Best Practices

Best Practices for Postdocs:

Below are two templates of approved hire letters by Human Resources and the Postdoc Advisory Committee.   OPDPA strongly encourages department’s Hiring Managers and P.I.’s  to use it.

Approved Hire Letter for the Postdoctoral Associate

Approved Hire Letter for the Postdoctoral Fellow

Many postdocs have reached an age when they want to start families. Two
surveys, at the University of California at San Francisco and Baylor College of
Medicine, indicated that one-third to one-half of postdocs are parents.12 The
Survey of Doctoral Recipients indicates that more than half of postdocs in all fields
except mathematical and computer sciences (45 percent) are married.

Many postdocs report a prejudice among both men and women faculty against
women who choose to start a family during postdoctoral training and against men
who wish to take parental leave after the birth of a child. Nonetheless, institutions
are beginning to create appropriate policies that take family life into consideration.
At the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, where the average age of postdocs
is 34.5 years, postdocs receive six weeks of paid parental leave. At Vanderbilt,
women postdocs who have taken time away from a program to have children
are allowed to exceed the institution’s standard five-year training limit. The Howard
Hughes Medical Institute builds flexibility into the use of its funding: If a postdoc
has a spouse with medical benefits, for example, the postdoc may use the allowance
normally allotted to medical insurance for child care.

Useful “survival techniques” reported by postdoc parents include meticulous
Time management, careful organization of activities (even including “appointments”
To spend time with spouses and children), and highly focused attention to each
activity. They advise enlisting extra help from family and friends and a clear understanding
of parental leave policies. The Survival Skills workshop at the University
of Pittsburgh notes that the stresses caused by overlapping demands are often
associated with depression, and that campus health services usually offer help.
Science’s NextWave web site13 offers many specific suggestions by postdocs who
are parents.


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While minority graduate students can choose among a variety of special fellowships,
minority postdocs have few options. Among them are the following:

The Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships for Minorities are aimed at
minority groups “whose under representation in the professorate and in formal programs
of postdoctoral study and research in the United States has been longstanding
and remains severe as a result of past discrimination.
Fellowships are given for one year of postdoctoral research in
fields of science or engineering (excluding “practice-based” professions, such as
medicine, law, and social work). Eligible applicants include “current or potential
college or university faculty members and researchers” who are U.S. citizens and
belong to one of the following groups: African-Americans, American Indians, Alaskan
Natives, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, Mexican Americans/Chicanos,
and Puerto Ricans. The program is administered by the National Research Council
of the National Academies on behalf of the Ford Foundation.

The UNCF-Merck Postdoctoral Science Research Fellowships is a program
jointly administered by the United Negro College Fund and Merck with ten awards
with a stipend of $55,000. This program is “…designed to increase the number of
African Americans in the pipeline of biomedical science education and research.”
The program is open to US citizens who are African Americans. They may work at
academic or nonacademic research institutions, but not private industrial labs.

The National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists
& Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) Awards
, “recognizes outstanding scientists,
engineers, and science teachers who have made significant contributions in
their fields.” While most of their awards are intended for graduate and younger
students, the Lloyd Ferguson Young Scientist Award goes to young African American
scientists with 8-10 years of professional experience. See also a web site for
minority researchers go to “Just/Garcia/Hill Science Web Site.”

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The best time for a postdoc to evaluate a potential postdoctoral position is
before signing on. It is difficult to adjust the major conditions of an appointment
once it is underway. Experienced postdocs and advisers suggest the following
questions be asked of (and about) a prospective adviser:

1. What are the adviser’s expectations of the postdoc?
2. Will the adviser or the postdoc determine the research program?
3. How many postdocs has this adviser had? Where did they go afterward?
4. What do current and past lab members think about their experience?
5. Will the adviser have time for mentoring? Or should I seek out other mentors?
6. How many others (grad students, staff, postdocs) now work for this adviser?
7. How many papers are being published? Where?
8. What is the adviser’s policy on travel to meetings? Authorship? Ownership
of ideas?
9. Will I have practice in grant writing? Teaching/mentoring? Oral presentations?
Review of manuscripts?
10. Can I expect to take part of the project away after the postdoc?
11. How long is financial support guaranteed? On what does renewal depend?
12. Can I count on help in finding a position?
13. Will the adviser have adequate research funds to support the proposed
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Many graduate students and pre-graduate students assume that a “hot topic”
lab is the best lab for postdoctoral work, but hot researchers may or may not
provide good mentoring. An indication of effective mentoring may be found in the
published record. One mentor advises looking back 10 to 20 years in a major
literature database (e.g., Medline for postdocs on the life sciences) and selecting
first authors of excellent papers from the lab of the proposed mentor (in most
biomedical labs the mentor is the last author). Then fast-forward to the most recent
three years and check for citations from the first list of names, especially as first or
last author. If the collective first authors of earlier years are producing first-rate,
interesting papers today, their previous training may have played an important
part. This method is helpful only for evaluating senior mentors; however, for more
junior mentors, the best information may come from current and former lab

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When the J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco wanted to ensure
that its 60 postdoctoral scholars were receiving adequate mentoring,
the administration undertook a year-long study, with the following results:

• Discussions of mentorship have become part of the annual performance
reviews for fellows and PIs.
• Postdocs are surveyed annually on the mentoring they receive, and confidential
results are sent to the PI, the director, and the human resources office.
• PIs receive additional training in mentoring.
• Trainees were made aware of existing procedures for addressing problems
between the postdoc and the mentor.
• PIs are required to discuss career plans and prospects with postdocs at
least yearly.
• Human resources will provide all postdocs with both a letter of appointment
and a letter of completion.

At the University of Pittsburgh, one department requires each postdoc to
select a small faculty “mentoring committee” for informal meetings and guidance.
Postdocs are encouraged to choose “potential role models” as committee members.
One postdoc reported after her first meeting, “It was the best meeting I ever
had. I didn’t feel like the trainee; I was just talking to three other researchers. They
were at opposite ends of my project and brought different perspectives.”

At Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one department finds that effective
mentoring can be accomplished through weekly work-in-progress groups. “Each
postdoc has to present their research once a year,” says a dean. “Everyone
knows where they stand. If a person is foundering, the group will get together at
other times to advise.”

At Eli Lilly and Co., mentoring of its 75 postdocs is done both by the Science
Advisory Council and by individual “research advisers.” The Advisory Council,
which oversees the scientific integrity of the program, meets with a postdoc at
least once during their tenure—usually at the midpoint. These meetings give postdocs
the opportunity to showcase their work for senior management, build their
network of contacts, and work on getting sponsorship. Postdocs also meet regularly
with their research adviser. The position of research adviser is prestigious;
before advising a postdoc, a researcher must demonstrate success at mentoring

At Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, mentors are asked to perform a formal
review of each postdoc’s progress at least twice a year. A written record of the
review should indicate progress and next steps to be taken.

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When Adam came to a federal laboratory as a postdoc in anthropology, he was
intimidated by the competition in his field of Central American studies. His adviser,
however, suggested he stop and think for a moment. He asked, What do you want
to get out of this postdoctoral experience? What are your career goals? What
special skills do you have that most other researchers in the field do not? What are
some of the unique aspects of this research environment? Which of my connections
or talents can help you?

In Adam’s case, he spent part of his boyhood in Mexico. This provided him with
unique language skills, contacts, and general understanding that most of his competition
did not have. In addition, his university hosted a center of Latin American
studies where he could increase his contacts with scholars interested in the same

Comment: By working together, Adam and his adviser were able to develop a
strategy that used the best of his assets—and provided him with an edge that
could lift him a step above his competition.

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In addition to their disciplinary training, postdocs need additional career or
“survival” skills to maximize their chances for a rewarding career. A Postdoctoral
Taskforce at the University of Pittsburgh has developed a detailed program to
educate postdocs on such topics as:

• How to choose a postdoctoral adviser
• What should and should not be expected from an adviser
• How to establish goals for a postdoctoral experience
• Intellectual property rights
• The resources available at their institution
• How to build a community of mentors
• How to develop a professional network
• How and when to become independent
• How to leave the institution on good terms

As a key mechanism, the task force has developed a Survival Skills and Ethics
Workshop for postdocs, graduate students, and faculty. The workshop, held several
times a year, offers programs and advice on such topics as writing research
articles, making oral presentations, job hunting, teaching, writing grant proposals,
personnel and project management, and responsible conduct.

Similarly, the NIH fellows organization sponsors three skills development seminars
a year for its on-campus fellows. Topics include writing, speaking, and teaching;
it has also arranged for a fall job fair, extra travel awards, and adjunct jobs
teaching in the evenings.

Postdocs often need help with practical questions: How do the requirements of
research institutions differ from those of undergraduate teaching colleges? What
kinds of internships provide the best preparation for professional careers? How is
an industry job search different from a university job search? What different skills
are required?

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