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.)


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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.

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The advice is worthy of readings by PIs. Most of the PhDs who come to me for alternative career strategies do so because their PIs not only are lax (or uninterested) in their postdocs' development in general, or are outright antagonistic about the postdocs' desire to explore alternative careers. Hence, what is written may be an idealized situation that is not the reality for many would-be alternative PhD careerists. - Jane Chin, Ph.D. []




  • Andy, thanks for your conetmms. There are indeed many and sensible reasons why people such as yourself stay in long-term postdoc positions. The reason you give of wanting to stay in a given place is one of those advanced as being particularly disadvantageous to women, who often may be the trailing partner though it can cut either way. Similarly, the average gap in years you identify between starting being a postdoc and landing a permanent position has also increased over the years undoubtedly. Nevertheless, for people who find themselves getting into this insecure no-man's land I can only reiterate one should:Seek advice from anyone and everyone as to whether they feel you have what it takes to get that lectureship;If not work out if certain steps could improve your chances (training, getting exposure at conferences etc) and then make sure to act upon what you find (and if even that seems likely to be insufficient, act upon the implicit advice rather than keep fingers and toes crossed something will pan out);See if you can apply for fellowships which give you independence although I grant you if you can't move that is usually looked at with disfavour for the reasons you identify, of not being able to differentiate yourself sufficiently from your academic boss.Check whether there are any permanent support posts (few and far between in my experience) for senior postdocs.If none of the above apply then, harsh though it seems, sometimes trying to work out an exit strategy may be preferable than endless frustrating insecurity. Of course it may not be, there can still be much satisfaction in continuing to be stuck into the excitement of bench science or whatever, so leaving may remain a less attractive option than staying. If I can bring in the gender angle agaiin, there is evidence (from this survey and elsewhere) that women are more prepared to leave rather than fret in insecurity, trying to find positive alternatives early rather than wait to find the sa

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