What is a postdoc?

By Tiffany M. Montgomery | 11/29/2016

The author was sure she did not want one.


Now that I am a postdoctoral fellow, I am asked, “What is a postdoc?” almost as much as I used to be asked, “What do you do with a PhD in nursing?” The mysterious postdoctoral fellowship isn’t well understood by many people outside of academia or research. Even for those in research, there is no one model. Just like doctoral programs, every postdoctoral fellowship is not created equal. 
In a general sense, a postdoctoral fellowship—often referred to as a postdoc—is a program that allows those with doctoral degrees to gain additional experience in mentored research before beginning teaching or research careers. The fellowship is typically completed in a period of one to two years. During this time, postdocs—the term is also used to identify those in a postdoctoral fellowship—are given protected time to work on research projects, publish manuscripts, and strengthen their résumés with research experience. It is an opportunity for novice researchers to gain additional experience before they are hired into teaching or research positions and left to their own devices.
Gainful employment
A postdoc is essentially a job. Postdocs are paid, typically from a training grant, to conduct research, and the grants are usually customized to meet the needs of the people in the fellowship. Each postdoc works on his or her research and reports back to the other fellows regularly. Sometimes, they are also required to take additional research courses or other classes that increase their knowledge in a specific research area. Often, these courses are audited or taken for no credit. However, it is becoming more common for postdocs to matriculate as graduate students and earn a master’s degree at the end of their fellowship.
When I first entered my PhD program and learned more about postdoctoral fellowships, I was sure I did not want one. No way was I going to graduate with a PhD only to go back to school! I knew I wanted to teach and thought I would apply for assistant professor jobs during my last year in school. However, during my second year in my PhD program, I attended the annual Summer Research Institute sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and loved it! I knew then I wanted to continue learning about and conducting research, while being mentored by amazing researchers.
I originally thought I would apply for a traditional postdoc in the Penn School of Nursing, but in my next to last year as a PhD student, I learned of a new postdoc called the National Clinician Scholars Program. This postdoc is an iteration of the widely successful physician-only Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program. I loved that NCSP supported physician-nurse collaboration. I loved that the fellowship combines clinical practice, research knowledge, and health policy in a way that allows fellows to seek hybrid careers in direct patient care, academia, and government. I also loved the idea of going through my postdoc as part of a cohort, instead of just working on my individual research, alone in my apartment. 
First nurse in first NCSP cohort
As fate would have it, I was the first nurse accepted into the first NCSP cohort at Penn. Although I am a proud nurse, my postdoc is housed in and ultimately run by UPenn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Because this is my first research experience working with physician colleagues, it took me a while to get used to the environment. I still find it odd to call physicians by their first names, but it is quickly becoming my new normal. Whether nurses or physicians, as postdocs we are all on the same playing field. We are here to gain more research experience, and we are committed to public service. We are learning from one other and helping each other grow, both inside and outside the classroom. To participate in this fellowship, I had to leave a life of comfort and move 2,300 miles across the United States. I don’t regret it one bit.
My goal is to use the next two years to continue building my research portfolio. I also plan to become more involved in health policy again. I really enjoyed the work I previously did with the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. (See my blog post “Maternal-child health nursing in Indonesia” for a glimpse into my time as an international frontline health worker advocate.) Involvement in advocacy and helping to shape policy is not only necessary, I thoroughly enjoy it. 
Finally, I want to use the time in my postdoc to narrow down a potential career. While teaching will always be my first love, it’s been nice to think about working in an area that I didn’t previously consider. Whatever the case, you-all will be along for the ride. I’m excited to see where the next two years takes us!
Tiffany M. Montgomery, PhD, RNC-OB, C-EFM, a women’s health nurse since 2005, initially worked as a labor and delivery nurse before broadening her focus to obstetrics and gynecology. In June 2016, she moved east to pursue postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. She is originally from Long Beach, California, USA.

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