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A handful of current graduate students may realize that dream much faster. In 2010, NIH director Francis Collins announced the new Director’s Early Independence Awards. They allow superstar Ph.D. recipients to skip the postdoc and move straight to the principal investigator level. NIH plans to make 10 awards, each with a budget of $250,000 a year for five years.
Neal Sweeney was a postdoc at Yale for three years. He had a good relationship with his advisor, but the advisor was always busy, juggling a lab with more than 20 people plus teaching and grant writing. “I didn’t really feel like I was getting enough mentorship that my research could move forward at the pace I wanted it to,” he says.
In 2009, to be closer to an ailing family member, Sweeney took a second postdoc at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz. He’s now studying how stem cells morph into the neurons required for vision. He’s in a smaller lab, with fewer of the high-tech facilities Yale offered. But he’s been able to learn new techniques, achieve more responsibility, and practice grant writing in the cozier environment.
“At first, it’s really fun,” Rohn says. “Once you get into your fifth or sixth year of the postdoc, one starts to get a bit anxious.”
At first he felt like he was starting over, Sweeney says, but he’s now excited about his new projects. He spends his days fiddling with DNA strands, growing cells in dishes, or sitting at the microscope. And he’s gotten involved as a leader in the UC union, the UAW Local 5810.
Finding a mentor is a big concern among postdocs and was one of the issues noted in the Bridges report. One of the UC union’s key interests in negotiating its new contract, Sweeney says, was to make sure postdocs get the mentoring they need for both their current research and their future career. “This is one of the things that came up again and again,” he says.
Some advisors don’t take their role as mentors seriously, treating their trainees as cheap hands in the lab. “Some fraction of postdocs do not get much career advice,” Cech says. “They’re mostly being employed for the purpose of doing a certain set of experiments.”
And that lack of training shows when postdocs apply for jobs, says HHMI investigator Celeste Simon of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. When she interviews applicants for faculty positions, she can tell when postdocs from big labs didn’t get all the help they needed in preparing their application and job talk. “Sometimes postdoctoral fellows can fall through the cracks,” Simon says.
UC postdocs and their mentors are now expected to design an individual development plan (IDP), with short- and long-term goals, and hold regular meetings to assess progress. Making an IDP is the greatest factor in postdoc satisfaction, according to a 2005 survey by the scientific research honor society Sigma Xi. For example, postdocs need to know what part of their projects they can take to a new job.
Postdocs who become professors also need to learn how to manage a lab. “You’re going from pure science to running a small business,” says Maryrose Franko, senior program officer for HHMI’s department of science education.
With its successful weeklong training course of new lab heads, HHMI—in collaboration with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund—turned the information into a highly popular book, “Making the Right Moves.” HHMI now works with partner institutions to support similar training on their campuses.
Where Are the Jobs?
None of those efforts, however, solves the most crucial issue: not enough academic jobs for the academically trained scientists out there. “I was not warned about this,” says Jennifer Rohn, a postdoc at University College London, who wrote a March 2 column in Nature News on the subject. She spends her days sorting through images of cells, looking for conditions that change their shape.
“We may be overproducing biomedical scientists,” agrees Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University and an HHMI alumna.