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4 The Postdoc and the Adviser T he need for effective supervision of junior researchers does not end with the PhD. Those who move from graduate school to postdoctoral appoint-ments stand to benefit greatly from the contributions of their advisers. Many advis- ers do an excellent, careful, and conscientious job of assisting with the profes- sional development of their postdocs. However, some let other tasks of the re- search enterprise outweigh their mentoring duties. THE ADVISER AS MENTOR When advisers become effective mentors and assume responsibility for guid- ing, challenging, and championing their postdocs, they can have a powerful and enduring effect on the careers of these junior investigators. At the same time, responsive postdocs can advance their own and their advisersâ careers and become valued colleagues and collaborators after completion of the postdoctoral appointment. Creating a productive mentoring relationship takes considerable time and effort on both sides, however, it is important for advisers and postdocs alike to appreciate its unique tensions and potential benefits. The tensions are, to some extent, built in: The investigatorâs lack of time or inclination for mentoring leaves ample room for misunderstandings or neglect. Luckily for the relationship, the benefits are largely inherent as well. The postdoc is motivated to exchange skills and hard work for guidance and entrÃ©e to a professional world. Benefits for the adviser. The nature of the mentoring relationship becomes clearer if one takes a closer look at its potential benefits. The adviser stands to 57
58 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS 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 Susanâs findings and initiate dis- cussions 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 Susanâs 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 adviserâs 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 postdocâs 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, super- vising students and technicians, overall lab management, deciding when and where to publish, creating a network of professional contacts, acquiring âcareerâ skills (such as communication and teamwork), understanding ethical and propri- etary 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 postdocâs career, the adviserâs 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 reward- ing for both parties when the activities of postdoc and adviser are complementary.
THE POSTDOC AND THE ADVISER 59 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 for- mally 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 Stevenâs 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 âsidesâ of an intersection. More than superficial knowledge of the complementary field may be required for productive collaboration. A flexible adviser may find that encourag- ing additional study for certain postdocs can advance both the postdocâs work and the adviserâs program. Best Practice Scenario RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE ADVISER The adviserâs overall responsibility is to help advance the postdocâs scientif- ic 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 personâs potential for making important contribu- tions 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 organiza- tion? Although these questions can seldom be answered with certainty, the ad- viser 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 âtraining planâ that is adapted to the activities of the adviser or labora- tory. The attempt may or may not succeed at the outset, but it serves the purposes of stimulating early communication, teaching the importance of thinking strate- gically, 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 itâand this
60 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS enthusiasm must be shared by the adviser. Second, the problem must be impor- tant for the field as well as for the postdocâs career. Third, approaching a good problem can stimulate the postdoc to understand how to convert initial questions into a working hypothesis and to understand the magnitude of resources (time, equipment, expertise, and money) needed to accomplish the work. Early discus- sions should include the extent to which the postdoc can expect to take owner- ship of a project and plan on continuing the research after the postdoctoral appointment. Evaluating a research problem can also be illuminated by what Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon of Carnegie Mellon University calls a âsecret weaponââ a feature that will allow the postdoc to accomplish something that others have not yet been able to accomplish. This special advantage may be a new method, piece of equipment, or reagent; a special insight (i.e., an insight made possible by an unusual background); a talented team; or even a willingness to devote an extraordinary amount of time to the work.1 Research guidance. In return for the postdocâs contributions, the attentive adviser will guide the postdoc toward becoming a better researcher. Most post- docs need such guidance especially in the early months to avoid wasting time. They donât, however, need micromanaging; the adviserâs goal is to allow the postdoc to grow toward independence and a relationship that becomes a collabo- rative one. As postdocs gain independence, they need to learn, under the mentorâs guid- ance, to manage their time and often the time of technicians. They benefit from reading deeply and broadening their intellectual portfolio. They must learn to answer important questions: What distinguishes an important research problem from a routine one? What strategies are most likely to succeed? How much time will be needed to answer a question? People who lack the time or inclination to provide an educational experience should not accept the responsibility of mentor- ing postdocs. Some of the adviserâs most important contributions may be to set the research framework: to introduce the postdoc to potential collaborators and influential colleagues, ensure that the postdoc has adequate resources for the research program, and advise against being trapped in a narrow or unpromising line of work. As work progresses, some postdocs may put off publishing their work inappropriately because of their desire to produce a prize-winning paper or âperfectâ experiment. Advisers can help by reviewing and discussing the work and urging the postdoc toward publication. They should also take meticulous care to give the postdoc proper credit for authorship, seminars, disciplinary soci- ety presentations, and other achievements. 1For Professor Simonâs lecture, see the University of Pittsburgh survival skills site, www.edc.gsph.pitt.edu/ survival/.
THE POSTDOC AND THE ADVISER 61 Learning to Collaborate Lee is a brilliant but shy student who earned a postdoctoral appointment in chemistry at a research university. Her strengths at the bench were undeniable, and she quickly won the confidence of her adviser. After two years of work, how- ever, Lee had made few friends outside the lab, and her work was progressing more slowly than expected. Her adviser surprised Lee by asking her to mentor two graduate students who had just joined the lab. Lee balked at this request, but the adviser insisted. The adviser also paid for Leeâs travel to a professional meeting and arranged for her to present a poster. Several months later, Lee formed a small journal club around the two students; a month after that, she began a research collaboration with a postdoc she met at the meeting. Comment: Research is increasingly collaborative, and the performance of suc- cessful research depends heavily on interacting with others. The adviser had the wisdom to see that Lee was blocked by her reticence and to insist (at the risk of jeopardizing her good relationship with Lee) that she begin to develop contacts and activities outside the lab. Best Practice Scenario Advancing the career. In addition to guiding the postdoc in research skills, the adviser can help the postdoc identify and acquire necessary career skills, such as those of communication, publication, grant writing, and management. Those who aim for professorships, independent research, or research manage- ment must be assisted and challenged in appropriate, educational ways. Some postdocs may prefer to continue their research careers in valuable supporting roles, such as that of a research scientist working as a member of a team on their own or the research grants of PIs. Attending professional meetings is one of the most important ways a post- doc can enhance professional visibility, gain confidence, and build a network of contacts. An adviser can save time and share power with postdocs by asking them to present research results at meetings. Even when there is no paper to present, a postdoc should attend one or two professional-society meetings or workshops a year, with financial help from the adviser when necessary. Many postdocs hesitate to ask about attending meetings if they lack designated travel funds or find that activities outside the lab are discouraged. Postdocs need practice and coaching in writing grant proposals, supervising others, teaching, making spending decisions, creating a budget, and reviewing papers. Encouraging single or lead-author publications by postdocs is an impor- tant aspect of mentoring. When postdocs acquire such skills, they are better equipped to contribute to the program and to compete for future positions.
62 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Knowing When to Suggest a Change Dr. Brown accepted Carl for a postdoctoral appointment in his theoretical physics group after a telephoned recommendation from a colleague and a brief meeting with Carl. He was impressed by Carlâs enthusiasm for physics and his eloquence in describing several goals in cosmology. After a few months of work, it was appar- ent that Carl enjoyed his work and was progressing. He requested time to teach an undergraduate course as well. Dr. Brown agreed with some reluctance, needing all the help he could get with the research lab. At his year-end review, Carl told Dr. Brown that he enjoyed his teaching as much as his research, and hoped to make teaching a major emphasis in his career. Dr. Brown suggested a minor course change toward a career at a four-year teaching college. Comment: This turned out to be a good move. Carl could continue his research and teach in an environment where both activities were valued. Through good communication, Carl was able to express his preference to an adviser for whom teaching was not the first priority, and the adviser had the sensitivity to see that Carlâs talents could be more fully applied in a different kind of career. Advisers must often base their acceptance of a postdoc on a brief impression or the opinion of others. Mismatches do occur, and although they may be painful to acknowl- edge, the best course of action may involve a change. More painful is the potential waste of productive years, which for some PhDs are better spent in non-research activities. Best Practice Scenario Balancing the needs of the program and the needs of the postdoc. Labora- tories and research groups need continuity and a âcritical massâ of expertise (including postdocs) to complete major projects, and postdocs need the freedom to find their own challenges. A postdoc is in the lab not only to make valuable scientific contributions but also to expand his or her accomplishments. A mentor has the responsibility to help the postdoc see a project (or aspect of the project) to completion in a reasonable time (usually not more than five years). Future employers will want to see evidence of perseverance and an ability to attain successful closure on research problems. Mentoring. Advisers can enhance the training of postdocs in both explicit and implicit ways, such as modeling good practices of research, leadership, and ethical conduct. Advisers who are too busy to fulfill mentoring duties can bring in help (such as a mentoring committee) or orient the postdoc toward institutional or other resources. Flexibility. It is common for research goals to change as postdocs mature. It isnât always easy for a program to adapt, but flexibility on the part of the adviser may lead to great rewards in the form of the postdocâs growth and contributions.
THE POSTDOC AND THE ADVISER 63 Mentoring When the J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco wanted to ensure that its 60 postdoctoral scholars were receiving adequate mentoring, the admin- istration undertook a year-long study, with the following results: â¢ Discussions of mentorship have become part of the annual performance reviews for fellows and PIs. â¢ Postdocs are surveyed annually on the mentoring they receive, and confi- dential results are sent to the PI, the director, and the human resources office. â¢ PIs receive additional training in mentoring. â¢ A Women in Science Program was established to assist women postdocs. â¢ Trainees were made aware of existing procedures for addressing problems between the postdoc and the mentor. â¢ PIs are required to discuss career plans and prospects with postdocs at least yearly. â¢ Human resources will provide all postdocs with both a letter of appoint- ment and a letter of completion. At the University of Pittsburgh, one department requires each postdoc to select a small faculty âmentoring committeeâ for informal meetings and guidance. Postdocs are encouraged to choose âpotential role modelsâ as committee mem- bers. One postdoc reported after her first meeting, âIt was the best meeting I ever had. I didnât feel like the trainee; I was just talking to three other researchers. They were at opposite ends of my project and brought different perspectives.â At Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one department finds that effective mentoring can be accomplished through weekly work-in-progress groups. âEach postdoc has to present their research once a year,â says a dean. âEveryone knows where they stand. If a person is foundering, the group will get together at other times to advise.â At Eli Lilly and Co., mentoring of its 75 postdocs is done both by the Science Advisory Council and by individual âresearch advisers.â The Advisory Council, which oversees the scientific integrity of the program, meets with a postdoc at least once during their tenureâusually at the midpoint. These meetings give post- docs the opportunity to showcase their work for senior management, build their network of contacts, and work on getting sponsorship. Postdocs also meet regu- larly with their research adviser. The position of research adviser is prestigious; before advising a postdoc, a researcher must demonstrate success at mentoring technicians. At Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, mentors are asked to perform a formal review of each postdocâs progress at least twice a year. A written record of the review should indicate progress and next steps to be taken. Best Practices
64 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Many postdocs (and students) will work most effectively when they are encour- aged to pursue some of their own ideas. As one faculty adviser has said, âWhen you are a good mentor, people are happy; the work gets done.â On a larger scale, the mentor should also be flexible when the career goals of the postdoc change. Communication. Frequent communication helps prevent problems from growing into grievances. Patience is required, as well as discernment: One post- doc might need regular, detailed instructions; another might need only to hear, âDo what excites you.â Good communication is a mutual responsibility. Postdocs and advisers alike must have the courage to raise uncomfortable issues. Regular weekly or biweekly meetings can help maintain communication. Meetings and other forms of com- munication are indispensable in establishing and maintaining the foundation for a mentoring relationship. It is likely that breakdowns in communication are at some level the causes of most personal problems that occur in the research environment. In one lab, for example, the adviser holds an annual meeting with all lab members. For the meetings, member are asked to write out both their long-term career goals and their goals for the coming year. Discussion of these goals facil- itates ongoing communication among members. Honest evaluations. Many postdocs, especially in universities, express con- cern that they seldom or never receive formal evaluations. Half the institutions responding to the COSEPUP survey required âno official performance reviews of any typeâ (see Box). Evaluations need not be time-consuming. Brief, regular meetings can form a basis for useful feedback, suggestions for improvement, and performance assess- Does the Organization Require Performance Evaluations Throughout a Postdocâs Appointment? Of academic institutions, the largest number (47 percent) reported that âno official performance reviews of any type are required.â Only 17 percent required them, and 13 percent reported that âDocumented progress reviews are per- formed by the respective adviser at his/her discretion.â By contrast, the majority (70 percent) of nonacademic institutions required regular performance evaluations. In the âotherâ responses, some respondents indicated that they are examin- ing and/or revising their policies on evaluations. Others described optional or discretionary approaches (âDepends on programâ; âDepends on funding sourceâ; âVaries by unitâ). Several institutions expected the adviser to take responsibility for any evaluation, without formal reporting to the institution. COSEPUP Survey Results
THE POSTDOC AND THE ADVISER 65 ments. But written progress reports (for example after the first 6 months and then annually) are needed to clarify performance for the postdoc, the institution, the funding organization, and potential employers. A record of evaluations is espe- cially important if they are needed for reappointment or to find another job. Evaluations are useful only if they are honest. Good work should be acknowledged and rewarded; less-than-good work should receive equally frank appraisal. When a postdoc lacks the necessary aptitude for a career of research, the adviser must say so. No oneâs interests are served by allowing a subpar performance to continue indefinitely only to avoid an unwelcome evaluation. On the other hand, evaluations should be constructive, not punitive. The objective of regular evaluation is to identify weaknesses or problems, to create plans to address them, and ultimately to raise the level of performance and eventually the success of the individual. Ethical and proprietary issues. The adviser should take the lead in discuss- ing ethical standards early and often, especially with new postdocs and with postdocs from countries where standards may differ. Authorship especially car- ries a great potential for misunderstandings. A good policy is for the adviser and postdoc to discuss authorship policy early. Of course, no policy can cover all contingencies. A designated lead postdoc, for example, might lose interest or shift to another project. Other issues that should be discussed include plagiarism, public presenta- tion of results, and the integrity of data. For example, several postdocs in focus groups reported being asked not to publish results that did not agree with the adviserâs work; this request is not acceptable. Such issues underline the need for good communication and mutual trust. Every person supported on a federal training grant is required to receive instruction in research ethics. Given the importance of responsible conduct to both the research enterprise and the careers of individual researchers, a mentor should ensure that postdocs are instructed about any ethical issues of relevance to a particular program. Such issues may include data management, the use of human subjects, experiments on animals, conflicts of interest, resolving ethical dilemmas, whistle blowing, and handling research sponsored by a for-profit entity.2 Resolving disputes. Because of their position of power, advisers have the larger responsibility in resolving disputes, especially if the postdoc is directly supported on a research grant. Frequent, open communication can prevent mis- understandings. When an impasse develops, the adviser (or postdoc) should not hesitate to ask an ombudsperson or other neutral party to discuss the issue. (See also The role of the ombudsperson in Chapter 5.) 2For further discussion of ethical issues, see the National Academiesâ publication, On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, 1995, available via the Academiesâ web site and also through the National Academy Press at www.nap.edu.
66 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Poor Advising Practices The following true examples, described by postdocs and advisers during the committeeâs focus groups, illustrate situations or behaviors that can damage not only a postdocâs experience but also the morale and accomplishments of a program. â¢ At a professional society meeting, a postdoc met several colleagues from other institutions who were engaged in the same field of research. They invited her to participate in a collaborative project involving an aspect of her labâs research. When the postdoc asked permission, her adviser refused on the grounds that revealing the details of the labâs work might give others an advantage. Comment: Scientific research is increasingly collaborative. A postdoc should be encouraged to develop her professional network and to seek out cooperative projects. â¢ An adviser who was a renowned lab director declined a postdocâs offer to help assemble the labâs grant proposal. âThatâs my responsibility,â he said. Comment: Grant writing is a skill most postdocs need to acquire. While a major grant is indeed the PIs responsibility, the postdoc also needs to learn that skill. The postdoc should be asked to write the portion of the grant that describes his or her own work. â¢ An adviser with a wide reputation for hard work informed his group of post- docs that they could take a total of 12 days off each year, and that otherwise they were expected to be in the lab every day, including weekends. Comment: Advisers, following institutional policies, should establish reason- able policies for time off. â¢ A postdoc whose adviser was rarely in the lab felt the need for more super- vision while learning a new field. When he asked the adviserâs permission to find an additional mentor, she refused on the grounds that another person would be intrusive and would jeopardize the advising relationship. Comment: The adviser does not âownâ the postdoc, who can often benefit from multiple mentorsâespecially if the primary adviser is often unavailable. â¢ A foreign postdoc, after working in a program for several months, wanted to return home for Christmas vacation with his family. When he inquired about leave policy, he was told that his institution did not provide vacations for postdocs and that his adviser expected him to be in the lab year-round. Comment: Minimum vacation benefits for postdocs should be set by institu- tions and these policies should reflect the benefits accorded to other members of the lab or program. Practice Description
THE POSTDOC AND THE ADVISER 67 Turning Research into Manuscripts After two productive years as a postdoc at a national laboratory, Paul had gathered an impressive body of data on climate change resulting from the eruption of an ancient volcano. His well-planned fieldwork had led to numerous poster sessions and several hundred pages of unpublished notes, but no publications. When his adviser urged him to publish, Paul responded that he needed a few more data points. After a more extended talk, the adviser learned that Paul, despite his excellent work, was inhibited by the recent work of a competitor, whom he was determined to âblow out of the water.â Comment: The adviser persuaded Paul to begin publishing after explaining that 1) research accomplishments usually occur in small steps, 2) the feedback from his colleagues after publication is essential to further steps, and 3) his career would stall unless he communicated his work in public. Few junior investigators have a basis for understanding when and how much to publish; they need the advice of experienced mentors. Best Practice Scenario The productivity of a lab depends not only on the research skills of the adviser, but also on his or her ability to urge the postdocs, grad students, techni- cians, and other researchers toward an ethic of collaboration. Discord or feuding among lab members can be as destructive to a postdocâs experience as a poor- mentoring relationship. Foreign postdocs may suffer disproportionately from lab disputes, especially if they depend on their adviser to maintain their visa status. Finding a regular job. The adviser is usually the person best situated to help the postdoc move to the next position. The quality of that position reflects not only on the postdocâs personal abilities, but also the quality of the program and the mentoring ability of the adviser. Traditionally, advisers in universities have expected their postdocs to move to the kinds of academic research positions that they themselves held. Today, informed advisers know that many more post- docs than formerly will move to the private sector or government, where employers may require a slightly different set of skillsâin particular, a variety of personal skills, such as abilities in teamwork, communication, and leadership. Moving on. Departure is a difficult time for many advisers and postdocs. No adviser wants to lose a productive, well-qualified lab member. Nonetheless, advisers must remember that their goal as mentors is to help their postdocs to advance. Transitions may be eased if terms are specified by contract. Within these terms, the adviser can help to judge when the apprentice is ready to move to the next step.
68 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS The âSpecial Somethingâ that Brings Success When Adam came to a federal laboratory as a postdoc in anthropology, he was intimidated by the competition in his field of Central American studies. His adviser, however, suggested he stop and think for a moment. He asked, What do you want to get out of this postdoctoral experience? What are your career goals? What special skills do you have that most other researchers in the field do not? What are some of the unique aspects of this research environment? Which of my connec- tions or talents can help you? In Adamâs case, he spent part of his boyhood in Mexico. This provided him with unique language skills, contacts, and general understanding that most of his com- petition did not have. In addition, his university hosted a center of Latin American studies where he could increase his contacts with scholars interested in the same area. Comment: By working together, Adam and his adviser were able to develop a strategy that used the best of his assetsâand provided him with an edge that could lift him a step above his competition. Best Practices Even after a postdoc leaves, the adviserâs role is not finished. Scientists and engineers change positions often, and advisers can be invaluable allies in helping with the next step along the career path, whenever it comes.
THE POSTDOC AND THE ADVISER 69 SUMMARY POINTS At the outset, advisers need to make clear their expectations of the postdoc and learn about the postdocâs own expectations. In return for the postdocâs contributions, the adviser should both provide scientific and technical training and help the postdoc acquire other necessary âcareerâ skills, such as those that contribute to effec- tive communication, publication, grant writing, and management. Frequent communication between postdoc and adviser helps prevent problems from growing into grievances. Attending professional meetings is one of the most important ways a postdoc can enhance professional visibility, gain confidence, and build a network of contacts. Postdocs need regular feedback on the quality and direction of their work, including written evaluations at least annually. The adviser should take the lead early and often in discussing ethical standards, including issues of authorship, credit, conflicts of interest, and other ethical dilemmas.