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THE BLACK HOLE

Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check

By DAVID KENT | MAY 13 2013

A little while back I wrote a blog post called “Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees,” which proposed that PhD programs finish in 4 to 5 years and that thesis committees take a more active role in the future career options of their students. The formal degree structure permits such suggestions and their broad application, but what happens when you graduate and enter the black hole of a  postdoctoral fellowship? There is no degree, no formal university structure, no defined endpoint, and a huge amount of variability in the reasons people find themselves there.

This makes broadly applicable solutions much more difficult in postdoctoral land, but it does not prohibit the identification of the key issues facing this cohort of early career researchers and the proposal of some solutions that can be picked up by individual institutions. In my mind, the quality of postdoctoral fellow training is compromised by three core issues:

  1. The supervisor holds all the cards – salary, promotion, contacts, reference letters, and people who work with/for them – and therefore has an incredible impact on the postdoc’s future success. If there is an issue with a supervisor, there are few outlets and this can definitely lead to a wide range of unproductive and unhappy situations.
  2. Non-academic careers are seen as a failure. You’ll notice in my PhD post that I used the word demonized and here I’ve used failure. This is because I think the problem is different at the postdoctoral level. By choosing to undertake postdoctoral work, one loses the career story line of “I did my PhD with the intention of moving into a career in ____” and the majority indeed set out to pursue the professor path. When this option is selected against (for any number of reasons), the default position by many is to see the career move as a failure to reach the goal of professor.
  3. Smart people don’t like to fail. There are two problems here. The first is that most people in the group of postdoctoral fellows who do not have a sufficient CV or skill set to become a professor do not admit it (and I want to stress to men that you are more likely to have this reality/expectation disconnect than women). The second problem is that making the lateral move to another career is challenging to explain or justify (despite it often being the best decision for everyone).

A secondary mentor program would be a simple and inexpensive way to help deal with many of these issues. The key characteristics/components of such a program could be:

  • non-mandatory – if the postdoctoral fellow does not wish to use a formal mentor structure, they should not be required to do so.
  • regular checkups – this would be up to individual departments/institutes, but should probably be at least once a year and would need to take place with some regular frequency.
  • confidentiality – an agreement not to discuss confidential items with the postdoctoral fellow’s supervisor (e.g. non-academic career pursuits).
  • career assessment – the secondary mentor should provide advice on whether the career goals are realistic considering the CV and research skills of the fellow.

Such a program would not only benefit postdoctoral fellows but would also serve to make faculty mentors aware of the different options (internships, jobs, workshops, etc.) being considered and pursued by trainees in their departments. Moreover, it would give the postdoctoral fellow a second port of call for collaboration suggestions, research advice and even a reference letter from someone with a formal role in their training.

A much larger issue that will be the focus of future ramblings will be the dire need for young researchers to take their own careers into their hands. Very few people will be tapped on the shoulder to be tempted away from an academic setting and making such a change requires an active interest from the postdoctoral fellow themselves.

The next post in this mini-series will focus on simple suggestions for helping out at the early career researcher stage (and the hopeful transition to tenure track). Until then!

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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