Adding New Research Tools

After completing his PhD in computational mathematics, Steven was admitted to a prestigious new program in bioinformatics at a university. He had never formally studied the life sciences, but he was assured that his contribution would be welcome because of his strength in mathematics. After six months in his new position, however, he was frustrated by his inability to follow the reasoning of his biological colleagues. His adviser sensed Steven's frustration and suggested a one-semester immersion in selected biology courses. After some hesitation, because of fear of harming his standing with the group, Steven accepted the advice, and later rejoined the group with renewed confidence.

Comment: Much exciting research takes place at the intersections of disciplines, but interdisciplinary work places heavy demands on researchers on both “sides” of an intersection. More than superficial knowledge of the complementary field may be required for productive collaboration. A flexible adviser may find that encouraging additional study for certain postdocs can advance both the postdoc's work and the adviser 's program.

Best Practice Scenario


The adviser's overall responsibility is to help advance the postdoc's scientific abilities and professional career. The adviser who regards a postdoc as a colleague-in-the-making will gain in productivity and rise in the estimation of other researchers.

First steps.

The first task is to deliberate carefully before inviting a postdoc to join a program. What is this person's potential for making important contributions to research, both as a scholar and as a member of the lab or research team? How well might his or her particular skills fit strategically within the organization? Although these questions can seldom be answered with certainty, the adviser who seeks references and a face-to-face meeting has a better chance of making a match that benefits both the program and the postdoc.

At the beginning of an appointment, most postdocs benefit from trying to develop a “training plan” that is adapted to the activities of the adviser or laboratory. The attempt may or may not succeed at the outset, but it serves the purposes of stimulating early communication, teaching the importance of thinking strategically, and moving the postdoc forward. Laying out research objectives should be a mutual responsibility until the postdoc is ready to conceive, plan, and execute his or her own research project.

Selecting a research problem.

The adviser can help frame a good problem in several ways. Most important, the postdoc must care deeply about it—and this

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