First-Year Advice

As postdocs prepare to move to their next position, wherever that may be, their mentors shift into a more hands-on mode and offer advice.

HHMI investigator Stephen Elledge rehearses job talks with his postdocs, telling them to keep slides simple for an educated audience who are not experts in the field. He also coaches postdocs to read up on the faculty in the department that will be interviewing them since those faculty members will want to hire interactive scientists who show interest in their research.

"You are being interviewed from the moment you step off the plane, until you step back on," he says. Even a minor slip in the car ride back to the airport with a grad student can come back to haunt you. Successful job candidates treat every person they meet with respect and enthusiasm.

"Ignore invitations to gossip or speak negatively about anyone; nothing good can come of that," he says, "And don't drink too much at dinner!"

At this point, mentors also steer postdocs around the pitfalls that await green investigators. HHMI investigator Joanne Chory notes that the pressure to produce when starting out can be tremendous. But, she says, "Don't want a [particular] result so badly that your lab members will give it to you. You can be so bent on a model that people will deliver it to you." That big mistake can cost a lab head everything.

Jim Bardwell warns about the "warm body fallacy," the idea that a full lab is a productive lab. At all levels, he says, "bad or mediocre people take more time than they give."

Karel Svoboda concurs, even if it means a new investigator works alone the first year, setting up the lab and getting good data that will bring in better applicants. "It's hard to understand how frustrating and time-consuming it can be to have an average person in the lab. It can shape the whole culture of the lab, and disentangling oneself from that can take years."

Fred Alt, taking another page from his own postdoctoral fellowship, prefers that postdocs spend at least five years in his lab. The scientific maturity they gain is an advantage that far outweighs the slight delay when launching a new lab group. He also fosters collaboration between departing postdocs and someone remaining in his lab.

"I really encourage postdocs to work up until the last minute, to be on top of whatever you are doing with no lull," he says. "At the beginning, you have no resources to get it all done and in the meantime there will be postdocs here who want to work on the project. You don't want to be competing the day you walk out the door."

Collaboration changes the tenor of the relationship and when it works well, it becomes a win-win situation for all. For example, when Alt's former postdoc Shan Zha moved to Columbia University, she continued work on a project investigating DNA repair proteins in conjunction with a current Alt lab postdoc, Chunguang Guo. Together, they showed that two key DNA repair factors overlap, publishing the work as co-first authors in Nature online on December 15.

"It wouldn't have happened in this time frame for either of them without the collaboration," says Alt. "Having that publication helped get Shan's first NIH R01 grant funded in her lab's first year."

When Patrick Kanold moved from Harvard to launch his lab at University of Maryland, he could draw on researchers that his mentor Carla Shatz had connected him with over the years. "Her willingness to share her network meant that I had a circle of friends nearby and that was hugely important," he says. "If I had a technical question, I could send an e-mail and get an answer because they knew me. It's like being family."

-- Kendall Powell
HHMI Bulletin, February 2011

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