Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#104 Mentoring Postdoctoral Students


Debbie Stine, associate director of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), writes: "You might wish to make your Mailing List aware of the series of guides the COSEPUP has produced on responsible conduct in research, careers in science & engineering, and on mentoring. The full text is available online at: ( under PUBLICATIONS. Some universities/classes link directly to material at our site."

The material on mentoring, found in, "ON BEING A MENTOR TO STUDENTS IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING," is particularly useful with advice that can also be of help in the humanities and social sciences. Major content categories are:

1 What is a Mentor?
2 The Mentor as Faculty Adviser
3 The Mentor as Career Adviser
4 The Mentor as Skills Consultant
5 The Mentor as Role Model
6 Recommendation: Improving the Quality of Mentoring
7 Resources

Below is an excerpt from the section on a topic that is not given nearly enough attention, mentoring postdoctoral students.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Applying for Academic Positions

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From, "On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering (COSEPUP)

Postdoctoral study has become the norm in some fields, such as the life sciences and chemical sciences; for other fields, such as engineering, it is rare. Some students find that a postdoctoral study in a national or industrial laboratory broadens their outlook and job opportunities and allows them to learn a new research culture. Others find themselves in a "holding pattern"-going from postdoctoral position to postdoctoral position without finding a long-term research position-as well as working for low pay and no benefits for many years. Thus, the decision to undertake postdoctoral work should not be made lightly and should be made only after examination of one's career goals and the career opportunities in that field.

FINDING A POSITION. Encourage students who want a postdoctoral position to determine the three or four research groups that seem most appropriate to their interests and abilities. Use your own network of contacts and make personal calls to introduce the student. Then suggest that the student call each supervisor, with relevant questions: How many postdoctoral fellows do you have now? What do they do? Where do they go afterward? What support is available? Recommend a face-to-face meeting with the supervisor, as well as with former postdoctoral students of the program and faculty members doing similar work.

THE NEED FOR POSTDOCTORAL MENTORING. It can be tempting to suppose that postdoctoral students require little or no mentoring because they have more experience than undergraduate or graduate students. That might not be true for postdoctoral students, any more than it is for junior faculty.

In fact, postdoctoral students, who might have scant supervision, ill-defined goals, and poor access to a community of peers-tend to incur greater risks of isolation and stagnation than graduate students. A good mentoring relationship can be crucial to the success of postdoctoral students as they develop original research ideas and move toward greater independence and maturity.

Helping the student find a second or even third postdoctoral position might not be difficult, but the most-valuable contribution of the mentor is to help the student find a "real job." That process should occur before the student begins their research with a thorough review of the student's experience and goals. Establish your expectations and "terms of employment." Set a schedule for follow-up reviews at regular intervals. Career goals, which can change appreciably over time, should be a central topic of these discussions. Another important topic is finances; postdoctoral students often enter a postdoctoral position with scant financial resources. Be aware of ethical employment practices, which include giving advance notice of layoffs and regular updates on a postdoctoral student's employment status.

Some of the basic obligations that a mentor has to a postdoctoral student are to help perform research, design a good curriculum vitae, rehearse interviews, prepare manuscripts, plan seminars, raise grant money, and learn about the current job market (see the box "Career Questions"). In addition, a good mentor will maintain sufficiently frequent contact to know about personal or other problems that could hinder progress and will generally make every necessary effort to help the postdoctoral student grow into a mature and productive colleague.

DEMONSTRATING PROGRESS. In any field, the broad purpose of the postdoctoral experience is to gain research experience and skills that open new vistas. If you mentor postdoctoral students, make it clear that they should demonstrate independent research thinking, be productive, have their work reflected on their record, and make sure that someone in a position of authority knows what they are doing and can facilitate their next steps.

Some students find it useful to remain with a laboratory after the usual 1-3 years of postdoctoral experience. However, this should be accompanied by clear indications of progress, such as promotion to research associate (or other position), the addition of responsibilities (such as supervision and teaching), and efforts to obtain independent funding.

A common problem of postdoctoral students is their lack of institutional connections. Mentors can help by making them aware of the nature and location of department offices and by introducing them to other faculty and staff-an obvious step that is often ignored. Encourage the department or institution to include postdoctoral students in their seminars, retreats, and meetings with speakers.

Further comments of relevance to postdoctoral students are offered in the next section, on mentoring junior faculty.