend to do a lot of different things depending on what’s needed in the group where they work. And, to bring it back to the title, they fit into neither student nor professor category, but still work in research at a university (or research facility...).