September 2010

The Role of Postdocs, PIs and Institutions in Training Future Scientists


Postdocs, principal investigators, institutions, funding agencies and nonprofits all must make strides in postdoctoral education and training that emphasize developing both research skills and professional competencies to ensure that postdocs achieve future success and that science in general becomes more productive. (Titled "It Takes a Village: The Role of Postdocs, PIs, and Institutions in Training Future Scientists" in print version.)


myspace layouts

For postdoctoral researchers intent on having successful careers, spending every waking moment at the lab bench is the professional equivalent of burying your head in the sand. With the current economic climate, the increased interdisciplinary nature of today’s research and an increasing global reliance on science and technology, postdocs who gauge their success solely on bench productivity do so at their own professional peril. Postdocs, principal investigators, institutions, funding agencies and nonprofits must all make strides in postdoctoral education and training that emphasize developing both research skills and professional competencies to ensure that postdocs achieve future success and that science in general becomes more productive.

Postdoc— Develop Thyself

We have all heard it before: most postdocs (approximately 75 percent) will not end up in an academic career. So, the question remains, what can postdocs do to make sure they have the skills to succeed in a nonacademic career? Or, if they desire a tenure-track position, what can they do to set them aside from their competition? Postdocs need to take responsibility for their nonbench education. If their institutions have postdoctoral offices (PDOs), their first step should be to find out what programs are offered and to avail themselves of those programs. Many PDOs hold periodic research and/or career symposia that postdocs can take advantage of on their home turf. Next, a postdoc needs to find mentorship not just from his or her individual PI, but from multiple people who relate to his or her career and personal goals.

The postdoc should talk to his or her PI and offer to help with grant writing, budgeting, lab management, reviewing papers and mentoring students— all of these are transferable skills that can be used in many career paths. Postdocs should seek out resources that can enhance the mentor-mentee relationship and utilize them. They should look for organizations in which they can take on a leadership role in a nonlab setting, for example, the National Postdoctoral Association or the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Whether in or out of academia, the skills acquired and the networking contacts obtained will be invaluable. Remember, most people are hired because they know someone, not because they answered an advertisement. Although PIs and institutions share responsibility for providing advanced mentored training to a postdoc, the postdoc must be his or her own first and strongest advocate.

The Changing Role of Postdoctoral Mentoring

Accepting a postdoc, a trained independent researcher, into the laboratory today involves more than bringing on a highly skilled technician. The required inclusion of a mentoring plan for all National Science Foundation grants that support postdocs is just one example that illustrates the changing culture within U.S. scientific research. PIs need to remember that taking on a postdoc involves a significant mentoring investment. Mentoring does not just involve overseeing the individual, but committing to the promotion and success of the protégée’s career.

The summary of the 2004-2005 Sigma Xi postdoc survey results, “Doctors Without Orders,” states: “Postdocs reporting the greatest amount of structured oversight and formal training are much more likely to say they are satisfied, to give their advisers high ratings, to experience relatively few conflicts with their advisers and to be more productive in terms of numbers of publications compared with those with the least oversight and training” (1).

"For the 75 percent of postdocs who do not enter the academic ranks, there has to be well-paying and rewarding work available."

Good PIs get their reputations for a variety of reasons, regardless of institutional affiliation. In addition to a history of solid research, the most successful PIs possess a multitude of nontechnical skills that have brought them to this point in their careers. Some of these skills may have been developed on the fly if they were not lucky enough to receive such training during their postdoctoral fellowships. PIs should think back to their days as junior faculty and ask themselves if there were skills that they wish they had developed before leading a laboratory. If so, these skills should be fostered in their postdocs. This training may require PIs to encourage their postdocs occasionally to leave the bench to network, write grants and learn leadership, budgetary and personnel management skills. In addition, if there is an area in which a PI does not possess expertise, they should encourage their postdocs to find other mentors who are well versed in that area to help the postdoc pursue his or her career and life goals.

For both postdocs and mentors, a great starting place to develop a mentor-trainee relationship is with an individual development plan. Templates for plans are available on the NPA and Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology websites. Individual development plans are useful for formalizing a training plan covering all aspects of career development for the intended length of the postdoc. When developing a plan, both PI and postdoc should incorporate the six core competencies defined by the NPA to evaluate current skills and identify areas for growth. These building blocks should provide a path toward a well-rounded and productive postdoctoral experience.

Institutions and the Development of Future Scientists

The National Institutes of Health, the NSF and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations play key roles in both training future academic scientists and maintaining scientific literacy of the general populace. This begins with strong scientific curricula from elementary school through high school and beyond, but it also directly links to both the government and the private sector’s ability to provide solid jobs for people well-trained in the scientific method.

For the 75 percent of postdocs who do not enter the academic ranks, there has to be well-paying and rewarding work available. People holding doctoral degrees in the sciences have a strong skill set that goes beyond just memorizing facts and knowing a narrow area. Their skills include: critical thinking, management skills, problem solving and the ability to synthesize information. Diverse companies seek out individuals with these skills to join their ranks as highly prized contributors to their company’s missions.

Times are changing, and the NSF, NIH and other organizations are recognizing that training scientists is not just about training individuals who will be supported by their grants. They are realizing that it is important to train critical thinkers who will go forth and help to create a culture of scientific thought and intellectual curiosity that will underlie future scientific breakthroughs. The recruitment and training of postdocs is critical to these endeavors, and, organizations, such as the NPA, FASEB and ASBMB, that advocate for postdocs are key to providing a voice for the education of our future scientific leaders.


1. Davis, G. (2005) Doctors Without Orders. American Scientist 93, supplement.

About the Authors
• Zoë Fonseca-Kelly ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania
• Darwin J. Operario ( is a postdoc/research affiliate at Wadsworth Center/N.Y. State Department of Health
• L. David Finger Jr. ( is a biophysicist project scientist at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the City of Hope Beckman Research Institute
• Anthony J. Baucum II ( is a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University
All are members of the NPA

found= true944