What do postdocs do on large research projects?

This is a commonly asked question, but the answer is not straightforward.

When universities obtain funding for research projects, one of the first tasks is to appoint researchers to carry out essential work and achieve the proposed aims. Mostly, these researchers have recently finished their PhDs on a topic related to the research project, and known as post docs. Projects that are several years long will have several diverse working areas, but will be bound together by a centralised theme, therefore researchers, who are likely unknown to each other before the project, must collaborate with each other and principle investigators to produce high quality outputs e.g. peer-reviewed papers, book chapters and conference talks, within a given time period.

All images (C) Jorge Cham


If PhD students choose to pursue an academic career a post doc research position is now essential if the Holy Grail of a permanent job in a university or research institute is what you want. Not surprisingly, competition to obtain a post doc is fierce with highly educated and driven individuals competing for contracts that can last from a few months to a few years and does not guarantee a job.

There are many articles indicating how tough the postdoc system is (for example), but few discussing collaborations between postdocs on large research projects, or better still, giving information on how these projects are initiated and overcoming the associated challenges. This is something we discussed when we, post docs on a large project, all met for the first time.

Within the NERC 4 year funded Hydroscape project there are 10 post doctorate researchers, of equal mixed gender. We are all from different countries, work in 5 different institutes and are working on the project for varying lengths of time (some a few hours a week, others full time over four years). Three of us were recruited externally and had no previous connections with the grant holding institutions, some were written into the research grant and others contribute as part of their job (allocated time scales).

We’re starting to put some context into our everyday working life. The diversity of people we work with and their skills reflects much of what we do on a daily basis. So after a quick discussion here’s some of the things a postdoc does on a daily basis:

Database management, website maintenance, social media (ahem, for work purposes), statistics, modelling and analysis, lab work, teaching (seminars, field courses & lectures), fieldwork (e.g. coring, water chemistry, bird counts, beetle surveys, plant identification), writing research grants, balancing project finance, collating geographic information, computer programming & coding, writing papers, literature reviews, experimental planning and, last but not least, thinking about the future (what needs starting now, what will I do when this post doc finishes?).

There’s quite a lot of tasks going on there, but what is guaranteed for any post doc is a huge passion for their study areas. It is the variability and flexibility of our jobs that we love the most. Although this can often also be the hardest part, especially when you have to sit up till the early hours on a weekend waiting for experiments to finish, or trying to maintain concentration across several co-running research projects. Balancing these demands, whilst efficiently working with each other, is the challenge we have been set. We’ll let you know how this is going after out next meeting in April.

The Hydroscape postdocs; left to right, Ambroise Baker (UCL), Kiran Dhanjal-Adams (CEH), Simon Turner (UCL), Tara Thrupp (NHM), Paolo Ruggeri (NHM), Imke Grefe (Lancaster), Fillip Kral (CEH), Kathryn Ross (BTO), Alan Law (Stirling) and Zarah Pattison (Stirling).



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