August 13th, 2010

“Grad student” is short for “graduate student.”  That is pretty obvious, and any chemist who doesn’t know as much has probably inhaled too many solvent vapors.  While it might be a bit more complicated, I am continually amazed by how many people in our field  misunderstand and misuse the term “postdoc” in both conversation and writing.

So, let’s get some things straight:

  • The term “postdoc” is a shortened version of postdoctoral scholar or postdoctoral fellow.  I imagine there are other administrative variations in how institutions identify those engaged in postdoctoral research, but those two titles are pretty standard.

Minor usage note:  In my book, all postdocs are postdoctoral scholars, but only those who hold funded fellowships are postdoctoral fellows.

Usage note:  “Postdoc” is a colloquial term and should not be used in formal documents like CVs.  Instead, “postdoctoral scholar” (or the equivalent) should be used.

Major usage note:  Postdoctoral scholars and postdoctoral fellows should hesitate to use their full titles in everyday conversation.  “Postdoc” is sufficient.  Anyone who introduces himself as a “postdoctoral scholar” is a pompous twerp.


  • Postdoc can be used both as a noun (the position) and a verb (to serve in that position)


  • The grammatical and orthographical rules of English still apply to the term postdoc.  Remember, when conjugating postdoc for its use as a verb, you may have to add a “k”.  For instance:

Guido is a postdoc for Erick C.
Guido postdocs for Erick C.
Guido is postdocking for Erick C.

And after Guido is terminated for not working 100 hours/week…

Guido postdocked for Erick C.


I’m not just making this crap up; the same rules apply to the verbs frolic, mimic, panic, picnic, and traffic

The variations “postdoced”, “postdocing”, and “postdoccing”  are plain wrong, and using them will make people think less of you.  Sadly, even Science Magazine and the National Postdoctoral Association royally screw this up.

I guess English Ph.D.s don’t postdoc.

14 Responses to “Postdoctoralating”

  1. eugene Says:

    yeah, so i’m doing a postdoc and i got one of ’em fellowship thingies as well. all i’ve gots to do is publish another jackass comm and i’m set.

  2. Paul Says:

    Set for what? The job market has been brutal.

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    Darn tootin’. You tell ’em, Paul.

    So someone I know calls it a ‘postdoctorate.’ What say you, Paul?

  4. eugene Says:

    I’m set for another year of postdoc. I figure my boss will keep me around for one more year if I get them a jackass. I’m in no hurry to leave. I’m not working too much and I love the lifestyle here. And the weather. Afterwards… I guess I should start applying for that assistant editor position with andjewandte that they are advertising. They said they need someone big on the English and the chems knowledge. If I’m staying here, I’m also thinking of doing tutoring on the side and maybe some illegal physical labor (it’s fun and I haven’t done that for a while; it gets you in shape) at the port.

  5. excimer Says:

    For the sake of the English Language I have learned (and abused) all my life, I modestly propose the following:

    Replace “postdoc” with “scientist.” Why, you ask? Well, look at doctors- a “doctor’s” not a “doctor” without an MD, so why call anyone a “scientist” without a science PhD? (And we all know that doctors are just people who couldn’t cut it in science anyway.) And if we’re gonna call a spade a spade, let’s start calling undergrads and postbac researchers “indentured servants,” grad students “slaves,” and professors “professors.” (Cause they ain’t scientists anymore, the lot of them.)

    That way, when I’m done with my PhD I can tell people I’m getting the hell out of here and gonna go science it up elsewhere. Cause I’ll be a scientist. Sciencing stuff.

  6. Paul Says:

    If we’re going to start doing that, we’re going to have to also stop the practice of calling all professors “advisors”. Back in the day, I get the impression that grad students got to navigate their interests and experimental work with a little more independence, and advisors provided advice. Today–while it varies from lab to lab–it seems standard operating procedure is for advisors to give orders.

  7. Paul Says:

    Also, I am not a fan of referring to a postdoc as a “postdoctorate”.

    If you want to look at the word as a noun: I associate “doctorate” with a doctoral degree of some kind (PhD, MD, JD, etc.) Thus:

    “I completed my doctorate at Harvard.” or “For my doctorate, I studied boogers.”

    There is no analogous degree for a postdoc, so I don’t think saying “postdoctorate” works.

    If you want to look at the word as an adjective (e.g., “my postdoctorate work”)…there is an analogy with “graduate” (i.e., “graduate work”), but I think the preferred adjective has to be “postdoctoral”.

    All that said, I think one can mount a weak argument in favor of “postdoctorate”. For instance, we refer to college students as “undergradate students” or “undergrads”, so why not refer to postdocs as “postdoctorate students” or “postdoctorates”? Where this fails is: (i) “postdoctoral” is still the preferred adjective, and (ii) you’d never call a group of people working on PhDs “graduates”, so any attempt to build an analogy is weak.

  8. eugene Says:

    I resent being called a ‘postdoctora(te/l) student’. Ever since the third year of grad school. Especially now that I’m done with it. The way I see it, I got paid to do a job and I was an employee in the eyes of the state (teaching) and eventually in the eyes of my boss (independantly works on research). I mean, why else keep me around for my fourth year? There must have been a benifit there somewhere since students usually just suck up funds. If it was th 60s, I would have been told to finish in 3 years. I mean, I did get an extra two papers and it made me a stronger candidate, but I had more than enough crap already to graduate at that place after 3. What makes me inwardly roll my eyes is some old dude (they are all men if they are that old) in their 60s being introduced at a seminar and during the obligatory listing of awards and honors, the MC mentions ‘Dr. Amazing managed to get his Ph.D in just two and a half years! You must have been really driven Dr. Amazing…’

    Not that I mind that too much, mind. The job market is crap, I had a local girlfriend, and I loved working 30 hour weeks in my fourth year and playing video games for an unhealthy amount of time. I mind more, still being called a student.

  9. Chemjobber Says:

    In China, I believe that the term for postdocs is “after doctorate”. There is a less-used term called “beyond doctorate”, which I find far more appealing.

  10. Wavefunction Says:

    See, one of the things I do is analyze the features of small molecules docked to protein binding sites; in technical terms, I “postdock”. So in my case, using “postdock” would be confusing since after I leave my current position I will have to say “I postdocked before I postdocked.

    My bigger concern is the painful fact that laypeople at large have no idea what a postdoc (unlike a grad student) is. Before, it sounded cool to say that I am doing a PhD. and people understood and appreciated and nodded vigorously, but now I almost always get blank and disinterested looks when I say I am a postdoc.

    How to make the word “postdoc” a part of our everyday vocabulary- that, gentlemen, is the cardinal question of our time.

  11. Paul Says:

    @Wavefunction: Yeah, when you search for “postdocking”, most of the hits are for binding studies. I think that a hyphen should be used when binding is the subject to distinguish the word from its use to refer to postdoctoral studies. For instance:

    I found two post-docking roles for molecule X.
    I discovered these roles while postdocking at Scripps.

    There are lots of instances in English where a hyphen is inserted after a prefix to clarify meaning. For instance:

    The coach resigned from the team.
    The coach re-signed with the team.

    All of that said, I don’t know whether “post-docking” is a great choice of words. I’d favor detaches/is released/etc.

  12. baoilleach Says:

    I agree with the distinction between the terms “scholar” and “fellow”, but I would use the term “researcher” instead of “scholar”. To me, “scholar” implies a scholarship (=fellowship).

  13. Matt Says:

    I think that we need to add postdockery to the lexicon. Postdockery (n) definition: The futile attempt to get an independent job by working for a hot shot chemist with lots of money. This futility can lead to strange and erratic behavior, which is also generally accepted as a subset in the group of actions defined as postdockery.

  14. Angewandte Says:

    Recent retraction of a mesylate coupling reaction in water from Plenio’s group in Germany.

    “The retraction has been agreed because several 1H and 13C NMR spectroscopic data listed in the
    manuscript are incorrect, and the original mass spectra cannot be located. Attempts to repeat the synthesis of several representative products under the conditions reported in this manuscript have failed.”

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