On Being a Postdoc

Feb 01 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Wally wrote: (edited a bit for space, but go read the whole thing)

I love being a postdoc – ... we don’t always have choices as to where we live.... Further, some of us belong to minority groups and living in some places in the US (where costs are often far cheaper) is just not particularly safe.
I wondered if I could ask a question of the group – my mentor has been out of town/the country for the past 3-4 months and will continue to be so for another 2 months (at least). I adore my mentor, but I’m having a hard time getting the mentorship/training I need (we don’t really have a lab – it’s just me) – and at the same time feel guilty for needing anything. I wonder if anyone has thoughts on what are reasonable things for a first year postdoc (in a completely new research area) to ask for from their mentor (for example, regular meetings/phone calls)? What does ideal mentorship/training look like in the first year of a postdoc? Thank you in advance.

So first off, Wally, I do appreciate that there are large places in the world where we, whoever we are, do not feel safe. It's a hard call sometimes, to chose between that perfect job, and going to a place that doesn't welcome who we are, who our family is, let alone finding a group of people who will support us in what we do.

As for getting mentorship. Indeed. I am sure the loyal Scientopia Readers will have Things To Say.

My thoughts: Firstly, ask your mentor for a weekly Skype conference.  This should be possible. It may only have to be 30 minutes (which will make it more palatable). Asking for weekly meetings is not asking for too much. For your part, I would work hard to make those meetings useful. Get a template of some sort, and use it. With some of my trainees, I use four questions:

  1. What are your over-arching goals (this can be either a monthly or yearly or projectly scale, or it can be all of these)?  This, or these, may not change week to week, but it is good to revisit and remind on a regular basis.
  2. What have you accomplished in the past week?
  3. What do you plan to accomplish in the coming week?
  4. What is going to get in the way of you doing #3?

Within each of these, we break it down by project/sub-project or area. If the trainee is doing some teaching or taking a class, there is teaching for each question, and research for each question. If the postdoc has two different papers they're working on, we deal with these q's for each paper.

By organizing what you have to say to your mentor, and making sure you are using the time efficiently, it will not only help you get the most out of the time, but also the mentor.

Secondly, I think it is reasonable, nay beyond reasonable and approaching necessity, to develop some of those over-arching goals, and get your mentor to sign off on them. I think these goals need to be at different time scales, including one for the duration of the training time with this mentor. Then either monthly or multi-monthly goals are useful for making sure the largest goal gets done. These goals can break down by either time period or project period. But they time and scope should have both attached to the goal. So, for example, it could be, if the PD is to learn new techniques:

Over-arching/top level goal: To learn new & specific experimental techniques, to learn how to analyze data these techniques generate and produce at least 1-2 publishable papers per year.

Goal for Winter/Spring 2017 (ie until June): master technique #1 and collect preliminary data that would be sufficient for a small paper. Analyze these data. Outline results and begin writing paper (paper to be done in summer 2017).

Goal for Spring/Summer 2017: work with trainee ZZZ on learning technique #2. Help ZZZ analyze these data, and participate in writing this paper (mid-list authorship). [of course, this depends on a discussion with mentor & ZZZ to make sure this is acceptable and understood by all. Negotiate authorship in advance.]

There are lots and lots of other examples of and articles on how to develop this kind of thing, often called an "Individual Development Plan or Program (IDP). This one is from SCIENCE, which has an interactive tool to help you develop a plan of your own. This one is from FASEB. Here's some NIH info on IDP and postdoc success. Here is an article from NATURE. Very important: these goals needs to be fluid, changeable, and modifiable as you go on. That's why including overarching goals, at least briefly, each week, is a good thing. It gives you a chance to let them grow and change without feeling you are smashing your godfigures.

Finally, get rid of the guilt. Hard to do, but a good thing. In this case, it's a waste of energy. Decide what you need. Work on trying to get it. Know that you won't always get the support and mentoring you need. Know that you won't always know what support and mentoring you need. But letting guilt feelings enter into the equation is not going to move anything in a direction you would want to move.


14 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    A couple of things stand out here....

    First, if you're paid off any kind of NIH grant, you MUST have an IDP. The RPPR (progress report) for NIH R01 grants includes a specific section where the PI attests that an IDP is in place. So, if your mentor is signing this form and there's no IDP, they're in breach of federal rules. Lying on an NIH form is kind of a big deal. Second, the fact your mentor left the country for 3-4 months with no-one else in the lab for you to talk to, is a real douche move. Over and above any words, this alone tells you the attitutde of your mentor toward mentorship (SRSLY, who walks out and leaves a brand-new post-doc in an empty lab? WTF?)

    I think you can deal with this 3 ways... either try to open up channels of communication and get clearer instruction on what to do (this may depend on how independent you protrayed yourself to be during the hiring process). Alternatively, screw the mentor and just do what you want to do, and develop an independent project that you can move forward without them. A final (risky) alternative would be to seek out mentorship from neighboring labs and PIs. I took this approach when my post-doc mentor went AWOL early in my career, and ended up switching labs. Sure, it might piss off the boss, but if the boss is a douchebag that's not a problem right?

    Regarding places to live, don't feel restricted to NYC/LA/SF/Boston. There are a whole lot of mid-size cities with surprisingly liberal attitudes. Heck, there are 30+ cities with over 2m people in their metro area, and all have a University of some sort and generally left-leaning politics that come with urban living.

    • A Salty Scientist says:

      Over and above any words, this alone tells you the attitutde of your mentor toward mentorship (SRSLY, who walks out and leaves a brand-new post-doc in an empty lab? WTF?)

      Without knowing the context of the leave, this may be what you describe, or it may be out of line. There are many reasons someone may have to take an extended unexpected leave.

  • wally says:

    Thank you for the advice thus far. I do have an IDP and set weekly and larger goals. I've not been paid under NIH funds as I've had my own grant that paid my salary. I am a very independent worker, but it's starting to wear on me - I'm not as productive as I could be and want some connection with my mentor to help me keep on track, and to talk through things. I'm very lucky in that my mentor has connected me with a broader network of mentors, and so I have a lot of support and encouragement - but they aren't substitutes for my primary mentor, for reasons that get too doxxy to get into.

    I do know there are multiple liberal places to live - I was just responding to a comment about postdocs wanting high salaries to live in "cooler" places - there's not always a choice to be had there. Research in my field only occurs in large cities - and it would be hard to do my research even in a smaller liberal area, and funded postdocs in this field are only in very large cities.

    • wally says:

      p.s. The advice about guilt is very helpful.

    • 5th year PI says:

      I think you've received a lot of good advice here in this thread. But one thing that nobody has said is that maybe you need to find a better situation. I just want to challenge you on a couple things. First, I don't believe that your research only occurs in the large cities. There are medium and small sized cities with some of the largest research enterprises in the world. If you only know of people on the coasts in your field, then you should look harder. Like someone said above, there are communities of like-minded (i.e., liberal) people no matter where you go. For example, my medium-sized Midwestern city has a huge refugee population, a huge LGBT population (we have 30 gay bars!), a thriving art scene, and is extremely liberal, especially in the neighborhoods around the Universities. If I told you where I live, I guarantee you would make the opposite assumptions about my city. New York and San Francisco aren't the only "cool" or "safe" places to live.

  • David says:

    I'm currently reading a book on management that emphasizes 30 minute minutes with all your directs. The author points out that in a 50 hour work week, 30 minutes is 1% of your time. That is without a doubt not too much to ask for. The author also likes that amount of time because it is long enough to be useful, short enough not to be canceled, and allows for a focused conversation (i.e. there's no time to waste).

    • potnia theron says:

      I like the idea of 30 min (with flexibility). BUT! I think the responsibility of not wasting time sits squarely on the shoulders of the trainee. One might like the mentor to take some responsibility here, but the trainee is going to have to do it.

      • wally says:

        30 minutes sounds good. I do always come prepared - I have spreadsheets of my projects, lists of things to discuss with my mentor ranked from most to least important. I've had the good fortune to have been trained in academic medicine - and so I know how to work with über busy people, and how to make best use of their time and attention spans. That said, I like it most when we lose track of time and just talk about things - like the challenges of academia or thinking through theoretical constructs.

  • elsie says:

    I encourage all trainees to find a diverse group of mentors. Seek out mentors at the late postdoc stage and look for peer mentors at your own stage.
    Since one of your goals is to learn new techniques, can you sit in on another lab's group meetings to hear more about relevant approaches outside your expertise?

    • wally says:

      I do have diverse mentors - but my field being what it is, there are no others in my field at my university. My mentor has been very generous with connecting me with other people. As an aside, I'm not in hard sciences - so the things I have to learn are more about analytic techniques and content-based. I have a lot of great people around me - but the issue for me is a desire to learn more from/connect more with my primary mentor.

  • Susan says:

    I think the answer really depends on the leave. If it is sick leave and your mentor is in chemo, then approach gently if at all. If it is parental leave, then approach gently, but still firmly. If it is sabbatical leave, then definitely be more firm about asking for what you need. Common to all three: a leave is a one-off situation, so your advisor may not have a well-formed idea of how this should go, themselves.

    It sounds like you have a good, concrete idea of what you need. That's great. So lose the guilt, and ask! Asking for what you need is a skill you'll need throughout your career. As Potnia said, a weekly Skype with an agenda is a basic minimum. Possibly a shared set of goals (we'll submit paper on X by Y date; let's aim to get Results written by Y-1, and Methods by Y-2, etc).

    • wally says:

      Thank you - my mentor isn't on leave - this is a combo of vacations and work-related trips. I think I can ask for regular/weekly meetings (or at least check ins) - and I like the idea of chunking it down a bit (currently, we just talk about having x paper done by y date - which is a little overwhelming since I am new to publishing).

  • anon says:

    "First, if you're paid off any kind of NIH grant, you MUST have an IDP. The RPPR (progress report) for NIH R01 grants includes a specific section where the PI attests that an IDP is in place. So, if your mentor is signing this form and there's no IDP, they're in breach of federal rules."

    Does this apply to grad students, too? I was a grad student during 2011-2016, paid from an R01, and I never had an IDP. My "mentor" couldn't have cared less about mentoring me or anyone else in the lab. Now you're telling me that he was explicitly required to have some sort of training plan for us, and he outright lied about it?! Where can I report him? And will anyone actually take that seriously?

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