Your postdoc mentor should be an effective advocate for your career development…

At least I think so. I keep meaning to write a post about how my postdoc mentor was, and continues to be, an effective advocate for my career advancement. Now is that time. First a few disclaimers. I did not postdoc in a monster lab. I am in a relatively small field within the neurosciences. Small enough that I know most of the players personally, big enough that you can pick up a basic neuroscience journal and expect to see a few papers from my field in nearly every issue. Now that we’re done with that, let’s jump into the details.

An important consideration in my choice for where to do my postdoc was career advancement. The science is the most important part of this but there are many other issues that deserve strong consideration. These include grantsmanship, self promotion (talks, review and commentaries), reviewing duties and professional society involvement. I am not going to talk about the bench work except to say that my postdoc mentor (Dr. PostDocMentor) gave me a good deal of freedom in the lab and this was pivotal in my ability to develop a story for my independent work, which I now pursue in my own lab.

1) Grantmanship: From day one, I was involved in grant writing in the lab. This happened because I wrote a fellowship grant (NRSA) prior to arrival that demonstrated to Dr. PostDocMentor that I was capable of writing effectively and independently. While I was not included as a Co-PI on Dr. PostDocMentors grants I played a major role in writing many of them and I was involved in planning and editing all of them. This increased my confidence and my abilities and gave me the opportunity to sit side by side with an established and effective grantwriter during the process. When it came time for me to write some small grants later in the postdoc I had the full support of Dr. PostDocMentor and Dr. PostDocMentor was instrumental in assuring the institution that my grants were worthy of endorsement. Institutional endorsement of grants is important in some places and other will send out any grant that comes through the grants office so this will vary. If you’re not working on your grant writing skills as a postdoc then you are going to be behind when you become a PI. This is the plain truth.

2) Self Promotion: Talks…
Many young scientists have the idea that great science does not require promotion — science is pure!! Maybe, but I would count on it with my career. Dr. PostDocMentor made sure that I had every opportunity to present my work, locally and internationally. Dr. PostDocMentor also spent hours going over my presentations with me, all the way down to the open space on the slides. This gave me confidence when giving presentations and reduced my stress levels. Dr. PostDocMentor also made sure that I gave presentations to varied audiences, academic, industry and clinical. This allowed me to tailor my message and get the word out to a wide audience on the work I was doing. By the time I was out interviewing many in the audiences were already familiar with the message and I was able to demonstrate progress in the research area. This is a powerful tool when you are interviewing.

2) Self Promotion: Reviews and Commentaries…
Having the opportunity to write a review as a postdoc can be a big step in your career development. If you are offered the chance, do not pass it up. Early on Dr. PostDocMentor gave me the opportunity to co-author a review. This was tied, once again, to the Fellowship application that I wrote prior to arrival. PIs spend a great deal of time writing and it is a great advantage for them to be able to trust trainees to do a competent job in helping them compile reviews, commentaries and even chapters. Co-authorship on these manuscripts will increase your visibility and will boost your citation numbers. Reviews in Current Opinion, Current Topics and Annal Review volumes stand out on CVs and can grab the attention of committees. Moreover, quality reviews beget more opportunities to review.

3) Reviewing Duties:
I helped review a few papers before I became a postdoc. Dr. PostDocMentor almost immediately got me involved in his reviewing duties and eventually started suggesting me as a reviewer through his editorial positions. Reviewing is a lot of work so don’t go overboard; however, demonstrating that you are a quality reviewer can really pay off. Editors have a very hard time getting reviews completed and an equally hard time getting quality reviews. Being a quality reviewer will lead to more reviewing duties but this is a gateway for editorial board-type positions which are important for career development. Here is what happened to me. I started reviewing for some small journals and both Dr. PostDocMentor and those editors noticed that I did a good, fair job. After I obtained my independent position I was invited to a small journal’s editorial board. This is not a big deal but it goes on the CV and helps on the tenure package. Soon after that I was asked, via a suggestion by Dr. PostDocMentor, to take a contributing editor position at a highly ranked neuroscience journal (I accepted, obviously). Authors submitting to that journal will see my name, the position will look great on my CV and in the tenure package and it is a gateway to commentaries and reviews in that journal — back to self promotion.

4) Scientific Society Participation:
This is where Dr. PostDocMentor really went into high gear in my career advancement. First off I had a big advantage because Dr. PostDocMentor holds an important position in a major society. He regularly asked me about issues facing the society and he would present my ideas, with my name, at society meetings. This rapidly led to opportunities for me to have a greater participation in that society. This proved to be a huge advantage when I went out to interview. I had documented evidence of my commitment to my field and my profession. I found that this impressed interviewers more than I ever would have imagined. These activities were also a gateway to advancement in other societies. I now hold an elected, leadership position in a national chapter of that big society and I am looking forward to greater involvement in the international society based on that position. All of these things help politically, but they also help scientifically. For instance, when it comes time to present proposals for symposia, etc., I have a foot in the door. This eventually leads to advantages in self promotion. You see how it goes. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not, but remember that all of these things are additional work and if you don’t take them seriously they can back fire on you in a major way.

So, that about covers it, at least for now. For all you postdocs out there (and I know you’re reading, I’ve seen my google search hits) when opportunity knocks, seize it and work your tail off to seize it in such a way that opportunity will stay in your corner.

11 responses to “Your postdoc mentor should be an effective advocate for your career development…

  1. This is excellent advice that I plan on taking when I start my postdoc in a few months. In particular, I think writing a review can be an excellent way of getting up to speed in your new lab.

  2. This is all good advice. This buddy-buddy old-boy shit is also, of course, a way in which women and minorities get fucked.

    My post-doc mentor was a green asst prof. I joined his lab the very day he got the keys. So he wasn’t in a position to muster the kind of shit that yours was. You can still succeed without this stuff, although it requires more personal bush beating.

  3. As a PhD student trying to line up a good postdoc position and, eventally, junior prof position, I think that grad students can also take your advice to heart. Although at this point in my career, reviews and the such are less likely, getting involved in local associations and even heading up new ones (trainee organizations, for example) can be a major boon to the old CV. I’ve been working on a provincial (yup, Canadian…) trainee organization which has given me a ton of great opportunities to interact with profs from all over the province as well as to show that I have good time management and other organizational skills. This might not serve me much in the short term, but in a few years when I am looking for that First Real Job, I’ll already have a comfort level with the university politics (uhggg) as well as those who will be involved in hiring me.

    On PhysioProf’s valid point, I think that there still is old-boy attitude out there, but it seems to me that more and more profs are hiring talent, not gender/race, at least at my university. The old boys are dying off and being replaced by a new generation without the same old hangups. Also, fewer and fewer men are in university these days, so maybe times they are a-changin.

    On the other hand, here is the dilemma: you’re a man, you’re ambitious and through hard work and a good attitude, you have the chance to rise up in a field more or less dominated by men. What do you do? Chivalrously wave others by?

  4. This buddy-buddy old-boy shit is also, of course, a way in which women and minorities get fucked

    You, of course, are completely correct. In defense of Dr. PostDocMentor, he took the same approach with many female trainees that came before me (I am one of the few men to ever work in his lab). Some of these former female trainees now hold major editorial board positions, leadership positions in major societies and there are two department chairs amongst them, on academic and one industry. I hope to continue to break the chain, so to speak, by promoting the work of women and minorities in my lab to the best of my ability. Part of this will be to continue to utilize the vast network of connections that my work with Dr. PostDocMentor affords me.

    So he wasn’t in a position to muster the kind of shit that yours was. You can still succeed without this stuff, although it requires more personal bush beating.

    Exactly. Part of the point that I was trying to get across was that you need to work hard to prove your worth and you need to do it in all facets of the profession. You can do it no matter who the postdoc mentor is but you cannot neglect that there are factors in addition to benchwork that will positively affect your career development.

  5. What do you do? Chivalrously wave others by?

    I don’t think so. I think the best thing to do is to fight hard to get into a position where you can continue to effectively create a more level playing field in your area.

  6. I think the best thing to do is to fight hard to get into a position where you can continue to effectively create a more level playing field in your area.

    Preach on JP, preach on. One of the best things you (women, minority, wtf-ever underrepresented category and ideological co-travellers) can do for diversity/opportunity causes is to make sure you yourself succeed.

  7. So how does one find a post-doc mentor that can do all this?

  8. -This buddy-buddy old-boy shit is also, of course, a way in which women and minorities get fucked-

    True, but thankfully, some “old boys” have become enlightened. My postdoc mentor (a man) is a renowned scientist and highly regarded in the field. Like JP’s mentor, he promoted me and my work at every opportunity, which I continue to be grateful for.

    Becca, the best way to find such mentors is to look at their track record of placing people in academic careers, if that is what you are interested in. Generally, people who have many former students and postdocs at good universities (or well known biotech/pharma companies) have provided strong recommendations and support for their trainees.

    That’s not to say that junior faculty can’t be good at this too. However, they don’t have as much seniority in the field (i.e., PP’s mentor)or as long of a track record so you have to take a chance. If you are going to do that, try to find a mentor that you feel that you have a comfortable and fun professional relationship with. In other words, do you enjoy talking science with your prospective mentor, or do you worry that you might say something stupid? Can you imagine coming to your prospective mentor with a crazy but exciting idea, or do you think they would just blow you off? If you and your PI enjoy talking about and doing science together (if a junior person), he/she is more likely to go the distance for you.

  9. Becca, I think that BugDoc nailed it. That’s the best way to find out.

  10. Great advice. I think one can make the best of whatever situation but it does help to think what one needs to build up. In my case, I was very enthusiastic to join my postdoc labs because I would be “on the inside” and see how star labs write grants, papers and manage labs. I didn’t necessarily want to follow the big PI model, but I wanted to learn how it works.

    One note is that there is a balance to be attained if you do this. As a postdoc, you will likely get more of the kinds of opportunities and support if you are one of the PI’s right hand type of people. But simultaneously it is in your best interest to start developing your own independent line of research that is “you” and that you can take with you. It helps if you have your own grant and a good PI should be happy to help guide you in getting this.

    In my case, while I did get help in increasing my visibility by giving talks and meeting people in my mentors’ circles, I was also not necessarily the first postdoc to come to mind when authoring a review or to promote into a position in a scientific society. On the other hand, that also meant I was not the postdoc to come to mind when someone was needed to set up and calibrate a piece of equipment that had nothing to do with my research, or to analyze some data that the PI got excited about and gathered, but had no idea what to do with… I was able to do work that was not obviously “the next big idea from Prof X”, while at the same time having had good mentoring in many areas. For me and my mentors, the tradeoff was not explicitly stated, but understood; and worked well for both sides.

    On the women/minority/underrepresented thing, I think it is a big factor, but you just have to survive it. Even when there is no overt discrimination, there is a largely unconscious, culturally perpetuated thing. Sometimes people get left behind on a project they’d like to be part of, simply because the plans were made at the pub watching football when they were at the opera (not necessarily literally, I’m just making a gender-stereotypical analogy)…. But I don’t want to constantly hang out at the pub, paranoid and obsessed that I’m missing out, I cannot control or change my gender/ethnicity, nor can I change the culture in one day. So far, I found out sometimes you have to speak up, knock on doors, make yourself and your work visible. Yeah, some people will think you’re an obnoxious ‘B’, nothing to do about that but to focus on those who view you as an active, enthusiastic colleague, keep a positive attitude and keep doing your work.

  11. My postdoctoral advisor stole my ideas to continue his work and did not help me at all with my career so I won’t be a competitor to him. If you are planning to join a lab, contact the mentor’s previous postdocs who have moved away to get a feel for his personality.

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