Tag Archives: graduate students



Trials and tribulations of a postdoc! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Trials and tribulations of a postdoc!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)


Traditional careers in academic science increasingly are recognized by many grad students and postdocs as being restrictive and problematic.  Rather than drop out of science, many individuals escape the negative features of the traditional faculty job in academia by finding more satisfying positions permitting research and teaching of science to be continued long-term.  Since this escape requires thinking new thoughts and a willingness to be unconventional, it is never easy.

Today’s dispatch covers an explicit and inspiring story of how one postdoc overcame these difficulties.  A heartfelt biographical note by Dr. Matthew Tuthill [1] describes how he found satisfaction and fun with both research and teaching at a somewhat unusual job position, after being progressively disheartened when pursuing the usual path to get a Ph.D. and advance up the academic ladder.  His story emphasizes that hunting for a new science job in science is never hopeless!

A postdoc becomes dissatisfied! 

Matthew Tuthill was following the traditional route for young researchers to obtain a job as a university scientist, but after several years researching as a postdoc he began to have serious doubts about his possibilities for landing long-term employment as a faculty scientist and getting research grant awards  It was disheartening that the research grind was diminishing his interest for continuing to work at science.  Many other postdocs today have exactly the same difficult feelings.

What to do? 

He then made the difficult decision to abandon the stock academic path and try to find a new career that would better satisfy his ongoing enthusiasm for being a professional researcher.  His choices widened when he looked at the work of his graduate school mentor, who had made important contributions to society by founding a Cord Blood Bank, and of a professor at a local 2-year college, who advanced student training in scientific research by involving them in the lab production of monoclonal antibodies.

He met with that professor, who worked at a 2-year community college, and came to see that the standard view about the limitations of working at such institutions is very wrong.  Those realizations opened his mind to recognizing that there are some good science careers with research and teaching outside of big universities and medical schools.  These opportunities had not been apparent earlier because they are wrongly considered unworthy for serious researchers; that realization emphasizes that job seekers must consider all possibilities for their job hunt (see:  “Other  Jobs for Scientists, Part I” , “Part II” , and “Part III” )!

A new job with both research and teaching opens up! 

Dr. Tuthill then was appointed to a faculty position at the same “quiet junior college in the middle of the Pacific” (i.e., in Honolulu) [1].  His employment involves both teaching science and scientific research, and provides the opportunity to help the young science students to develop personally and learn to conduct research.  He states that “many of my research mentors and peers considered it career suicide” to work at a community college [1]; however, for certain individuals this unconventional choice really is a dream come true.

After 10 years of working in this small academic institution, Dr. Tuthill concludes that his job there has helped him grow as a dedicated academic and as a science mentor.  His earlier dissatisfaction has been replaced by renewed enthusiasm for science and growing self-satisfaction for being an unconventional academic.  Thus, there is a very happy ending to this story!

Lessons to be learned from Dr.Tuthill! 

This true story nicely illustrates several directives that young scientists often overlook!  (1) There are many jobs outside universities and medical schools that are open to Ph.D.s in science; some involve research and/or teaching, while others do not involve direct research  (e.g., in advertising, finances, industries, law, media, sales, software, etc.).  (2) The more you talk with other working scientists, the more you will learn about which unconventional job possibilities are available.  (3)  Always be open minded and think creatively when seeking a new job; sometimes you even can create your own new position.  (4)  Never give up your hunt, and, be open to unexpected and unconventional options.  (5) Your final goal is to find a position that suits your abilities, your ambitions, your interests, and your skills; all individuals are different, so concentrate on finding a position that .will be good just for you!

Concluding remarks!  

I enthusiastically encourage all graduate students and postdocs to read Matthew Tuthill’s fascinating biographical story for themselves.  “Making a difference, differently” is in a recent issue of Science (December 2, 2016, volume 354, page 1194), and is available on the internet at:  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/354/6316/1194 .  Good luck!

[1]  Tuthill, M., 2016.  “Making a difference, differently”Science 354:page 1194.






Bright and Eager Young Postdoc in 2016! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Bright and Eager Young Postdoc in 2016!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)


Being a Postdoctoral Research Fellow is traditional for those pursuing a science career in academia.  Everyone agrees that postdocs play a  key role in modern scientific research and deserve to be much appreciated, but there presently is turmoil amongst postdocs leading to proposals that they should have a better salary, higher status, less routine work, and less job stress.  This dispatch is for present postdocs and grad students, and gives my views about some current issues.  My opinions reflect my own experiences with 2 postdoctoral appointments before I found a faculty job, and with several postdocs working in my own research lab on grant-supported projects.

What should postdocs aim to do? 

I have previously discussed this general question in detail (please see: “All About Postdocs, Part II: What Should You Work On and Learn as a Postdoc?” ).

How does being a postdoc help young scientists develop their career? 

The postdoctoral period (e.g., 1-4 years) provides much beyond what was learned in graduate school.  Unlike graduate students, postdocs concentrate on doing research, become technical experts on some instrumentation and methods, solidify their professional identity as researchers in a given area of science, master their ability to compose manuscripts and give oral presentations, and learn about the biggest problems faced by faculty scientists doing research.  Postdocs are analogous to medical residents; hands-on experience is a great teacher!

Postdocs also should learn very much about activities associated with researching (e.g., business aspects of being a research scientist, how the research grant system works, handling administrators and regulations, explaining what their research is trying to do, getting results done in time for deadlines, approaching famous scientists at science meetings, and, what unexpected challenges their chosen career will present).

Is being a postdoc necessary? 

It is not necessary, but sure is very useful for many jobs involving research!  Some faculty positions as fulltime teachers do not require postdoctoral experience.  Postdoctoral training now is increasingly required for researching in industries [1].  For science-related non-research jobs, a postdoctoral period with research usually is not needed; however, a year or 2 of practical experience working in the area is a big plus for landing a good position (i.e., if you want to be a science writer, work in a beginning position with some media organization before you seek a permanent post).

What can postdocs do if they cannot land a job? 

The postdoctoral experience should directly help you get job offers.  If a modern postdoc is unable to land a suitable job in academia (or elsewhere!), they should try hard to identify the cause or causes (e.g., not enough experience, missing some key expertise, amateurish affect in interviews, distance of personal research interest and skills from those wanted by the employer, lack of teaching experience, likelihood for winning a first research grant, etc.).  To identify your causes, it is useful to imagine that you are the potential employer and you are evaluating and interviewing yourself!  Try hard to stop making excuses and start being realistic and decisive about yourself!

Sometimes your candidacy will be strengthened by another postdoctoral position!  In other cases, it becomes obvious that a faculty job is not within your reach, so a major shift in career goals is needed.  The skills mastered and the research experience you obtained as a doctoral degree holder and postdoctoral fellow qualifies you for many good positions outside academia, and even outside research.  Get advice from postdocs who recently succeeded in finding a good position in science.

If everything bothers you so much, then why remain as a postdoc? 

“Permanent postdocs” complain bitterly that they are trapped and being used only as technicians.  Dealing with this quagmire is no fun, but necessitates being brutally realistic!  Are you really sure you would be happy in academia?  Maybe a good science-related job would be better instead of spending more years struggling (see  “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part III: Unconventional Approaches to Find or Create Employment Opportunities” ).

Not every research scientist wants to have to deal with the business of research grants!  They would be very happy to let someone else worry about that, so they can concentrate on doing experimental bench research.  Changes are afoot whereby professional research positions are becoming available with no teaching duties and no requirement to obtain research grant awards.  These newer academic positions have various labels, such as  Professional Research Staff, Associate Researcher, or Senior Researcher; salaries, benefits, and job atmosphere seem quite appealing!

Commentary on some common mistakes and misunderstandings made by postdocs! 

I will now list and comment on what I see as mistakes and misunderstandings for modern postdocs.  Whether you agree or disagree, see if any applies to you.

  1. Select your mentor and postdoctoral institution according to what you want for a future job and professional identity.
  2. Being a postdoc is not a continuation of graduate school; it is much more and quite different!  Become an expert!  Become a professional!
  3. Postdocs are not yet fully independent scientists; some big activities are conducted by the mentor, so be grateful no matter what happens!
  4. Many problems bothering modern postdocs are a direct preview of job problems science faculty have to deal with (see “Why Are University Scientists Increasingly Upset With Their Job?  Part II” )!
  5. There is nothing wrong, and often is something quite beneficial, with having a second postdoctoral experience!
  6. Becoming a permanent postdoc (i.e., a super-technician) mostly is your own fault. Take a look at industrial science employment, non-faculty science jobs, and non-research jobs available for doctorates in science.  Make changes, be more clever, and try something new, or, make the best of it!
  7. In my opinion, the main special benefits of the postdoctoral experience are becoming better with handling the time problem, getting several good publications, understanding research grants and the business of being a scientist, getting to know other researchers and talking to famous research leaders, and, learning exactly what it means to be a fulltime professional scientist!

A personal statement from Dr.M!  

Working on scientific research as a postdoc often is one of the most exciting and wonderful times for scientists.  It certainly was for me!

Concluding remarks! 

Being a postdoctoral researcher should be an enchanting experience for any dedicated scientist!  The world of postdocs now is opening up; postdoc positions now are more numerous in industrial research labs [1], and longer-term professional research positions with good pay and benefits are being established at universities.


[1]  Woolston, C., 2016.  Industry: Open for business.  Nature  537:437-439.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v537/n7620/full/nj7620-437a.html .






            All universities have individual differences and special features in their graduate school programs for instructing student scientists working to earn a Ph.D.  Nevertheless, during this advanced education leading to a thesis defense, certain aspects of useful and needed instruction commonly are missing. My belief is that these absences often  result in practical difficulties for later research activities by scientists working in universities.


            The long extent of graduate student education in science (e.g., 4-8 years) is necessary to prepare them to become doctoral researchers and scholars.  Three very primary problems arise during any career as a research scientist working in a university: (1) managing  time, (2) dealing with the research grant system, and, (3) avoiding any corruption.  It seems very surprising that there is not any course work and little special attention currently being given to address these very important practical difficulties. 


An intense course in time management would be eminently useful for professional scientists in any branch of science.  Another course of instruction or a series of directed discussions about the organization of the current research grant system and how to deal with it would be immensely helpful to all new faculty scientists.   The number of courses available concerning integrity and ethics in scientific research now is rising; this instruction certainly is badly needed, but must be expanded even further; in addition, there needs to be better recognition that all professional scientists must accept that there can be absolutely no dishonesty at all within science.  General instruction about standards of ethics in science is very important and should commence at a very early age; ideally, this will start long before any actual choice of a career in science has been made. 


            Some of the classical subjects for instructing graduate students in science now continue to be  offered, but are taken only infrequently.  These include the history of science, inter-relationships and differences between the major branches of science, the key laboratory experiments which gave rise to famous findings and new concepts, and, general requirements for the design of good experiments and valid controls.  A solid course in the use of applied statistics for analyzing experimental data is frequently available, but many graduate students in science choose to not take such; this seems surprising, since most faculty scientists performing experimental research will readily admit that statistics is vitally useful for their data analysis. 


            In addition to coursework, several other valuable and useful subjects can be covered in semi-formal discussion sessions.  These include: how to select a postdoctoral position and mentor, what types of jobs are available for science doctorates, how to find a good job,  how to get promoted, how to self-evaluate your progress and reputation as a research scientist, special features of working on scientific research within industry, and, the role of engineering research and development in the modern science enterprise.  These sessions are likely to be much better if 3-5  faculty researchers working in different areas of science are present, such that several aspects of each topic within the different branches and disciplines of modern science will be brought forward. 


            Improving pre-doctoral education in all branches of science will produce a big payoff.  Better pre-doctoral science education will make for better scientific researchers! 



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