Tag Archives: postdoctoral research associates

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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SHOULD RESEARCH SCIENTISTS BE UNIONIZED?

 

Should Research Scientists be Unionized?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Should Research Scientists be Unionized?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Unions traditionally are for workers in factories, offices, or the trades (i.e., trade unions), but more recently also are active in many other situations where employees feel they need protection from their employer.  Most scientists working in universities or industrial research and development (R&D) centers presently are not unionized.  However, some university science teachers, workers in science-related jobs, and hospital staff do become unionized.  In recent times, many employers have set up grievance mechanisms in order to try to preclude the need to establish unions as a protection against perceieved or actual workplace abuses.  This essay takes a closer look at the present claims for research scientists to become unionized.

Background. 

Many scientists working as professional researchers in universities now have major job problems with (1) time management, (2) obtaining sufficient money from governmental grants to support their research, and, (3) demands for dishonesty (see: “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” ).  These very general problems now cause much job dissatisfaction for university scientists (see:  “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with their Job?  Part I” ).  All 3 large practical problems are due to misguided policies and practices with:  (1) modern universities, (2) the current research grant system, and (3) the commercialization of science (see: “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” ). 

For faculty scientists at universities and medical schools, the research time problem bothers everyone greatly, but probably is not yet severe enough to support union-based strikes or job actions.  Different levels of the research money problem are faced by everyone doing laboratory research within universities; although dissatisfaction with this situation is very widespread, official complaints are strongly prevented simply because all grantees want to continue receiving research grant support throughout their careers (i.e., do not bite the hand that feeds you!).  The corruption problem in modern science is ignored by many scientists because they are too busy worrying about their time and money problems, and do not wish to become  involved with investigations and charges that do not directly involve them personally.  Hence, the very largest job problems for scientists in universities do not readily encourage unionization and union-based protests. 

For scientists in industrial laboratories, job problems are less frequent and seem less severe than in academia.  Their problems with time often are solved or at least minimized by gaining administrative approval to hire more support staff.  Any problems with research money frequently are dealt with internally when admninistrators shift job priorities and budgets.  Problems with corruption are less prominent in industrial labs, unless professional researchers are asked to change research results or interpretations of data in order to facilitate business aspects of their employer.  Industries are more on the side of their employees than are universities, and clearly need to promote the performance of their science employees as an important part of their drive for business success; thus, there presently is only a limited need for industrial scientists to seek recourse by unionization. 

Some special situations in science could lead to unionization. 

Certain job situations for today’s professional scientists increasingly recall the historical tradition where groups of ordinary (non-science) workers formed unions to protect themselves from abusive employers.  I will briefly discuss here 3 solid examples of modern instances where efforts with unionization now are either progressing or being considered. 

Postdoctoral Research Fellows typically spend several years doing full-time research before they are able to become good candidates for employment in universities, industrial  R&D centers, or science-related positions (see:  “All About Postdocs, Part I.  What are Postdocs and What Do they Do?” ).  When the number of available new science job positions declines, as in recent years, some Postdocs stay in these positions for at least a decade; although they are pleased to be paid to do research work, they are not truly independent, have minimal job security and limited retirement benefits, and, do not have a career or status appropriate to all their long training and professional research publications.  Postdocs easily can become captive workers.  Hence, these  temporary employees increasingly feel that “The Science System” is abusive and is taking advantage of them.  In response to complaints from Postdocs at many sifferent locations, universities try to make improvements by establishing some administrative post to handle all matters concerning Postdocs.  Little ever changes, so the complaints continue; any good changes are countered by the ready availability of many new foreign Ph.D.s eagerly seeking to come here as Postdoctoral Fellows (see:  “Why Does the United States now have so Very Many Foreign Graduate Students in Science?  Part I ” ).  Recently, some local or regional groups of Postdocs are critically discussing their predicament, and are seeking to develop changes in their present job status; whether this spreading discord will result in unionization of Postdocs remains to be seen. 

University faculty are becoming unionized at some educational institutions, both here in the United States and in some foreign countries.  Several unions and related organizations now deal with educational activities and business matters, but these associations also include numerous non-science faculty.  University faculty usually are reluctant to join a union, but sooner or later come to see that there indeed is strength in numbers.  Faculty unions sometimes elicit good adjustments and improvements in such factors as salary levels, employment benefits, and, issuance of documentation about what is expected from faculty employees.  Union-derived positive changes generally affect all the faculty, rather than only members of the union.  The harsher and more one-sided modern universities become, the more will unionization of their faculty be encouraged. 

Tenure for science faculty is a specific job problem that can be found both at universities and some industrial R&D centers.  Promotion to tenured rank uses somewhat different criteria at each school, and each individual candidate is at least slightly questionable.  Although nationally a subatantial number of scientists is involved with tenure each year, this issue at any one institution concerns only some few individuals; such fragmentation means that unionization of scientists as a means to improve this problem is very difficult.  If anyone compares the situation for tenure decisions at universities having faculty unions versus those that do not have unionized faculty, then it is obvious that the rules and regulations for achieving tenured rank are much more openly stated and carefully followed by the former institutions.  Due to mistakes and abuses with the tenure decision, this complex issue is actively discussed and of ongoing interest to the professional faculty unions. Junior faculty scientists constitute a hidden national class of good potential candidates for modern unionization.  

Are there any alternatives to unions for scientists? 

In my opinion, unions presently only play a minor role for professional scientific researchers.  Since science workers in universities do have serious job problems, one must ask whether there are any other mechanisms available to advance the general job status of faculty scientists.  The answer to this question is “yes”!  Most professional scientists are members of at least one science society.  These national associations sponsor annual meetings (see: “All About ScienceMeetings” ), publish professional journals, organize educational endeavors, and promote the advancement of their discipline.  These organizations often have thousands of dues-paying members, and thus have notable similarities to large unions.  Some of the current issues for professional scientists described above seem very suitable to be addressed by the national science societies. 

Concluding discussion. 

At present, unions are not numerous amongst all the many professional research scientists.  Some of the major job-related issues faced by research scientists at universities are well-suited to be ameliorated by unionization; however, the scientists actively confronting these issues at any one institution are not numerous, and so do not constitute the large number of workers traditionally engaged by unions.  When confronted with seemingly hopeless, unfair, and downright stupid job conditions, scientists are not  being unprofessional when they turn to unions so as to resolve the several difficult job problems in their profession.  Science societies have many features that are strongly analogous to unions, and should be encouraged to start helping their member scientists to better deal with major job-related issues.  

 

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