Success Factors for Postdocs: Ensuring a Fruitful Fellowship

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In this year's survey sponsored by Science Careers, principal investigators pinpoint the characteristics of postdocs and their supervisors that make for fertile fellowships.
by Peter Gwynne

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* Children’s National Medical Center http://www.cnmcresearch.org * Genentech http://www.gene.com
* Harvard School of Dental Medicine http://www.hsdm.harvard.edu
* National Postdoctoral Association http://www.nationalpostdoc.org
* National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research http://www.nidcr.nih.gov
* Northwestern University http://www.northwestern.edu * Roche Palo Alto http://paloalto.roche.com
* Rutgers University http://www.rutgers.edu * University of Alabama at Birmingham http://www.uab.edu
* University of California, Santa Barbara http://www.ucsb.edu

In a special survey that made its debut last year, Science Careers asked postdoctoral fellows to outline the factors that produce a successful postdoctoral experience — factors that turned out to focus mainly on the attentiveness and other attributes of their supervisors. This year, the second annual survey turned the tables. It sought the opinions of principal investigators (PIs) and other supervisors responsible for overseeing postdoctoral fellows about the capabilities — their own and their students' — that help to produce the most effective postdoctoral work, in terms of both well-trained fellows and significant contributions to human knowledge.

Participants agreed almost unanimously on the main attribute that they seek when recruiting postdoctoral fellows: 88 percent of respondents cited strong research experience. Other key factors that make a good impression on would-be supervisors include carrying out the Ph.D. projects for a supervisor with a good reputation (cited by 57 percent of respondents); having an interest in studying new fields of science (46 percent); and coming from a good research institution (38 percent).

What are the most important contributions that supervisors can make to ensure successful postdoctoral experiences? Of a dozen characteristics that the survey provided, 96 percent of respondents regarded good mentoring — including availability when postdocs need advice, the provision of career guidance, and help in resolving problems — as the most critical factor. Other key characteristics of supervisors rated highly by survey participants include communication within the supervisor's group (ranked important or very important by 93 percent of the sample), clear direction and vision for the work of the group (91 percent), and encouragement of fellows' ability to network, by sending them to scientific meetings, for example, and introducing them to prominent researchers in their field (90 percent).

Respondents' rankings of supervisors' key characteristics largely mirrored those of postdocs in last year's survey. However, two critical differences emerged. Whereas supervisors rated communication as the second most important characteristic of postdocs' PIs, postdoctoral fellows who completed last year's survey ranked it only 11th. And while supervisors this year put training their fellows in the nature of research projects and the tools necessary for them in 5th place, postdocs last year ranked it only 10th.

Invitation to the Survey
Science Careers launched the survey in mid May with an e-mail invitation to roughly 22,000 individuals. The titles of about 70 percent of the recipients indicated that they might have supervisory responsibilities, while the remaining 30 percent were postdoctoral students who were asked to forward the survey to their supervisors. All 803 scientists who completed their surveys were located in the United States. The majority worked in the life sciences, with molecular biology, cell biology, neuroscience, and biochemistry the best-represented fields. Slightly more than 71 percent of the participants worked for academic institutions.

Analysis showed that 77 percent of respondents had current responsibility for postdoctoral fellows, while the remaining 23 percent had done so in previous years. Slightly more than three-quarters of respondents had at least four years of supervisory experience, while seven out of eight oversaw between one and three postdocs. Just over two-thirds of the participants reported that they devoted no more than 20 percent of their professional time to their supervisory responsibilities; 70 percent of the sample asserted that they spent the appropriate amount of time supervising their fellows. Two-thirds of the respondents reported that postdoctoral fellowships in their laboratories averaged between one and three years, while just over a quarter put the average length of fellowships at four to five years.

No two supervisors deal with their postdocs in exactly the same way. But respondents' comments, under the curtain of anonymity, indicate the range of responsibilities. "I discuss research plans, review experimental designs, discuss data, discuss manuscript preparation, and edit manuscripts," says one. "I help with adjustment to the new lab and research area, define strategy of research, comment on experimental plans, discuss major results and problems, compose and/or edit meeting presentations and research papers, career advise, and help in searching for the postdoc's next employment," says another.

What have participants gleaned from their association with postdoctoral fellows? They generally agree that three main attributes characterize a successful postdoctoral experience. First, 96 percent of respondents pinpointed the ability of the postdoc to conduct high-quality research. Just two percent fewer supervisors highlighted learning to work independently as a key characteristic. And 93 percent of participants pegged the opportunity to publish work as essential to successful fellowships.

Three Other Attributes
Three other attributes scored relatively high. Eighty-three percent of respondents saw the development of research skills as critical for fruitful fellowships. And two issues — gaining knowledge of a specific scientific area and learning how to write grants and obtain funding featured in almost three-quarters of responses. Perhaps surprisingly, just 59 percent of respondents regarded learning to manage and supervise others as an important factor in the postdoctoral experience, while only 27 percent saw developing teaching methods as significant.

Supervisors of postdoctoral fellows and working postdocs have somewhat different attitudes to the attributes that contribute to successful fellowships. This table ranks the attributes judged for their importance by supervisors in this year's survey and by postdocs in last year's. The rankings, based on the percentages of respondents who mentioned them, fall into three tiers indicated by different shades of blue. The two groups have markedly different views about the importance of communication and training.

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While the individual postdocs bear the ultimate responsibility for the success of their fellowships, they rely heavily on their supervisors for advice and support. The survey asked participants to rate the importance to successful fellowships of a list of 12 factors for which PIs have some or all responsibility. The answers divided neatly into three tiers (see table above).

The first tier contains items that many young scientists would expect from their supervisors: mentoring; communication; setting a direction and vision for the research group; providing opportunities to network with other scientists; providing funding for postdocs' research or giving them significant help in obtaining their own grants; training; creating a work culture and environment that encourages individuals to treat everybody with respect and encourages collaboration; creating an ambience that keeps group members satisfied and attracts talented scientists to the group; and offering postdocs opportunities to explore options for their careers once their fellowships have ended. At least 83 percent of respondents mentioned those attributes.

The second tier of characteristics contains just two items. Quality of life, pinpointed by 73 percent of respondents, involves providing reasonable time off for family needs and giving researchers the ability to balance their professional and personal needs. And compensation and benefits, featured by 67 percent of participants, deals with the supervisor's provision of a fair salary and compensation along with job security. Finally, the third tier consists of a single attribute: the importance of helping postdocs' spouses or partners to find a job. A mere 60 percent of PIs in the survey regarded that factor as important to the success of a postdoctoral fellowship. Intriguingly, though, an even smaller 34 percent of postdocs had the same opinion in last year's survey.

The Need for Passion
Even before they embark on their search for a postdoctoral fellowship, young scientists should examine their motivations. "To be successful over the long term, one needs to be genuinely interested in science, both at the desk and at the bench," one PI asserts. "Do this if you love it and can't imagine anything else that would make you happier; don't choose research science if you are looking for a steady, solid career with reliable, regular compensation and rewards," says another. The research life also demands other, less obvious attributes. "Patience and persistence are necessary qualities to succeed," one survey participant says. "Be willing to work very hard," adds a colleague.

Once they decide that they possess the necessary passion and patience for science, would-be postdocs need to prepare themselves for the life of a fellow. In doing so, they should note the factors mentioned by the majority of supervisors in the survey. As far as possible, they should gain as much research experience as they can as early as possible. They should also aim to work with well-regarded Ph.D. supervisors in prestigious research institutions. And they should develop an interest in fields beyond those in which they performed their doctoral research. The ability to participate in interdisciplinary collaborations is a major calling card for present day emerging scientists.

How should early career scientists determine the best labs in which to do their postdoctoral work? Supervisors have probably the best take on that issue. "Go to the best lab you can find that will advance your professional career," one advises. "Choose a lab that has at least a national reputation in the area of choice," adds another. However, trainee scientists should not let reputations dominate their choice. "Don't choose solely on the prestige of the institution or the lab," a respondent warns. "I've seen many unhappy people in the best labs and many happy postdocs in mediocre labs."

Finding the Right Lab
Tracking down the right lab and supervisor for one's needs demands plenty of exploration. "Interview at a variety of laboratories," advises one PI. "Choose a lab where past postdocs have done well after they have left," another adds. "Talk to experienced postdocs who are happy," a third says. Would-be fellows should also find out as much as possible about working conditions in the labs of their choice. "Ask to talk to current trainees in the labs under consideration," one respondent recommends.

Having chosen a lab, soon-to-be Ph.D.s must convince the supervisor to hire them as fellows. Respondents provided advice on preparing for interviews with their potential supervisors. "Become more familiar with the research being conducted in the lab you are applying to," one individual advises. "Also, think of some interesting research questions that you would be interested in addressing if you took a position in the lab." Another strikes a similar theme. "Come prepared to ask questions about the lab and the research," the supervisor recommends. "Have specific goals for what you want out of your postdoc experience. Be prepared to say what your strengths are and why you should be hired. Think about what you will bring to the postdoctoral lab and what you will learn from the lab."

Do the PIs' attitudes reflected in the survey results mirror the reality seen by working postdocs? To answer that question Science Careers interviewed a group of fellows whose supervisors had recommended them as the cream of their postdoctoral crop.

Keith Micoli, postdoctoral scholar at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and chair of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), sees some disconnectedness between ambition and reality, particularly in terms of mentoring. "These supervisors are saying the right things, but we're getting an almost universal complaint from our members that a lack of mentoring is the problem," he says.

Postdocs in general have one other major complaint that does not score highly in the survey. "It's a quality-of-life issue — poor benefits, low salaries, and lack of access to other things that staff and even other students get," Micoli explains. "We receive complaints from some institutions in which postdocs have to go through conflict of interest hoops without having such benefits as the ability to obtain access to employer-matched retirement programs."

Postdocs Have Their Say
Like many postdocs, Micoli takes a pragmatic view of the essence of the postdoctoral experience. "It has to be publishing papers," he says. "Ultimately publishing affects your ability to get a job." Erik Charych, a postdoc in Rutgers University's department of cell biology and neuroscience, agrees. "When I started looking for a postdoctoral position, it was clear that the goal was to broaden your expertise in your field, to broaden your knowledge base, and to publish in quality journals," he says. "But now that I've been a postdoc for a year, my goal is to publish as much as possible in the highest quality journals."

Ensuring that postdoctoral projects become publishable demands plenty of thought by supervisors and fellows at the start of the process. "If your research is very risky and you haven't balanced it with other projects, your publication record can be at risk," warns Klaus Hoeflich, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of oncology at Genentech. "The PI or the lab has to have a backup strategy in case the project does not go through as planned," adds Ramesh Chittajallu, postdoc in the Center for Neuroscience Research at the Children's National Medical Center.

Choosing the right project demands good communication between supervisor and postdoc. "You've got three years in your first project and you have a lot to prove," Chittajallu continues. "If it proves not to be really doable, you and your PI have to communicate." Postdoc and PI should ensure that they are on the same wavelength as early as possible. "Especially at the beginning, communication is essential to figure out what the PI wants," Charych says. "There might also be a danger of postdocs drifting from their PIs if the communication lines aren't kept open. As a postdoc you need to be on a very loose leash, but the PI should avoid your drifting away too far." Michelle Kim, a postdoctoral fellow in central nervous system research at Roche Palo Alto, augments that point. "I really don't want to work under conditions of a leadership vacuum, nor do I want to be completely tethered to preconceived project goals," she says.

As in mentoring, NPA members' experiences in communicating with their PIs suggests a disconnect between reality and expectation. "Good communication is indispensable," Micoli says, "but not always done well."

An Interactive Lab
Communication doesn't involve only PIs. "An interactive lab is important — one that encourages communication not only with the PI but among its members," says Alison Criss, a postdoctoral fellow in microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University. "As research is trending toward multidisciplinary approaches, I value the opportunity to interact with scientists who have different realms of expertise, and therefore different ways of approaching a problem," Kim says. "It's not just your supervisor," Hoeflich adds. "The more collaborative your learning environment, the better your fellowship." Chittajallu adds a related criterion. "The lab has to have the physical resources — and the expertise of members who can answer the postdocs' questions," he says.

What characteristics make a perfect PI in the view of postdocs? Mohammed Razzaque, a junior faculty member in the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, has a pithy response. "The PI should have enough time and patience," he says. "PIs should also ensure that postdocs' grants are funded by providing enough intellectual inputs. And they have a responsibility to help and guide their fellows to reach their career goals."

Postdocs must not neglect their own responsibilities in ensuring successful fellowships. "Publication productivity is essential in today's job market," points out Gretchen Hofmann, an associate professor in the University of California, Santa Barbara's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. "And as you mature and start to look for a job, you have to strategize a way that is uniquely yours — the take-away part of your program." Micoli recommends that postdocs prepare their personal career plans as soon as they start their fellowships. "One of the key failings of postdocs going in is not recognizing that they're going into temporary positions," he explains. "They should go in with a plan to get out, just like a graduate going into grad school."

At the same time, PIs should remember that life exists outside the laboratory. "I don't think that working 24 hours a day is something that everybody can do," Criss says. "Every person has her or his own idea of balance. It's important for the PI to set the example. That means not necessarily taking account of the exact number of hours that postdocs put in but, rather, seeing good work done while realizing that fellows have to spend time out of the lab."

Been There, Done That, Put It into Practice

In addition to the scientific training it provides, says Klaus Hoeflich, a postdoc in Genentech's department of oncology, "a postdoctoral fellowship provides baby steps toward being an independent investigator." Unfortunately, postdocs obtain few clues on the directions in which they should take those steps. "The hidden tasks awaiting you when you become a principal investigator [PI] are to manage a lab and deal with people problems," explains Gretchen Hofmann, an associate professor in the University of California, Santa Barbara's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. "You don't get seminars on it; it's on-the-job training."

Not surprisingly, several young scientists who head their own laboratories after that training recall their own experiences as postdocs when they devise strategies for supervising fellows of their own. "The PI must know how to make for success in terms of the postdocs' own needs," says Wanjun Chen, a principal investigator in the mucosal immunology unit at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. "Everything I do," says Luca Santarelli, director of central nervous system research at Roche Palo Alto, "I couldn't do without my postdoc experience." Hofmann makes the point more tersely. "I wear my postdoc hat when I talk to my postdocs," she says.

Hofmann makes two key points in those talks. "I tell them they have to be really creative with their science but to keep their eyes on the bottom line," she says. "I also tell them that mentorship is part of the deal for a PI; I have my postdocs mentor an undergraduate or a graduate student." In some ways, effective mentorship resembles successful parenting, particularly when it involves more than one individual. "Good mentors have to be fair — not treating their fellows equally, but doing so according to their performances and working abilities," Chen says.

Also like parents, PIs must permit their fellows to find their own way in professional life. "My way of guidance is to provide new postdocs with a range of options. I'm not forcing projects on them," Santarelli says. At the same time, PIs ensure that their fellows don't run into blind scientific alleys. "To create success in publications, you need some exciting material, but you want a guarantee that you'll get an 85 percent payback from, say, 50 percent of your project," Hofmann explains. "I never ask postdocs to put all their eggs in one risky basket. If I did that, I would be doing a real disservice as a professional mentor."

Supervisors also encourage postdocs to mix with other members of the laboratory family. "I have my postdocs work with other people in my group who can provide technical expertise," Santarelli adds. Hofmann takes a similar view. "We do many collaborator based projects," she says. "So we need to figure out publication rights."

Traditionally, fellows seek to join the labs of established scientific stars, in the hope of emulating their mentors. But PIs must be prepared to find themselves in the shade. "You have to be willing," Chen says, "to accept that your fellows will be better than yourself."

A former science editor of Newsweek, Peter Gwynne writes about science and technology from his base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A.