Postdoc

2012 Postdoc Experience Survey

The results of the Science Careers biennial postdoctoral survey were released this past week.  In case you’re unfamiliar with this survey, Science Careers sent emails to 38,000 current and recent PhD’s worldwide asking them to rate and discuss criteria essential to a successful postdoctoral experience. 

What’s the take home message of this year’s survey?  Answer: the struggling economy is the driving force behind the results.  Ten percent of respondents were unemployed at the time of answering this survey.  Similar to the unemployment rate in the EU and slightly higher than the current 8.3% unemployment rate in the US.  This is probably the major reason why “advancement opportunities / career options” was selected as the most important factor, with  “funding / grants”,  “employer / situation”, “networking”,  and “mentoring” rounding out this year’s top five attributes to a successful postdoctoral research experience.   

One can easily make the case that any of these factors are integral to career success.  But I did notice a common theme; the importance of having a principal investigator able and willing to enhance these factors.  A PI to introduce you to network contacts for career advancement.  A PI that can teach you the ropes of successfully obtaining grant funding.  A PI that creates a comfortable work environment and helps you further your scientific career.   After all, isn’t that part of the responsibility of being in a tenure-track position; to nurture the growth of future scientists?

Principal investigators willing to train the next generation of scientists do exist.  This is evident in the success stories of several survey respondents interviewed for this article.   The difficult part is finding them and convincing them to take the time, energy, resources and money to train a young scientist even when the career choice is outside of academia.  But, what do you do when your PI is less than helpful?  That’s when you need to be proactive and create your own network of collaborators.  And today social media has made it easier than ever to keep in contact with collaborators and colleagues.  They can help you get a foot in the door for a potential job opportunity. 

Remember, it’s your career…take control of it.

The article can be found here, and it’s great reading for every scientist looking to further their careers.  If you have any other ideas for networking or what makes for a successful postdoc experience, please leave your comments below.

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Postdoc Professional Masters Degree

I spent some time traveling in the car this weekend and my wife and I got into an interesting conversation regarding a new academic program provided by the Keck Graduate Institute; the Postdoc Professional Masters Degree or PPM for short.  (Yes, you read that right).  KGI touts the PPM program as a specialized MBA in biological sciences for PhD’s or MD’s.    As stated on their web page the PPM program, “will help students develop MBA level skills in management areas of key importance to the bioscience industry. They will also help familiarize students with industry dynamics across different segments of the bioscience industry.” 

My first reaction….why wouldn’t I just get an MBA?

My second reaction….really?  REALLY?!?!

Do I really need to spend more time, money, and effort to add another degree to my already lengthy resume?  Let’s see. 

Bachelor of Science….check

Masters….check

PhD….check

Postdoc Professional Masters….uhhhhh???

Enough already.  What comes next?  The doctoral program in post doctoral training.  A DPPD?  I just can’t fit any more degrees on my resume. 

Honestly, this sounds like a scam to fool down-on-their-luck postdoctoral students into thinking they need yet another degree to land a career.  Do you really need to take out more student loans to earn ANOTHER degree in the hopes of landing a job interview?      

Even the program’s title sounds like a veiled attempt at career success.  Let’s examine the title of the program.  We’ll take it word by word. 

Postdoc?  You couldn’t spell the whole word out?  Five more letters people.  Postdoc is a term you use when talking amongst peers in a lab setting. 

Example:  “Who’s that?”  “That’s Jim. He’s the new postdoc in the department.”  

When used as the title of your program, it simply sounds demeaning.  We have a doctoral degree!  We are professionals in our chosen discipline.    This brings me to the next word.  Professional.  Isn’t this redundant?  Even Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines postdoctoral as, “professional work beyond a doctoral degree.”   I feel like the term “Professional” is used solely to add legitimacy to the program.    

And then the final term.  Masters.  I have a PhD, Do I really want to get a Masters Degree for my PhD.  At least I can start arranging my diplomas in a bell shaped curve on my wall:  BS, MS, PhD, MS.

In all seriousness though, maybe I’m being too harsh on this program.  The program does require a team based project sponsored by a biotechnology company.  Teams are provided office space and a budget to focus on their project, which often involves market research, business development and sometimes lab based research.   This could be an invaluable introduction into a corporate environment and a chance to make some great business connections.   

 With an estimated 100,000 postdoctoral researchers in the US and only a handful of tenure track positions, it’s inevitable that a large number of PhD’s will try to transition from academia into pharmaceutical or biotech companies.   With all these candidates competing for limited positions in a struggling economy, what better way to stand out from the crowd than proving to potential employers you have experience in a business setting.

But, the real question is, do employers consider this type of training relevant experience?  Or, does human resources merely view this as another degree; a fancy piece of paper that can be framed and hung on the wall? 

Has anyone gone through the program?  I would love to hear what you or anyone else thinks about this concept.  Please post your comments below.  

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Early Independence Award

Science Magazine ran an article today that I thought would be great to share with the readers of RateMyPI.com.

In 2011, the NIH started a program called the Director’s Early Independence Award.  This award was designed to fast track scientist directly out of graduate school to independent research positions, essentially skipping post doctoral research.  Recipients of this grant are awarded $250,000 per year for a total of five years to essentially manage their own laboratories at a host institution.  Host institutions are required to provide laboratory space and equipment, but the NIH advises against appointment to tenure-track positions.  This allows the awardees to focus on research without hearing the tick-tick-tick of the tenure timeline. 

This program started in response to the increasing age where researchers achieve a tenure-track position.  Currently, the median age to achieve research independence is 37.  Achieving scientific independence at such a late stage in life dissuades many young scientists from pursuing careers in academia and greatly reduces the lifetime earning potential of extremely intelligent individuals.

The biggest hurdle facing this program is helping transition awardees away from institutions where they earned their PhD’s.  It becomes difficult to gain a sense of independence when your graduate school advisors are just a few doors away.  After five years of going to them for advice, it becomes difficult to break that pattern and start standing on your own two feet. 

This is where RateMyPI.com can help.   By providing a portal to locate the best institutions and research groups to help progress your careers, we help remove the uncertainty of moving across country, or even out of country, for a career opportunity.

The 2013 Early Independence Award deadline is approaching.  Please visit the NIH website to learn more about this amazing opportunity for young scientists. 

Kevin Hascup

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Teaching and Mentoring: A Consistent Weakness at the 2012 Best Academia Places to Work

The results of a survey conducted by The Scientist determined the best places to work for life science academics.  Many of the names on the list were not a surprise (J. David Gladstone Institutes, Massachusetts General Hospital, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the University of Groningen to name a few).  What was surprising was that 9 of the top 25 places to work listed “Teaching and Mentoring” as one of their top weaknesses.  9 out of 25.  And we wonder why it takes so long for an academic to get their first independent grant funded.  Even at the top institutions supportive infrastructure is not in place to prepare young scientists to succeed at the next level.  The top three institutions (and 5 out of the top 6) are considered to be weak in teaching and mentoring yet according to the survey they receive approximately 55 million US dollars in federal funding (~517 million US$ for the top 6!).  The Institute for Systems Biology (Seattle, WA) is the highest rated institute to have teaching and mentoring as a strength…and they are ranked 7th!  In light of all of this, it makes it even more important to know who you are working for.  Many researchers incorrectly assume that working at one of these top 25 institutions is enough to advance their careers. Unfortunately, you might not be receiving the much needed support and guidance from senior scientists during the early stages of your career.

Don’t leave your career to chance.  Visit RateMyPI.com (going live September, 2012) to read and write reviews about your fellow researchers, mentors/supervisors, and mentees/employees.

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