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3 Rights, Opportunities, and Responsibilities of the Postdoc T he fundamental purpose of a postdoctoral experience is to extend and deepen the postdocâs scientific and technical abilities, either in the field of the doctorate or a different field. Because postdoctoral positions seldom require administrative or teaching duties, they provide unique opportunity for research- ers to demonstrate originality, creativity, and productivity that will be primary contributors to their future success in research. In particular, postdocs have the opportunity to produce the lead or single author publications by whose quantity and quality they will be judged as they compete for their next professional posi- tion. Responsibility for the postdoctoral experience is shared among the postdoc, adviser, institution, funding organization, and disciplinary societies. This chapter examines the rights, opportunities, and responsibilities of the postdoc, and the importance of postdoctoral activities in shaping a career. RIGHTS OF A POSTDOC When an adviser and institution accept a postdoc, that postdoc rightfully expects an experience that provides good training, education, and career enhance- ment. The following topics were discussed extensively by postdocs and advisers during COSEPUPâs focus groups and workshop in an attempt to determine âbest practices.â Clear terms of appointment. A postdoc should have a âroadmapâ of expec- tations and goals appropriate to field, sector, and overall career objective. The fundamental requirement is to select an adviser who is an expert and productive 42
RIGHTS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE POSTDOC 43 Defining the Postdoctoral Position Postdocs have sometimes been called the âinvisible university.â With the rapid growth and importance of the postdoctoral population, some institutions are attempting formal definitions using some or all of these criteria:1 â¢ The appointee has received a PhD or doctorate equivalent.2 â¢ The appointment is viewed as an apprenticeshipâa training or transitional period preparatory to a long-term academic, industrial, governmental, or other full- time research career. â¢ The appointment involves full-time research or scholarship.3 â¢ The appointment is temporary. â¢ The appointee is expected to publish (and receive credit for) the results of research or other activities performed during the period of the appointment. 1This definition draws on criteria suggested by the American Association of Universities (AAU, Committee on Postdoctoral Education, Report and Recommendations, Washington, DC, March 31, 1998) and by Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (presented by Roger Chalkey at COSEPUPâs December 1999 workshop on the postdoctoral experience). 2E.g., the MD, DDS, DVM, or other professional degrees in science and engineering. 3However, in some disciplines, such as mathematics, the postdoctoral experience commonly includes a major teaching element. Also, some postdoctoral experiences, such as the National Academiesâ and AAAS Fellowships, introduce the postdoc to the field of public policy. Practice Description in the field of the postdocâs interest. Before signing on, the postdoc should gather information that is helpful in evaluating the opportunity: What does the postdoc expect from the experience? What does the adviser expect? (See Box, Questions to Ask in Choosing an Adviser.) Once the postdoc is accepted, an appointment letter or contract should state the basic contractual framework, especially the stipend level, source of stipend, what benefits will or will not be provided (particularly medical), and for how long the grant that supports the postdoc is to be funded. (See Box, Appointment Letters.) The postdoc and adviser should meet early and write down at least a rough research roadmap, including the extent to which the two will collaborate: What are the postdocâs obligations to the lab? How much support and oversight can the postdoc expect? How long should this project take? What are realistic goals: publication? Other benchmarks? How long is funding guaranteed, and how likely is renewal? This exercise is easy to neglect or avoid in the rush of new begin-
44 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Preparing for a Postdoctoral Position The factors that determine a âgoodâ postdoctoral experience are as various as the personalities involved. But certain key steps deserve careful planning. Choosing a field. Foremost is the selection of the research area. A post- doctoral research project should be more than an extension of thesis research; it should lead to new skills and a broader outlook. The postdoc should understand in advance what portion of the work is likely to be transportable to his or her next position. Finding a postdoctoral position. Most postdocs in our focus groups4 found their positions through personal contactsâadvisers, friends, and contacts from professional meetings. Many simply approached potential advisers directly with their qualifications and objectives. Few postdocs are hired after a simple response to ads in journals and on web sites, but such sources provide valuable tips about which institutions are hiring in which fields. Choosing an adviser. Both experienced postdocs and advisers suggest a thorough investigation before signing on. Some postdocs place paramount impor- tance on the prestige of the principal investigator; others emphasize mentoring ability. A researcher of renown has great power to helpâor hinderâa career; a newer assistant professor may offer more attention, responsibilities, and a sub- stantial role in building up a lab. In either case, it is desirable to: 1) arrange a personal meeting and 2) talk with current and former postdocs who have worked with that investigator or organization. 4Several hundred postdocs, faculty, advisers, administrators, and federal agency staff gen- erously offered their opinions, critiques, and personal experiences at 39 focus groups held around the country. Practice Description nings. But clear terms of appointment are essential to prevent later misunder- standings, and they should be established as early as possible. Higher compensation. Given the value of postdocs to the research enter- prise, one might expect that postdoc salaries would be determined by market forces of supply and demand. The actual situation is somewhat more complex. While some say there is an oversupply of PhDs seeking postdocs, faculty and advisers often perceive difficulty in finding those with the desired skills. Even so, there appears to be little âsalary biddingâ for the most desirable postdocs, and low compensation is the most vexing issue for many postdocs, especially at universities. Low payâthe salary range for most postdocs is from $27,000 to less than $40,000âis an extra hardship for postdocs with families and those who must begin paying back student loans as soon as they lose their student status. At
RIGHTS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE POSTDOC 45 Questions to Ask in Choosing an Adviser The best time for a postdoc to evaluate a potential postdoctoral position is before signing on. It is difficult to adjust the major conditions of an appointment once it is underway. Experienced postdocs and advisers suggest the following questions be asked of (and about) a prospective adviser: 1. What are the adviserâs expectations of the postdoc? 2. Will the adviser or the postdoc determine the research program? 3. How many postdocs has this adviser had? Where did they go afterward? 4. What do current and past lab members think about their experience? 5. Will the adviser have time for mentoring? Or should I seek out other mentors? 6. How many others (grad students, staff, postdocs) now work for this adviser? 7. How many papers are being published? Where? 8. What is the adviserâs policy on travel to meetings? Authorship? Ownership of ideas? 9. Will I have practice in grant writing? Teaching/mentoring? Oral presenta- tions? Review of manuscripts? 10. Can I expect to take part of the project away after the postdoc? 11. How long is financial support guaranteed? On what does renewal depend? 12. Can I count on help in finding a position? 13. Will the adviser have adequate research funds to support the proposed research? Best Practices the other extreme, a few âawardâ-level fellowships at national labs pay more than $80,000 a year. Most salary decisions are made by funding agencies seeking to balance multiple budgetary demands. In 1998, across all fields of science and engineer- ing, the median postdoc salary for recent PhDs was $28,000, half the median salary of recent PhDs in industry and almost one-third less than for PhDs in tenure-track positions.5 Salaries were even lower before the recent 25 percent increase (effective October 1, 1998) of the National Research Service Award (NRSA) stipend by the NIH, which constitutes a de facto standard for much postdoc compensation.6 Responses to the COSEPUP survey (see Box) indicated that most universities follow the NIHâs lead in establishing minimum salaries and yearly increases, with considerable variation, while national facilities tended to have standardized, higher rates than universities, as well as annual increases. 5NSF Issue Brief, December 2, 1998. 6Numerous universities and some other institutions where COSEPUP held focus groups cited the NRSA scale in describing their mechanisms for setting postdoc stipends/salaries.
46 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Appointment Letters By tradition, postdocs have often been invited to work in a researcherâs lab with no more formality than a phone call or a handshake. Institutions are now beginning the good practice of issuing a formal letter of appointment that contains important contractual elements. The following model is offered to faculty by the postdoctoral office of one university: Initial Letter of Appointment Outline â¢ Offer of postdoctoral position, with brief explanation of research project. â¢ Effective date of appointment, amount of stipend, source (and expiration date) of funding, and payroll information. â¢ Length of appointment (e.g., annual, with reappointment contingent on sat- isfactory performance). â¢ Leave policy. â¢ Copy of institutional policies attached with letter. â¢ Health insurance information and requirements and a description of the other benefits provided and (equally important for the postdoc to know) not provided. â¢ Intellectual property policy and agreement (enclosed for signature). â¢ Work eligibility requirements for US citizens and foreign nationals. â¢ Request for proof of doctoral degree (diploma or registrar statement). â¢ Request for candidateâs signature and return of letter by given date. Best Practices About one-third of the respondents said they had no fixed stipend levels because postdocs were paid off grants, because different schools and departments treated them differently, or because stipends were controlled by extramural funding agencies. Mentoring. In return for working on the adviserâs project and with low monetary compensation, the postdoc has the right to expect good mentoring: oversight, feedback, sympathetic consultation, and periodic evaluations. There should be opportunities to present posters and papers and to learn manuscript writing and grant proposal writing. The mentor-trainee relationship can be cru- cial in helping the postdoc understand the context of his or her research and the requirements of a career focused on advanced research. The postdoc shares responsibility for making this relationship work, and should understand the multiple demands on the adviserâs time. Like any personal relationship, the success of mentoring depends on good will and clear communi- cation by both parties.
RIGHTS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE POSTDOC 47 Postdoctoral Stipends Many postdocs, especially in the life sciences, are dissatisfied with the package of compensation and benefits they receive. Stipends vary by a factor of two or more among institutions, some of which have now begun to experiment with more equitable formulas. The NIH, because of its dominance in providing support for postdocs, sets a widely used standard with its National Research Service Award (NRSA) scale, whose stipends begin at $26,256 and peak at $41,268 after seven or more years of experience. The scale is not intended to be a model for others, but it has become a de facto benchmark for many institutions and funding organizations. Amid complaints that the NIH scale is unfairly low for experienced researchers, a number of institutions have designed their own standards. The University of Iowa, for example, decided to set the salaries of postdocs paid from research grants at twice the graduate student stipend, partly on the basis that postdocs spend all their time on research and a student spends half time. This computes to a salary in the mid-to-upper 30s, and is accompanied by full benefits (except retire- ment and vacation accrual, which the university plans to include in the future). The National Institute of Standards and Technology has decided on the stan- dard of the average salary of a land-grant-university assistant professorânow about $50,000âplus $5,500 in travel allowance. Other institutions have adopted different formulas to supplement stipends that are deemed insufficient. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for exam- ple, the physics department brings any postdoc stipend up to a minimum of $32,000 to compensate for the cost of living in the Boston area. The compensation issue has evoked the suggestion that stipends should be increased even if it means reducing the number of postdocs. Officials at the Uni- versity of Notre Dame adopted this strategy for graduate students at the beginning of the 1990s on the premise that âgetting better students was more important than getting more students.â They increased the undergraduate GPA and total general GRE scores of the graduate students accepted. It was not clear that the strategy reduced the number of applicants accepted, between 1992 and 1999. It is clear that postdoc compensation is low relative to the compensation of others with comparable skills and education. Postdocs are also entitled to non- monetary forms of compensation, specifically, to guidance in furthering research and other career skills and in advancing a professional career. For many, these forms of compensation are necessary to a successful postdoctoral experience. Those who do not feel the need for guidance (e.g., people who have been post- docs for five or more years and function essentially independently believe they are already âjunior colleaguesâ of their adviser) often express the greatest displeasure over low stipend levels. (For further discussion of compensation issues, see Levels of Funding in Chapter 6.) Practice Description
48 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Does Your Organization Establish Minimum and/or Maximum Stipend Levels for Postdocs? If âYes,â Please Specify Dollar Values. If âNo,â Why Not? Slightly more than half the organizations answered âyes.â Among universities, minimum levels tended to follow the NIH scale (now $26,256 for the first year); a few were lower. At national laboratories and facilities, most salaries began in the $40,000-50,000 range, with lows between $30,000 and $40,000 and a high of $80,000. Some national labs offered âadd-onâ amounts for âcritical skills,â from $2,000 to $10,000. In industry, stipends beginning between $30,000 and $40,000 were common. For ânoâ responses, institutions listed a range of ambiguities that inhibited the establishment of uniform stipend levels, including the wide variety of job titles and policy differences among departments, schools, or laboratories. Several institu- tions reported that policies were being prepared. COSEPUP Survey Results Multiple mentors. Some advisers who are excellent researchers may have insufficient time or ability to be good mentors. For this reason, several institu- tions encourage and even require postdocs to seek out multiple mentors or âmen- toring committees.â The purpose of such committees is not to alter the authority of the PI, but to provide additional perspective and feedback from experienced colleagues. In a broader sense, postdocs can benefit from a diverse community of mentors (representing a range of skills and experience), ranging from peers in the lab to senior investigators in other fields. Health benefits. Postdocs who are categorized as employees usually have access to insurance and other institutional benefits, such as dental insurance, short-term leave, life insurance, and retirement funds. Problems arise, however, among postdocs who bring their own fellowships, which may or may not include health coverage. This problem is especially troublesome for postdocs with fami- lies. Some institutions are setting an example by requiring and/or providing universal access to health insurance for postdocs. Support in planning a career and finding a job. A postdoc who focuses solely on research may neglect essential steps of career planning. These include acquiring technical and careers skills that will be needed for desired positions, preparing for the next grant or position, publishing results, and building a profes- sional network. Both the adviser and the institution should be sources of assis- tance in all these areas. A survey of former postdocs at the University of California at Berkeley indicates that the âbest source of job adviceâ for postdocs in biochemistry and
RIGHTS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE POSTDOC 49 Is a âHot Labâ the Best Lab? Many graduate students and pre-graduate students assume that a âhot topicâ lab is the best lab for postdoctoral work, but hot researchers may or may not provide good mentoring. An indication of effective mentoring may be found in the published record. One mentor advises looking back 10 to 20 years in a major literature database (e.g., Medline for postdocs on the life sciences) and selecting first authors of excellent papers from the lab of the proposed mentor (in most biomedical labs the mentor is the last author). Then fast-forward to the most recent three years and check for citations from the first list of names, especially as first or last author. If the collective first authors of earlier years are producing first-rate, interesting papers today, their previous training may have played an important part. This method is helpful only for evaluating senior mentors; however, for more junior mentors, the best information may come from current and former lab members. Best Practices mathematics varies by field (Figure 3-1). For example, postdocs in biochemistry said their mentor was the best source of advice (41 percent), but this was the case for only 15 percent of postdocs in mathematics (who tended to rely on their PhD advisers).7 OPPORTUNITIES OF POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE A postdoc is emerging from the world of students to the broader world of professional research. A postdoctoral apprenticeship offers numerous opportuni- ties to make this transition. Independence. In graduate school, it is common (though not universally so) for students to work within the structure of the adviserâs research program. Many, but not all postdocs work toward greater autonomy and self-direction. Especially in universities and smaller labs outside academia, the goal of the postdoctoral experience may be to become an independent researcher capable of every step of professional research: designing research programs, publishing as senior author, finding grant support for research, and supervising others. These postdocs may have the responsibility for a clearly defined program and work under the super- vision of a single adviser. In other kinds of facilities, especially those of industry and government, postdocs may work in teams of dozens or even several hundred 7Nerad, M. and Cerny, J. âPostdoctoral patterns, career advancement, and problems,â Science, 1999, Vol. 285: pp. 1533-5.
50 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Job Ads On-Campus Former Professional Contacts Mathematics Other Faculty Biochemistry Sent Unsolicited PhD Advisor Job Notice in Professional Journal Postdoc Mentor 0 10 20 30 40 50 Percent FIGURE 3-1: Best Source of Job Advice for Postdoctorates: Biochemistry & Mathematics. Source: Science, 1999, Vol. 285, pp. 1518. researchers. The goal here may not be to achieve independence in a literal sense, but to mature into interactive and effective team members. Professional meetings. Most postdocs are aware of the importance of attending professional meetings to network, to present the results of research, and to gain experience in the larger research community. Many postdocs, how- ever, must depend for travel funds on their advisers, whose travel policies vary. Some advisers encourage postdocs to attend meetings; others are reluctant to provide travel funds or allow time for extramural activities. Most postdocs feel the need to attend a minimum of one national meeting a year, preferably two. NIH policy, for example, is to support the travel of its on-campus trainees to one meeting a year, with the opportunity for additional competitive travel awards. Networking. Professional meetings provide excellent opportunities to meet colleagues and build a professional network of students, other postdocs, and senior researchers. Research communities are relatively small, and meeting oneâs peers can have lasting importance in finding collaborators for joint projects and contacts who may lead to rewarding employment. For example, the American Chemical Society estimates that 75-85 percent of its members find their jobs through networking.8 Networking is a process where âmore is better,â because meeting the right person is often a matter of serendipity. 8As discussed in the Disciplinary Society Workshop sponsored by COSEPUP and held at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, January 10, 2000.
RIGHTS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE POSTDOC 51 RESPONSIBILITIES OF A POSTDOC Postdocs have dual responsibilities: They must acquire the experiences they need to advance their careers and contribute to the program of their adviser through research accomplishments and interaction with others. Meeting both objectives is most likely when the adviser and postdoc communicate well and share similar expectations. Career development. Postdocs (with the support of their advisers) must take ownership of their professional development. They need to learn not only the use of new research tools, but also ways to access special resources (such as national and international labs, centers, and multi-user facilities) and to keep up with the exploding streams of scientific communication. The chances for a satisfying career can be increased through regular atten- dance at seminars, âgetting knownâ through publications and meeting attendance, course work related to the area of research, integrating research into teaching experiences, developing possible collaborations, and developing skills in grant writing, reviewing, and oral and written communication. This âcontinuing edu- cationâ can increase versatility and the chance for a rewarding career. Intrinsic to âtaking ownershipâ of a career is the element of taking control, of making and seizing opportunities. Timidity is not productive. Rather than waiting for invitations or instructions, successful postdocs ask for what they need, find their own new resources, meet new people, and solicit invitations to speak about their work. Developing a proactive mindset hastens the journey from student to professional. Not all advisers will welcome such initiatives. Their negative reactions can often be ameliorated by improved communication. In very difficult situations, the postdoc may need to consider an alternative situation. Communicating. Good communication is an essential responsibility of both postdoc and adviser. Postdocs must clearly articulate the skills or training they need; advisers must clearly explain the needs of the laboratory or institution. These needs are most likely to be met if the postdoc steps forward with questions and if the adviser takes the time to listen. The postdoc must also communicate with the institution when help is required. Contributing to the institution. The more postdocs are able to support the program of their adviser, the greater their value as team members. This can lead to a richer research experience, the respect of other group members, and support in developing a career in the future. In addition to getting the work done, good practices include keeping up with the latest advances, communicating them to others (including the adviser), and interacting regularly with others in both the group and the institution. Expectations about the postdocâs contributions to the immediate community should be discussed carefully with the adviser and other lab members. Planning for departure. Departure should not be delayed without good reason; the postdoc should neither be pressured to work indefinitely for the
52 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS adviser, nor become overly comfortable in what should be a finite apprentice- ship. If success in the research has proved elusive, the postdoc may be tempted to extend the stay, even indefinitely. This is not always a wise course. These and related issues should be discussed openly between postdoc and adviser from the beginning of the appointment: When should the planning process begin? What are the obligations of adviser and postdoc during and after leaving? Who inherits intellectual property rightsâand the project itselfâat the point of separation? A good rule of thumb is that the postdoc should begin a systematic job search at least a year before the end of his or her term. In reality, of course, timing is often determined by a job offer. But expectations about departure should be broached and discussed both upon arrival and during periodic evaluations. SHAPING A CAREER Academia, government, or the private sector? The postdoctoral tradition began in universities. Many faculty still place the highest value on careers in academia, and assume that their postdocs will follow them there. Nonacademic careers, however, are both more common and more accept- able than in the past. In some fields (such as biotechnology, computer science, and electrical engineering), postdocs value nonacademic positions as highly as academic jobs. Even so, many postdocs lack up-to-date information about research careers. In a 1999 survey of junior scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, 55 percent of respondents said their advisers encouraged them to pur- sue academic jobs, but fewer than 1 percent were advised to obtain positions in industry, government, or the non-profit sector.9 A second 1999 survey of post- docs at Berkeley indicated that the number anticipating careers as âa professor with an emphasis on researchâ had dropped from 69 to 59 percent since the beginning of their postdoctoral experience. Instead, they cited the goals of âresearch in industry or national lab,â âconsultant,â or âstart their own com- pany.â The leading reasons given for this change were âdifficulty obtaining an academic jobâ and âmoney.â10 The first Berkeley survey noted a wide difference in salaries for academic and nonacademic positions. About half of the cohort of biochemists who earned PhDs in 1982-1985 were working outside academia in 1995. This group earned almost $22,000 more in median annual total salary (including all income sources) than those employed in the academic sector, where the median salary was $57,000. 9Nerad, M. and Cerny, J. PhDsâTen Years Later, a national study funded by the Mellon Founda- tion, 1999, with selected analysis funded by the NSF. A report on the study has been published in Science (cited above). 10McPheron, L. and Nerad, M. âResults of a Survey of Postdoctoral Appointees at UC Berkeley,â University of California at Berkeley (email@example.com), 1999.
RIGHTS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE POSTDOC 53 Developing career skills. Once a postdoc can see the outline of a career, gaining the right skills can be the key to expanding choices and finding the right position. These skills include such general abilities as clear writing, public speak- ing, leadership, teamwork, teaching, and mentoring. Given the competition for research positions, experience in teaching can be a strong advantage, especially for academic employment. Teaching experience also prepares the postdoc to communicate with people who work outside research or specialize in other fields. Job hunting. The job search usually begins with help from the adviser, whose professional contacts are invaluable. However, postdocs should also develop their own network of contacts. One adviser suggests: âLet your presence be known in the field; be as public as you can. Departmental meetings, professional meetingsâtake advantage of those ten minutes in the sun.â The search must be tailored to the desired sector. For example, teaching experience will be more valuable in an academic setting; an industry employer is likely to require evi- dence of good communication and team skills. Career expectations and reality. The 1998 AAU study reported that two- thirds of postdocs expected to find a tenure-track position at a research university, but that only about one-fourth of ârecent postdocsâ had done so. (An additional one-fourth went to another postdoc and 10 percent went to non-tenure-track (but somewhat more regular than a postdoc) positions such as fellow, research assis- tant, and adjunct instructor.) A 10-year follow-up study of 23 PhD graduates from the 1987 class of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston showed similar results. Sixteen had permanent jobs, but only 10 were in research, with only five of those in tenure-track positions. Seven were still in postdoc positions a decade later.11 11Bunk, S. The Scientist, 1998, Vol.12, 1, p.1.
54 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS SUMMARY POINTS Postdocs should have the opportunity to enhance their research experience, become independent researchers, become known through publishing and presenting their results at professional meetings, and advance their careers by networking with colleagues. They have the right to clear terms of appointment, appropriate com- pensation and benefits, serious mentoring, and support in career plan- ning and finding a regular position. Postdocs have dual responsibilities: 1) to acquire the experiences they need to advance their careers, and 2) to contribute to the program through research accomplishments, personal growth, and interaction with others. Postdocs share the responsibility with their adviser of communicat- ing well regarding their progress and expectations. In planning careers, more postdocs are finding opportunities in non- academic positions, but they must take the initiative to learn about acquiring the skills needed to qualify for entrance to growing em- ployment areas, often outside their specialty. Some women postdocs face special problems because of their gender, and have great difficulty in taking time to start a family. Gaining the right skills can make a large difference in finding reward- ing positions and expanding career choices. These include general abilities such as clear writing, public speaking, leadership, team- work, computer skills, teaching, and mentoring.
RIGHTS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE POSTDOC 55 A Successful Postdoctoral Experience The elements of a successful postdoctoral appointment are as variable as the postdoctoral population. For one unabashedly upbeat postdoc on a laboratory fellowship (weâll call her Sue), these elements included early preparation, support- ive colleagues, a fascinating research topic, the opportunity to learn time manage- ment and self-reliance, and an effectiveâthough somewhat distantâmentor. â¢ Early preparation: Even as a graduate student in geochemistry, Sue began building ties to the research group where she wanted to go as a postdoc. âTo get the most out of an experience, you have to offer something. I did my graduate work in geochemistry; I wanted to work with a group in planetary physics, and I was able to show them that I had something to contribute. I began doing some projects with them while I was in graduate school, so the transition was relatively smooth. One of the best reasons to do a postdoc is to learn a new field, but itâs best to prepare the ground early.â â¢ Supportive colleagues: âI didnât always know where I was going, but it was fairly easy to seek out good advice and constructive criticism both in my own insti- tution and elsewhere. A big challenge, and a difference from graduate school, is that youâve got to start putting together your own professional network of collabo- rators and friends with whom youâre going to be building your career. Itâs a good habit to spend time every week meeting new people, networking, looking at people who are successful to see how they do it.â â¢ A topic of interest: âI loved my work, and this is one reason it was successful. I published 12 or 13 papers during three years as a postdoc, including one in Science. I got to work on a variety of problems without getting stuck in something too narrow. I was fortunate enough to have a great deal of freedom. I could follow my curiosity, and that allowed me to be very productive. I had the opportunity to propose my own research and get it funded.â â¢ Learning self-reliance: âI spun my wheels for the first few months, trying to figure out what to do first, but there were some advantages to that experience. If youâre going to be an independent researcher, sooner or later youâve got to learn to fly the plane. When I was a grad student, I used to do all my own instrument work, because my time was cheap and there wasnât anyone else to do it. When I became a postdoc, I was paid more and I had technical staff. I had a big adjustment in mindset about organizing better and making the wisest investments of my time.â â¢ Effective mentoring: âI saw my adviser several times a week. He wasnât very involved with my research, but what he did was right for me. He was always sup- portive, gave me a long leash, and made sure I got to give talks at important conferences. He did this for all his postdocsâmade sure that certain doors were unlocked. What you do with that advantage, once you go in that door, is your business. Again, youâre the one whoâs going to fly the plane. In the end, I was fortunate enough to be hired by the same institution where I did my postdoc.â Profile
56 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS A Difficult Postdoctoral Experience Joe, who has had two postdoctoral appointments in academic environments and now works in the biotechnology industry, says it can sometimes be difficult to anticipateâor preventâa frustrating experience. For his first postdoc, he carefully chose an adviser whose project in the life sciences seemed to fit nicely with his own interests, but a series of difficulties blunted his productivity. He offers a sum- mary of his experience, and some lessons he learned: â¢ Know when to cut your losses: In his first year, Joe tried several experimental approaches that failed to give results. His adviser was seldom in the lab to offer guidance, and Joe was slow to change direction. When he tried to consult other senior scientists, his adviser refused to allow it. âShe felt this was interfering with her laboratory. In retrospect, I probably should have cut my losses and moved on. But thereâs great pressure to keep going, to tough it out.â â¢ Understand your adviserâs policy on publication: In his third year, Joe had finally found a promising new direction, obtained results, and written them up for publication. His adviser, however, did not allow him to send out the paper because she felt it should be a âbigger story.â âThe timing was critical for me. I had to be applying for jobs, and I had no publications. I was ready to have my work judged by my peers, and I was unable to do so. She finally rewrote and published the paperâ after Iâd left the lab.â â¢ Talk with former lab members before signing on: Joe talked only with current lab members, who he now knows are not in a position to be critical. Later he learned that he was the fifth postdoc to leave that particular lab without publica- tions or jobs. âI should have talked with some former members, because they are freer to be honest. In a good training environment, postdocs are getting jobs and continuing their research. I might have saved myself a lot of difficulty.â â¢ Be clear about your agenda: He went on to do a second postdoc, with betterâdefined goals. âI needed publications, and I was frank about this with my second adviser. That lab was doing work in my field. I was offered a yearâs support, and after that I knew I would be on my own. It was a fair offer, and clear. After nine months I was able to raise my own funding. I got my publications, the work came out well, and I entered the job market in good shape.â Profile