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Success factors for postdocs: Be prepared!

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Ensuring a successful postdoctoral appointment and using the experience to launch a solid career require careful preparation. Scientists who responded to this year's postdoctoral survey, sponsored by Science Careers, outline strategies based on their personal histories.

Ensuring a successful postdoctoral appointment and using it as a springboard to an equally effective scientific career demand careful preparation. That's the main lesson provided by respondents to the third annual survey of postdocs sponsored by Science Careers. The idea that a Ph.D. scientist can drift into a postdoctoral appointment because one is available and then rely on reputation and natural talent to obtain the first job in academe, government, or industry simply doesn't apply to the 21st century workplace.

"The survey results confirm what we have been saying: Enter a postdoctoral position with a strategic plan regarding your long-term objectives and how you will get from point A to point B," asserts Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association. "We have also been encouraging people to consider plan B. If their objective is to secure a tenure-track position, they should consider the likelihood - probably low - for getting one. So they should have an acceptable second choice and ensure that training is available to help expose them to issues other than the tenure-track."

Participants in the survey also rated the factors that had the most influence on their choice of a postdoctoral position. The principal investigator, the direction and vision of the PI's team, and the availability of mentoring, the opportunity to network, and funding and grants for the would-be postdocs' research scored the highest rankings.

Influential Factors

The survey, conducted by Cell Associates, aimed to identify the main factors that influence the success of a postdoctoral experience. Over several weeks starting in early June, 1,661 qualified survey takers in the United States and Europe responded online to a series of questions about their postdoctoral supervisors, themselves, and issues related to their careers. A large majority of 84 percent of surveys came from scientists in the United States. The remainder came from individuals in continental Europe, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. About two-thirds of the respondents had held a single postdoctoral position or were currently involved in their first postdoc. Of those who had held multiple positions, 69 percent did so to receive additional training, while 37 percent continued their postdoctoral research because of poor job prospects; some respondents quoted both reasons and some of those sought additional training more than once. Three-quarters of the respondents held or had held postdoctoral positions in academic institutions. Three-quarters also cited life or medical sciences as the discipline in which they carried out their postdoctoral work. 

Three factors had the most influence on respondents' choice of specific postdoctoral positions: the research topic (mentioned by 86 percent of respondents); their principal investigator (76 percent); and good publication prospects (70 percent). And what attributes did potential postdocs seek in their PIs? Scientific quality, revealed in such factors as publishing in leading journals, being a recognized leader in the field, and attracting talented scientists to the group and keeping them happy featured in answers from 65 percent of respondents.

Slightly fewer survey takers - 59 percent - mentioned issues related to the direction and vision of the PI's team, such as giving postdocs the autonomy necessary to develop independent research, having a clear vision of where the group is heading, showing willingness to take risks to compete effectively, making continuous improvements, and making changes when necessary to keep moving in the right direction.

Mentoring and Other Issues

Similar percentages regarded effective mentoring, via ready availability to give advice, help in resolving problems, and career guidance; encouragement of networking, through opportunities to attend scientific conferences and to meet influential researchers; and easy access to help in obtaining funding and grants as very important factors in the choice of a PI. Surprisingly, perhaps, only 41 percent of respondents rated a fair salary and compensation and job security as major attributes. And just 16 percent noted help for spouses or partners to find jobs as a key factor. While respondents on different continents agreed on most attributes, Americans regarded mentoring and funding as more important than did Europeans, while the Europeans put more stress on help for partners.

Scientists plainly don't start their postdocs in the pursuit of financial riches. Last year's median annual salary for the American respondents still working as postdocs was $38,000. (The sample size was too small to provide meaningful salary numbers for European postdocs.) Only 11 percent of participants reported receiving compensation other than a salary. For just over half of those, that took the form of travel costs.

Postdoctoral positions represent way stations to the academy for a majority of survey takers. On completion of their postdoctoral studies, 62 percent of former postdocs and 55 percent of current ones hoped to land a tenure-track academic position. An additional 15 percent of former postdocs and 20 percent of current postdocs sought to start their careers in industry. And 14 percent and 12 percent of former and current postdocs looked for nontenure-track positions as research scientists.

However, respondents who have finished their postdoctoral work reported clashes with workplace realities. Only 54 percent of those who sought tenure-track academic posts actually found such positions, while the number who became nontenure-track research scientists exceeded by 50 percent those who originally wanted such work.

Positives and Negatives

Postdoctoral research inevitably has positives and negatives. In general, survey participants most appreciated the opportunity to work with colleagues who could help them in their research, the independence and freedom to choose research projects that a postdoctoral appointment provides, and the chance to learn new techniques. On the down side, many respondents cited low salaries and job insecurity as unfavorable parts of the postdoctoral experience. Others complained that they lacked independence and/or had poor relationships with their supervisors.

To explore those feelings further, we talked to a small number of respondents. They recounted their own experiences before, during, and - in the cases of former postdocs - after their postdoctoral research. They provided advice on how wannabe postdocs should prepare for their experience, in terms of finding a suitable position and organizing their expectations for it. And they recommended actions that current postdocs should take as they ready themselves for the remainder of their careers.

One key to that advice is the issue of what makes a good postdoctoral experience. "A successful postdoc would be when you can develop your own skill set and become more independent and find your niche," says Rachel Wain, a British life scientist in the third year of her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco. "And if you want to become a PI, you should also learn more about the academic field, so that you have more understanding of grant writing and items you don't get exposed to as a Ph.D. student."

Joseph Graber, a microbiologist who has just started work as a AAAS science policy fellow after completing his postdoctoral fellowship, takes a similar view. "I would define a successful postdoctoral experience as one that moves the fellow forward to the next stage of his or her career, whatever that may be, and provides the fellow with opportunities to acquire skills and experience that will be necessary for that career," he says.

Three Success Factors

Alexander Owyang, a scientist at Xoma (US) LLC who completed a single postdoctoral appointment at pharmaceutical firm Schering-Plough Biopharma (formerly the DNAX Research Institute), enumerates the success factors. "Number one, you're able to move on to the next stage - to get a scientist position that you would enjoy," he says. "Number two, you are able to increase and expand your expertise. And thirdly it's great to have good peer-reviewed publications, because they validate your contribution to the body of knowledge." Alexey Wolfson, an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado who completed two postdocs, puts the issue more pithily. "It's doing really good science, publishing it, and being satisfied with what you are doing," he says.

The postdoctoral experience doesn't focus entirely on the research. "Postdocs give a very good opportunity to hone your communications skills, such as presenting before an audience and writing papers," says Kevin Civerolo, a scientist at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

For many scientists nowadays, the original postdoctoral appointment represents merely the curtain raiser to a second postdoc, at which point the individual will begin the tough task of finding the first job. "It's common now in France that you do two postdocs," explains Jonathan Weitzman, a British life scientist just appointed professor at the University of Paris 7, after completing postdoctoral appointments in the United States and France and working as a senior research scientist at the Pasteur Institute. "In a second postdoc it's a matter of choosing a mentor who can help you find a job. No one would take a second postdoc in a French lab that doesn't have the political connections to offer you the chance of a job."

Some individuals see each postdoctoral appointment as the stepping stone to more of the same. "A successful postdoctoral experience is one in which you further your skills and secure your next postdoc," says Alison Donnelly, a postdoc at Trinity College, Dublin, who has had eight postdoctoral appointments - some lasting just three to four months - since 1998, when she finished her Ph.D. in environmental science. "In Ireland," she explains, "we have very few research institutes. The majority of the research is carried out in universities." That fact leaves very few tenure-track positions available to postdocs, and leads to a system in which multiple postdocs are a fact of life.

That situation isn't restricted to European countries. Civerolo, for example, undertook two postdoctoral appointments, both in atmospheric science, before he took his present job. Many other American scientists now feel unable to resist that particular career track.

High Points and Low

Inevitably, postdoctoral scholars go through highs and lows in terms of their work and their lives outside the laboratory. "The most positive factor for me is being in an environment where we are very well funded," says Lori Hudson, a first year postdoc at DukeUniversity. "And the collegial atmosphere: All the people in my group are very open to sharing their expertise. The only negative thing would be the pressure to work nights and weekends. I think the issue of work-family balance is typical for scientists."

Jessica Ward, a coral specialist also in the first year of her first postdoc at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, affiliated with the University of California, San Diego, tells a similar tale. "My most positive factor is the environment I work in," she says. "I have a very supportive mentor, and all the other postdocs in the lab have been very helpful. For Ward, the negative side is more personal. "My partner is on the East coast and about to move to Kentucky as a faculty member," she notes. But even that problem has a potential solution. "I had a long talk with my PI about a grant proposal; I hope we'll find a way to share my time between San Diego and Kentucky," she says. "I also discussed with him our plan to start a family. He was incredibly supportive."

Other postdocs have experienced more negatives than positives. Wain, who took her skills in protein folding to a prion laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco, soon found her expectations dashed. "My lab doesn't have any graduate students, so opportunities to improve my supervisory skills haven't been available," she points out. "And with the prion field being as political as it is, it's difficult to gain independence." Wolfson, meanwhile, found his first postdoctoral appointment to be "a disaster" for a strictly scientific reason: "The project didn't work," he recalls. "It gave me negative feelings about myself."

Taking a Proactive Stance

In response to the negatives, some respondents have taken a proactive stance by helping to form postdoctoral associations intended to improve their lot. "I've been involved with the postdoctoral association at UCSF," Wain says. "There have been improvements made. There's a big drive towards mentoring." In Ireland, Donnelly helped to set up the Trinity Research Staff Association, which aims to support the growing number of postdocs who have faint prospects of tenure-track jobs by encouraging the university to provide courses in such issues as research management and policy development.

Postdoctoral associations play obvious roles in furthering the goals of their members. But the essence of ensuring a successful postdoctoral experience is advance preparation by the individual. "I did very little preparation," Donnelly recalls, regretfully. "I finished my Ph.D. with the thinking that I would do a postdoc or two and get an academic position." Eight years and eight postdocs on, the academic position remains a dream. So Donnelly advises scientists seeking postdoctoral appointments to undertake thorough due diligence. "Think very carefully about what you want to do," she says. "Visit the university where you want to go and ask: What are you going to do for me? Are you going to provide professional opportunities? Are you going to mentor me? Will you help me to decide how to get out if I want to, by providing short courses?"

Postdocs regard face-to-face meeting with potential PIs and their team members as almost mandatory elements of preparation. "To learn about the working environment of the lab that I'd be joining, I had numerous conversations with my prospective mentor, with other researchers who'd had previous interactions with him, and with current and former graduate students and postdocs who were working or had worked in his lab," AAAS science policy fellow Graber remembers.

Thorough Preparation

Owyang of Xoma undertook his own thorough preparation for his industrial postdoctoral research project. "I started the process more than nine months before I left graduate school," he recalls. "I sent letters to a couple of dozen laboratories in California, including DNAX. That was the only industry I contacted, because it has a rich history of academically oriented research. The company had very rigorous interviews, which included all the PIs. I knew they were interested because near the end of the day, the PI of the group I was interested in handed me a folder containing all his recent papers - most of which I had already read. I chose to accept their offer because it seemed like a great opportunity to do basic research while also gaining exposure to the biotech industry."

Weitzman of the University of Paris 7 points out that prospective postdocs should consider the background of their potential PIs. "You face a choice: Do you go with a young rising star or someone more established?" he says. "My second postdoc, with a scientist towards the end of his career, allowed me to be completely independent."

Postdoctoral independence means making provision for the career beyond the postdoctoral appointment. "If you just treat the postdoc as a holding pattern, it's probably a recipe for failure," the National Postdoctoral Association's Reed asserts. So any scientist should think about a variety of job possibilities as soon as possible. "Don't feel that you're on a narrow track," Civerolo of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation advises. "There are industry, government, nonprofit, and other opportunities out there as well as academic ones. Understand that postdoctoral appointments are generally short - one or two years - so you're on a steep learning curve. And don't be afraid to try new things or go in another direction entirely; be flexible."

Skills for a Wider World

Part of that flexibility involves developing skills that will benefit the individual scientist in the wider world. "Try to write your own grant applications or to go for independent funding," Wolfson advises. "You should do so not so much to get the grants, but to get the experience." Graber agrees. "Apply for independent funding early and often, regardless of whether or not your mentors have money available to pay your salary," he counsels. "Having a successfully funded grant application on your CV opens doors to any career that you might move to." Weitzman's experience illustrates that fact. "By the time I had finished my second postdoc, I had an independent grant on which I was the leader," he says. "And I had established a network of colleagues."

Hudson at Duke University summarizes the issue of preparing for one's career after the postdoctoral experience. "Have clear goals," she advises. "Don't get too sidetracked with, say, assay development. Make sure that your individual projects are benefiting you as well as the lab. After all, you have to be a little selfish." Ward of the Scripps Institution has her own upbeat view of how postdocs should get ready for their scientific careers: "You need to stay focused and have a plan," she recommends. "You need to have fun. It's not the end of the world if you don't get your dream job. You can justify it if you're enjoying your work."

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