Picking the perfect postdoc

When I applied for my first postdoc, lo these many years ago (13 to be precise), it was all about the science. I was looking for a position with an advisor whose research I found interesting, yet had the name recognition to help me launch an independent research career. Personality issues and benefits were secondary considerations.

Fast-forward to 2010, and now I’m a science writer (lapsed scientist? Or perhaps, recovering scientist?) researching an article about what postdocs should think about before joining up with a new lab. That article was published in the 2 September issue of Nature [URL]. What follows are some bits and bobs from the editing room floor…

Long story short, I might have had a very different career had I known then what I know now. For one thing, I had no idea of the administrative and legal hoops through which postdoc advocates, both at the university level and nationwide (such as Cathee Johnson Phillips at the National Postdoctoral Association) must have jumped to ensure that when I scored a coveted NIH postdoctoral award, the transition was seamless — one month my pay was from the university, the next, from the NIH. But I never lost my health insurance. (Postdocs on NIH fellowships cannot be classified as university employees, and thus, can lose university benefits.)

Also, it turns out postdocs can — and should — negotiate everything from their salaries and vacation time, to intangibles like their title, duration of the appoint, travel to international meetings, the use of undergrad assistants, teaching relief, and so on. Says Tricia Striano, associate professor at Hunter College in New York, “If there are five postdocs and only one or two students, well, if I’m the smart postdoc, I will ask for that beforehand.”

Obvious as it may sound, interpersonal relationships with the postdoc mentor (and prospective labmates) really matter. Anne Brunet, assistant professor of genetics at Stanford University, says her hiring process is face-to-face and “communal.” Not only does the candidate meet with Brunet, he or she also meets separately with all her lab members, including a lunch, as Brunet puts it, “with everyone but me, so they can talk about me if necessary.”

Brunet, who won a Stanford Postdoctoral Association Mentoring Award in 2010, says once a candidate joins the lab, she and the postdoc sit down to map out goals, projects, and strategies. And they don’t just let those goals lie fallow; one of the things her postdocs appreciate, she says, is that she reviews them both quarterly (optionally) and annually (mandatory). “It’s not like a review where one is stressed out,” says Brunet, who currently has four postdocs in her lab. “They can think about it, reflect on it: What are my goals, and how can I succeed in those goals?”

The NPA recommends such annual reviews, or “individual mentoring plans,” as part of its “Recommendations for Postdoctoral Policies and Practices,” which outlines recommended policies for postdoctoral training. The NPA also recommends postdocs use these reviews to measure their proficiency in six “core competencies,” such as leadership and management skills and professionalism.

And then there are postdoc associations, which, if they existed when I was a postdoc, I certainly didn’t know it. These social clubs-slash-advocacy groups can alleviate the isolation that is part and parcel of the postdoc experience. As many as 62% of US postdocs may be international postdocs holding temporary visas, according to the Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report [Table 3-21]. At Cambridge University, graduate students (and most faculty) belong to specific colleges, which provide a kind of social structure, but postdocs do not. “There’s a bit of a wall if you are not part of the college,” says Simon Lacoste-Julien, a Cambridge computer-science postdoc and Canadian who did his graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. Later, though, after joining Cambridge’s Wolfson College, he joined the rowing team, took salsa classes, and just generally integrated himself into the wider university community. “It was like day and night,” he says.

The best advice: Scrutinize prospective postdocs as you would any other job. Of course the science must come first. But what are the benefits? What are the pros and cons? And negotiate accordingly.

~ by jeffreyperkel on September 1, 2010.

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