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Why life as a postdoc is like a circling plane at LaGuardia Airport

Repeating pattern of white aeroplanes on a blue background with a speaker icon in a circle overlaid

Credit: Adapted from Getty

Julie Gould finds out how postdoctoral researchers see themselves and their role.

“A postdoc is a scientist with training wheels,” says Jessica Esquivel, a postdoctoral researcher at Fermilab, the particle physics and accelerator laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. “It is a space where we can fumble, really start to flex our muscles in building innovative experiments and learn skills that we didn't necessarily get to beef up while we were in graduate school.”

In the first episode of a six-part podcast series, Julie Gould seeks to define this key career stage by asking postdocs past and present why it attracts so many different job titles (37, at the last count), and how many years one should ideally devote to postdoctoral research before moving on. Also, what should come next, given the paucity of permanent posts in academia? Should you do a postdoc if you are planning a career in another sector?

“The only thing that you absolutely need a postdoc for is to go onto a tenured track faculty position,” says Bill Mahoney, associate dean for student and postdoctoral affairs at the University of Washington Graduate School in Seattle.

Shirley Tilghman, emeritus professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, returns to a metaphor coined before COVID-19 lockdowns changed New York’s heavily congested LaGuardia Airport. “Passengers were always finding themselves flying over LaGuardia, over and over and over round in circles.”

“Postdocs were experiencing essentially the same phenomenon, which is that they were longer and longer and longer in postdoctoral positions waiting for their turn to finally have a chance to land.”


This editorially independent podcast is one episode in a six-part Working Scientist series about postdoctoral researchers. It is supported by the University of Queensland. Find out more about this content.


Julie Gould finds out how postdoctoral researchers see themselves and their role.

Sponsor message

This six-part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland.

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day.

Julie Gould:

Hello, and welcome back to Working Scientist. I’m Julie Gould. It’s been quite some time since I've done this podcast. And I’m so pleased to be back, especially because we’re about to start a six part series called all about the postdoc.

Now, the idea of this series is to answer some of the fundamental questions about the postdoc.

So let’s start at the beginning, What is a postdoc?

Ruyki Hyodo is a postdoc at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Association, or JAXA, in Japan. And he actually has quite a lot of trouble defining what a postdoc is, even though he is one.

Ruyki Hyodo 1:00

Just calling myself a postdoc is a bit weird for me, actually. I always ask myself: What is a postdoc?

Because postdoc means a lot. Just saying postdoc doesn't mean one specific position. You have many, many different kinds of contracts. But everyone is called postdoc if you do not get a position as a professor, so it’s a bit confusing, always.

So if you meet some people from industry, an ordinary company, you cannot express yourself: I'm a postdoc. Because they don't understand what it is. It is happening in Japan. So that’s why I I don't know how I can express myself in ordinary like, society.

Julie Gould 1:43

According to the National Postdoctoral Association 2014 institutional policy report, the number of names for postdocs across institutions is 37.

So postdocs aren't just postdocs. Postdocs, or fellows, or research associates, or scholars, or trainees ,or research fellows, or postdoctoral associates, or even postdoctoral scholar employees. The list goes on.

The reason for this is a result of modern research culture, says Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, and an emeritus professor of molecular biology and public affairs.

And she is someone who has been involved with, and advocating for postdocs since the 1990s.

Shirley Tilghman 2:22

So I think you have to look at incentives, right? The incentive for the Principal Investigator is to keep a postdoc who now has 4,5,6 7 years of additional training, you know, so has a huge commitment at this point into your project. And you’re able to have that person in your lab without having to compensate them as you would normally compensate someone who has had that many years of education and additional training.

So the incentives for the Principal Investigator, who is the person usually at the end of the day who is paying the salary, is to keep the person as long as possible.

Now I don’t want to imply that everyone thinks that way. There are many, many fine Principal Investigators, advisors, mentors, who take very seriously the career progression of the postdocs who work for them.

But we would not be in the challenging position we’re currently in, if all of them were in that category.

Julie Gould: 3:29

What Shirley is saying is that institutions are giving postdocs other names after they are no longer allowed to be a postdoc.

Now, "allowed to be" is a bit of a tricky one there. In the US, the National Postdoctoral Association recommends that you could only be a postdoc for five years.

This is really well intentioned. The idea is that after five years, you are no longer a trainee postdoc, you are a independent research scientist, and you can become an employee with benefits at the institution. But this isn’t always the reality of the situation.

Shirley Tilghman 4:02

There may be very many postdocs who are maybe getting a new title, but they're not getting those other benefits like an increased salary and benefits that were intended by this policy.

Julie Gould: 4:16

Now, the fact that there are so many names for postdocs means that it’s also difficult to tell whether you are a trainee or an employee. Gary McDowell, who is a a consultant at Light Toller LLC, which is a consultancy that works to provide expertise for early career researchers and helps them affect change, thinks that you’re basically what the institution needs you to be.

Gary McDowell 4:38

There's a lot of finagling going on, to try to convince people that they are one or the other ,depending on who it suits.

So people will argue that postdocs are trainees because postdocs are paid off training grants, for example, and one of the things you find there is that universities will say: Well, these people are not our staff. They get funded by someone else. Their salary is paid by someone else. So they are trainees. They are not staff.

And of course, this often means that postdocs who get competitive fellowships end up losing things like childcare and healthcare benefits, which go along with being staff in the US.

And so of course, on a research grant, they are there as the staff, they are staffing the project, they are doing the work, but a research grant has new requirements that somebody be trained, that they get training, that they get professional development, the job is to carry out the work.

So there is somewhat more of a legal argument when they’re on a fellowship. You know, again, this idea that they're on a training mechanism, you can see, okay, they are a trainee, but most postdocs in the US are paid off (certainly NIH funded ones) are paid from research project grants. The split is about 85% of NIH postdocs are paid from research project grants. 15% are on things like F awards, T awards, the training grants. And again, these can only go to certain citizens who are about a third of the postdoc workforce in biomedicine Whichever way you turn, the postdoc is disadvantaged compared to the interest of the university, It’s a trainee when it suits the university and they are staff when it suits them too.

Julie Gould 6:14

Clearly, the situation is a little bit confusing. Now when I don't understand something fully, I like to turn to metaphor.

Jessica Esquival 6:20

A postdoc is a scientist with training wheels. It is a space where we can fumble, really start to flex our muscles in building out, you know, innovative experiments or subsystems, learn skills that we didn't necessarily get to beef up while we were in graduate school.

And it really is just a place to make you well rounded. So, when you do go into either industry or academia, you are confident in your abilities to build out an experiment or to build out a lab or mini collaboration within your institution.

Julie Gould 7:08

That's what Jessica Esquival, a postdoc at Fermilab, thinks a postdoc is.

It reminds me of my eldest daughter actually, who, when I started teaching her to ride a bicycle, did not want to have stabilisers. She flat out refused. She wanted them off. She just wanted to go, to try.

She knew she could do it. Well, we gave it a go. We took off the stabilisers, and it didn't end well. She was only three, she was still very little.

But what we did, we put them back on, and we gave her some time to do some training.

And this is exactly what Jessica means what the postdoc is. It is a time for training. But it is training for what, exactly?

Some people like Bill Mahoney, an associate dean for graduate students and postdocs at the University of Washington, believe that the postdoc should only be used for one purpose.

Bill Mahoney 7:53

The only thing that you absolutely need a postdoc for is to go on to a tenure track faculty position, meaning that if you don't have that in your in your resumé, you won't get a tenure track faculty position.

But at least in the US, and numbers will vary depending on who does a survey, only about 20% of PhD holders go on to a tenure track faculty position.

And again, that number will be a little bit different depending on what your field is. But broadly it's 20%, which means that the faculty tenure track job is not the majority career outcome of a PhD.

And so if students think about where they want to go while they're still completing their PhD, and they say, you know, I absolutely do not want to be a faculty member, then they don't need a postdoc in their future.

They could still pursue a postdoc fellowship with the goal of sort of getting more independence or learning a separate skillset that they weren't able to develop as a graduate student, with an eye towards, you know, in a two-to-three year window, jumping to a career in industry or public policy or outreach and education. But they are definitely valuable.

But they are only required for that one small subset of people.

Julie Gould 9:02

Now there are those who use the postdoc very intentionally, like Bill Mahoney suggests, to train to move into an industry position like Pearl Ryder, who is currently on her second postdoc at the Broad Institute in the US.

Pearl Ryder 9:16

In both of the postdocs that I have had, it has been explicitly a training position. So for my current position, we develop a training plan for each postdoc. And it's made explicit because essentially, no postdocs don't get paid the same salary as research scientists.

And so part of taking that pay cut is in return getting training for it. And they have in my postdoc position now, it's been really clear that it's a goal that we have a set amount of time, roughly 25% to 30%, to develop skiills and learn as part of the postdoc itself. And I think another component of this is that the work itself is very much training, and that as we're working on these projects the skills that we learn, no doubt, through the mentorship of the people around us, the team that surrounds us, very much is going to contribute to my future career.

Julie Gould 10:25

The National Postdoctoral Association in the United States is pushing for postdocs to be more rounded individuals, to be trained to take on a career of their choice, says Barabra Natalizio, co chair of the board of directors for the National Postdoctoral Association.

Barabra Natalizio 10:40

At the National Postdoctoral Association, we define a postdoctoral scholar as an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.

Julie Gould 11:00

The key words here are temporary period, says Keith McCauley, the Assistant Dean for postdoctoral affairs at NYU Grossman School of Medicine,

Keith McCauley 11:10

A postdoc is the only career step defined by a time rather than a proper job description,. It should be approached as a time of growth and building your abilities, learning more about what what you want to do for the rest of your career, and why.

And building a network to gain those opportunities. So that when opportunities come, you're ready to take them.

It's not a rest period, it's not a holding place. It's not a pause in your career. And it's not the end either.

It's the very beginning. One of the things that excites me most is that difficult and overwhelming and frustrating as it can be to be a postdoc, I know that five years after you leave, you are going to be doing great things that that you can't even envision now.

Not to be too scientific, it's a larval stage. I was thinking of a grub. You are not going to be a postdoc forever.

Julie Gould 12:20

If you have to grow. It's, um, it's a time of growth and change. There's one more metaphor I'd like to share with you today about what a postdoc is.

And it comes from Shirley Tilghman, who coined this metaphor about 20 years ago, and feels that it is even more apt today.

Shirley Tilghman 12:37

Oh, postdocs were the metaphorical equivalent of, passengers in an aeroplane who were circling LaaGuardia Airport, which at the time and probably still to this day is one of the worst airports in America.

Passengers were always finding themselves flying over LaGuardia, and over and over and over round in circles, because it was such a mismanaged airport.

And as I thought about what postdocs were experiencing, they were experiencing essentially the same phenomenon, which is that they were longer and longer and longer in postdoctoral positions waiting for their turn to finally have a chance to land a job.

Julie Gould 13:23

So over the coming few weeks, I will be exploring some of the challenges that postdocs might be having as they are circling over LaGuardia Airport to try and land that coveted position, wherever it might be.

And of course, I will be sharing advice from experts and postdocs on how to navigate this time of growth and change.

In the second episode of this series, I will be looking at what postdocs are like from around the world. So we will hear from Ruyki Hyodo again, as well as from an ex-postdoc in Austria, a journalist who writes about postdocs in India, and a researcher on postdocs in Africa, because postdocs are not the same everywhere.

Now, don't forget, you can always find out more about what the Nature Careers team is up to on Facebook and on Twitter.

And there's of course the website

Thanks for listening.

Sponsor message 14:29

This six-part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland.

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day.

Nature Careers


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