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.”