Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The ideal post-doc?

There's been a lot of discussion recently about what an ideal post-doc should look like (summarized by propter doc here) . And I promised to take a swing at it myself. Yesterday I was too busy actually being a productive post-doc, but today I've decided to prioritize some reflection.

What does an ideal post-doc look like? The view from a beginner, environmental science post-doc.
  • An ideal post-doc should never ever be called a student. I absolutely hate the phrase "post-doctoral student." We have terminal degrees, dammit! And we don't get the perks that students get (discounted theatre tickets, free entrance to the gym, etc.)
  • An ideal post-doc should receive mentoring in the areas where they need it. Maybe you are completely technically competent in your field of research, but maybe you don't have much experience writing grants, reviewing papers, or hiring people. Those are the places that a post-doc PI should help you out, so that when you get your own research group, you aren't completely clueless.
  • An ideal post-doc should be involved in all stages of the research cycle. From proposal writing, data collection, analysis, paper and report writing. To participate in all the stages of the research cycle within a limited time duration may require involvement in more than one project. As a PI, you'll be involved in more than one project, so why not get the experience now.
  • An ideal post-doc should be encouraged to develop and pursue their own research ideas. Most post-docs probably come into a group where there is an already funded project, but developing (and getting funding for) your own ideas as a side project or as an extension of your post-doc time is really valuable experience for being a PI. In fact, if you can be a PI (or at least co-PI) on a grant as a post-doc, that will help you get an academic job. It's a shame that the US federal granting agencies won't allow post-docs as PIs, because a lot of us are doing a substantial amount of the proposal generation (not to mention the actual work).
  • An ideal post-doc should pay closer to the beginning assistant professor level than the graduate student level. We've had enough years of being under severe financial stress as graduate students, let it end with the completion of the PhD.
  • An ideal post-doc position should be funded for more than 1 year and less than 4. Let me explain my rationale. If you (like me) have funding for 1 year, then immediately upon starting the post-doc you have to begin looking for and applying for your next job. This not only distracts from your work but adds to your stress level. On the other hand, 4 years is as much time as it took to get the PhD and the post-doc is generally conceived of as a liminal stage between PhD and academia, so the post-doc should be shorter in duration than the Ph.D. If after four years at a post-doc, you don't have a permanent job lined up and you still want to go after a professorial position, then it seems to me that your interests are best served by widening your experiences and moving to another research group. If you are still in the same post-doc for 5+ years, then you need to face it, you are no longer in the academic job hunt game, instead you are a "research scientist" or "research associate" at your current university, in a more permanent soft-money position. At least that's the way it works in my field.
  • An ideal post-doc should be at a different institution, or at least a different research group than the one in which you did your PhD. I haven't done this one, which is part of why you will never hear me profess to have the perfect post-doc. My thoughts here stem from the idea that a post-doc should be about diversifying and refining your research expertise and experience. Part of your research experience is learning how to work within different administrative systems and with different groups of people. On a more pragmatic level, moving to a different place shows academic search committees that you aren't stuck in a rut research-wise or (god-forbid) have personal reasons for staying in one place.
  • An ideal post-doc would provide access to career resources, including those for jobs outside academia. In a lot of fields there are more PhDs granted and even post-docs post-docing than there are available tenure-track faculty jobs. There should be recognition of career opportunities outside of academia, and a career center or other resources available to help PhDs find work outside the ivory tower.
  • An ideal post-doc should be allowed to have a life outside research. Something like a third of post-docs have kids, wouldn't it be nice to be able to watch them grow up? And even for those without families, all work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.
I'm sure there's more, but that's all I can think of right now, and I've got some data that are calling my name.


bsci said...

Interesting list/summary. I mostly agree with it, although I have a few comments:

Never being called a student
This is slightly fuzzy. You aren't literally a student, but postdocs are sometimes placed under the head of school's graduate division (at least in my university). NIH fellowships for postdocs require a training plan that includes what you are planning to learn and sometimes what courses you are going to take. NIH K awards even require talk about coursework. So, in some ways you are a student, but you are not aiming for a degree. You can try to fight this, but why bother? Take the other approach and try to convince people to give postdocs discounted tickets, gym memberships, etc. :)

At least postdoctoral fellowships from the NIH call the postdoc a PI. The grant is primarily for salary, but if a postdoc gets a grant large enough to independently fund research then they won't be a postdoc much longer. The NIH is trying to make some transition systems like the K99/R00 where you get autofunding to transition from a postdoc to independant lab, but they haven't been around long enought yet to evaluate their success.

An ideal post-doc position should be funded for less than1 year and ~4
There is an exception to this rule for high cost/ special resource labs. This isn't my research area, but I know non-human primate researchers often have very long postdocs. There are a finite number of places with the space and resources to properly support primate research. These places sometimes have one PI with many people working under them. This makes fewer faculty openings but more acceptance of long term postdocs. This isn't optimal, but, in this case, the problem is the resources and not the research.

The one you imply but don't state is that an ideal postdoc is less about changing instituation and more about gaining skills. If you move somewhere else and do the same work, you are losing out. An ideal postdoc includes expanding scientific knowledge and skills (not just grantsmanship, hiring, etc.)

ScienceWoman said...

bsci - thanks for your comments. I don't work in an NIH funded field, so I didn't know about those wrinkles to the student thing.

Also, I think your last comment is right one - a post-doc should be primarily about gaining new skills and refining those you have.

bsci said...

In general I think there is some legitimacy to the "student" label for postdocs. A core part of a postdoc is mentored learning. You are learning new research skills, writing skills, management skills, etc. If a mentor isn't teaching then you are just a staff scientist and not a postdoc.
Perhaps a good comparison for postdoc is Residencies for M.D.'s. They have the degree, but now they are learning the practical day-to-day work of their trade.

The only exception is when calling a postdoc a student is an excuse for unethical salaries.

Anonymous said...

Postdocs are not students. Lets be clear here, a person who requires training does not need to be a student. They could be termed apprentice, resident, junior faculty, many many things but not a bloody student because we have worked too long and too hard to be stuck in that rut some more.

And if we are going to call postdocs students then we should expand that term to include assistant professors who are also learning management skills, new research skills, new writings skills. Is it appropriate to call them a student?

It is also virtually impossible to move labs and not gain a great deal interms of skills. Even if you move labs to do the same work, no two labs work the same way, the people are different, the department different.

bsci said...

What's the difference between a staff research scientist who has some academic independance and a postdoc. Some staff scientists can get their name on grants, manage others, come up with new project ideas, etc.

Is the only difference that staff scientist is sometimes a terminal job and they get paid more? If so, then postdocs really have a raw deal.

I'd sat the key difference between a staff scientist and a postdoc the the training element of the job. You can call it "student," "resident," or "apprentice."

And yes, everyone should learn new skills on every job, but a goal of an assistant professor isn't to learn managing skills, it's to be a manager. Learning is part of the goal of a postdoc.

volcano girl said...

I currently have a postdoc at an institution that does not have students in a field that is related to my PhD, but is totally new. And I have learned a ton! And I intend to continue to learn until I die. I love science.

No, I am not a student, but I definitely feel like an underling or a minion and it is clear that my position is short-lived. I work in a cublicle in a crowded room with other postdocs. A lot of the permanent staff don't bother to learn our names. To be clear, I am thriving in my current job. The research is self-motivated, I have time to finish up old projects and to apply for jobs, I am paid a living wage, and I get to travel. But I'm so looking forward to becoming "perm" somewhere else.

saxifraga said...

It seems there is a huge difference between the postdoc concept in North America (at least according to some posts/ comments) and Europe (at least the part of Europe I am familiar with).

My postdoc position does not come with a formal training element or a supervisor as such. I do have a boss (the project PI who got the money in the first place) and of course some tasks are new to me, but the latter is also the case for an assistant professor (as others pointed out). I have my own office and my salary is the same as for an aassistant professor (incl. same benefits).

I have given up fighting the student terminology, but it drives me crazy (in my opinion it is just another way of saying that you will never win until you become a full professor).

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