Are they students? No, but they're not quite "real" scientists, either. They're sure in demand--just look at all the ads for them in the classifieds of scientific journals and trade publications. Yet the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health don't really know how many of them there are. And many human resources pros don't even know who they are in their own companies.

These mystery lab workers are postdoctoral research associates, or "postdocs," who cling to an ill-defined rung on the career ladder. The postdoc is an enigma, vital to research but at the same time woefully unrecognized.

"After doing a postdoc, I feel more prepared, but it's still very nerve-wracking," says Peggy Wallace, a third year postdoc in the lab of human geneticist Francis Collins at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor, who just reported finding the gene for neurofibromatosis. Although Wallace...

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