Fellowship Goals for PhDs and MDs: A Primer on the Molecular Biology Postdoctoral Experience

This article is reposted with the permission of Cancer Biology and Therapy The original reference is: Kern, S.E. Fellowship Goals for PhDs and MDs: A Primer on the Molecular Biology Postdoctoral Experience. Cancer Biology and Therapy 1:74-75, 2002.

The COSEPUP report on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers delineated the role of the research advisor "to help advance the postdoc's scientific abilities and professional career." Our intent in reposting this article is not prescriptive, but rather to bring forth one advisor's view of what constitutes an ideal postdoctoral experience. We encourage discussion of the article on the Postdoc Network Listserv or Next Wave Forums.

Your postdoctoral years, like the first year of college, should be among the most fun and rewarding of your life. After fellowship, you will never again have unlimited time for both the laboratory and reading, virtually free of administrative paperwork, with the salary, supplies, equipment, and space procured by someone else for one solitary reason: your consumption! The 'postdoc' is a precious but finite juncture at the maturing of competence, the culmination of decades of education. Out of classes, now earning a salary, and still the responsibilities of a faculty or industrial position are not yet your burden.

To those that can savor the technical side of life, the postdoctoral fellowship does not simply approach the freedom and protection of sixth grade, it is summer vacation itself. And yet commonly and unfortunately, the time is not invested wisely or is terminated prematurely before the critical goals can be achieved.

The goals and expectations of clinical training programs and of non-medical graduate schools are often rather explicit. The educational backgrounds and training positions of the students in these programs are very similar, and this allows for ready comparison among peers. A date for the completion of training is established with plenty of attendant formalities. Virtually none of these structures holds for postgraduate research training.

Some guidelines are offered here which serve as a framework for how I view the role of my laboratory in fostering training and career development. Below, I reprint a formal set of recommendations contained within a document that has evolved within my cancer biology laboratory, with continual input from our postdoctoral fellows, since 1994. It is previously unpublished, but has been shared with scientific colleagues and circulated among the postdoctoral association of my institution. The document is provided by me to each newly arriving postdoctoral fellow and portions are discussed openly and often at our weekly laboratory meetings. I have found that the simple recommendations contained within are not platitudes, but come as surprises and represent extreme difficulties for many trainees. One could compare this document to the formal review sheets distributed to faculty members by individual training programs and departments for the purpose of trainee evaluation; I have long felt that the latter can at times be poorly designed, encouraging an evaluation of imprecise qualities, such that their use might even be harmful to the trainee-mentor relationship. In contrast, the below objectives are meant to be relevant and unambiguous, useful to mentor and trainee alike in facilitating a constructive discussion. The best people get a reputation for being unique and productive, and these guidelines can, to a limited degree, be altered as appropriate for individual differences. However, allowing for modification for the needs of the various disciplines of biology, the guidelines represent minimal expectations for training of the typical high-quality fellow and will therefore apply to nearly everyone.

Fellowship Goals

Years and Environment: Molecular biology training (pre- and post-graduate) should include at least four to eight years of full-time benchwork. You should have significant experience in at least two different laboratories. You must identify role models and seek out mentors; the latter are anticipated to play a supportive role during and long after your fellowship and should be persons that view your potential with greater aspirations than do you. Your training experiences should be broad, although your eventual career should be focussed. In your laboratory of final training, the first months will often involve a nearly total immersion in supervised technical experience on an ongoing and productive project. The middle phase of this training will be geared to model building, data analysis, and publication. The last phase should demonstrate your leadership of your work and intellectual contributions towards the projects of others in the lab. For at least two years, you should lead your own project in a competitive subject matter. It is not always advisable to lead your own project in the initial phase, as this is not necessarily the best training experience at that stage; the exceptions are people who take the initiative to create an appropriate and competitive project. Here we are discussing minimal goals; I had 8 1/2 years of postgraduate training before I started my lab, and it was another two years before we had a model that could begin to generate preliminary data for grant applications. The appropriate time to leave for an outside faculty position is when you are exhibiting leadership abilities that would take flight were you to build your own research group.

Perseverance: Good projects may take a year or more to set up. Return is often proportional to risk. Don't expect publications or preliminary data suitable for grant submissions while you are involved in creating a truly novel approach. Don't count on being done too soon.

Hours: Twenty hours a week is "getting your feet wet" in research and is appropriate for students and residents wondering in which direction to take their training. Forty hours is typical for hourly workers such as technicians and is serious exposure to science for someone who plans on later training for a science career; nonetheless, this is not professional-level training and by itself may not prepare one adequately for a competitive career. Sixty to eighty hours, which includes reading and work, are devoted by the more competitive fellows. Eighty to 120 hours are routine in clinical training, but may be incompatible with a researcher's need for creativity and precision.

Reading: At least seven hours a week of quiet reading in molecular biology is recommended, and counts toward the above weekly goals for training. Read one large text per year (Genes, Molecular Biology of the Cell, etc.) or the equivalent in specialty texts. Subscribe to and religiously follow three top science journals (Science, Nature, PNAS, etc.) and read all of the mini-reviews in biology, even those outside your field; an offbeat subject you notice repeatedly but don't understand is a clear sign that you should set aside time to tackle it. Be familiar with another half dozen journals. Using this approach, you will miss no important topic. Read all the literature regarding your research subject; to review 60 good papers is a beginning.

Quality: Determine how something should be done before doing it. Worry about leaving messes behind for others to clean up. Follow standard lab rules. Become known for identifying problems early. Get a reputation for being meticulous in the lab as well as in your writing.

Execution: There must be credible follow-through: efficient and full completion of the planned experiments, incorporation of obligatory adjustments as difficulties emerge, construction of the manuscript, assertive participation in the response to peer review, and publication of the paper. The position of first author is usually and appropriately reserved for the person that enables final publication, not to the initiator of an idea or experiment. Most successful trainees will achieve two to four first-author publications and will have additional participation as a co-author on other works.

Understanding: Having varied experiences, publications, and a reputation for working hard are only intermediate goals. You must attain a deep and wide fund of knowledge. Compare the relative benefits of competing strategies before launching new efforts. Know the reason for every step in every protocol you use. Understand how the parts fit together to construct the whole, both in papers you read and in projects you undertake. Attendance at large scientific meeting at least once each couple of years provides a perspective on the major approaches and personalities that constitute your scientific community. Participation in the peer-review process (such as aiding in the manuscript review duties of the mentor) is generally available for trainees that have acquired the appropriate richness of perspective. Co-authorship of a review of the field is a valuable training experience, offered upon the appropriate opportunity to accomplished trainees that have already drawn the required fund of knowledge within their reach. Conceptually, the ultimate goal is to master the subject, to become a leader with a vision of where a field needs to go. This vision should guide your reading and your experimental direction. Practically, you plan for the day when someone will offer you seed funding and you must demonstrate the ability to design, execute, publish, and renew funding for your own independent work.

Communication: Volunteer to present your research publicly at every opportunity; pursue formal presentations to large audiences. Towards the end of the fellowship, successful trainees become adequately comfortable with the research such that they could "represent the lab" at national or international meetings. Interpersonal skills are required that would enable you to manage a group of your own. You must become excellent in one-on-one argument, in effortless participation in small group discussions, in clear and enjoyable public presentation, in organizing your thoughts and data in experimental plans and in manuscripts, always buttressed by an expansive fund of knowledge. Become obsessed with attaining these skills. Fail to do this, and you will not have a career as an independent investigator.

Dedication: The most successful scientists get a reputation for openly enjoying science to a ridiculous degree, and are adequately well-rounded to briefly excel at a wide variety of other activities outside the lab. But in the scientific community, what are you known to get most animated about? Where are your extra minutes invested? Science is a business, and trite as it may sound, your reputation is on track when the answers scream "dedication."

Lab Culture: Successful labs have a successful culture. Employers that recruit from successful labs hope that they are purchasing the culture along with the person. Whether you are representative of the culture, and whether you can reliably propagate a similar culture, are important.

Returning to the investment metaphor, the postdoctoral years are a limited resource to be invested for highest return. Towards the appropriate goals, you can manage these investments actively and productively. The next phase of your career will present you with a lesser degree of control...unless you have vast investments to draw upon. For your postdoc, I will wish you the sharpening of abilities. For your career, I still will wish you the best of luck.

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