Monday, February 20, 2017

A myriad of feelings

Also in this week's C&EN, a letter to the editor:
It is sad to see the words “Graduate & Postdoctoral Student Chemistry Research” in the title of a symposium to be held at the next ACS meeting. And not just any symposium, but a presidential event, no less. C&EN in its coverage goes on to refer explicitly to “postdoctoral students” (C&EN, Feb. 6, page 65). 
Postdocs are scholars, not students. They have completed the longest and most advanced courses of study available in their fields and earned the highest degrees attainable—degrees that qualify them to be professors. Far from being students, postdocs are highly trained scholars who assist faculty in teaching students, guiding projects, and supervising research groups under the leadership of their principal investigators. 
Postdoctoral scholars are frequently used as cheap academic labor and at least one recent study, based on longitudinal data over more than 30 years, has shown that doing a postdoc is injurious to their long-term career earnings (Nat. Biotechnol. 2017, DOI: 10.1038/nbt.3766). To this injury, ACS is now adding the proverbial insult by calling them students. ACS and its president owe an apology to this underappreciated group of our colleagues. 
Andrew J. Lovinger
Arlington, Va.
It would be vaguely interesting to know who wrote those two words; I doubt it was C&EN.* 

I have always preferred "postdoctoral fellow" to "postdoc", but I'm a Title Voluptuary, I suspect. 

*Reminder: I write a column for C&EN, so fair warning, I'm probably biased.


  1. True, postdocs are at the apex of their formal training, but my experience has been that the postdoc stint is not viewed as a "real job" in industry or in many academic institutions. As such, it's understandable that someone might consider postdocs to be students. As long as it's viewed as a temp position, getting riled up over the terminology seems silly. If we're being sticklers for accuracy, why don't we call it the "postdoctoral holding pattern" or a "stopgap fellowship"?

  2. First to Chemjobber; I think to be a postdoctoral "fellow" technically you must be the recipient of a fellowship, and are otherwise a postdoctoral "scholar" or postdoctoral "associate" as it is commonly put. In regards to Andrew J. Lovinger, I would agree "postdoctoral student" is vaguely diminutive phrasing. However, post docs, in many respects, are still learning directly from their supervisors, and therefore are still students of chemistry. If they were discouraged from behaving like students, and were simply regarded as a PhD holder there to assist PIs advance research, then even more so would they fall into the category of cheap labor. Moreover, isn't one of the key purposes of a post doc to receive advanced training and mentorship? I think post docs have thick enough skin to not be too offended by the label of "student".

    1. Re: fellow, fair enough, that's a good point.

    2. "still students of chemistry"

      Yeah, but aren't we all?

    3. Exactly, hence there is no need to flip out about being called one.

  3. It's absolutely not a student. In many cases, post-docs are the ones teaching the profs. They come up with ideas for the research. I was a post-doc in a group that hired me because they wanted to change direction. I brought completely new knowledge to the table and wrote two grants that were both funded. I taught them what I knew so that they could get a new start. Companies hire people as a post-doc so they can pay less and scope them out before making a "permanent" position. A post-doc is not a student and post-doctoral experience should count as work experience, especially when the function of the "real" job is to do scientific research.

    1. Anon 11:34 your situation is uncommon I believe as typically a post-doc can be a means for a person to shift direction or expand to related areas from what was done in grad school and not the reverse where drive a new path as you suggest. Although seeking independent grants is often tied to post-doc it is more often the reputation and capabilities of the PI/Lab that decides funding. Academic post-docs are generally listed in Education sections not under work experience (not "real" job environment?) but classification as a student is inappropriate tag relative to normal definitions (can argue always should be a student because science always teaching new things). I can imagine an industrial post-doc, and even internships, might be closer to work experience and wonder where most people do list those on a CV?

  4. Euphemism: "co-worker" and "team member" (think of a team of horses).

    Which is more accurate? Or maybe ethical or fair?
    "the coworkers of Professor X synthesized....."
    "the doctoral students and post-docs of Professor X synthesized........"