We should retire the term "Postdoc"

10 Jul 2010 // science

Over the last few years, when I describe my job at parties to people who do not live inside the ivory tower, I say that I am doing "short-term contract research". People intuitively understand what that means. The term "postdoc" on the other hand often draws blank stares.

At a recent party, I actually met a fellow postdoc, and when I said that I was doing short-term contract research, that drew a blank stare from his face. After some clarifications, we realized that we were both postdocs.

I don't really like the term postdoc because it hides the ephemeral nature of the position. Perhaps in years gone by, where a postdoc was a reasonably good guarantee up the academic leader, the term had some cachet. But now, it is almost an empty term.

That is why I prefer the description "short-term contract research". This emphasizes the arbitrary nature of employment. Unlike a real position, it is capricious and can be terminated at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, by emphasizing contract, it makes no promise about any further career path. And as for the explicit word "research", well everybody understands what research is, and they naturally assume that I am qualified to do it.

And really that is all that they ought to conclude: that I can do research, and that I am being paid for a little while to do it.