September 2010

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

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.

Reference

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

NEXT PAGE 1 | 2 | 3

First Name:
Last Name:
Email:
Comment:


Comment on this item:
Rating:
Our comments are moderated. Maximum 1000 characters. We would appreciate it if you signed your name to your comment.


  


COMMENTS:

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. [phdcareerclinic.com]

 

 

1 Comments

  • 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

Page 1 of 1

found= true944