The discussions in the Career Support Group for Science PhDs have always been a live wire. As the group nears its one year anniversary and embarks on the Mentor-Mentee initiative, ClubSciWri is pleased to bring out the first brain-storming session that led to this initiative. One such interesting discussion took place a few months back. Dr Moloy Goswami asked, “Among this group are many who are Principal Investigators (PIs). A lot is been discussed from side of graduate students and post-docs. It would be lovely to have perspective from looking glass.” So the questions he posed to the group were:
- What it means to be a researcher and a mentor?
- How to be a good lab manager?
- Is it compatible with right science and competitive nature of grants?
- What have the PIs done to boost science career of next generation?
Moloy believes talking it aloud will help investigators reflect in addition to adding value to those who believe science is what they were born for.
Here is a summary of the opinions expressed by some of the faculty members in the forum.
- You cannot control every aspect of the experiment.
- Some phd students/postdocs are more independent than others, do you know where your mentee stands?
- Taking a graded approach with PhD students helps: start with a greater involvement and release the brakes slowly after changing gears.
- Encourage healthy disagreement to develop better proteges. Your success depends on their success.
- Be inspiring, especially in the disillusionments through paper and grant rejections.
- A good read: By Santiago Ramon Y Cajal (the father of modern neurobiology), called ‘Advice to a Young Investigator’.
- Try to be a mentor and a friend, and let your mentee’s speak their mind.
- Lead by example, not by tyranny.
- Be super selective of the first person you hire
- Compartmentalise, because there’s never going to be a block of time for anything that takes too long: there’ll always be a meeting, students asking help, emails that need replying, other admin work that cannot wait and so on.
- In the beginning you are your best postdoc and you set the culture in the lab, the rigour, the fun and the discipline, all of it.
- I’ve also noticed it is best to offer career advice when asked by people who have some idea of what they want for themselves. No career is better or worse. We have an open door policy and students/postdocs can approach any PI for advice.
- It is best to offer career advice when asked by people who have some idea of what they want for themselves. No career is better or worse.
- Each person is different. Your interactions with personnel in your group are never alike. One-size-fits-all approach is bound to fail.
- Conflict Resolution: Universities offer courses like ‘Dealing with difficult personalities’ which might be useful to some extent. I think having mentor (other than your PI) at workplace is very important.
- Judging talent: In terms of expectations – I feel motivation and interest in the project at hand are most important. A super smart student who is not interested in the laboratory projects is unlikely to make much progress. And to a large extent, at that level, the whole class is intellectually similar. So attracting the students/people most interested in your work is better for both parties.
- How to help the mentees transition? Well, this is what they had to say:-
Bhismadev Chakrabarti said, ” for good phd students coming to the end of their term, i’d unashamedly push his/her case to colleagues in labs that i know are doing good work. this approach has resulted in good postdoc positions for several of my students. applying ‘cold’ is ok too,though what is really important is for the students to ‘prepare the ground’ in conferences (through initiating contact with the relevant PI) at least a year before the application process starts. it is important to realise that the ratio of applicants to positions for postdocs is often 30:1 (and the top five or so candidates all look very similar on paper). for postdocs coming to the end of their contract, i strongly encourage applying for fellowship applications (e.g. marie curie in the EU) which provide the ideal bridge between senior postdoc and PI. the other alternative is to get a lectureship position. the slight risk of getting a teaching fellowship/ teaching-intensive lectureship is that it risks having less time for research; so one of these career development awards (or equivalents ) and situating oneself in a good lab is the best way forward in my view. usually the home institutions will absorb the researcher at the end of the fellowship into their tenure track stream (at least within UK).”
Dev Sikder said, “Postdocs are weaved into many projects. As a consequence a productive postdoc publishes about 3-4 first author papers and few additional ones as coauthor. As a PI you realize the bigger picture, by assisting a postdoc’s transition into academia or industry, you also build your own legacy. Long story short, a PI’s interest isn’t limited to keeping students/Postdocs in laboratory Indefinitely just because of good match. Once the papers are published he will be happy to help the transition. But Postdocs need to be proactive in the process. Talk to PI about the help you need, help the PI clearly see your vision. Just asking them to write a strong recommendation will NOT land you a position. Build that trust to the extent that he will place a call to the hiring department/institute/ industry. PI’s contacts with industry and academia will help you segue. Having said that you must the prepared to grab the right opportunity. For example when your PI presents your work to Scientific Boards, you should find a way to network with board members. Be proactive in seeking out opportunities in conferences, and approach your PI for making that call.”
Moloy Goswami thanked everyone for their inputs. He said, “It is to bring out and layout such points that I raised the questions. I also believe, getting funding and starting lab do not immediately qualify someone to be good mentor. It is a learning curve for those willing to learn.”
The perspectives and questions will be undergoing a continuous evolution as the biomedical workforce in the US and across the world undergoes re-organization in the days to come. The years of investment, training and perseverance that goes into creating a scientist deems a re-thinking in the way we are educating our mentees. This becomes more important when we start to prepare them for the a variety of science careers that are non-traditional.
Moloy Goswami is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor).
Avinash Shenoy is a Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology at Imperial College (London).
Bhismadev Chakrabarti is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading (UK).
Devanjan (Dev) Sikdar is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida (Gainesville).
Anindita Bhadra is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (Kolkata, India).
About the author: Abhinav Dey is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of Career Support Group (CSG) for Science PhDs and ClubSciWri
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.