Science & Research

Focusing on research, postdocs create niche community

By
Senior Staff Writer

Navigating the space between student and professor, the University’s 250 postdocs are an integral, but often over-looked, group of researchers on campus. 

While graduate students and faculty members split their time between other commitments – taking courses, teaching and sitting on committees ­- postdocs “have the luxury of focusing on research,” said Susan Rottenberg, postdoctoral program and data manager for the Division of Biology and Medicine.

Postdoc appointments usually last between one and three years. During that time, fellows can enhance research profiles and learn skills, satisfying their academic curiosity and becoming more attractive candidates for jobs, said Elizabeth Harrington, associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies in BioMed.

“It’s pretty rare to have so few responsibilities in academia,” said Amber Musser, one of three postdocs funded through the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women.

Most University postdocs work in the sciences and are funded through external grants. But departments and centers, like the Pembroke Center and the Cogut Center for the Humanities, also award fellowships. Humanities postdocs may have some teaching requirements, but these are usually fewer than those of professors.

“It’s an amazing thing for candidates who have finished their dissertations to actually have a bit of breathing space to turn that dissertation research into something a little more satisfactory,” said Timothy Bewes, a professor of English who was a Pembroke Center postdoctoral fellow from 2003 to 2004.

 

Pressure to publish

Postdoctoral fellows across disciplines said the opportunity to devote a year or two to research is rewarding, but the pressure of completing as much work as possible can be intense.

“It is a lot of pressure because you aren’t on the tenure track and so you don’t know where you are going to go next,” said Madhumita Lahiri, a postdoctoral fellow in the English department who is funded through a Mellon Fellowship from the Cogut Center. “And so if you don’t have anything to show for your time as a postdoc, you are going to be in trouble.” 

Adam Kiefer, another postdoc in the CLPS department, estimated working around 60 hours a week. Musser and her Pembroke Center colleague Meredith Bak estimated working 50 to 60 hours per week, but said where and when they research is flexible.

“You really can do whatever you want,” Musser said. “You could do nothing and that would be bad for you, but there’s no one checking up on you.”

Kiefer said he keeps his lab mentor, Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences William Warren, “up to speed” with his research, but “as long as your work is getting done, he’s not too concerned with where you are.”

“When you have some deadlines for papers, you can’t even count how many hours you work, because you can spend day and night working,” said Francesco Paterna, a postdoc in the School of Engineering.  

Lahiri said she works over 50 hours a week but added, “the boundary between work and pleasure is extremely blurred.”

  

Social life

Socially, being a postdoc can be “very awkward,” Kiefer said. “In the lab setting, everyone is viewed as equal, but outside, in the social context, it can be very different.”

Musser said being a postdoc “is a nice way to get to know a community of scholars” with similar interests, but like Kiefer, she said occupying the space between grad students and professors “is tricky.” Though she interacts with faculty members, they don’t “hang out,” she said, adding that she mostly socializes with other postdocs.

Within the postdoc community, experiences can vary, Rottenberg said, citing the annual “Postdoctoberfest” event. Some postdocs came early in the evening with spouses and children, she said, while others arrived in the last half hour with graduate students from their labs. 

Many people do not want to pursue postdoc positions because they do not want to move temporarily, Lahiri said. “If you have a family or have kids, it’s difficult,” she said. Moher, for instance, lives in Boston with his wife and commutes to Providence every day. 

 

Looking to the future

Given the temporary nature of the position, most postdocs seek more permanent jobs soon after their fellowships begin.

“I look at this as an investment of my time,” Kiefer said of his postdoc position. “You can really take the time to mature intellectually and see where you envision your career going.” The extra time to do research also allows one to “put together a coherent research plan that you can then sell,” he said.

Kiefer said that for his discipline, it is necessary to have postdoctoral fellowships to get a job in the current economy .  

In the humanities, having a postdoc is “not essential, but it changes your research profile significantly,” Lahiri said.

 Having a postdoc “is a real affirmation of their work so far,” Bewes said. “It gives potential employers a sense that your research is already attracting attention.”

 While Kiefer said he views his fellowship as a “launching pad,” Moher said he is enjoying  focusing on his research and is in “no rush to have a professor job.”

    

Benefits for Brown

Harrington said the University’s science departments receive immediate, tangible benefits from having postdocs. “They’re the real work force in obtaining the data for their mentors. Without the postdocs and without the graduate students, the mentors would not be as competitive,” she said.

But since humanities postdocs primarily do their own research, the immediate gains are less clear. It can also be hard for postdocs to get too involved in the campus community, Lahiri said. “You have people who can contribute a lot but who also can’t stay,” she said, adding, “I’ve had students ask about working with me and I’m not going to be here.”

“It’s more an investment in the future rather than a super tangible gain in the present,” Musser said. “Hopefully we do good work, and we go out in the world and they can say, ‘They’re Pembroke Center people.'”