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? 



  1. How the heck and where do you get money to pay postdocs in academia? My own postdoc was at a government lab, and it’s a different thing there. I guess they are a standard component of NIH grants (thus their biomedical ubiquity), and Big Prestigious Universities/Departments and Endowed Distinguished Professors therein apparently have endowment funds? or something like that which are a ready steady trough to support postdoc salary and benefits. But do you always have funds on hand to pay a postdoc when you decide you really need one, such as when you decide you “need someone a bit more senior to help me wrangle (my young group)”- from where? For a grant you’d need to plan at least a year before the money arrives, and if the perfect prospective postdoc hits you up for a position now, unless they’re bringing their own fellowship, they’re not going to wait that long for you to get the money to pay them if you don’t have it already. It may have to do with my discipline, which is one of those where postdocs are not the norm, but we don’t have a magic pot of money for postdocs, and they’re generally frowned on by the granting programs in my field. Even when I’ve put money for postdocs into my propo$al$, those funds generally get cut from the final award in the name of limited resources and cost savings.

  2. I don’t have a magic pot of money (nor am I particularly distinguished tbh). I hire (or don’t) a postdoc at the start of a grant cycle; I got two new grants this year, hence the hiring; it coincided with some group members leaving after graduation and/or a short postdoc. Other than NSF, I get money from DOE and DOD, the latter two don’t have problems with hiring postdocs or with converting a postdoc into students or vice versa; NSF is a somewhat different story. A few months before I am to hear about a grant, I put out feelers in the community that I might be looking for a postdoc so that graduating candidates can keep me in mind, then a formal solicitation as soon as I get the notice of award.

  3. I’m still happily mourning the loss of my one and only postdoc so far, who worked with me for five years and then went on to a job that was a perfect match for him, a long-term (non-tenure track) faculty position at a top liberal arts college. I agree with much of what xyk has written here about how I viewed him during his time in my group. He was my second-in-command, and I think it was really a win-win relationship. It wasn’t clear from the start that it was going to be, but ultimately it worked out better than I could have imagined.

    As for the original questions, I’m in a tiny liberal arts college department (four tenure-track faculty, one research-track faculty), and we treat our postdocs like an extra faculty member while they’re here, though without the crummy parts. They have the option of teaching classes if they want the experience, though it’s not required (my postdoc taught one small class while he was here, which helped his applications to liberal arts colleges). They are not required to serve on any committees, though they can mentor summer students and read theses if they want to — again, for the experience (I think my postdoc mentored two summer students and read maybe 2-3 theses during his five years — much lower burden than for the faculty). While my postdoc was clearly working under the aegis of my group and primarily did lots of grant-funded work, I also encouraged him to keep working on his own independent projects that grew out of his PhD work, and to form new collaborations with the other faculty in my department and some of my own collaborators outside the university, which he did. I also helped him find opportunities to give talks around the region and attend conferences (e.g., I handed off a couple of invited talks to him while I was on parental leave) to both help with his visibility and to mitigate the effects of being isolated in such a tiny department.

    And in response to gob of goo, another advantage of being at a liberal arts college is that I have no PhD students to support, so my grants are basically just asking for money to hire a postdoc, plus whatever I need to support them (travel, computing, page charges, etc.) plus a small amount of summer salary for me and maybe some travel funds for some students, and a student summer stipend or two (which runs <$5k apiece here). They didn't even make me chop much from my NSF grant when it was awarded, because it was almost all salary. I have heard from friends in PhD-granting departments that it's well nigh impossible for them to fund postdocs, because they need to pay their grads first and that adding in a postdoc inflates their budget to unreasonable levels, so they basically don't ask unless they've already got enough other grants to comfortably support their PhD students for the foreseeable future (and really, who does these days?).

  4. During my career I moved from a field that almost never has postdocs (computer engineering) to one that often has them, but does not see being a postdoc as essential to a career (bioinformatics). I have only one had a postdoc, hired from a grant that had originally designated the money for my summer salary and student positions. A very smart person, but not good at finishing projects—he ended up not producing any papers.

    The reason postdocs are so ubiquitous in biomedical fields is that they are super cheap labor, and NIH likes super cheap. A grad student’s stipend and tuition for half-time work is more than a postdoc’s salary and benefits for full-time work, and a post doc is enormously cheaper than hiring permanent staff or faculty. (There is also the problem that the biomed fields have been over-producing PhDs for decades, so even industrial jobs that should only require a BS expect 4 years or more of postdoc experience from all applicants.)

  5. In astronomy postdocs are ubiquitous, to the point that I can’t think of someone recently who stayed in research academia who did not hold one at least for a year or two. How do we pay for them? Some NSF grants but a lot of it is NASA money tied to observation time allocated on a telescope like Hubble. Since I got my Ph.D in 1999 we have also had an explosion in prize postdoc fellowships.

    We pay much better than people on NIH grants (much better). Mentoring is a mixed bag and is highly supervisor dependent. Departments and colleges have been much slower to implement organized mentoring. However, astronomy is also somewhat unusual in that we support a large amount of researchers in non-TT positions — soft money, observatory support scientists, etc. — so postdocs are quite as fish out of water as they may be in other fields.

  6. Your idea of how to handle a postdoc is admirable, and I hope you and any other professor out there pays it some attention/follows through. Treating a postdoc as a professional goes a long way. For example, I did my postdoc in a lab that infrequently hires post-docs, on the premise that I would be “2nd in command” and help to manage the young group of graduate students. Nearly the same words were spoken in my final interview. I was flattered by the idea of that and quite willing to take on the task. However, once I joined I found the professor constantly undermining me and my opinions, insulting me in front of his group and more or less treating me as if I was at the bottom of the pecking order he oversaw. I had his favorite graduate students attempt to boss me around, and I quickly learned that as little interaction as possible with the professor or his preferred students allowed me to do the most for my own research, for which my motivation was already significantly hampered. Whatever you do, try not to be like that professor.

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