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!
GO BACK TO HOME PAGE OR SCROLL UP TO MENU
UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE