PhD, postdoc and PI are termsÂ that have two things in common: 1) most people have little to no idea what they mean and 2) they are all names for jobs onÂ the academic career ladder. Okay, and 3) they all start with a ‘p’.
The first step: doing a PhD
I am currently at the first step of the career ladder in academia: doing a PhD. Apart from some shorter PhDs in the medical field, most PhDs take (at least) four years. As discussed in several other articlesÂ on this website, doing a PhD is mostly about doing research. Apart from doing research, the tasks of a PhD candidate generally involve some teaching and student supervision tasks. Those latter things do not contribute to the final evaluation of the PhD candidate, though. AÂ PhD project is judged on the PhD thesis that is written in the end. This thesis is a book containing an introductory chapter, two to many research chapters, a discussion and a summary for non-scientists. While it is not strictly required, it is better for future career possibilities when at least some of the chapters of the thesis have been published in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal before handing in the thesis. After approval of theÂ thesis by a committee, it has to be successfully defended in front of a group of scientists before the doctor degree is awarded.
The new doctor can now move on to the next step in the academic career ladder: doing a postdoc. A postdoc – short for postdoctoral researcher – is also a temporary position, which generally last two toÂ three years, there are also people doing much longer postdocs. The main responsibility of a postdoc is still doing research. However, more responsibilities can be required. Postdocs might partly supervise PhD students or give lectures, for example. While postdoctoral research can be in the same research field asÂ the PhD was performed in, this is not necessarily the case. In general, people at least go to a different lab, and often even to a different country.
Moving towards a permanent position
After aboutÂ two postdoc postitions, the next step isÂ a tenure track position. A tenure track is a job for four toÂ five yearsÂ and oftenÂ comes with money to payÂ a PhD. At Dutch universities, tenure trackers are generally placed in an existing lab. This is in contrast to the situation in the US and at Dutch research institutes like the NIOO and the Hubrecht, where people with a tenure track position almost always start a new lab. In the five years of the contract, the Â person needs to prove that he / she is ‘worthy’ of a permanent position. In practice, this comes down to publishing enough papers in important enough journals. If these requirements are met, the person will get a permanent position as ‘principal investigator’, or ‘PI’. At research institutes like the NIOO and the Hubrecht, principal investigators are often not connected to a university and thus notÂ Professors. At universities, principal investigators are generally either assistant, associate orÂ full Professors.
Apart from the PhD candidates, Postdocs and principal investigators, most labs in the beta-sciences also have technicians. Technician positions are generally permanent positions, thus ensuring continuity in a lab where most people leave again after a few years. Technicians are part of the support staff: they help out with experimental work and make sure that everything works smoothly by ordering supplies, keeping track of stocks, arranging lab cleanings, etc. From my experience in different labs I learnedÂ thatÂ good technicians are vital for good research.
Advancing on the ladder
As already mentioned in several of the interviews on this site, permanent positions are hard to come by in academia. The following graph, published in one of the major journals, illustrates this well.
Even when someone reaches the highest level of the career ladder, that of principal investigator, that does not mean that he / she can relax and focus on research from then on. In fact, people in those positions in the beta sciences, generally do not carry out research anymore at all. Instead, they spend their time managing the lab, supervising PhD candidates and postdocs and applying for money. Money, more specifically research funding and grant application, is worthy of a post itself, though, so I will go into that in a later post.
FigureÂ and supporting legend from SchillebeeckxÂ et al. (2017) The missing piece to changing the university culture, Nature BiotechnologyÂ 31: 938â€“941.Â Reprinted by permission fromÂ Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature biotechnology, copyrightÂ 2017.