Providing Postdocs the Support They Deserve

Principal investigators should not try to make postdocs simply mini versions of themselves but instead commit to advancing their chosen careers, Vipul Sharma writes.

July 30, 2020
 
 
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When I started my doctorate, I expected, like most other Ph.D.s, that after graduation I would obtain a postdoc position that would lead to a faculty position and I would ultimately have my own lab. I created a plan for the next 10 to 15 years with those academic blinders on because I thought receiving a Ph.D. only meant becoming a principal investigator or going into industry to join a research and development team. No one corrected me, and I also got the impression that going into industry was a sign that you had failed to make it in academe.

Almost 10 years later, with a Ph.D. and postdoc under my belt, I still see and hear the same thing about the path of the triple P -- Ph.D., postdoc, principal investigator -- with an industry position serving as a far less attractive backup. But I have found that this conditioning can lead to frustration and disappointment for many postdocs. And it must be dealt with because there are so many other rewarding options, including academic positions other than principal investigator: research staff member, research advocate, teacher, science writer or journalist, consultant, medical liaison, entrepreneur, market researcher, product manager -- the list goes on. What is lacking is awareness about those options and how Ph.D.s and postdocs can succeed in them.

We need to understand that a postdoctoral position is a training position. And by “we,” I mean not only postdocs but also administrative staff and, most important, principal investigators. This training position is a temporary period that can help postdocs explore potential careers and engage in professional development. Principal investigators and others in academe should use that time to introduce them to different career options where they can apply the skills they already have (transferrable skills) and build on the skills they need.

Principal investigators definitely play an important role as mentors, because it is their responsibility to help their postdocs develop into what they personally want to do and not try to make the postdocs mini versions of themselves. Unfortunately, however, many postdocs feel that they need to be in the lab all the time and generate data, which is a result of a vicious cycle in which postdocs are conditioned in this way and principal investigators keep pushing them to be in the lab, thus perpetuating that conditioning. We must break this cycle and figure out a win-win strategy for both postdocs and principal investigators.

Principal investigators need to commit to advancing the career of postdocs. That can vary based on the people involved. But a good first step would be to work with each postdoc to prepare an individual development plan including research goals and expectations, and then annually reviewing that plan together to track the progress and see if any objectives have changed over time. This commitment can also include setting aside at least 15 to 20 percent of the postdoc time to allow for things like professional development, training in writing grant proposals and research papers, teaching courses, and attending professional conferences and meetings.

Granted, not every principal investigator has the requisite knowledge or experience in nonacademic careers to advise their postdocs about them. But if, in the course of developing the individual development plan, a postdoc expresses interest in areas outside their expertise, the principal investigator can encourage the postdoc to work with the college or university's career center and the professional development officer.

In fact, college administrators, such career office experts and professional development officers, should hold principal investigators accountable for guiding and supporting their postdocs' career goals and making sure every postdoc receives the mentorship they deserve. (Anonymous mentorship surveys can be a good tool to track these efforts.) They can also offer individual advising, career panels, communications training, leadership training and other resources and guidance for pursuing different career options. It could also be fruitful to assign each postdoc a mentoring team or committee made up of people from diverse backgrounds who can provide perspectives, connection and advice about not only about the postdoc’s current research but also their professional path in the future.

All this should be part of the 15 to 20 percent of the postdoc’s time at the research institute devoted to career exploration. When a postdoc joins a program as a trainee, their training should be part of their workday -- they shouldn’t be expected to try to obtain it themselves outside their work hours.

In short, postdocs, principal investigators and administrators must work together to inspire and develop best practices for successful mentorship and professional development. These practices will directly benefit postdocs and PIs, and they can also help the institution attract talented postdocs and have a better and more renowned research program.

Bio

Vipul Sharma (he/him) is a staff scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and co-chair for the diversity task force of the National Postdoctoral Association. During his postdoctoral training, he was part of the university postdoctoral association and collaborated with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs on multiple professional development projects. In September, he will become assistant director of postdoctoral affairs at the University of Chicago.

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