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PIs need to help postdocs develop their careers

Some call them “the lost generation”: the growing number of postdocs who go from one short-term contract to the next, only to see their academic careers truncated by a lack of permanent job opportunities. At the EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse, France, earlier this month, a lively panel session explored what could be done to ease the situation. The discussions echoed the widespread view that profound changes to the academic system are needed, and there is no quick and easy solution.

But panelist Renée Schroeder, who leads an RNA biochemistry research group at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories in Vienna, drew from her experience to show that action can be taken. In a follow-up conversation with Science Careers, Schroeder offered advice for both principal investigators (PIs) and postdocs about what they can do to help improve the situation at an individual level. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: During the session, you said that some PIs treat their postdocs poorly. What exactly were you referring to?

A: I have seen so many different issues over the years. Sometimes PIs don’t let their postdocs pursue their own ideas; they constantly give them orders about doing this or doing that. Other times, PIs do not reward their postdocs’ creativity, or they keep them in their lab for too long. I have also seen PIs who do not prepare their postdocs for their next career step. PIs have a responsibility to help postdocs reach their career goals, whatever they are, but particularly when postdocs want to stay in academia, because PIs have the specific experience and ability to help with this path.

But then I realized that there is something even more damaging to the careers of young scientists who want to become group leaders: PIs not allowing a postdoc to develop a project of their own and take it with them when they leave the PI’s lab. That’s a situation that is very tough on a young researcher, having to propose research that is entirely novel to you while trying to establish yourself. This happened to two of my very good Ph.D. students after they completed successful postdocs, and both have now left academia. I would say that succeeding in these conditions is almost impossible.

Now, I don’t think that PIs who treat their postdocs poorly are the majority, but there are a lot of them. Maybe it’s not the fault of the PIs; I blame the system. PIs, and in particular those who still have to establish themselves, are under too much pressure to publish in high-impact journals and get grants to be able to worry about anything else.

Q: You also mentioned launching a pilot project at your institution to reinvent the postdoctoral phase of an academic career. Can you tell us more about that?

A: The project was the Vienna International Postdoctoral Program (VIPS), and I got a €4.3 million grant from what was then called the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research and the city of Vienna to run it. The idea was that postdocs would receive a 3-year fellowship, which included salary and research money, extra mentoring, and guaranteed growing independence so that the postdoctoral phase would become a true stepping stone to a group leader position. During these 3 years, the postdocs—who were selected primarily based on their creativity—worked with a PI to develop a project of their own. After that, they continued working in the PI’s lab for another 3 years, but they had to secure their own grant and were allowed to focus exclusively on their own research. Most importantly, upon leaving the lab, they could take the project with them. And all along, the postdocs received mentoring from a committee so that they would not have to solely rely on their PI, as is usually the case.

The program only funded 20 postdoctoral positions—it was only ever meant to be a pilot project—but the VIPS postdocs were much more successful at getting PI positions than other postdocs. This is because by the end of their 6 years, VIPS postdocs had shown that they knew how to be creative, develop their own projects, and get the necessary funding. Many other universities contacted me to see if they could implement similar programs.

The program ended in 2016, but it had a long-term impact within my institution, especially when it came to educating PIs. The major point that I managed to get through is that PIs have a responsibility to the people working in their labs. It’s difficult enough to make it in academia, and there are so many things that PIs can do to help.

Q: What have you done to help your own postdocs?

A: I didn’t take a single cent from VIPS, as it could have been perceived as a conflict of interest. But in my own lab, I have long enforced the idea that PIs should help postdocs develop their own projects and let them take the research with them if they want to pursue an academic career. And I give my postdocs the opportunity to mentor Ph.D. students, because supervising is part of the training necessary to become a PI. Our institution also offers training to prepare for grant and job interviews, and I encourage them to take full advantage of that. Finally, I have an open-door policy so that postdocs can always see what I am doing in the office and learn what the job is like.

But it has also always been clear to me that not everybody wants to become an academic, and not everybody is capable of becoming an academic. For postdocs who want to leave academia, I encourage them to start applying for positions in industry or elsewhere quite soon after they have made their decision so that they can learn about the types of jobs that are available and gain interview experience that will help them make the jump once they think the moment has come.

Q: What can postdocs do to help themselves?

A: Above all, postdocs should choose their lab well. One way is to see what happens to the postdocs after they leave the lab that you are considering joining. Nowadays, most PIs will at least provide the names of their former postdocs on the lab’s website, so you can Google a few to see what they've done. Do they seem to progress in their careers? Even better, you can try to talk to them directly.

Trainees who want to become PIs should address the question of scientific independence during the interview. You may say something like, “I’m interested in this and that research. Can I develop my own line of research? Can I take it with me when I leave?” Also enquire about the authorship culture of the lab. If you plan to stay in the lab for a long time, ask if you can publish as last author to get the credit for your ideas and what you did. More generally, you could also say upfront, “I can help promote you as a PI. What can you do for my career?”

Trainees may be afraid that they will not get the job if they bring these things up during an interview. But if you cannot discuss these issues openly right at the beginning, or if you do not manage to agree on how to handle them, then you probably shouldn’t go to the lab anyway.

This is part of a series of Q&As from this year’s EuroScience Open Forum.