Communicating with the Postdoc

Susan has spent nearly two years exploring the research problem she chose before beginning her postdoc. She has one more year before expiration of the grant that supports her work. She has gained a thorough understanding of her problem, but the facts she has gathered do not support the working hypothesis of the lab. With time growing short, she is reluctant to admit her uncertainty to her adviser.

Comment: An alert adviser would be aware of Susan's findings and initiate discussions with her, inviting her to a strategy session, The adviser has already learned, probably through hard personal experience, that research seldom follows a straight line. Good communication and mutual trust can allow the adviser to undertake an honest appraisal of both Susan's work and the other work in the lab in order to decide whether or not the working hypothesis requires modification.

Best Practice Scenario

gain from the training, energy, and enthusiasm of the postdoc, who makes it possible for the adviser's research program to advance. Many postdocs arrive in their new positions as accomplished researchers; attentive advisers have already ensured (to the degree possible) that the interests of the postdoctoral candidate fit well with their own and those of the research group. When the fit is good, it is common for advisers to count on their postdocs to bring the latest skills and knowledge to the lab. Advisers who are good mentors can benefit by attracting the best postdocs on the basis of their reputation as mentors.

The adviser also benefits in less tangible ways. Simply put, it is personally and professionally gratifying to teach others what one has learned and to help them advance toward fulfilling careers.

Benefits for the postdoc.

From the postdoc's point of view, advisers can contribute to a varied learning experience that comprises many kinds of skills in addition to technical ones: developing a plan of research, managing time, supervising students and technicians, overall lab management, deciding when and where to publish, creating a network of professional contacts, acquiring “career” skills (such as communication and teamwork), understanding ethical and proprietary issues, and, eventually, finding a regular job.

In a broader sense, the adviser can contribute perspectives that can be gained only from professional experience: how to avoid investigative dead ends; how to build a research project that will contribute to the postdoc's career, the adviser's program, and the research enterprise as a whole; and how to know when a project is near completion. All these contributions, like those of the postdoc, are most rewarding for both parties when the activities of postdoc and adviser are complementary.

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