Tag Archives: postdoctoral mentor

POSTDOCS IN 2016 NEED TO BE MORE CLEVER, NOT MORE ANGRY! 

 

 

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 .

 

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SOME Q&A JUST FOR POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH FELLOWS IN SCIENCE!

 

Look!  I'm Getting Paid to have Fun Doing Research!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Postdocs are Paid to have Lots of Fun Doing Research!!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

By producing new research publications in science journals, postdoctoral fellows try to grow their reputation as active young scientists full of promise (see: “Postdocs, Part 2” ).  Postdoctoral researchers also typically solidify their identity with a given field of science.  One or more postdoctoral training periods usually are followed by acquisition of professional employment in universities, medical schools, industries, science-related organizations, new small businesses, etc.

This article is only for postdocs! It uses a question and answer format to offer my advice about some common problematic situations faced by postdocs in any area of science.  This advice is based upon my own experiences and observations during 2 postdoctoral appointments, and later as a faculty researcher and teacher.  I hope all of this will prove interesting and useful to you!

What practical accomplishments should I work for as a Postdoc? 

Number one is to make research discoveries of importance, so that you will be first author of publications in major science journals.  Number 2 is to expand your technical expertise with research instruments, experimental approaches, and, subjects being investigated (e.g., other minerals, other stars, other life forms, other bases for chemical synthesis, etc.).  Number 3 is to make yourself known to leaders in your chosen research field; this often will provide more opportunities later when you are seeking a job opening, a collaborator, or, advice and counsel.  All of these will help establish your identity and reputation as a professional scientist. 

How can I work on my own special subject of interest as a postdoc? 

This common question is misplaced, since you should have settled this before accepting any appointment as a postdoctoral fellow (see “Postdocs, Part 2” ).  Once your position starts, your options are limited because you then are obligated to work on the research project(s) of your chosen mentor.  Recognize that all the skills and experience you acquire now with any research operations can be used sometime later to examine your own favorite research subjects.  

Should I work only on a single research project as a postdoc? 

If your mentor approves, you can work on other projects, too, if they do not interfere with your primary research objective.  For example, you might contribute your expertise with some research instrument to the project of a fellow postdoc who does not know how to operate that, but needs the data.  These internal collaborations are a good way to get some extra publications and to increase your range of research experience.  But, remember what your chief effort always must be given to! 

How can I, as a young postdoctoral researcher, get noticed by other scientists? 

You must take the lead! The number one way to get noticed is to publish important results of your research in good science journals; quality always gets noticed, and speaks for itself.  You should present research results every year at science meetings.  At meetings, you can invite a few selected scientists to come and look at your poster; if they have given an invited talk, find them and ask one or 2 well-phrased questions about their research.  Another good request is to ask for permission to show one of their published figures during your presentation of an abstract at a science meeting. 

Should I take a second or third postdoctoral position? 

If you are committed to finding employment as a research scientist, but no suitable job openings are available, then the answer is “yes”.  With an additional postdoctoral period, you then will be able to continue doing research and will gain additional publications.  However, if you have not found a job because you are out-competed by other job seekers, you should look for additional training at another postdoctoral position so that will fill in your weak area(s).  There is nothing wrong with working as a postdoc for some longer time, provided you are not used as a technician or a slave.  If you can find a suitable mentor who values your work, has research interests like yours, and is well-funded, this can be eminently satisfactory; as a “Research Associate”, your salary will advance, you will publish as first author,  and you will not need to worry about getting research grants. 

How can I learn about good job openings? 

As the saying goes, “Read Science (magazine) backwards!”.  Study all their listed jobs every week, so that you can discern who is offering jobs, what types of positions are available, and which job opportunities and requirements are prominent with different fields and different kinds of employers; there also are several other good sites listing science job openings on the web.  Annual meetings of science societies often have a job center listing current openings; in some cases, interviews are conducted at these meetings.  Let a few of your professional contacts (e.g., scientists familiar with your work, your former thesis advisor, members of your thesis committee, external collaborators, etc.) know that you are actively looking for a position; not all jobs are advertised, and your associates might bring a few of those to your attention. 

What is most valuable in a postdoc’s curriculum vitae (c.v.) for landing a good job? 

Number one is peer-reviewed publications of your important research results.  Number 2 is how many research methods and instruments you have used and mastered.  Having given some guest lectures in a course could help in getting a university faculty job.  Attending advanced technical workshops can be a plus.  Applying for a patent, receiving a postdoctoral grant, or giving invited seminars always is impressive.  Customize your c.v. for each open position (i.e., an application for a university job is quite different from an application submitted for a job at an industrial R&D center). 

What should I present for my job seminar?  

Present something that is interesting, very solid science, and not too controversial.  Include some results that are not yet published, and be absolutely certain to leave at least 10 minutes for questions from the audience before your scheduled time limit is over.  Remember that your audience must be able to comprehend everything you say, and must see exactly how you and your research will fit into their local activities (i.e., not all employers want to hire a super hot dog researcher!).

How do I find out about the research grant system? 

First, ask your postdoctoral mentor and other local research grant holders to advise you about their strategy for meriting an award.  If your mentor reviews grant applications, request that you will be allowed to read one of them and then to also read their critique.  Second, carefully study the detailed instructions for writing a grant application put out by the several different federal granting agencies.  Third, if and when you feel up to it, spend one month to compose a practice grant application; ask your mentor to criticize it, and you then will learn very much that you now do not know! Lastly, study my recent article on “Unasked Questions about Research Grants for Science, and My Answers!” .  

Why will I later have to spend so very much time with research grant applications?  I want to work on research, not on shuffling papers! 

The short answer is that science faculty in academia need to obtain money for their research expenses, and research grants are the traditional way to get that.  What makes this much more difficult nowadays is the intense hyper-competition for getting research grant awards (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ); every scientist is competing with all other scientists, and everything in a career as a university scientist depends upon getting and staying funded.  Recognize clearly that as a university scientist you also will be a business person (see: “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities “ , and, “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” )! 

After my first postdoctoral job, I have decided that I will not work in a university.  I want a science-related job in business.  How should I apply for such? 

My best suggestion is for you to seek advice on good approaches from one or more scientists having exactly such a position.  Be rigorous in checking out all possible employers, and note who has been hired recently.  Before your interview, get facts and figures about each business, and then adapt your c.v. or resume to the specific company or opening.  Try to construct a few ideas whereby your science and research training will help them with their business activities and objectives.  Be aware that many large companies have an initial training period when  the new employee is fully instructed about their business and the employee’s role(s). 

Concluding remarks. 

For many university scientists, their postdoctoral years were the best and most exciting in their entire career.  Work hard and enjoy it! 

 

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ALL ABOUT POSTDOCS, PART II: WHAT SHOULD YOU WORK ON AND LEARN AS A POSTDOC?

Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            This second part of a pair of articles about Postdocs is intended specifically for graduate students and current Postdocs.  It presents useful advice and information about how to be a successful Postdoc and how to maximize your rewards for doing lots of good research work.  This part differs enormously from the introductory first part, which is intended to be informative and interesting to general readers (see “All About Postdocs, Part I: What are Postdocs, and What do they Do?” in the Basic Introductions category). 

 Quite a few practicing scientists working in universities or industries will readily admit that their earlier time as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow was amazingly important for their career, and actually was very much fun (see my recent article in the Scientists category on “What is the Fun of Being a Scientist?”)!  Any Postdoc must work very hard, but this effort will be recognized later as having been a sublime chance to do really good research, because there were not yet any of the usual job worries about grants, teaching responsibilities, or bureaucratic intrusions. 

 How Do You Decide What to Work on as a Postdoc? 

 A very big question for graduate students finishing their thesis project involves asking themselves who they should work with as a Postdoc, in order to become an expert researcher in some field of special interest?  In turn, new Postdocs ask themselves a corresponding question, about exactly what they should work on?  Both questions are important, and really are the same in the practical sense.  Ideally, graduate students should find their new home as a Postdoc according to what kind of scientist they want to become; similarly, Postdocs should work on some research project which has their personal interest and will prepare them to become a professional expert researcher in that area of science.  The reason these 2 questions are equivalent is that all research activity in modern universities is determined by research grant awards (see my earlier article in the Money & Grants category on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities”).  Hence, postdoctoral research opportunities directly depend on the research plans approved and funded by those grant(s) held by the Postdoctoral Mentor; this successful scientist often is famous, and will be your teacher, supervisor, supporter, and guide during your period of postdoctoral work.  The Mentor’s obligations to their research grant(s) automatically either define or circumscribe what any new Postdoc in their lab can work on. 

             The Mentor might even explicitly assign a research topic to their new Postdoc, along with indications about which methodologies will be used.  The extreme example of this scenario is where some extremely famous and very long-funded senior scientist greets their new Postdoc and then goes over to a giant map displayed upon a wall; together, they look at the large branching tree-like diagram where an entire lifetime of connected research studies is depicted, along with the names of previous graduate students and Postdocs who have worked on each of the many small branches.  The supervisor then informs the Postdoc which of the next steps is their assignment.  At the other extreme, a Mentor might give the new Postdoc vastly more freedom, and state that anything is okay so long as their new lab investigations are within the scope of the Mentor’s research grant; of course, the Postdoc’s designs for new experiments should be submitted for review and criticism by this Mentor before anything begins at the laboratory bench.  Most new Postdocs will find their situation to be somewhere between these 2 extremes.  It is best not to get emotional about any restrictions or mandates, since a large part of the goal for all Postdocs is to learn many new and different research approaches; even any directed work will fulfill this goal nicely.  

 Graduate students should recognize that advertisements (e.g., in each issue of the journals,  Science and Nature) inviting applications for open postdoctoral positions almost always state a particular research subject or domain, meaning that there will not be any completely open choice for what will be investigated.  As an example of this situation, assume that you are a new Postdoc coming to work with a Professor in a Department of Materials Science.  This Mentor is a well-known expert on dynamical aspects of self-ordering chemical polymers, and has a research grant involving experimental studies of one class of organic polymers.  It would be extremely unlikely that this Postdoctoral Mentor would or even could let you concentrate of working with either inorganic polymers or organic crystallography.  However, this same Mentor might acquiesce to your having a small (5-10% effort) exploratory project in those areas, provided that such will be done in addition to your large (90-95% effort) main project dealing with self-ordering organic chemical polymers; the rationale for accepting this new aspect would be that the additional exploration could serve to expand the capabilities of the lab’s research operations and the scope of a future grant application.  Despite any anxiety about priorities, Postdocs should never hesitate to discuss their ideas for new experiments with their Mentor; this will produce useful criticism from the Mentor’s longer experience.  Postdoctoral Mentors are your research partners, and almost always are eager to discuss new ideas and science questions from their postdoctoral associates. 

             In general, it is a good idea for Postdocs to work on several projects and to also participate in some joint effort(s) with other researchers in the same lab.  This will make the Postdoctoral Fellow more valuable, and provide them with more publications.  Regardless of what you work on, it is important to start realizing that the clock is always ticking, and you are expected to produce good publications and abstracts from the beginning of your postdoctoral period.  Presenting an abstract about your thesis research at a science meeting will be okay only if you also give a second abstract about recent results from your postdoctoral project. 

 What is Expected of All Postdocs?  What should Postdocs Actually Learn?    

             Young scientists can think of the postdoctoral experience as a chance to show what they can do in the research laboratory, and, as an opportunity to learn how to do much, much more.  All Postdoctoral Fellows need to produce good research results of publishable quality from their hands-on experimental investigations.  Postdocs must dive right in and produce good results within their first year of work.  This means that there are very different time limits than were present during the period of graduate studies leading to a doctoral degree (i.e., many graduate schools set a time limit of 7-10 years for a thesis to be completed and defended successfully).  The message here is that since Postdocs have to produce publishable results, there is no time to waste any time! 

            Postdocs can not push things into the future (e.g., “I want to learn this new method, but I do not have enough free time to do that now”).  Instead, they simply must accomplish that and do it right away.  It is a very poor idea to take up postdoctoral time to finish publishing their Ph.D. thesis research; some Mentors even will refuse to accept any recent graduate for work as a Postdoc in their lab unless that person already has finished publishing their thesis results.  Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs typically are very much more intense than was the case for their thesis research in graduate school. 

 In addition to enlarging their expertise with new kinds of lab experiments, Postdocs should also seek to learn many other important new skills.  In science, these will include large expansions of knowledge, research capabilities, problem solving, critical judgment about experiments and data interpretations, and the organization of scientific investigations.  Postdocs also will learn much outside the laboratory, including how to construct applications for research grants, criticize the published output of both other scientists and themselves, deal with business and regulations, handle the resolution of problems and disputes, and, manage time and money.  Some of this will be accomplished simply by doing and observing, but other aspects necessitate requesting time with the Mentor for personal instruction.  Various philosophical and practical issues for being a successful modern scientist commonly are encountered by Postdocs; these include how to avoid wasting time or money, be able to say either “No!” or “No thank you”, correctly evaluate priorities and decide what is possible now and what should be put off until later, evaluate and judge the output and capabilities of other lab workers, learn the importance of always adhering to professional ethical standards (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “Why is it so Very Difficult to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?”), plan ahead for hours, days, weeks, months, and years, etc., etc.

How are Postdocs Evaluated? 

Evaluation of the quality, progress, and success of Postdoctoral Fellows traditionally is done by scoring the number and importance of their research publications, and, by inspecting where they are able to later find employment.  Being a good Postdoc will be a big help for you in both aspects, and later will aid you in meriting research grant awards.  The Postdoctoral Mentor also benefits notably from your level of success with researching and publishing. 

Graduate students are not always clear about the differences between their graduate thesis research and their postdoctoral work.  There are major differences in the number of experimental studies conducted, the number of other lab personnel working with you, the types of research instruments and experimental approaches utilized, and, the speed with which progress must advance.  Here, I will limit myself to explaining the key paradigm of “promise versus performance”, when used as a yardstick.   A typical doctoral graduate in science has acquired basic knowledge, some advanced skills, a thesis, and some small number of research publications.  Most of this initial performance (i.e., What has this student already done?) barely registers in the domain of promise (i.e., What can this young scientist do in the future?).  During the subsequent postdoctoral period, the young professional develops more and more performance through their new research findings, new publications, new advanced skills, new levels of expertise, and a growing reputation as a researcher; as a consequence of that, their promise also increases dramatically during the postdoctoral period.  When Postdocs later will be considered for their first real job position, they often are viewed as having advanced to reach a level of around 25% performance and 75% promise.  In universities, after new faculty appointees have acquired research grants, achieved more good publications, shown that they are successful in teaching courses, and given evidence of their good independent judgment, their reputation and status will advance so they are valued about equally for both performance and promise (i.e., continued success in the future).  The chief message here is that the postdoctoral period should produce large increases in both performance and promise. 

Working with Your Postdoctoral Mentor

             For all Postdocs, the Postdoctoral Mentor is your teacher, supervisor, and coworker.  The main job of a Postdoctoral Mentor is to guide you to become a successful professional scientist.  Ideally, this Mentor will be a scientist who has your admiration, conducts studies that fascinate you, always impresses you by their expertise, is someone with whom you can communicate well, and serves as a model for exactly what kind of professional scientist you would like to become.  The Mentor even can become your friend!  Picking a good Postdoctoral Mentor thus has several big consequences for your career in science.  The choice of a Mentor often is finalized in coordination with your selection of where you will work as a Postdoc and afterwards (i.e., industry or university, research institute or hospital, domestic or international location, big or small institution, large or small lab, etc.). 

Both your thesis advisor and your Postdoctoral Mentor play important roles for your future life as a scientist, and both deserve your respect and gratitude for their efforts on your behalf.  Both can serve as your main role model for being a professional scientist.  But, they also have some significant differences.  The thesis advisor typically regards you as a student colleague, while the postdoctoral mentor looks at you as a collaborator and coworker for their research project(s).  Hence, the latter often interacts with you in a more flexible way than is the case with the former.  You will not often openly disagree with your thesis advisor, but it usually is much easier to disagree and challenge your Postdoctoral Mentor.  This becomes particularly important when you are discussing exactly what experiments to work on and how to conduct them; there can be much more give and take with your Mentor as your co-worker in research.

Concluding Remarks for GraduateStudents and Present Postdocs

Developing your professional reputation as a researcher in science often depends mainly upon what you have done as a Postdoc.   Regardless of what area you work in, your job as a Postdoctoral Fellow is to become an expert scientist, to produce excellent research results, and, to publish important research reports.  For many successful professional scientists, the postdoctoral experience is seen many years later as one of the most creative and productive portions of their entire career. 

Make the best of your research work and time as a Postdoc!  Dr.M wishes you much good luck with everything!

 

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ALL ABOUT POSTDOCS, PART I: WHAT ARE POSTDOCS, AND WHAT DO THEY DO?

 Bright and Eager Postdoc in 2014!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

What in the world is a “Postdoc” in the arena of science?  Why do most new science Ph.D.’s spend at least one additional year as a Postdoctoral Fellow?  What do Postdocs work on?  What do Postdocs get for their efforts? How are Postdocs important for scientific research?  Most people in the general public have no idea about answers to these questions!  This article is the first of a pair about Postdocs.  All in Part I is intended for general readers who are not scientists, but who have curiosity about scientific research and wonder how it is accomplished; it will  inform you about the why’s and wherefore’s of being a Postdoc.  The subsequent Part II will not have interest for general readers, and is specifically aimed at advising graduate students and current Postdocs. 

What are Postdocs?  Why are 2-8 Years in Graduate School Not Sufficient to Make a Scientist? 

             Postdocs officially are Postdoctoral Research Fellows. They aim to become much more experienced, independent, knowledgeable, skillful, and versatile than are the raw products of any graduate school program.  As nascent research scientists, Postdocs work (e.g., 1-4 years) to greatly expand their understanding and insight in experimental science, broaden their research skills, increase their research publications, advance their reputation as a productive researcher, and, mature into independent professional scientific investigators. 

             Why would any new doctorate in science need to get this advanced training and additional experience in scientific research?  The basic answer is that a new science Ph.D. mostly has knowledge only in one subject area, and practical experience with only a small number of research approaches.  The training acquired during coursework and the laboratory experiments that served as the basis for a Ph.D. simply are just a foundation that is not sufficient to make the young researcher qualified for university employment as a faculty scientist.  New graduates need to go far beyond what their graduate school training and experience provided.  They need to greatly widen their experience, deepen their expertise, and more firmly establish their professional identity, before they are qualified to find employment as a professional scientist.  To do that, Postdocs work with new kinds of research instrumentation, new research systems, and new research questions.  They also learn much about being a professional scientist and dealing with all the non-science problems that will arise during their later career.  Postdocs thus work to become fully-fledged independent professional scientists.  Postdocs do not receive any certificate or diploma for successfully completing their efforts; instead, they obtain confidence that their new high-quality research publications and advanced know-how will be a big help in finally finding a good job as a scientist and researcher. 

             Readers who are not scientists might better understand the purpose of the postdoctoral period if they will view it as being analogous to the advanced training of a professional chef.  Being able to make a mousse dessert or cook a stuffed goose is not enough to be a master chef.  To achieve that rank, they must work in a number of different apprenticeship positions before finally having enough of both specialized culinary knowledge and on-the-job experience to become a head chef, and later a restaurant owner.  For hiring new university faculty in science, the postdoctoral experience is essential.  For hiring at industrial research and development centers, there is a less rigorous demand for postdoctoral training, particularly because these employers generally have an extended and highly specialized training program for all their newly hired scientists; that program can be considered as being equivalent to a mini-postdoctoral experience.    

 What Do Postdocs Actually Do? 

             Being a Postdoc almost always is a particularly exciting time.  It involves intense learning, development of skillful expertise in hands-on experimental investigations, maturing of critical judgment and ability to organize efficient research efforts, and, establishing one’s identity and reputation as a professional research scientist.  Each year, hard-working Postdocs analyze their new data and then publish their research results, give presentations at a national or international science meeting, and ponder exactly what sort of job they will seek later.  Postdocs must dive right in and try to produce good publications with important new research results within their first year of work.  Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs are much more intense than was the case during their years of graduate school studies. 

             In addition to their laboratory experiments, Postdocs seek to learn many new skills outside the laboratory.  These include observations and instructions about how to handle rules and regulations, deal with problems of time and money, criticize both their own work and that of other scientists, compose manuscripts, present research reports orally, apply for research grants, and, work in coordination with a team of laboratory co-workers.  In their research investigations, some Postdocs even are given the opportunity to direct the operations of a research technician or graduate student.  All of these instructive situations vastly increase the competence of the Postdoc to deal successfully with future activities and responsibilities arising later in the course of their career. 

             Many research scientists hold more than one postdoctoral position, either by choice or of necessity, before they find a good job in academia, industry, or elsewhere.  Postdoctoral salaries now are at good levels so that this is a realistic proposition; quite a few Postdocs already are married.  In modern times where good jobs are not so plentiful, some scientists even work in postdoctoral positions for over 10 years.  I myself held 2 postdoctoral positions, one in France and the second in the USA; both were unique, exciting, utterly wonderful, and very valuable experiences for me!  

What are Postdoctoral Mentors, and Why are They Important? 

             Not all university scientists have Postdocs in their labs, largely due to their relative lack of success with the research grant system.  The supervisor of Postdocs, denoted as the Postdoctoral Mentor, is a successful research scientist who can offer time, financial support, good research facilities, experienced critical judgment, and professional guidance to their Postdoctoral Fellows.  For the Mentor, Postdocs are a big prize and contribute greatly to the success of the Mentor’s research projects.  The several Postdocs in my own research laboratory all were invaluable for research progress and much fun to work with. 

             The Mentor has a very important role because it is during the postdoctoral period that most scientists solidify their professional identity as a researcher specialized in some particular branch of science (e.g., microbial cell biology, or virology; materials science, or alloy metallurgy; lithium inorganic chemistry, or geological chemistry; astrophysics, or theoretical physics; etc.), and establish their basic reputation as a researcher.  The Postdoctoral Mentor guides the maturation of the new scientist and often serves as a role model for what a Postdoc aims to become.  Both the Postdoctoral Mentor and the thesis advisor certainly deserve some credit for what their younger associates later accomplish in the world of research. 

 How are Postdocs very Valuable for Science? 

             Postdocs have several characteristics as researchers that are different from both graduate students and employed scientists.  Postdocs typically are: (1) semi-independent workers, and so do not need constant supervision; (2) particularly suited for carrying out difficult experiments since they are ambitious, eager, energetic,  and highly motivated; (3) still young and more readily able to adapt unconventional approaches and make improvements to experimental research practices; and, (4) dedicated to completing research projects with efficiency (i.e., on time), so that they can publish their new results and thereby increase their reputation.  These characteristics mean that Postdocs play an important role in grant-supported research, and comprise the next generation of scientific researchers. 

 Concluding Remarks

             In Part I, I have presented the role of Postdocs within modern scientific research, and explained the importance of Postdoctoral Mentors as shapers of future research scientists and leaders.  Those who have never previously heard of Postdoctoral Research Fellows now should be able to understand and appreciate their important role in the research enterprise.  Questions about this topic and article are welcome via the Comments section.  

 

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