Day: November 5, 2018

Postdocking 2

EngProf asked:

“Hi! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about postdocs. Although postdoctoral experience is practically required to be considered as a top-notch applicant for junior faculty positions in most fields now-a-days (and no longer a niche practice of the biomedical field), I find that most engineering and physical sciences departments aren’t exactly sure how to handle this campus group. Do you mentor postdocs? Does your department do anything to help postdocs? If yes, how is this relationship different from faculty/grad student interactions, and what could be done to make it even better.”

I’m in a field where postdocs are not uncommon, but they aren’t this endless purgatory that they seem to be in the biomedical sciences (at least that’s how it seems based on what I’ve read on academic blogs).  I’ve advised several postdocs so far, but only two whom I’d brought in from outside specifically for the position. My first outside postdoc  was with me for four years; this was his first and only postdoc. He published well and went on to a successful faculty career (he should be getting tenure soon). I’ve recently hired my second outside postdoc; the primary reason is that several senior students graduated and I have a young group, so I need someone a bit more senior to help me wrangle them. In the past, there were several instances where I advertised for a postdoc and interviewed candidates, but ended up not hiring anyone and instead took on more students. I’d say a third-year grad student trained by me is better at the work we do than a random outside postdoc. So I often find it’s easier (and with more funding flexibility) to train a graduate student than to hire a postdoc who won’t be a very good match.

The postdoctoral experience can make or break one’s career. The position should be a good fit in terms of interests, expertise, and personalities. Ideally, a postdoc comes in with some expertise that they can directly apply, but they should also be able to learn new things in the group. I don’t want to hire just to fill a spot; it hurts the postdoc’s career and drains resources.

While I haven’t hired too many outside postdocs, I have had several who were my grad students first and then stayed for additional  1-3 years. Usually they stayed for personal reasons (waiting for a spouse to graduate, waiting out the process of the green card, etc.) and I had the benefit of a fully trained group member doing extra work for a while at peak productivity. Here we pay postdocs about $50k/yr, so a comfortable salary, even if not industry level.

Jobs in my field are well paid and fairly abundant, and all my group alumni went on to successful employment after graduation. I’d say if someone is headed for industry, they shouldn’t do a postdoc without a compelling reason (see above: waiting for a spouse to finish or waiting for a green card) or if they are quite certain that they want to go into academia; otherwise, one should get a job and move on with life.

Now, as to how the postdocs should be handled. First, it depends on why the postdoc is there. If a postdoc wants an academic position, I believe it’s my duty to make sure they are supremely prepared to write grants, write papers, present, mentor junior members, and network. They need plenty of opportunities to strike up collaborations, refine their various skills, and just do and present science. NSF makes people submit a postdoc mentoring plan, which addresses all this, and I always share it with my postdocs.

Not sure how others do this, but it seems that the fields that rely on armies of postdocs tend to be more abusive of them. To me, a postdoc is precious. They are my second-in-command, a senior fully trained group member who can work as independently as they want to (withing the broad limits of what’s fundable under active grants), work with multiple people in the group and on several projects at a time, just capitalize on all the accumulated knowledge and produce a ton of science.

I don’t actually know what the university does in terms of organizing postdocs, but I send mine (as well as senior grad students) to all the professional-development opportunities that I know of on campus and they are encouraged to explore and find their own.

Socially, IME, postdocs seem to hang out with other group members and students/postdocs from collaborators’ groups and seem pretty happy.

Blogosphere, what do you say? Thoughts on postdocs?