From postdoc to independent scientist

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The doctoral thesis is the first tangible proof of a scientist’s ability to execute and interpret a coherent set of experiments, writes Howy Jacobs in the January issue of EMBO reports (11, 1; 2010). Nevertheless, he says, “everyone recognizes that doctoral projects in molecular biology are primarily devised and guided by the supervisor. The ability to fly solo as a researcher remains largely untested at the time of graduation: a smooth and successful PhD most often involves the student obediently following the supervisor’s instructions and suggestions, starting from a tailor-made project plan.”…..

“We need to train postdocs to take setbacks in their stride, give them more time to undertake risky but original projects, make mistakes along the way and learn from them; or merely to recover from a string of sheer bad luck. In addition, because of the inherent uncertainties of research, the relatively short lifetime of a postdoctoral fellowship and the very small number of real jobs in academic science, it is also vital that we reorganize postdoctoral training in a more realistic and useful manner. We need to nurture the development of a range of professional skills that will enable all postdocs to find worthy jobs that build on their experience.

Without a different financing system for postdoctoral science, we will continue to produce a fine but small crop of highly gifted research scientists, plus a large pool of disillusioned ex-researchers, imbued with an inappropriate but enduring sense of personal failure, and no better trained for the other careers that postdoctoral research should lead to than they were at the time of doctoral graduation.

A start could be made by requiring those supported by the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships to spend 30–50% of their time in measurable professional tasks other than laboratory research. However, we would need a radical change of culture to make this work. For example, the evaluation criteria for the next steps on the road to becoming a career academic would need to be altered accordingly. Search committees would have to show that they take account of criteria other than simply the raw output of publications, otherwise the type of postdoctoral fellowship I am envisaging would be career suicide for an aspiring PI. Another necessary reform would be to make postdoctoral fellowships more similar to standard research grants, supporting real laboratory costs and perhaps the services of a junior assistant. The benefit to the host lab in terms of raw productivity would not be much different from now, and the postdoc might still have a realistic chance of building a portfolio of stellar publications within a few years. In addition, she/he would be far better prepared for other careers, and would feel much more comfortable about making such a choice later on.”


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