kena

“Post-doc” – the most misunderstood and hurtful title in research

In lecture on October 10, 2012 at 14:26

Men and women hired as scientific researchers soon after their doctoral graduation are often labelled “post-doc” by their peers, their organization, or even themselves. This label is misunderstood by everyone, even researchers themselves, because it has different definitions in different organizations and no clear definition outside of these organizations. It is hurtful because it it does not convey the full quality of what a person actually does and thus does not contribute to their social capital.

Stop using it! Instead, talk about what people actually do.

If you meet someone labeled as “post-doc” and enquire as to their occupation, you will discover that what they do can be described by plain language with high social value. For example, you fill find:

  • teachers, ie. people who work with students to help them acquire knowledge, experience and evaluate their work;
  • team leaders, ie. people who work together with a group of colleagues to guide them towards and help them reach their objectives;
  • analysts, ie. people who study complex problems and decompose them into sub-problems, and create connections with other related fields;
  • philosophers, ie. people who propose new arrangements of ideas and knowledge to discover patterns and hidden connections;
  • architects, ie. people who design complex things using smaller things, and who decompose a complex task into sub-tasks that can be distributed to other people;
  • engineers, ie. people who build concrete solutions to problems, often in cooperation with architects and analysts (if they are not architects and analysts themselves);
  • managers, ie. people who serve a group of other people by answering to their needs (money, office space, education, networking) and protect them from their surrounding organization or the external world (by writing reports to higher management/stakeholders to promote their work and carrying the responsibility for errors);
  • programmers, ie. people who translate ideas by humans into languages that can drive computers;
  • operators, ie. people who know how to use and exploit complex machinery or laboratory equipment to carry out tasks or experiments;
  • administrators, ie. people who track what is going on and can be held accountable for what has happened in the past if anyone asks;
  • academic writers, ie. people who write text to convey scientific ideas, problem d0mains, thought processes and explanations;
  • technical writers, ie. people who write text to convey problem statements, specifications and technical solution descriptions;
  • reviewers, ie. people who examine the work of other people and scrutinize it to check for errors, incompleteness or inaccuracy;
  • communicators, ie. people who talk to people (or exchange e-mails) and ensure that knowledge and information flows from who produces it to whomever it may be useful;
  • etc.

Of course, most people play multiple roles at the same time. This is true of any workplace and of life in general.

—◊♦◊—

One of my best friends was hired one year ago as a “post-doctoral researcher.” When someone asks “what he does” he says that “he is a post-doc.” This week he was “writing a paper with another post-doc.” I find this sad. This is a lost opportunity for a good story. He was actually hired as a programmer. He was quickly discovered by his manager to also be a good analyst, communicator and engineer. Recently, he was invited to contribute as an author to a scientific article and he found out that he was a much better academic and technical writer than his peers. His is a creative type, and probably aspires to be an architect as well. If he was to tell this story, he would be an interesting person that would make his profile attractive in social groups. Instead, his official title makes him boring.

Another friend was also hired one year ago as a “post-doctoral fellow.” Him too says that “he is a post-doc” when asked about his occupation. But the real story is that he was hired as a analyst and architect. His organization expected him to act as a teacher too, but he does not like that job too much. His primary occupation has also exploited his good writing skills. His brilliant skills as a philosopher, programmer and engineer are not as much valued on his workplace than by his peers and friends outside of his organization. I know him to be an excellent and constructive reviewer too, but he does not seem to care about this. His  next job will be also a “post-doc,” but the true story is that he is likely to become a team leader and architect. I like this story too!

The word “post-doc” is also hurtful because it places the emphasis on something irrelevant: the moment in time where the person receives their doctoral degree. In an environment where both people who apply for a doctorate and people who were already granted a doctorate work together, the roles of individuals should be, and are more often than not, based on actual skill and not by degree. It is common for individuals who do not have a doctoral degree to be brilliant teachers, team leaders, managers, technical writers, etc. Many of my non-doctored colleagues and peers have more experience at the roles listed above than some other colleagues who have received a doctorate degree. I also notice that people who are not interested in doctorates whatsoever are usually very able to talk about what they do in clear terms. Why should skilled people who just earned a doctorate be barred from doing the same?

Really, we should not hide people who are skilled at what they do and have clearly defined roles behind an opaque term that hides the wealth of their personal story.

—◊♦◊—

There is another aspect which angers me more.

Some people entertain the myth that the term “post-doctoral researcher” has (or has had in the past) a clearly defined meaning. This myth purports that a “career path” exists (or has existed) for someone willing to work as a university professor: obtain a doctorate degree, work 4 years as a “post-doctoral researcher,” work 4-8 years as an “assistant professor,” then work as an “associate professor” until you find a “professor” position. As a side note I find this explanation dubious, because it assumes that the role of a professor is well-defined to start with, and that all the steps before lead to that position. My experience instead tells me that university professors have all kinds of roles, and the lack of clear role description makes it possible for uninteresting, unskilled people to be hired as professors. But I digress.

Let me focus on the “career path.” Actually, the reality is different. This path has never truly existed, other than as an ideal which never materialized. The reality is that most professors have had very different career paths, where they have been successful at different concrete jobs before: architects, team leaders, managers, engineers, etc. The other reality is that the title “post-doctoral researcher” is conveniently always attached to temporary work contracts, making it easy for organizations to kick you out whenever they want. This is advantageous for organizations because there is a lot of work to do and it is expensive to hire academic staff permanently.

When one realizes this basic reality, another hurtful dimension of the word “post-doc” emerges: by labeling different people with the same term, they become interchangeable from the organization’s perspective. From a sufficiently high management level, there is no more distinction between the “10 post-doctoral researchers of a research group.” For example, the fact that Alice is the only architect in the group, and that Bob and Cecil are the only communicators able to successfully explain Alice’s plans in a way that the remaining 7 engineers, operators and programmers can understand, makes it impossible for a manager in charge of a budget cut to realize that “letting go” of Bob and Cecil implies disrupting the work of all 10 people.

Another example is strategy decision making. Imagine a research group has two candidate projects to invest funds and hire new staff. One project was formulated as needing “3 post-doctoral researchers and 2 doctoral candidates.” The other project was formulated as needing “1 post-doctoral researcher and 3 doctoral candidates.” The group is currently composed of Alice, Bob, Cecil and David; only Alice has a doctorate already and David is not yet applying for one. What would a manager do without more information? It seems like the second project is a better match, assuming David accepts to apply for a doctorate degree. The first project would be “too expensive” as it would require to hire extra staff. But this would be a mistake! Looking at the details, it appears that the first project requires one manager, one team leader, one architect and two programmers. The second project requires a complex combination of a manager and administrator, and three technical writers, because the realization work will be done by a 3rd party company. Already, that second project seems less interesting strategically. Moreover, Alice is a brilliant team leader next to being an architect, and she is interested to put extra hours in her work to get a raise. Bob, next to being a communicator, has proven management skills already. Both Cecil and David are skilled programmers. Can you start to see the point?

As a more concrete example, in my current organization a lot of teaching work is realized by teachers who are primarily employed as “post-doctoral researchers.” Because of their primary title, they do not often advertise their role as a teacher to their manager, their colleagues and otherwise decision-making staff in the organization. Meanwhile, the organization pays some other people with the official title of “teacher” but who actually do not teach (because the post-doctoral researchers do the teaching job). From the organization’s perspective, “all is well” because the teachers get paid for the teaching hours that happen. But what is missed is that the teachers are under-employed and the post-doctoral researchers occupied with something else than scientific research. This is inefficient; it would be more efficient to actually count the researchers with a teaching role as teaching staff directly by giving them this title as they deserve.

As these examples show, using the label “post-doc” indiscriminately reduces organizational transparency and makes high-level management more difficult and less efficient.

This situation is overall unacceptable and must be addressed.

—◊♦◊—

At an individual level, the action plan is simple.

If you are an outsider to an organization which officially employs “post-docs,” insist to know what these people actually do daily. Create demand for transparency, and let it known that you give value to individuals with well-recognized, acknowledged and rewarded roles.

If you are directly interacting with “post-docs,” start by thinking about what these people actually do. Picture in your mind their daily activities, and figure out the proper words for the way they contribute to their organization, their projects, their colleagues, their peers, etc. Give merit to their position based on their accomplishments or the value they contribute (to the world, to their organization, to their peers, to their friends, depending on the position).

Then try to never use “post-doctoral” as a noun any more, and always use it as an adjective next to what the person actually does. And no, “fellow” does not count: it is not sufficient to know someone is a fellow to a research team or a university to determine their role in the organization. For example, my friend above was hired as a “post-doctoral programmer” and is likely to become a “post-doctoral architect.” The other was a “post-doctoral analyst” officially but is really “post-doctoral philosopher and engineer” and is likely to become a “post-doctoral team leader.” (among other roles).

Second, once you have secured the nouns that describe the roles you’re talking about, drop the adjective “post-doctoral” entirely. If you want to insist on the fact that your colleague aspires to be a professor, say “my colleague is currently a team leader and manager for his group, but would like to obtain academic tenure eventually.” If you want to insist on the experience level, use the adjectives “junior,” “seasoned” or “senior.” This is not difficult nor ambiguous, and is clear to “outsiders.”

Then if you eventually obtain a management role in your organization, you can do two things.

First you can insist that using this word is hurtful to the organization as a whole because of reduced visibility into personal involvement and abilities. You can concretely replace the word by the concrete role terms whenever you write reports, talk about your organization’s activities, or otherwise communicate to third parties. This will make your internal structure sharper and create outside interest into the organization.

Then you can also denounce the situations where different titles are given to people who do the same job just to justify a salary difference.

Consider Eleonor and Frank for example. Frank is an “associate professor” while Eleonor is a mere “post-doctoral researcher.” Both are officially in charge of teaching, and leading their team. Frank officially has a larger management reponsibility, but in reality Eleonor has been doing Frank’s management and administration work for two years in explicit agreement with Frank. Everyone knows this, including Eleonor, Frank, their colleagues and their manager. However the contract difference persists, officially because “Eleonor has not yet worked enough years in her current title to earn the advanced title.” How fair is that?

Instead, insist that people get contracted and rewarded based on what they actually do and how they directly contribute to the organization. Seniority should only confer an advantage if it comes with concrete, applied extra experience and skill.

—◊♦◊—

The world of science is fascinating. But it does not exist without people; men and women with wildly varying skills, personalities, roles and personal stories. We should learn to respect the value of this immense diversity, and actively fight any tendency to make it trivial and anonymous.
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