Mentoring and PI Productivity

Scientific careers live or die by productivity. But the truly productive senior scientist generates not just a steady stream of significant papers but an equally steady stream of postdocs leaving the lab ready to make significant contributions at the next stage of their careers. This was the message Thomas R. Cech (pictured left), president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and 1989 Nobel laureate in chemistry, delivered in his keynote address to a gathering of scientific and educational leaders at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Both the quantity of publications produced and the quality of mentoring provided--especially to postdocs--should count in the evaluation of a lab chief's suitability for future funding, Cech remarked.

"Post Docs: Training and Opportunities in the 21st Century," a 2-day workshop organized by Ruth L. Kirschstein, senior advisor to the director of NIH, drew participants including NIH Director Elias Zerhouni; Maxine Singer, president emerita of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Michael Teitelbaum, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Martin Ionescu-Pioggia, senior officer of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund; and four dozen other prominent figures in science and science policy. Speakers included Carol Manahan, chair of the National Postdoctoral Association.

Introducing Cech's keynote address, Zerhouni labeled the difficult circumstances facing many young scientists a "number one issue," noting that they discourage talented young people from embarking on scientific careers. Zerhouni expressed his hope that the workshop would "elevate this issue" and produce a white paper proposing more than "band-aid solutions."

The measures Cech suggested went well beyond the superficial. When HHMI-funded research projects come up for reconsideration, Cech told the group, the progress of the lab's postdocs comes in for scrutiny. "We don't have a formula" for making this assessment, but if a lab appears derelict, "it does really count against them." Cech's detailed description of the roles that mentors, funders, and postdocs play--or should play--in postdoctoral training generated a lively discussion of ways that mentoring can be included as a criterion for judging the success of principal investigators (PIs). Many participants agreed that federal funding agencies could play a role in creating incentives for good mentoring.

Moving young scientists toward an independent, productive, and satisfying career is the goal of successful postdoc training, Cech emphasized. The definition of success, however, should not--and in today's employment environment, cannot--be limited to a tenure-track appointment at a research university. Rather, it should include a range of career possibilities that make use of the postdoc's training and talent, provide opportunities for adequate income and career security, and make a worthwhile contribution to society. Cech noted that he, himself, has mentored 35 postdocs, 20 of whom hold tenure or tenure-track posts at research universities. Five left academe for other careers after being denied tenure. Some of his lab alumni have been "in and out of biotech" and others are staff scientists at research institutions, "a very good career path" for some people, Cech said.

To achieve its goal, a postdoctoral training experience must foster the young scientist's intellectual and career development, Cech stated. The lab should have an atmosphere of "scientific inquiry" that permits postdocs a degree of free exploration and participation in research decisions. Sound employment practices are "critical" and include "clear expectations," explicitly spelled out benefits, and continuing review of performance. Mentors' obligations also include providing postdocs practical counsel and aid in moving to their next post, as well as all needed facilities and supplies. And mentors should never add "surprise" responsibilities, a practice that is simply "not fair," Cech said.

The mentor's role involves specific responsibilities, Cech explained, including regular meetings with postdocs to give feedback and advice, and to discuss not only the postdoc's research results but also his or her plans and strategies for career advancement. Creating advancement opportunities, by attending and presenting at conferences and getting experience in teaching, public speaking, and grant-writing, are also a mentor's obligation. So, too, is providing "reasonable job security" during the postdoc years. Central to successful mentoring is keeping a "reasonable timeline in mind," Cech noted.

The postdoc is, above all, a temporary stage in a young scientist's career, Cech emphasized. To underscore this reality, he discusses with each of his postdocs where they hope or expect to be in 5 and 10 years and steps they might take to get there. Some postdocs, he noted, do not aspire to become independent investigators, but prefer to spend their careers as staff scientists in the lab of their mentor or some other PI. The decision to become essentially a "career postdoc" must, however, be a conscious career move with its own new expectations, Cech added. It must also bring compensation and status commensurate with a tenure-track scientist of equal experience.

Providing good mentoring is not an exercise in altruism by PIs, Cech noted. It is, rather, an element of doing top-flight science. Excellent mentoring attracts excellent postdocs and postdoc alumni in good careers, he added, make a lab "look good." Indeed, he said, "all the good people" who have worked for him have "made the lab very famous."

Fostering the environment for effective mentoring is also the responsibility of funding institutions, he went on. HHMI, for example, asks PIs seeking continued funding for the names and current positions of their postdocs during the last 5 years. This list becomes "a factor" in renewal decisions. HHMI scientific meetings include presentations by employment lawyers where PIs can learn about the legal aspects of employing postdocs. Human resource experts are also available to PIs who wish to discuss employment issues. All HHMI postdocs are employees, he noted.

In addition, Cech said, funders should limit the number of years that a person can be funded for postdoc training and should provide pay and benefits that are "reasonable" but "not too comfortable" so that the postdocs have "incentive for getting on with their lives." The compensation package, including benefits, must always be "crystal clear."

In the final analysis, each postdoc "has a lot of responsibility for [his or her] own career," Cech noted. Before accepting any position, a postdoc should carefully investigate all the details, including the responsibilities required, the opportunities offered, and the experience of "recent graduates" on the job market. Such care will become ever more important as research increasingly involves larger groups doing "team science," he added. "Science has really changed," but that must not become "an excuse to forget mentoring."

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