Career advice from post docs

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

Every year, the magazine Science surveys post doctoral researchers and their supervisors to learn more about trends in the science-job world. This year, Science had 798 post doc supervisors rank 12 attributes that they thought contributed to “a successful postdoc experience.”

Interested in working as a post doc? Check out the survey responses in the chart below:

As you can see, post doc supervisors believed that “communication,” “direction and vision,” and “work culture/environment” were the most important factors for a good post doc experience. Post doc hopefuls may or may not be surprised that “compensation” and “considering spouses/partners” ranked lowest for supervisors.

Of course, post docs also have a say in what makes for a good experience. Italian researcher Dr. Simona Casarosa told Science, “You have to ask yourself what you want from your life. If you want to have a striking career and be famous then you should choose on that basis. But if your personal life is important to you, then you need to take that into consideration.”

More tips from the Science survey:

- Start looking for a post doc position at least a year before completing graduate work. Dr. Kevin Gardner, a professor of biochemistry told Science that many graduate students wait to job search until they have a paper in press. This is a mistake. “If the lab is already full and finances are limited, they will not get the job, even if they have good publications,” said Gardner. 

- Learn to work independently. In the 2010 Science survey, 65 percent of supervisors said that they valued post docs who could work on their own. Interestingly, only 44 percent of post docs said that working independently was an important skill.

- Become a mentor. Once you have a post doc position, take time to get to know the graduate students and undergraduates in the lab. Dr. Michael Stumpf, a systems biologist from the UK told Science that while he enjoys mentoring post docs, he also wants his post docs to become mentors. “It will be an important component of what they do as PIs,” Stumpf said.

- Be willing to travel. Most graduate students know that they’ll have to move once they become post docs, but the Science survey showed that few consider positions overseas. Science funding has increased in countries like Singapore and Australia, as has the demand for foreign researchers. In Australia, the average post doc salary is Aus$70,000 (US$74,500) a year, much higher than the average post doc salary in the US. “I don’t know why our doors are not being beaten down,” Melbourne-based researcher Dr. Joan Heath told Science. Time in a foreign lab can also help post docs build a professional network and learn new ways of thinking.

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