During postdoctoral appreciation week, I heard an inspiring talk on “Being a Postdoc in Difficult Times”. Dr. Kelly Mack, a Biology Professor and Program Director for the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program, gave this keynote presentation at the UMDNJ-Rutgers Second Annual National Postdoc Appreciation Day Symposium.
These are difficult times for postdocs and Kelly addressed this head on. Coveted faculty positions are extremely competitive and too few. Salary remains paltry and benefits, while improving, are not uniform. Formalized training and oversight is nonexistent for many. Not to mention that we have yet to reach gender parity as women comprise only about 30% of postdocs across all disciplines. Kelly had quite the challenge to present something uplifting.
"I Appreciate You"
Because of these “difficult times” postdocs seem to forget how invaluable they are to research. Kelly reminded us that postdocs: design and conduct the experiments, generate the data for their advisor’s grants, are the drivers of innovation, end up fulfilling the mentoring roles of students, and comprise the pool of future faculty. For all these things, “I appreciate you,” Kelly said.
She presented two examples of achievement by postdocs to show the power and reach you can have as a postdoctoral fellow. First, it was the seminal work by two postdocs that essentially launched the movement for gender equity in academic research and research on gender bias. Second, a grassroots movement by postdocs led to the founding of the National Postdoctoral Association in 2002, a membership-based organization of around 27,000 participants and that advocates for postdocs in the US. [MK note: the number of members has been edited since the original posting]
Navigating the Difficult Times
Of course, not everyone will launch a new movement or national initiative but there are practical things postdocs can do to enhance their experiences and get through these difficult times. Kelly referenced the article “Ten Simple Rules for Selecting a Postdoc” and highlighted three of the recommendations.
One, negotiate authorship before you start. Tying in to a larger message, it is very important to have a written plan and to take responsibility for your own career development.
Two, strive for your own fellowship money. Take the time to learn and know the rules for grant writing.
Three, select the lab that suits your work and lifestyle. Not all PIs and labs are the same so find out what the culture is like before you join. Kelly expanded on this last rule further by emphasizing the need for a balanced life and that you have to take care of “you” no matter what.
My top suggestion would be to assess your strengths and weakness and map out your career and professional goals. A sample template has been developed by FASEB called the Individual Development Plan for Postdocs. It is recommended to complete this along with your advisor.
Do you have any rules or suggestions that have helped you?