Defining the Postdoctoral Position

Postdocs have sometimes been called the “invisible university.” With the rapid growth and importance of the postdoctoral population, some institutions are attempting formal definitions using some or all of these criteria:1

  • The appointee has received a PhD or doctorate equivalent.2

  • The appointment is viewed as an apprenticeship—a training or transitional period preparatory to a long-term academic, industrial, governmental, or other full-time research career.

  • The appointment involves full-time research or scholarship.3

  • The appointment is temporary.

  • The appointee is expected to publish (and receive credit for) the results of research or other activities performed during the period of the appointment.


This definition draws on criteria suggested by the American Association of Universities (AAU, Committee on Postdoctoral Education, Report and Recommendations, Washington, DC, March 31, 1998) and by Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (presented by Roger Chalkey at COSEPUP's December 1999 workshop on the postdoctoral experience).


E.g., the MD, DDS, DVM, or other professional degrees in science and engineering.


However, in some disciplines, such as mathematics, the postdoctoral experience commonly includes a major teaching element. Also, some postdoctoral experiences, such as the National Academies' and AAAS Fellowships, introduce the postdoc to the field of public policy.

Practice Description

in the field of the postdoc's interest. Before signing on, the postdoc should gather information that is helpful in evaluating the opportunity: What does the postdoc expect from the experience? What does the adviser expect? (See Box, Questions to Ask in Choosing an Adviser.)

Once the postdoc is accepted, an appointment letter or contract should state the basic contractual framework, especially the stipend level, source of stipend, what benefits will or will not be provided (particularly medical), and for how long the grant that supports the postdoc is to be funded. (See Box, Appointment Letters.)

The postdoc and adviser should meet early and write down at least a rough research roadmap, including the extent to which the two will collaborate: What are the postdoc's obligations to the lab? How much support and oversight can the postdoc expect? How long should this project take? What are realistic goals: publication? Other benchmarks? How long is funding guaranteed, and how likely is renewal? This exercise is easy to neglect or avoid in the rush of new begin-

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