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.