Finding Good Postdocs

When I get together with other young principal investigators (PIs), I find that the conversation invariably turns to how difficult it is to find good postdoctoral fellows to work in our labs. This problem is acute, not only at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, but also at many other research institutes and universities. When we, as young PIs, express our concerns to well-established older investigators, the typical response is "publish a bunch of Cell papers and they will come." First, that's easier said than done, because you've got to attract good people in order to get the work done in the first place--a classic catch-22 situation. Second, even elite laboratories whose work is frequently featured in prestigious journals have trouble attracting good people. This situation led me to ask: Why is it difficult to recruit good postdocs? And what can we at Fox Chase do to improve the situation?

Why is it so hard to find good postdocs? Put simply, in these good economic times, there are many ways for college graduates to earn a living--ways that offer better compensation and more security and are not encumbered by the delayed gratification inherent in training for a career in scientific research. To pursue a career in scientific research, these bright, young people--who could easily make much more money doing something else--elect to defer just compensation in order to undergo an extensive period of training. During this training, they are paid relatively little and treated like indentured servants, all for the privilege of an uncertain job market when training is complete. Couple that with the fact that too many PIs have little interest in nurturing the careers of their postdocs--and limited time to do so--and it's pretty clear why students are not banging down the doors of graduate schools. All of these factors combine to limit the pool of available postdocs.

One Institution's Answer

So, how can we address the problem? Unfortunately, the problem of delayed gratification is difficult to remedy. Doing science well requires extensive training. So, the best we can do is treat those whose love of science compels them to endure these inherent difficulties with respect and actively nurture their careers. How can we at Fox Chase accomplish these tasks and, at the same time, distinguish ourselves from other institutions? This question motivated my colleagues and I to formulate a training program to meet the real needs of postdoctoral trainees--both their "quality of life" needs and their need to identify a career tract in an environment where the number of "permanent" positions in academia is limited.

Quality of Life Issues

Since postdocs are currently training well into their 30s, their needs are a bit different than they were a decade or so ago. Many postdocs now have families and have grown weary of the graduate student lifestyle; however, postdoc stipends do little to alter that lifestyle. To address this problem, we offer amenities designed to make postdocs more comfortable and elevate their standard of living. These include: subsidized housing to enhance buying power; an excellent subsidized day care for their children; a good benefits package including health, dental, and life insurance; and a postdoc association that helps postdocs acclimate to the area, get involved in social activities, and deal with problems that might arise.

Postdoc Training and Career Advice

Most postdocs complain of an absence of "mentoring." To the faculty at Fox Chase, mentoring means making trainees aware of the potential careers available and helping them acquire the experience/skills needed to pursue the career that they choose. We strive to do this early in their training so that they can explore their options and acquire the necessary skills well in advance of initiating a job search. Simon Milling, head of the postdoctoral association, notes that "Fox Chase is a flexible and responsive organization. The training program serves postdocs in many ways: We benefit directly from its activities; it is tailored to meet our needs; and many aspects are organized by postdocs themselves, providing us additional experience."

Two strengths of our program are involvement of the PIs and exposure to a wide variety of scientific careers. We encourage each PI to take an active interest in facilitating the career development of each of their postdocs, particularly with regard to pursuing a career in academic research. Additionally, we run a trainee seminar series in which the presentations are critiqued by faculty in an effort to polish the postdocs' abilities to give a compelling oral presentation. Kathy Seggerson found this experience quite useful: "After presenting in the trainee seminar series, I received a lot of helpful feedback about my talk from faculty and fellow postdocs, in addition to getting good suggestions about my research. Communicating to other scientists both within and outside of my field is a skill that is going to be absolutely crucial to me in my future career, and I think this skill has had a chance to improve here."

We also provide exposure to alternative career paths by bringing in speakers who work in diverse areas including pharmaceutical research, bioinformatics, tech transfer, intellectual property rights, teaching, etc. Our network of former postdocs and in-house training programs are instrumental in this process. Jennifer Rossi, a graduate student, comments, "The training program has provided me with access to individuals whose perspectives on career possibilities for Ph.D.s are broader than the traditional academic's view. Speaking with Dr. Foley (head of business development for SmithKline Beecham) particularly benefited me, as I am pursuing a career that does not involve bench research. He provided me with insight into the skills necessary for the types of careers I am considering and suggested approaches for making myself marketable to those industries." This exposure to scientific careers is not limited to the seminar room. We encourage our postdocs to pursue 1-day "shadow" experiences with speakers they have met at Fox Chase. By shadowing science professionals during the course of their day, postdocs gain valuable insight into potential career options.

Of course, all training must be grounded in a strong research experience, because this provides postdocs with the highest degree of flexibility to pursue their career goals. However, each PI must also take a lead role in training outside the academic tract and those who chose these alternative careers must not be stigmatized. While we have only established a Web presence within the last month, we have already started to get inquiries from potential postdoctoral trainees. By creating our postdoctoral program at Fox Chase, we are confident that we will enhance our ability to attract talented postdoctoral trainees, thereby ensuring the productivity of our labs and the health of our institution.

David Wiest received his B.S. from Pennsylvania State University in 1984 and his Ph.D. in immunology from Duke University in 1991, following which he underwent postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Alfred Singer at the National Institutes of Health. Since 1995, he has been an associate member of the Basic Science Division at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. His laboratory focuses on understanding the way in which early thymocyte development is controlled by the pre-T cell receptor complex.