Journeying along an uncharted river has parallels to exploring science, says Jim Bardwell, an HHMI investigator and avid outdoorsman.
The postdoctoral fellowship, for example, is like shooting a series of churning rapids with only a paddle and a helmet for protection. It's a high-pressure series of challenges to join the best lab after graduate school, execute and publish stellar science, and then secure a full-time position afterward.
Postdocs are a lab's engines of creativity but also laboring apprentices. They work long hours for limited pay to gain the experience and publications they need to earn their first independent job—be it lab head, industry researcher, or government scientist.
Bardwell understands the importance of having the right team—in the lab and on adventures. With just a fold-up canoe in his backpack, he and a friend hiked through the wilderness of Papua New Guinea scouting rivers in 1994. They chose the seemingly easier Ramu River over the imposing Jimi but midcourse had to escape before the Ramu spit them into a desolate part of the Pacific Ocean.
"Quite frequently, you have to redirect to find the path through the jungle, and science is often redirected quickly or dramatically, as well," says Bardwell, at University of Michigan. In both cases, the expedition team has to be knowledgeable, hard working, flexible, and fearless. "You can run into indications that your hypothesis is completely wrong. You don't want people to wimp out on you, curl up in a ball, and start whimpering. And believe me, it can happen both on expeditions and in the lab."
Choosing the right people can make or break a lab group. And although there's not one right way of going about it, experienced investigators are quick to say it's not rocket science. With further prodding, however, they begin to describe well-honed techniques for recruiting, selecting, and managing postdoctoral fellows.
The stakes for both postdocs and mentors are high. Today more than ever, postdocs need to find a lab with a strong pedigree. And the investigators who hire them must identify a gifted experimental scientist who is compatible with the rest of the lab's employees.
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"Any researcher over 50 will say that the trainees who come out of their lab are more important than any other page on their CV," says HHMI scientific officer Ed McCleskey.
Digging for Gold
Seasoned investigators scout for talent at scientific meetings, summer training courses, and when giving seminars at other universities.
"When I go to a meeting I try not to hang out with my buddies too much; I talk to a lot of younger people," says Karolin Luger, an HHMI investigator at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. If she finds the right mix of innate curiosity and enthusiasm, she extends an invitation to apply to her lab.
Matchmaking is important too. A referral from a colleague who knows the lab's research and management style holds a lot of weight. Knowing firsthand a candidate's true training level—that they are guaranteed "good hands" at cell culture or crystallography—is invaluable.
Above all, though, these investigators are choosy from the outset, carefully selecting people who fit the lab's goals and personality. "You really have to get over the excitement that someone wants to work with you, and then dig deeper," says Luger.
When screening applicants, investigators rank different key elements first. For many, publications and productivity are most important.
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"The number one thing I look at is their publications," says Michael Green, an HHMI investigator at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. "Can they spearhead the project from its inception to its conclusion, a publication?"
Bardwell also emphasizes publications. "If an applicant has succeeded in publishing, that's a good indication they will succeed as a postdoc." He looks for quality publications on creative studies rather than quantity.
Luger looks for people who will bring interesting techniques to her group and who will speak their minds. "Are these people going to go out on a limb and fight for their ideas? Do they have their own vision?"
She recently hired a postdoc who came from a "hard-core thermodynamics laboratory," as opposed to a crystallography lab like hers. His influence on the lab resulted in development of a key assay and changed the way her group thinks about chromatin and the energetics that govern its assembly. She knew his perspective would bring fresh ideas.
Frederick Alt, an HHMI investigator at Children's Hospital Boston, remembers being impressed by an applicant whose one-page cover letter projected where certain projects in Alt's lab might be headed and positioned her skills within the lab team. "Wow, she's really taken some time here," he recalls thinking. He hired her and she recently landed a faculty slot at National Jewish Health in Denver.
When probing applicant references, veteran investigators put little stock in letters of recommendation. "Letters of recommendation are very tricky because there is never a negative letter. I like to say they are 'interpretatively ambiguous,'" says Green. He prefers to e-mail references with specific questions.
Bardwell and Luger call references to get a faster, candid assessment. Bardwell also likes to call candidates to quickly gauge their enthusiasm and personality. "I like a lab that is fun, where people inspire each other to higher heights."
Jean-François Collet vividly remembers that call and how it sealed his decision to join Bardwell's group. Collet, then at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, sent an e-mail application and two hours later the phone rang. Bardwell opened the conversation in Collet's native French, which impressed upon the young researcher that Bardwell was a world-class communicator.
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.
"I had a young daughter and my wife would have to quit her job to move. He cared about that and wanted to make sure they would be happy in the States, in part because he knew that would make me more productive," recalls Collet.
He then did a unique calculation to confirm the match. For each of the protein folding labs he wanted to join, Collet divided the lab's recent publications by the number of people in the lab. Bardwell stood out with a higher ratio of papers to people. "I thought it was better to go to a smaller lab that publishes a lot, rather than a big lab that is like a lottery, where you don't know if you will be the lucky one."
Everybody's got an individual interviewing style. But they all have the candidate meet current lab members to check the fit. "The cohesiveness of your group is critical to having it hum along as a functional unit," says Stephen Elledge, an HHMI investigator at Harvard Medical School.
Karel Svoboda, a group leader at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus, is very selective. He never hires a postdoc without two interviews, mostly as a way to gauge how much the candidate really wants to be in his lab. Several drop out and find another lab between the first and second conversation. He says playing hard to get pays off. In 13 years, he's trained roughly two dozen postdocs, 18 of whom are now in tenure-track positions.
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Luger dines with candidates the first night for small talk, saving the science for the next morning. The more relaxed discussion gives her a better sense of a candidate's social and communication skills and how well the lab fits his or her long-term plans.
She also probes personalities with questions like, "What's the biggest challenge you had to overcome in your Ph.D.? How would you deal with a messy bench mate?" she says. "Let them talk," she advises. "I made the rookie mistake as a new PI to talk and talk to fill the void."
Nobel laureate and HHMI investigator Richard Axel at Columbia University doesn't waste his time sitting through applicant job talks or thesis seminars. He gets right to a lengthy one-on-one conversation to probe the candidate's grasp of science and whether the two will click. "The trick is to surround yourself with postdocs who are smarter than you and with whom you have a good personal rapport," says Axel. Several of his former postdocs have become icons in neuroscience, including HHMI investigators David Anderson, Linda Buck, Catherine Dulac, Leslie Vosshall, and HHMI alumnus Richard Scheller.
A Subtle Guide
Axel calls postdocs the "pillar" of his laboratory, providing the intellectual and experimental firepower for the group. He keeps his door open and reserves several hours a week for each fellow to discuss science, letting them talk through ideas, speculate, and hypothesize. "[This approach] forces them to develop their scientific imagination and scientific approach," he says. "I tend to be intimately familiar with their data but not overbearing in my influence. I like data—it's my friend. I like to pet it, touch it, and embrace it. That's where I can be of help to them. They're smarter than me, but I have much more experience than they do—I'm an old man!"
Alt follows a lesson he learned from his own postdoctoral days in David Baltimore's lab, then at MIT. He holds a lab meeting every week where all of his 15 or so lab members present their data and progress. "It gets you used to talking on your feet, in front of a regular crowd," he says. "It really helps postdocs going out for seminars and interviewing for jobs."
Most postdocs are ready to test their own scientific wings, Alt says, so a light-handed, subtle approach to mentoring works.
Joanne Chory agrees. "I joke with my lab manager that postdocs are here to come in and do a project," says Chory, an HHMI investigator at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla. "They might wreck the lab, but you just have to let them." After the initial start-up, Chory is a "sink or swim" manager. "I came from that background and I like it when my postdocs work based on their own motivations."
Women who have risen in the academic ranks say they don't use different approaches when recruiting and mentoring male and female postdocs. But when postdocs begin to think about entering the job market, advice for women gets specific.
But what if a postdoc isn't performing to expectations? Addressing a lack of motivation or someone's spinning wheels can be "the toughest thing we do," Chory adds. Conflict management isn't usually part of a scientist's upbringing. She does not like to fire postdocs (nor is that an easy option in many academic settings). Instead, she tries to identify the source of the problem, talking to the postdoc about what might work better. "You cannot make someone work harder by force. It's not worth the energy," she notes.
Luger tries to root out problems sooner rather than later. "I've learned to keep good notes on my conversations. It becomes really handy to remind someone of what we discussed." A written record also becomes invaluable if it does come to letting someone go. "Don't be too squeamish if you see there's a conflict coming. Be proactive and get a dialogue started early." It's not always a "stay or go" decision, either. Postdocs have been known to shift career goals midstream, so it may just be a matter of realigning a project to match the new focus.
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Ultimately, says Svoboda, postdocs are adults who must decide for themselves how hard to work. But, he's also frank about time management. "Success as a postdoc demands a certain kind of investment of time and effort. It's like compound interest—put in 10 percent more and the payoff is a lot more over time."
Venturing out on their own
"Getting postdocs well-prepared to run their own lab is a major part of the training, as is trying to enhance their success in my lab," says Alt. "Those two things go together and make it a self-reinforcing system." Clearly, he's tapped into a formula for success—he has trained more than 100 postdoctoral fellows and graduate students and estimates that more than half of his former postdocs are now tenured faculty members.
That's a good track record. In a 2010 Science Careers survey of about 3,500 former and current postdocs, 61 percent of respondents expected to land a tenure-track position, but only 37 percent actually did.
Bardwell sees more postdocs choosing nontraditional posts. He's had former postdocs who took jobs in industry overseeing large groups of 30 scientists as well as one who became an assistant professor in Saudi Arabia.
"I try to walk in their shoes rather than pretend they have the same aspirations I have," he says. He plans to encourage the colleague in Saudi Arabia to stay in contact since he's likely to be more isolated from the broader scientific community.
Good mentors find ways to train their postdocs to excel at mentoring when they launch their own labs. Luger pairs postdocs with an undergraduate, rotation, or graduate student, and she checks in with the student to see how the relationship is working.
One Luger postdoc learned an invaluable lesson about adjusting mentoring approaches. Paired first with an undergraduate of similar personality, the postdoc delivered criticisms directly with no "gift-wrapping." His next student, however, shriveled under what she considered offensive feedback.
Luger warns her postdocs to allow for a "training period" for the students, who often cannot keep up intellectually with a postdoc at the top of his or her game. She has a favorite exercise for reminding them that trainees are not mini-me's: "Take a page from a paper, and replace every third noun and the occasional verb with the word 'Yakutat.' That's pretty much an undergraduate's experience when they first talk to their new mentors."
Patrick Kanold trained as a postdoc in the Harvard Medical School lab of Carla Shatz, now director of Bio-X at Stanford University in California and member of HHMI's medical advisory board. He says her skilled but understated mentoring prepared him to easily set up his own group at University of Maryland in College Park.
"She gave me room to develop my own thoughts and questions with subtle little pushes. I was being directed, but at the time I didn't notice," he says. "By building my own experimental set-ups and training grad students through guided mentoring, I was being given really important experiences that I carried with me."
Bardwell is often reminded of his experiences shooting unexplored rivers. His contacts tell him that Papua New Guinea's Jimi River awaits a first descent by humans. He'd love to give it a shot, with the right team beside him. The same goes for his lab—a well-chosen team with the right training makes for a gratifying journey.