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Question for postdocs

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
February 27, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 9

As a magazine, we pride ourselves on producing high-quality, up-to-the-minute information for our readers. We like to hear from our readers and have always encouraged participation through letters to the editor, as well as comments on the website and via social media.

Every week we spend time going over letters and posts and decide what to highlight. In the previous issue, a letter by Andrew J. Lovinger of Arlington, Va., raises an interesting question that is worth delving into (C&EN, Feb. 20, page 4). This is what the letter says:

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.

The question is: How should we refer to postdocs? In response to Lovinger, I’d say that if we accept his argument, it is not only ACS and its president who owe an apology; the community at large also does.

Referring to postdocs as students is widespread and not exclusive to ACS, to chemistry, or to the U.S. The status of postdocs is not clear in most cases regardless of their area of research or country where they are based. In Australia, for example, they are academic research staff with fixed-term contracts. In parts of Canada, they are registered as students at the university and get some tax benefits.

On the web, terms such as “postdoctoral researcher,” “postdoctoral student,” and “postdoctoral scholar” are used interchangeably, often lumping the postdoc group with graduate students as “graduate and postdoctoral studies.” So what are they?

For the most part, postdocs are employees of a university as research staff. They generally do not take courses, do not receive a degree at the end, and their positions are temporary. As Lovinger says, they conduct research in a group in collaboration with senior academics.

On the other hand, postdoctoral positions are aimed at gaining additional education and experience in research. So they are receiving training. They will learn about writing grant proposals, supervising students and research assistants, and taking on teaching responsibilities, and, by the end of their one- to four-year (or more) commitment, should be approaching the level of productivity and experience of an average newly hired professor.

I agree that the term “scholar” is more appropriate than “student”: A scholar can be a student, but a student—a learner—is not necessarily a scholar, as “scholarship” denotes profound knowledge of a specific subject. For some, the term “scholar” has an academic connotation. Given that postdocs can also have nonuniversity appointments, the most appropriate terminology may be “postgraduate” or “postdoctoral researcher.” We have adapted our house style and edited the final meeting program in our forthcoming March 13 issue to reflect this conclusion.

I’d love to hear what postdoc researchers themselves think. Does the term “student” feel like an insult?

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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