Best Practice Scenarios

Communicating with the Postdoc

Susan has spent nearly two years exploring the research problem she chose
before beginning her postdoc. She has one more year before expiration of the
grant that supports her work. She has gained a thorough understanding of her
problem, but the facts she has gathered do not support the working hypothesis of
the lab. With time growing short, she is reluctant to admit her uncertainty to her

Comment: An alert adviser would be aware of Susan’s findings and initiate discussions
with her, inviting her to a strategy session. The adviser has already
learned, probably through hard personal experience, that research seldom follows
a straight line. Good communication and mutual trust can allow the adviser to
undertake an honest appraisal of both Susan’s work and the other work in the lab
in order to decide whether or not the working hypothesis requires modification

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Adding New Research Tools

After completing his PhD in computational mathematics, Steven was admitted
to a prestigious new program in bioinformatics at a university. He had never formally
studied the life sciences, but he was assured that his contribution would be
welcome because of his strength in mathematics. After six months in his new
position, however, he was frustrated by his inability to follow the reasoning of his
biological colleagues. His adviser sensed Steven’s frustration and suggested a
one-semester immersion in selected biology courses. After some hesitation,
because of fear of harming his standing with the group, Steven accepted the
advice, and later rejoined the group with renewed confidence.

Comment: Much exciting research takes place at the intersections of disciplines,
but interdisciplinary work places heavy demands on researchers on both “sides” of
an intersection. More than superficial knowledge of the complementary field may
be required for productive collaboration. A flexible adviser may find that encouraging
additional study for certain postdocs can advance both the postdoc’s work and
the adviser’s program.

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Learning to Collaborate

Lee is a brilliant but shy student who earned a postdoctoral appointment in
chemistry at a research university. Her strengths at the bench were undeniable,
and she quickly won the confidence of her adviser. After two years of work, however,
Lee had made few friends outside the lab, and her work was progressing
more slowly than expected. Her adviser surprised Lee by asking her to mentor two
graduate students who had just joined the lab. Lee balked at this request, but the
adviser insisted. The adviser also paid for Lee’s travel to a professional meeting
and arranged for her to present a poster. Several months later, Lee formed a small
journal club around the two students; a month after that, she began a research
collaboration with a postdoc she met at the meeting.

Comment: Research is increasingly collaborative, and the performance of successful
research depends heavily on interacting with others. The adviser had the
wisdom to see that Lee was blocked by her reticence and to insist (at the risk of
jeopardizing her good relationship with Lee) that she begin to develop contacts
and activities outside the lab.

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Knowing When to Suggest a Change

Dr. Brown accepted Carl for a postdoctoral appointment in his theoretical physics
group after a telephoned recommendation from a colleague and a brief meeting
with Carl. He was impressed by Carl’s enthusiasm for physics and his eloquence
in describing several goals in cosmology. After a few months of work, it was apparent
that Carl enjoyed his work and was progressing. He requested time to teach an
undergraduate course as well. Dr. Brown agreed with some reluctance, needing all
the help he could get with the research lab. At his year-end review, Carl told
Dr. Brown that he enjoyed his teaching as much as his research, and hoped to
make teaching a major emphasis in his career. Dr. Brown suggested a minor
course change toward a career at a four-year teaching college.

Comment: This turned out to be a good move. Carl could continue his research
and teach in an environment where both activities were valued. Through good
communication, Carl was able to express his preference to an adviser for whom
teaching was not the first priority, and the adviser had the sensitivity to see that
Carl’s talents could be more fully applied in a different kind of career. Advisers
must often base their acceptance of a postdoc on a brief impression or the opinion
of others. Mismatches do occur, and although they may be painful to acknowledge,
the best course of action may involve a change. More painful is the potential
waste of productive years, which for some PhDs are better spent in non-research

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Turning Research into Manuscripts

After two productive years as a postdoc at a national laboratory, Paul had
gathered an impressive body of data on climate change resulting from the eruption
of an ancient volcano. His well-planned fieldwork had led to numerous poster
sessions and several hundred pages of unpublished notes, but no publications.
When his adviser urged him to publish, Paul responded that he needed a few more
data points. After a more extended talk, the adviser learned that Paul, despite his
excellent work, was inhibited by the recent work of a competitor, whom he was
determined to “blow out of the water.”

Comment: The adviser persuaded Paul to begin publishing after explaining that
1) research accomplishments usually occur in small steps, 2) the feedback from
his colleagues after publication is essential to further steps, and 3) his career would
stall unless he communicated his work in public. Few junior investigators have a
basis for understanding when and how much to publish; they need the advice of
experienced mentors.

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