Planning Your Postdoc

The relationship between the adviser and the postdoc is of prime importance if the postdoctoral experience is to be beneficial to both parties. Postdoctoral training is of utmost importance in the preparation of scientists for careers as scientific professionals. This training is typically conducted in an apprenticeship mode where the postdoctoral appointee undertakes scholarship, research, service, and/or teaching activities that, taken together, provide a training experience for career advancement.

According to the above study conducted by the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences (“Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers”, National Academy Press, ©2000), the best time for a postdoc to evaluate a potential postdoctoral position is before signing on. It may be difficult to adjust the major conditions of an appointment once it is underway. 

You may want to ask the following questions of a potential mentor/adviser:

  1. What are the advisers expectations of the postdoc?
  2. Will the adviser or the postdoc determine the research program?
  3. How many postdocs has this adviser had? Where did they go afterwards?
  4. What do current and past lab members think about their experiences?
  5. Will the adviser have time for mentoring? Should I seek out other mentors?
  6. How many others (graduate students, staff, postdocs) now work for this adviser?
  7. How many papers are being published? Where?
  8. What is the advisers policy on travel to meetings? Authorship? Ownership of ideas?
  9. Will I have practice in grant writing, teaching, mentoring? Oral presentations? Review of manuscripts?
  10. Can I expect to take part of the project away with me after the postdoc?
  11. How long is financial support guaranteed? On what does the renewal of my appointment depend upon?
  12. Will the adviser have adequate research funds to support the proposed research?
  13. Can I count on help in finding a position after my postdoc?

A number of organizations, recognizing the importance of this relationship, have prepared reports and weighed-in on the respective roles of the adviser and the postdoc: 

Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers - A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies

The Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences has prepared a report that addresses five primary populations, all of whom participate in the postdoctoral experience: the postdoctoral officers themselves, their advisers, their host institutions, the agencies and organizations that support them and professional disciplinary societies. It is also intended for senior-level graduate students who may be contemplating postdoctoral work. The report states that the postdoc “has a quid pro quo relationship with the research community”. In order to enhance this relationship we are also providing, a “Roles and Responsibilities” document for both postdocs and their advisers. 

The Compact was drafted by the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Group on Graduate, Research, Education, and Training and its Postdoctorate Committee. Its intent is to “initiate discussions at the local and national levels about the postdoctoral appointee-mentor relationship and the commitments necessary for a high quality postdoctoral training experience.” According to this Compact, core tenets of postdoctoral training include:

  • Institutional Commitment
  • Quality Postdoctoral Training
  • Importance of Mentoring in Postdoctoral Training
  • Foster Breadth and Flexibility in Career Choices

The Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and their Mentors details necessary commitments of both postdoctoral appointees and mentors.

The annual IDP program at Columbia University has been designed for PhD students in the third and fourth year of training and postdoctoral researchers in the first two years of training. See the IDP Program page for more information.