Survival Guide

Relevant Articles


Ph.D., Check, Now What? Six Tips for Finding Your Dream Job

Seek Quality, Not Quantity, Experts Say

8 Steps to Build Relationships After a Networking Event

Boarding on Confusion/Science Careers

The Impact of Influence – Why Scientists Need Mentors

From Science Ph.D. to Careers Outside Academia:  What Might Help?

How to Ace a Phone Screening Interview?

The Most Important Interview Question of All Time

NIH Considers Anonymity For Grant Applicants

Forging a New Career Path

Careers Guide 2013: The state of pay

Career Advice 2013

Quick Fixes To Improve Your LinkedIn Profile

Self-Improvement Strategies for Becoming a More Authentic Leader

Getting to Know Americans

The factors that determine a “good” postdoctoral experience are as various as
the personalities involved. But certain key steps deserve careful planning.

Choosing a field. Foremost is the selection of the research area. A postdoctoral
research project should be more than an extension of thesis research; it
should lead to new skills and a broader outlook. The postdoc should understand in
advance what portion of the work is likely to be transportable to his or her next

Finding a postdoctoral position. Most postdocs in our focus groups4 found
their positions through personal contacts—advisers, friends, and contacts from
professional meetings. Many simply approached potential advisers directly with
their qualifications and objectives. Few postdocs are hired after a simple response
to ads in journals and on web sites, but such sources provide valuable tips about
which institutions are hiring in which fields.

Choosing an adviser. Both experienced postdocs and advisers suggest a
thorough investigation before signing on. Some postdocs place paramount importance
on the prestige of the principal investigator; others emphasize mentoring
ability. A researcher of renown has great power to help—or hinder—a career; a
newer assistant professor may offer more attention, responsibilities, and a substantial
role in building up a lab. In either case, it is desirable to: 1) arrange a
personal meeting and 2) talk with current and former postdocs who have worked
with that investigator or organization.

4Several hundred postdocs, faculty, advisers, administrators, and federal agency staff generously
offered their opinions, critiques, and personal experiences at 39 focus groups held
around the country.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences.  All rights reserved

The following true examples, described by postdocs and advisers during the
committee’s focus groups, illustrate situations or behaviors that can damage not
only a postdoc’s experience but also the morale and accomplishments of a program.

• At a professional society meeting, a postdoc met several colleagues from
other institutions who were engaged in the same field of research. They invited her
to participate in a collaborative project involving an aspect of her lab’s research.
When the postdoc asked permission, her adviser refused on the grounds that
revealing the details of the lab’s work might give others an advantage.
Comment: Scientific research is increasingly collaborative. A postdoc should
be encouraged to develop her professional network and to seek out cooperative

• An adviser who was a renowned lab director declined a postdoc’s offer to
help assemble the lab’s grant proposal. “That’s my responsibility,” he said.
Comment: Grant writing is a skill most postdocs need to acquire. While a major
grant is indeed the PIs responsibility, the postdoc also needs to learn that skill. The
postdoc should be asked to write the portion of the grant that describes his or her
own work.

• An adviser with a wide reputation for hard work informed his group of postdocs
that they could take a total of 12 days off each year, and that otherwise they
were expected to be in the lab every day, including weekends.
Comment: Advisers, following institutional policies, should establish reasonable
policies for time off.

• A postdoc whose adviser was rarely in the lab felt the need for more supervision
while learning a new field. When he asked the adviser’s permission to find
an additional mentor, she refused on the grounds that another person would be
intrusive and would jeopardize the advising relationship.
Comment: The adviser does not “own” the postdoc, who can often benefit
from multiple mentors—especially if the primary adviser is often unavailable.

• A foreign postdoc, after working in a program for several months, wanted to
return home for Christmas vacation with his family. When he inquired about leave
policy, he was told that his institution did not provide vacations for postdocs and
that his adviser expected him to be in the lab year-round.
Comment: Minimum vacation benefits for postdocs should be set by institutions
and these policies should reflect the benefits accorded to other members of
the lab or program.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences.  All rights reserved

The elements of a successful postdoctoral appointment are as variable as the
postdoctoral population. For one unabashedly upbeat postdoc on a laboratory
fellowship (we’ll call her Sue), these elements included early preparation, supportive
colleagues, a fascinating research topic, the opportunity to learn time management
and self-reliance, and an effective—though somewhat distant—mentor.

• Early preparation: Even as a graduate student in geochemistry, Sue began
building ties to the research group where she wanted to go as a postdoc. “To get
the most out of an experience, you have to offer something. I did my graduate work
in geochemistry; I wanted to work with a group in planetary physics, and I was able
to show them that I had something to contribute. I began doing some projects with
them while I was in graduate school, so the transition was relatively smooth. One
of the best reasons to do a postdoc is to learn a new field, but it’s best to prepare
the ground early.”

• Supportive colleagues: “I didn’t always know where I was going, but it was
fairly easy to seek out good advice and constructive criticism both in my own institution
and elsewhere. A big challenge, and a difference from graduate school, is
that you’ve got to start putting together your own professional network of collaborators
and friends with whom you’re going to be building your career. It’s a good
habit to spend time every week meeting new people, networking, looking at people
who are successful to see how they do it.”

• A topic of interest: “I loved my work, and this is one reason it was successful.
I published 12 or 13 papers during three years as a postdoc, including one in
Science. I got to work on a variety of problems without getting stuck in something
too narrow. I was fortunate enough to have a great deal of freedom. I could follow
my curiosity, and that allowed me to be very productive. I had the opportunity to
propose my own research and get it funded.”

• Learning self-reliance: “I spun my wheels for the first few months, trying to
figure out what to do first, but there were some advantages to that experience. If
you’re going to be an independent researcher, sooner or later you’ve got to learn to
fly the plane. When I was a grad student, I used to do all my own instrument work,
because my time was cheap and there wasn’t anyone else to do it. When I became
a postdoc, I was paid more and I had technical staff. I had a big adjustment in
mindset about organizing better and making the wisest investments of my time.”

• Effective mentoring: “I saw my adviser several times a week. He wasn’t very
involved with my research, but what he did was right for me. He was always supportive,
gave me a long leash, and made sure I got to give talks at important
conferences. He did this for all his postdocs—made sure that certain doors were
unlocked. What you do with that advantage, once you go in that door, is your
business. Again, you’re the one who’s going to fly the plane. In the end, I was
fortunate enough to be hired by the same institution where I did my postdoc.”

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences.  All rights reserved.

Joe, who has had two postdoctoral appointments in academic environments
and now works in the biotechnology industry, says it can sometimes be difficult to
anticipate—or prevent—a frustrating experience. For his first postdoc, he carefully
chose an adviser whose project in the life sciences seemed to fit nicely with his
own interests, but a series of difficulties blunted his productivity. He offers a summary
of his experience, and some lessons he learned:

• Know when to cut your losses: In his first year, Joe tried several experimental
approaches that failed to give results. His adviser was seldom in the lab to offer
guidance, and Joe was slow to change direction. When he tried to consult other
senior scientists, his adviser refused to allow it. “She felt this was interfering with
her laboratory. In retrospect, I probably should have cut my losses and moved on.
But there’s great pressure to keep going, to tough it out.”

• Understand your adviser’s policy on publication: In his third year, Joe had
finally found a promising new direction, obtained results, and written them up for
publication. His adviser, however, did not allow him to send out the paper because
she felt it should be a “bigger story.” “The timing was critical for me. I had to be
applying for jobs, and I had no publications. I was ready to have my work judged by
my peers, and I was unable to do so. She finally rewrote and published the paper—
after I’d left the lab.”

• Talk with former lab members before signing on: Joe talked only with current
lab members, who he now knows are not in a position to be critical. Later he
learned that he was the fifth postdoc to leave that particular lab without publications
or jobs. “I should have talked with some former members, because they are
freer to be honest. In a good training environment, postdocs are getting jobs and
continuing their research. I might have saved myself a lot of difficulty.”

• Be clear about your agenda: He went on to do a second postdoc, with
better—defined goals. “I needed publications, and I was frank about this with my
second adviser. That lab was doing work in my field. I was offered a year’s support,
and after that I knew I would be on my own. It was a fair offer, and clear. After nine
months I was able to raise my own funding. I got my publications, the work came
out well, and I entered the job market in good shape.”

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences.  All rights reserved.

Power Point Presentation by Dr. Joanne Kamens: “I’m Surviving (Happily) My Career in Science–You Can Too!”

“Figuring out how to juggle any career with the non-work part of line can be challenging but for working scientist, there never seems to be a way do do it all.”

Tips on How to Survive a Dominant Boss

Dealing with a dominant personality can be a challenging feat, especially if it’s your boss.  If you find yourself working for this type of employer, you may be tempted to call it quits.  However, learning to work with this type of personality is an extremely valuable skill.  So if the job is worth it and you are looking for a way to make it work, here are seven tips to survive, and thrive, with a dominant boss.

ASBMB Article about the Challenges of International Postdocs

How to Survive and Thrive in the Mother-Mentor Marathon

Article by Dr. Galit Lahav, Department of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA