Moving Toward Autonomy in a Postdoc

February 13, 2003

Question: I want to make sure my postdoc experience is productive, but I also want to get it over with as soon as possible. What can I do to make this happen?

Answer: The length of time it takes to complete a Ph.D., coupled with the almost mandatory years of postdoctoral training, deters many a student from even going into the sciences. Those who do persist find the process can mean 10 years of work during which they receive only modest compensation.

The postdoc part of the training is meant to serve as a transition to professional independence. But as with any move toward autonomy, the process can be rocky because of the inherent tension between the needs of postdoctoral researchers and the needs of their faculty advisers/principal investigators. Sometimes postdocs want to "move out of the house" before their supervisors are ready for them to leave; at other times, the reverse is true.

Your postdoctoral experience is, first and foremost, a period of apprenticeship for the purpose of gaining scientific, technical, and other professional skills that advance your career. You share the primary responsibility for the success of your experience. After all, you are a highly educated, highly skilled, intelligent adult -- you are qualified to guide the course of your own career and have the resources (career counseling, library databases, the Internet, mentors, and colleagues) to make yourself aware of career opportunities and expectations.

Postdocs need to look out for their own interests as they move toward professional emancipation, but at the same time, they need to stay in the good graces of their advisers. It's a fine line to walk, so we would like to offer a few tips on how to make sure your postdoc is a successful experience for both parties. (You can also find good advice in two publications: Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers" and "Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend,") both available online from the National Academy Press.

Know where you are going. You need to have clear training and career objectives in mind. Ask yourself the following questions: What do you hope to accomplish in the postdoc job? What skills do you need to improve? What new skills must you acquire? And, most important, where do you want to be in three or four years? If you don't know where you want to go as a scientist, you cannot possibly map out a course to get yourself there.

Discuss these goals with your adviser -- preferably before you take a position but most definitely very early on -- to make sure they are compatible with the opportunities available to you in the postdoc.

If you want an academic position, you'll need to find a postdoc where you can tackle an exciting, challenging, high-impact research problem that will provide you with opportunities for discovery and independence. You'll have to gamble -- but without risks, the rewards are lesser. You will need to become an expert in your area of research and to develop independent ideas and an independent project. You will need to be an effective communicator both orally and in writing. You will need published manuscripts that together tell a compelling story (that is, a record of productivity and a good job seminar), and you will need well-developed ideas for a future research project. You will need to define, by the end of your postdoc, what it is you wish to accomplish as an independent scientist. It will help if you have been successful in obtaining competitive doctoral fellowships. You do not need to have your own research grant to be competitive for academic jobs. Make yourself visible at meetings, talk to visiting seminar speakers -- in short, get yourself known.

If you want a position in a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company, you may want to find a postdoc where you can diversify your technical skills, work as part of a team, and familiarize yourself with therapeutic areas of research. Working as a team can lead to more publications on your résumé. Network and keep in touch with the biotech community. Know what's going on in your area of interest.

To be competitive for any position, you will need three or four letters of recommendation that are strong and meaningful. You will also need to have finished something as a postdoc -- at least one published paper.

Pick a project that matches your goals. Make sure your objectives for the project match the expectations of your adviser. If it's a tough project, make sure you are passionate about finding the answer. Read extensively, especially at the beginning. Talk with your colleagues, your advisers, anyone who will listen.

Depending on your career objectives you may want a project that has opportunities for "spin-offs" that you can take with you to your own laboratory some day. Alternatively, you may want to be part of a team and work on a clinically relevant problem.

Work hard, but work effectively. There is no doubt that your productivity is proportional to the time spent on a project, but it is not directly proportional. Productivity is also dependent on how efficiently and effectively you work. Have you thought things through? Are your approaches valid? Are they the best approaches? Are you taking the most direct path to your career objectives? If not, you are wasting your time.

Don't get stuck in an experimental rut. Talk about technical difficulties and hurdles with your adviser and colleagues. There is usually a creative alternative. You need to keep your experimental wheels running, or risk losing momentum.

Set short-term objectives. Before you reach your big goal -- say, your own laboratory -- you're going to have to meet a bunch of little goals. No one is going to monitor your progress toward your goals except you.

Think in terms of manuscript-size chunks. Papers are the only tangible, quantifiable product of our profession. Producing a consistent stream of work -- say, a paper a year -- will make you competitive. Look for opportunities for "short stories" as you work on your "scientific epic."

Remember you are in training. Go to seminars. Learn about different things. Keep expanding your knowledge base. A good one-hour seminar can be worth eight hours in the library (or on the Internet).

While you're pursuing your science, remember that you have to be able to communicate your results. That means learning how to write effectively. Produce multiple drafts of your papers. Try writing a fellowship application. You can check out fellowship options at or at databases in the library. Seeking grants will always be part of your job, either in academe or industry, so learn to do it well.

Remember your postdoc is not just a job. Postdoctoral training is an investment in your future. It should be accomplished in three to four years. Keep yourself in a position to meet this time frame by thinking and planning ahead. In preparing for the job market, actively take advantage of your institution's resources, advice from your mentor, and discussions with your peers.

Be aware of your advisers' obligations to you. Advisers should make their expectations clear; take seriously their responsibilities in training and serving as mentors; be accessible for discussions, troubleshooting, and data analysis as well as advice on data presentation and manuscript preparation. Advisers should also be able to help you with the job-seeking process and with learning about career opportunities. And you should feel free to approach your adviser for instruction in areas like manuscript review, grant writing, teaching, ethics, and lab management.

If you aren't getting most of these things from your adviser, it's time to think about whether you are in the right postdoc.

Janice W. Hill and Sandra L. Schmid are guest writers this month, filling in for our usual Career Talk columnists, Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick. Hill is director of employee and graduate-student counseling at the Scripps Research Institute, and Schmid is chairwoman of the cell-biology department at the institute.