Four Gravitons and a…Postdoc?

When describing graduate school before, I compared it to an apprenticeship. (I expanded on that analogy more here.) Let’s keep pursuing that analogy. If a graduate student is like an apprentice, then a Postdoctoral Scholar, or Postdoc, is like a journeyman.

In Medieval Europe, once an apprenticeship was completed the apprentice was permitted to work independently, earning a wage for their own labors. However, they still would not have their own shop. Instead, they would work for a master craftsman. Such a person was called a journeyman, after the French work journée, meaning a day’s work.

Similarly, once a graduate student gets their Ph.D., they are able to do scientific research independently. However, most graduate students are not ready to be professors when fresh out of their Ph.D. Instead, they become postdocs, working in an established professor’s group. Like a journeyman, a postdoc is nominally independent, but in practice works under loose supervision from the more mature members of their field.

Another similarity between postdocs and journeymen is their tendency to travel. Historically, a journeyman would spend several years traveling, studying in the workshops of several masters. Similarly, a postdoc will often (especially in today’s interconnected world) travel far from where they began in order to broaden their capabilities.

A postdoctoral job generally lasts two or three years, one for particularly short positions. Most scientists will go through at least one postdoctoral position after achieving their Ph.D. In some fields (theoretical physics in particular), a scientist will have two or three such positions in different places before finding a job as a professor. Postdocs are paid significantly better than grad students, but generally significantly worse than professors. They don’t (typically) teach, but depending on the institution and field they may do some TA work.

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