This article by Science Magazine has been floating around in the Twitter-sphere lately and I finally had a chance to give it a look during one of my lunch breaks. There’s quite a bit of discussion about the poor plight of us post-docs, changing the system, etc. In my opinion, there is a need for some changes in how we, in this case ‘we’ as in post-docs and ‘we’ as in the scientific community as a whole, look at the role of the post-doc and how we make better researchers that are ready for the world of science. That being said, I think there’s already plenty of potential for us (as in post-docs) to use the current system as we prepare for and progress toward a good career, if we make the effort to use this transition period wisely.
A few of the comments in the article say that the post-doc position should be thrown out completely, that it’s useless and just provides a means of cheap labor for PIs that don’t want more grad students. As a person that’s been a post-doc for a year, I don’t feel my position is useless at all, and that’s not just because it’s my job and I’m being paid for it. In grad school we spend our time being students, taking directions from our advisors and committee members and teachers, learning how to do research and how to write papers and give presentations and everything else that becomes part of our daily life as a scientist. Part of the process of getting a PhD is in realizing how little we know, and how being a scientist isn’t about knowing everything but in knowing and understanding a smaller number of things extremely well. Then all of a sudden after 3-6(+) years we write a really long story about what we did for those 3-6(+) years, give a presentation, answer a few questions, and bang! We have now become Dr. so-and-so, qualified to do…something. I remember feeling a bit in shock after my PhD defense, thinking “Wait, that was it? I’m a doctor now? Surely there’s some other test, some question, something! I don’t know ANYTHING yet!”
It doesn’t make sense to throw someone from a program that’s taught us that we we still don’t know anything into suddenly being expected to become Dr. so-and-so, expert in Something. A post-doc allows a graduate scientist to transition from being a trainee into an expert, and as scientists we need a place to foster skills and confidence to become the experts we’re expected to be. A post-doc provides the time and the place to hone the skills developed in grad school, which were often times either learned the hard way or with a lot of supervisor guidance, and a chance to begin to work on more independent research after years of direct supervision. In addition, there’s a lot of work that PIs need to be really, really good at that aren’t the focus of grad school: writing grants, teaching undergrads, schmoozing department heads. The post-doc is a perfect place to do this, a chance to learn more about what it’s like to be a scientist now that you’re already the expert in doing science.
When we talk about changing the system, though, the suggestions I’d like to highlight and echo from the article are:
Respecting post-docs as the drivers of research: mentors, the paper-writers, the project meeting leaders, the get-things-done-ers
YES! There is too much of this “oh, so you’re a post-doc…” or “How many post-doc positions have you finished already?” type of attitude within academia. I’d love to see this change and for more folks (including post-docs themselves) to better see the importance of a good post-doc researcher and a good post-doc project for moving your career and your field of research forward.
Financed by universities and not by project/PI
I think this is an interesting concept, and one that could work really well depending on the ‘type’ of post-doc (see bullet below). For example if someone was interested in an industry-based research position, then being directly involved in multiple projects for different PIs over a set time period could be a really good experience in terms of learning what it’s like to have your hand in more than one project and more than one deliverable. At the same time it would allow one PIs to have someone work on a certain project at the moment that it was needed, then when that task was finished the post-doc could work with another group on a different task. The researcher could really build a diverse set of skills, learn about balancing multiple projects, and gain experience with different bosses and different research groups.
Different post-doc types for different career paths
To me this was the most useful suggestion, and I think really gets at the key issue of the post-doc problem: too many post-docs are being trained for tenured academic positions when compared to the number of those types of positions available. So instead of just having a one size fits all post-doc, changing the system could involve having jobs that are more tailored for setting researchers up into different fields. A position that has more undergraduate teaching components for someone that wants to focus more on teaching than research, one with an industrial internship component for someone that’s interested in learning about what industry research is like, or a position tailored to design and marketing for someone whose career path is research and development for either an established or start-up company.
Until we find a consensus on what the ideal post-doc position should look like, there is still a lot that we as the mentors, the paper-writers, and the project leaders can do to prepare ourselves for permanent positions after the post-doc, instead of counting on our fingers (and toes) the number of temporary research positions we’ve held. So before we re-imagine the post-doc completely, let’s imagine being a post-doc with purpose:
Treat a post-doc as professional training
Treat your work and your position not as just some temporary job, but as a place for you to learn and grow your ideas and your skillset. Think about ways you can improve upon what you did as a grad student, be it lab techniques or computer program skills, and let your new group teach you something new that you couldn’t have done at your previous lab. Take time away from your project when possible and focus on getting some training in grant writing, teaching, student mentoring, outreach, whatever you enjoy and what you think you’ll need at the next stage in your career. This is the perfect time to build up these skills, when there is still someone overseeing and providing feedback. Then you will be prepared when you really, really need that skillset!
Start bringing your ideas to life
Start thinking about what you would want to work on for the next 5, 10, 15 years. What’s your ideal work environment? Your dream journal? What problem has you scratching your head even before you had your PhD in hand? These are the things that will set your trajectory when you start your career, and thinking about them now before you’re asked by an interview panel will set you above the rest. It’s also a chance to apply for some pilot grants, do a couple preliminary experiments in your spare time (if such a thing exists) and to start tackling your own questions before you have your own lab. Even if just a little bit of work, thinking about it and acting on it now will really set you ahead.
Work with people outside of academia
Collaborate with industry partners, government agencies, high school teachers, a natural history museum. They’ll bring fresh ideas while at the same time reminding you of the limits of the ‘real world’, it will keep you grounded while at the same time showing yourself and your future employers/grant funding agencies that your work can have impact and can be understood by someone other than a room full of PhDs in your field.
Build a trusted of peer network outside your traditional group of peers
Find someone you trust from another department or university that gives you a fresh perspective and can honestly evaluate and provide feedback on your proposals, papers, and ideas. This will help for when you write big grants and research proposals, when someone sitting on your evaluation might be from a completely field than you and your colleagues. Being able to talk about your work and why it’s important to a broader scientific audience can mean the difference between getting that big grant or making an important interdisciplinary connection that will set your career apart from others in your field.
Call yourself something cool
I attended a post-doc forum a couple of weeks ago, where a sales rep from a lab products company said ‘Don’t call yourself a post-doc, call yourself a project manager or a staff scientist or anything but a post-doc if you want an industry job.’ So much of our identity is in our name, including what our job is called. Think about what you do and call yourself that instead. At the very least your business cards will be unique, and it will certainly be more specific than post-doctoral research associate, which basically says ‘I am still doing research after my doctorate, as an associate member of this University.’ Congrats! How about something more savvy like ‘Scientific Project Manager’ or ‘Research Coordinator’? It’s more precise and still accurate, and doesn’t take up as much space in your email signature.
Look ahead and have a goal
It’s not cynical to tell you that you might someday not get that research professor job. It’s not the end of the world! There’s lots of great work to be done, and lots of great places to do them. To find them, though, you can’t rely on your supervisor or department to find you that place: you have to develop your own vision, make valuable connections, and do the right things that will get you the right job. This is why the post-doc is a perfect job for those of us in transition, because it’s a time when we finally have time to think about what we want to do, not what our advisors tell us we have to do. It’s a time when we build back up confidence and continue networking. It’s a time when we can clearly look at all the options on the table, be they regulatory or consulting or academic or pastry chef, and see what seems like the best fit for us and work towards it.
Having a career goal is an important start, and working towards what will get you that goal is a way to move forward. The caveat, of course, is that if your goal is the same as 1500 other people, the odds are against your favor, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that academia is the only place you’ll fit in and be happy, and it also doesn’t mean that working towards a goal of being a professor without reaching it was a waste of time. If you’ve built up as many skill sets as possible and made lots of connections during your post-doc, you will find something that’s the best fit for you. When you are post-doc with purpose, you set yourself up for success by knowing what you want, working towards it, and recognizing that if you end up slightly off to the side you can still be successful and have a rewarding career.