Wanted: Qualified candidate for short-term position. Science doctorate required. Average weekly work hours may range from 40 to 60-plus. Must take direction well. Must be capable of working completely independently, sometimes alone in a laboratory at 1 a.m. May be asked to secure own source of salary and research support. Unique opportunity to chip away at problems that plague humanity or answer burning questions about the nature of life itself. Starting salary less than $44,000 annually.
Sound appealing? Nearly 6,000 newly minted Ph.D.s sign up for this position every year.
It’s the American postdoc, and depending on who you talk to, it’s an essential training ground for academic scientists, the unsung hearts and hands behind many of the research discoveries you read about in the newspaper, the people who actually “do” research, or a cheap source of labor to propel the machine of scientific progress.
Some postdocs may categorize their jobs as all of the above, depending on the day.
However you view it, the “postdoc” — the term commonly refers both to the job and the person doing it, perhaps as a reflection of how deeply these postdoctoral scientists-in-training integrate themselves into their careers — is a required step for those who want to join the ranks of tenure-track research faculty, the scientists who lead academic research teams (and who are the postdocs’ bosses and mentors).
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center postdoc Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson about academic research — and her goal to one day lead her own laboratory team as a principal investigator, or PI.
“But that’s probably because I’ve never done anything else,” she quipped.