What does an ideal post-doc look like? The view from a beginner, environmental science post-doc.
- An ideal post-doc should never ever be called a student. I absolutely hate the phrase "post-doctoral student." We have terminal degrees, dammit! And we don't get the perks that students get (discounted theatre tickets, free entrance to the gym, etc.)
- An ideal post-doc should receive mentoring in the areas where they need it. Maybe you are completely technically competent in your field of research, but maybe you don't have much experience writing grants, reviewing papers, or hiring people. Those are the places that a post-doc PI should help you out, so that when you get your own research group, you aren't completely clueless.
- An ideal post-doc should be involved in all stages of the research cycle. From proposal writing, data collection, analysis, paper and report writing. To participate in all the stages of the research cycle within a limited time duration may require involvement in more than one project. As a PI, you'll be involved in more than one project, so why not get the experience now.
- An ideal post-doc should be encouraged to develop and pursue their own research ideas. Most post-docs probably come into a group where there is an already funded project, but developing (and getting funding for) your own ideas as a side project or as an extension of your post-doc time is really valuable experience for being a PI. In fact, if you can be a PI (or at least co-PI) on a grant as a post-doc, that will help you get an academic job. It's a shame that the US federal granting agencies won't allow post-docs as PIs, because a lot of us are doing a substantial amount of the proposal generation (not to mention the actual work).
- An ideal post-doc should pay closer to the beginning assistant professor level than the graduate student level. We've had enough years of being under severe financial stress as graduate students, let it end with the completion of the PhD.
- An ideal post-doc position should be funded for more than 1 year and less than 4. Let me explain my rationale. If you (like me) have funding for 1 year, then immediately upon starting the post-doc you have to begin looking for and applying for your next job. This not only distracts from your work but adds to your stress level. On the other hand, 4 years is as much time as it took to get the PhD and the post-doc is generally conceived of as a liminal stage between PhD and academia, so the post-doc should be shorter in duration than the Ph.D. If after four years at a post-doc, you don't have a permanent job lined up and you still want to go after a professorial position, then it seems to me that your interests are best served by widening your experiences and moving to another research group. If you are still in the same post-doc for 5+ years, then you need to face it, you are no longer in the academic job hunt game, instead you are a "research scientist" or "research associate" at your current university, in a more permanent soft-money position. At least that's the way it works in my field.
- An ideal post-doc should be at a different institution, or at least a different research group than the one in which you did your PhD. I haven't done this one, which is part of why you will never hear me profess to have the perfect post-doc. My thoughts here stem from the idea that a post-doc should be about diversifying and refining your research expertise and experience. Part of your research experience is learning how to work within different administrative systems and with different groups of people. On a more pragmatic level, moving to a different place shows academic search committees that you aren't stuck in a rut research-wise or (god-forbid) have personal reasons for staying in one place.
- An ideal post-doc would provide access to career resources, including those for jobs outside academia. In a lot of fields there are more PhDs granted and even post-docs post-docing than there are available tenure-track faculty jobs. There should be recognition of career opportunities outside of academia, and a career center or other resources available to help PhDs find work outside the ivory tower.
- An ideal post-doc should be allowed to have a life outside research. Something like a third of post-docs have kids, wouldn't it be nice to be able to watch them grow up? And even for those without families, all work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.