Shaping Your Postdocs

How to whip your postdocs into researchers you would want to collaborate with.

© Getty Images / Jordi Elias

In 1990, fresh out of his first postdoc, David Woodland walked into his very own lab at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. All he wanted was to dive into the viral immunology that he had spent years thinking about, but found that a lot of his time was consumed by the other tasks that come with being a principal investigator (PI). “It was difficult,” he says. “No one had given me guidance in writing grants, or [told me] that I would principally be in a management position.” Twenty years later, he uses his experience to help guide the postdocs at the Trudeau Institute, where he is the director.

These so-called “soft-skills” are an important part of a successful postdoc education. While some postdocs will shun the idea...

Successful postdocs act as the emissaries of your science, starting their own labs on subtopics of your research. When your postdocs have successful labs of their own, they can carry your research further as trustworthy collaborators with their own resources to contribute. “It’s in my best interest to be able to send out postdocs who are going to be wildly successful,” says Glenn Rall, a PI studying viral pathogenesis at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

The Scientist talked to PIs to discover their secrets for breeding successful postdocs. Here are tips for training the best postdocs and ensuring they take away a project that can serve as fodder for future collaborative ventures.


Give them the lay of the land

It’s better that you “don’t assume [postdocs] know anything,” about your expectations and your lab culture, says Erica Golemis, a cancer biologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. While it might seem difficult to discuss things like your expectations for keeping a quality notebook, it’s much easier than noticing problems later. Mary Wagner, a researcher at Emory University studying pediatric congenital heart defects, suggests spending some one-on-one time with new hires to get a feel for their skill set. She also likes to spend time going over data analysis with them, to make sure her expectations are aligned with theirs.

Get their fingers typing

“One of the major weaknesses I come across is writing skills,” says Woodland. “If you give a postdoc a blank piece of paper and ask them to write, it usually doesn’t turn out very well.” Postdocs need excellent writing skills to get the funding and recognition to be a successful PI themselves. “It’s a slight double-edged sword, because they have to take time to write this grant and that’s time taken out of the lab,” says Woodland. “On the other hand, it makes them think deeply about the project they are working on,” potentially inspiring new ways to solve problems they encounter in the lab, he adds. Give your postdocs the responsibility to write research proposals, leaving yourself plenty of time for corrections and edits.

Put them on stage

Have your postdocs give presentations, either to other postdocs or to faculty members. It not only reduces their stage fright, but also forces them to organize their data. Potential employers often judge candidates on the chalk-talk they give. “It’s a really important skill,” says Sara Cherry, a virologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “A lot of the time, people don’t get jobs because they don’t know how to structure talks.” She recommends her students use their presentations to clearly and succinctly describe their work and findings, instead of delving into the data analysis.

“It’s in my best interest to be able to send out postdocs who are going to be wildly successful.” —Glenn Rall

Make them mini-PIs

“I let them work with rotation students, to make sure they know what it’s like to manage a person who doesn’t know what they are doing,” Cherry says. Put your postdocs in charge of graduate students and technicians in smaller lab work groups. This gives them the experience of being a small-scale PI in charge of managing the workflow of different personalities and calibers of performance.

Don’t spare the boring stuff

A PI’s workday is filled with administrative work. Being prepared to deal with regulatory committees and safety requirements of running a lab efficiently will put your postdoc a step ahead. “I like them to be involved in some of the regulatory stuff—writing up the IRBs and biosafety protocols,” says Wagner. The skill is one they’ll likely need to perfect, and their input gives you a second set of eyes on your proposals.

Identify their weaknesses

Golemis had a postdoc in her lab who wasn’t succeeding after a few years. Even though she worked “unbelievably hard,” the postdoc was getting frustrated and had trouble finishing projects. Golemis noticed that she had trouble focusing on one idea, and that stopped her from following projects to their conclusion. “I think she was being distracted by how many ideas she had. We had to sit down and map things out.” Golemis helped the postdoc draft an outline of a hypothetical paper, grouping together the information they had, and identifying the holes that needed to be filled.

Hone their talents

You need to work around a postdoc’s technical abilities. Many of the projects in Woodland’s lab involve long-term experiments that might take weeks or months and whose progress can be destroyed by a single mistake. “If anything goes wrong, you lose months of work,” says Woodland. Some postdocs are less able to maintain focus for long-term projects, but are exceptional at shorter-scale, in-vitro studies or molecular biology. Identifying their abilities is a matter of “trial and error,” Woodland says. “You use their past history and observe them in the lab.”

Let them explore other options

While “people usually come through with pretty strong ideas about where they want to go,” says Golemis, sometimes they are lost. Golemis had a lab member working on her second postdoc who was unhappy with her job. “It was just torture for her to do bench work,” she says. “I don’t like to have people here who don’t want to be here,” so Golemis helped the postdoc find work that better suited her. The former fellow has now found success doing scientific patent work. “If you can come up with another job that you would be happy with, then you should probably do that instead,” says Cherry.


David Woodland can tell when a postdoc is ready to be a PI if “they start arguing with me and clearly want to go off in another direction. It’s a little like when teenagers become very difficult with their families.”

Give them time to settle before defining a project

“What I’ve found is that in the first year, there is no point in coming up with an all-encompassing, detailed project, so I provide them with pointers and directions,” says Woodland. “The postdoc goes off and researches it in the literature and they start coming up with ideas.”

Ensure they leave with a starter project

Some PIs are reluctant to let their postdocs leave with projects they were working on. But trying to start a career without a project “restricts how successful you can be on your own,” says Rall. “There are many people who treat their departing postdoc like a competitor, who won’t let you have a project or ideas.” Rall helps his own postdocs build up a side project in addition to the main work they do for him. He also makes sure to give them time to perform experiments before they leave his lab.

Negotiate boundaries

To avoid clashes over intellectual ownership of projects, Golemis likes to hash out the plan early. She helped one recent postdoc plan her first grant as an independent PI, together choosing the projects the postdoc would take with her. “I would start having the talks about a year before they would end up heading to an academic job.” Some of her students take only parts of projects, while others take everything, but planning ahead makes sure no one is surprised when the time comes.

Spur their independence

“They need to understand that this is their own project, that the success or failure of this project isn’t dependent on me, it’s dependent on them,” says Rall. One of the first steps to being a successful PI is learning how to make, and clean up after, your own mistakes. Giving your postdocs freedom gives them a taste of what life as a PI is like, while still being under your wing. “The role of the PI is to provide guidance and advice,” says Woodland. “This is an apprenticeship, and they really have to learn by trial and error and by watching other scientists in their vicinity.”

Seek out a complementary skill set

Bringing postdocs into your lab also brings in all the skills they have learned. Golemis recently had a postdoc with a background in NMR who was excited to apply her structural analysis expertise to a protein the Golemis lab was working on. The experiment was something Golemis had never thought of, but which opened up new areas of research for her lab.

When they get ornery, it’s time to push them out of the nest

Leaving the security of the PI’s lab is a tough choice for many postdocs. The field is very competitive, and it doesn’t ever stop being a competition. “It’s a never-ending job, and you have to really be passionate about it,” says Cherry. So how do you know your postdoc is ready to take on the frightening world of independent researcher? “One of the first indications is when the postdoc believes that they can do my job better, when they start feeling constrained by the lab,” says Woodland. He can tell that they’re ready when “they start arguing with me and clearly want to go off in another direction. It’s a little like when teenagers become very difficult with their families.”


Vetting candidates without face time

Picking international postdocs can be more difficult, because you don’t necessarily have a chance to meet them before they join your lab and sometimes their previous papers are in another language. Having a phone conversation with postdocs as well as their mentors or checking references can help you decide if candidates are right for your lab. Setting up a time for a “Skype interview” and give a seminar via video chat can help you determine if the postdoc would fit into your lab, says Rall.

Check your funding

“A lot of postdocs come from abroad and they are not eligible for most grants,” says Golemis. Even though the majority get green cards towards the end of their postdocs, foreign postdocs are rarely eligible for many of the NIH’s training grants, and have to be funded off of the PI’s grants. When accepting international postdocs, make sure you have the funding to sustain them.

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