Tuesday, June 02, 2009

P-Mentoring (2)

Thanks to all who sent email or made comments about postdoc mentoring. Here are some ideas for things to mention and discuss in a postdoc mentoring statement and plan:

- PIs will discuss with postdocs the goals and timelines for conference abstracts, papers, proposals, and things like that. These goals can be somewhat flexible and can be revisited as necessary, but should give the postdoc a clear idea of what they need to aim for.

- The statement can describe existing or planned research group meetings and/or regular individual meetings between the supervisor and postdoc.

- It should be mentioned if postdocs will be involved in project planning and new grant proposals.

- Postdocs can be encouraged to meet with visiting speakers and other visitors (describe the relevant visitor/seminar series).

- Postdocs who are interested should be given mentoring opportunities (e.g., undergrad research students, interns).

- Postdocs who are interested should be given the chance to organize or help organize graduate seminars and perhaps teach (as a visitor/substitute) a few undergraduate classes.

- Postdocs should definitely participate in conferences (with travel funded by the grant) – if possible, they should attend a variety of conferences, ranging from the giant ones to the small focused ones.

- Postdoc mentoring statements can list the various other faculty and researchers whom the postdoc will encounter, thereby showing that the postdoc will have a community of researchers with whom to interact.

- If a university has such things, postdocs can participate in workshops or courses designed to prepare them for academic and other jobs.

- Postdocs can be encouraged to participate in national workshops focused on academic or other careers.

- Postdocs should be given information about various resources related to careers; e.g., for academic careers, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

- Once a proposal is funded, the postdoc can participate in creating a more individualized plan for their mentoring.

- Postdocs who are entirely unproductive and publish nothing despite being given ample funding, opportunities, and time should pay back all the money they have taken from a PI's grant. Actually, I just made that up to see if anyone was still reading.

I don't think any of that would result in a dramatic change in how I do things, but it's helpful to see it written out and to contemplate the possibilities.

I'm not sure how NSF will evaluate the plans. My experience with the Broader Impacts component of proposals has been that reviews are extremely inconsistent. It is also likely that mentoring statements will be taken more seriously by some programs than by others.

All I know is that we've got to write these things, we PIs should do what we can to provide an excellent career-launching experience for our postdocs, and that postdocs should in turn take full advantage of the research opportunity with which they've been presented to do great things.


Brad Holden said...

I should have summarized this yesterday.

Locally we had a postdoc wish list put together. I think you have covered everything that folks wanted, namely to be involved in mentoring students, to be able to write proposals and even get their own money (which is almost impossible), and to have a clear outline regarding what is expected of them in their position.

The additional mentoring you mention did not come up, but that is I suspect a function of all of the local postdocs thinking that they will not need career advice, it is those other folks who will need it....

I do like the idea of recharging the postdocs who are unproductive....

Annie said...


You've just described my current Postdoc position! Which makes me realise that I'm very lucky.

I'm in the UK and not funded by a grant. My PI is currently HoD and my position (salary) is funded by the Uni. There is no dedicated cash for my research. My role is to support him in his role as HoD whilst he is busy with changing the world ;).

However, whilst all these things help to develop my management, interpersonal, teaching skills etc... I am without publications from this role (3.5 years and counting).

So basically I am now a wonderfully rounded researcher, administrator, colleague, teacher who can write kick-ass grant proposals, but can't get a look-in everywhere because of my 'light' publication record.

So train your postdocs well, but for God's sakes, publish them too!!!


Anonymous said...

I think your list looks good, and is all very sensible. It's shocking to think that some postdocs are not getting this - or rather, that some PIs might claim that any of these things are not part of their responsibilities (regardless of whether or not they actually do them).

However, as a recent panelist, I've got to say that this list is underwhelming. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing stands out that would boost my overall opinion of the proposal. I'm not sure what I would add to make it stand out.... On the other hand, I've certainly seen plenty of broader impacts statements that do go the extra mile, and certainly help the proposal.

(Don't get me wrong - I'm definitely going to revisit this post in the first week of January...).

John Vidale said...

I bookmarked this column for the next mentoring section in a proposal that I need to write.

However, a mentoring plan is mainly for the benefit of the mentor and mentee - I don't think mentioning such details helps a proposal much in the review process.

To me, a convincing proposal offers promise of quick and rich research results. Offering much detail into mentoring can backfire by distracting from the research effort and resources.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the Anon(8:30) - but from the perspective of a grant applicant. I've had to describe mentoring plans for two applications for training-type funding (NRSA, K99). Both times I was a) flummoxed to come up with something significant, with any kind of meat to it as content; and b) castigated when the mentoring plan wasn't up to expectation.

Frankly, about 2/3 of the above list qualifies as The Obvious. I'm sorry that some trainees aren't getting it, or seeking it out themselves. But that doesn't make a description of a weekly lab meeting, or a plan to attend a conference, or mentoring undergrads, any more than ... baseline.

I was honestly hoping to find out what I'd missed here, in terms of the mentoring/training plans I'd submitted (including the one where I described that yes, I would be going to and participating in lab meetings, and meeting individually with my mentor, and planning my research, and writing grants, and mentoring undergrads). Yet I'm still flummoxed.

Ms.PhD said...

Great list.

Of the things on this list that I have had as a postdoc, it was because I went out of my way to find them, and did not get them from my "mentors". Funny how nobody seems to understand that about me when I apply for jobs.

Anonymous said...

I have not written this sort of thing for NSF but I do take quite seriously the relevant training plan for NIH NRSA fellowships. It's my experience that they do take this seriously in reviewing grants, as one of the several key aspects.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

John V, NSF requires this statement and, again, as a reviewer/panelist, I don't think that is too much detail. And I don't see how it can be a distraction if it is included as an addendum.

One of the comments on the previous post suggested a special postdoc seminar/workshop on career development topics. *That* sounds like an excellent idea (although biased in favor of large labs, or at least campuses with lots of postdocs, neither of which is my situation).

I would say, out of the 12 serious items on your list, I had about half during my postdoc, most from the department and not from my mentor. In fact, the only good thing about my postdoc was that I got a job out of it. Still haven't figured out how that happened!!

John Vidale said...

To Anon @ 11:27

Yes, mentoring need to be called out, but no, my experience suggests details of the proposed mentoring are not the critical factor in evaluating a proposal.

I might go so far as to suggest that an elaborate plan for mentoring suggests that the aspiring post-doc needs a particularly nurturing environment to flourish, which is not a strong selling point in a competitive applicant pool.

Anonymous said...

I might go so far as to suggest that an elaborate plan for mentoring suggests that the aspiring post-doc needs a particularly nurturing environment to flourish, which is not a strong selling point in a competitive applicant poolThis is another aspect of what I was trying to articulate above: I have (real!) trouble writing 3 pages (!) of The Obvious, or of what should be baseline behavior, and trying to sell it as a plan for stuff I haven't done or considered yet.

And then I get penalized for not having a good plan.

This makes so little sense to me, especially at the postdoc stage: if I haven't already figured out what I need, and how get it, out of an environment - no "plan" is going to create a well-rounded self-starter capable of running a lab, out of a seasoned follower of directions.


Anonymous said...

NIH considers the training plan a crucial element of a K99.

Anonymous said...

it seems to me that since the postdoctoral period is supposed to be 'training' to become a PI, that the postdoc should be doing more PI-like daily tasks and be less like a super-grad-student or super-technician.

This means that postdocs should spend the majority of their daily time writing grants, managing at lest some of the PI's existing projects, mentoring grad students, and only part of their time doing "their own" research and writing that up.

otherwise, if the postdoc spends all of their time doing research, they are basically being staff scientists and NOT being PIs-in-training.

I know that many postdocs would prefer to be staff scientists and the PI's capitalize on that and use them as such in order to generate research results more quickly and efficiently (for the PI's glory of course) than thru the use of students. BUT...this is not helping postdocs who are aiming for PI-dom to make get the training and preparation they need for eventually being a PI.

Perhaps there should be two tracks for postdocs: (a) postdocs who want to be career staff scientists, i.e. the 'research track' and (b) postdocs who want to become PIs, i.e. the 'management track'

Of course it could be argued that if you have a PhD and want to be a career staff scientist then you should get a 'real' job already doing just that and not even bother with being a postdoc. Yet the reality is that most postdocs are being used as staff scientists. So...??

Professor Staff said...

Ugh. The end of your post hit my hot button - Broader Impacts. Sorry for the topic hijack, but maybe this could be a topic for a future post.

I'm not an anti-PC anti-Broader Impacts person. But:

1) It is sort of a catchall -- the individual review criteria have merit, but as a whole they don't hang together.

2) Lack of Guidance I. NSF refuses to say if a propose must excel in all criteria, or just some. To what extent?

3) Lack of Guidance II. NSF refuses to say how the Broader Impact criteria should be weighted vs. the Intellectual Merit. Yes they are discussed for 5 minutes at the start of a panel. But the reality is that initial reviews have been written and a 5 minute discussion is not going to result in anyone actually changing their reviews significantly (the minority typically will remain silent).

The reality of NSF panels is that the 3 reviewers carry all the sway, and independent of the quality of the review, a proposal is at the mercy of how the individuals weight the BI vs. IM criteria.

EliRabett said...

There are two types of broader impact statements. The more common one is "we do great science which will change the world" in which case it damned well better or it is getting a good (sort of like kissing your siblings). There are others which are "good works" the PI does this and that. That helps. The best are both unique (not we have undergrads in our lab), sensible, and integrated into the research plan.

The same thing is going to happen with the post-doc mentoring statement.

Allow Eli a small addition: The first step should be a structured meeting with the new post-doc to draw up a detailed research and mentoring plan, the later based on the post-docs ambitions. The last step should be an exit interview. The results of both should be integrated into the annual reports.