When I was a postdoc, I was just happy to get through a day without being groped (by an emeritus professor), excluded from using the research facilities I needed (by technical staff), yelled at (by office staff), unnerved (by a large male grad student who frequently expressed the opinion that 'girls like to be hit'), insulted (by one of a wide range of people), or the target of a scary lab prank (by one particular technician). The concept of 'postdoc mentoring' was not even a gleam in anyone's eye. I did my work and got out of there as soon as I had the opportunity.
That said, during my postdoc I made some lifelong friends, I discovered that I was good at research, and I learned how to keep going in the face of adversity. I dealt not only with the above-listed items but also the possible tanking of a research project owing to a colleague's reneging on part of the research. I was left to fend for myself in terms of research projects, so I used some of my own ideas to create a project, carry it out (in part by traveling to other universities to do the work), and publish it. It was an important experience for me, and I emerged from it angry but confident.
Would my experience have been more positive if my supervisor, an entirely decent if somewhat clueless person, had been required to at least contemplate 'mentoring' me and assisting me with career development skills?
Starting this year, NSF proposals that request funding for postdoctoral researchers must include a statement about how the postdoc(s) will be mentored. For a brief time this mentoring statement was supposed to be part of the body of the proposal, but, perhaps in response to complaints, the postdoc mentoring text is now a supplementary document, up to a page in length. As with the required Broader Impacts component of proposals, NSF is serious about the mentoring statement: proposals that request funding for postdocs but that do not contain the mentoring supplement will not even be reviewed.
The proposal guide lists the following as examples of mentoring activities:
1. training in preparation of grant proposals, publications and presentations;
2. career counseling;
3. guidance on ways to improve teaching and mentoring skills;
4. guidance on how to effectively collaborate with researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplinary areas;
5. training in responsible professional practices.
I am trying and failing to imagine my own postdoc supervisor giving me guidance on mentoring skills or responsible professional practices, so I think I will move on and consider instead my experience and philosophy as a supervisor of postdocs. How am I doing with respect to the listed items? In fact, I'm not doing so well, although I think overall I am a decent supervisor of postdocs.
Item #1. For me, this is the easiest one to accomplish. It is difficult to imagine a reasonably sane and functioning postdoc in my research group not getting a lot of experience with these activities in the course of a typical postdoc. I certainly work closely with my postdocs on writing papers and preparing presentations, and there's typically a grant proposal in the works that can involve a postdoc interested in such things.
Item #2. I'm not exactly sure what this means but I know that the only career counseling that I do is of the informal, conversational sort. My own experience begins and ends with academia. I can speak at length about academic jobs and how to approach acquiring one at various types and sizes of institutions based on my own experiences in several different countries, but career counseling about industry, government, or other career modes would have to come from someone else. There are, however, workshops and conferences and colleagues with this expertise, but other than pointing these out to my postdocs (who are generally more aware of them than I am), I don't have anything compelling to say about this possible item in a mentoring statement.
Item #3. My postdocs, if they so choose, can supervise or help supervise undergraduate and MS students, but they typically do not teach. Perhaps I am failing to provide my postdocs with the necessary career skills they need to succeed in a faculty position, but those who want teaching experience during their postdoc either participate in some workshops that prepare grad students and postdocs for the various components of a faculty position, or they acquire a visiting assistant professor or lecturer position before or after the postdoc.
In a short (1-2 year) postdoc in particular, there isn't much time to do anything except the research. Most postdocs enjoy having this time to really focus on research. It may be the one time in an academic career (other than the occasional sabbatical) when you are free of taking/teaching courses, taking/giving exams, and doing endless managerial and administrative tasks. On the one hand, research-only experience may not prepare you for a faculty position in which you have to balance teaching - research - service, but it can set you up well for the research component if you start some long-term projects and develop important collaborations that will carry you through the first few crazy years of a faculty position.
Item #4. By this point in the list it is clear that my mentoring skills -- at least according to the items listed by NSF -- are not as organized or complete as they could be. In my opinion, the best way to effectively do item #4 is for the postdoc to work on a research project that involves a diverse group of other scientists. Most of my projects are diverse in terms of disciplines involved, most involve international collaborators, and I suppose I add a splash of diversity as an FSP.
I'm not sure what to do about the word 'guidance' for #4, though. I probably rely too much on the 'lead by example' type of passive 'guidance'. If I saw a problem with how a postdoc interacted with another scientist owing to their being from a different field, country, ethnicity, or gender, I would certainly leap into action, but other than that, most things get figured out just by working together and doing the research. I don't think this philosophy would sound very impressive (or competent) in a postdoc mentoring statement, and it may well be an example of the flawed philosophy that resulted in the need for such statements.
Item #5. Well, there are certainly a lot of opportunities for this at my university. I am required to participate in them from time to time as part of being allowed to be a PI on grants, but I have found every single one of them without exception to be a huge waste of time and largely irrelevant to my experience as a professor of the physical sciences. I would not voluntarily subject my postdocs to these ethics training sessions.
Here again I prefer to lead by example and discuss informally issues related to co-authorship and credit and sharing/stealing ideas and so on, but once again I don't think that would look good in a mentoring statement. I suppose I could still list the possible opportunities for ethics training. Would that be ethical if I had no intention of requiring or even encouraging a postdoc to participate in them?
What else could be on the list for mentoring activities? What do postdocs want? (other than higher salaries, better benefits, and, in some fields, more respect). Perhaps I am lacking in imagination about this because I am currently interacting with extremely happy postdocs. In fact, my postdoctoral supervisory experience has either involved happy, productive and energetic postdocs or deeply dysfunctional insane and/or unproductive postdocs. If mediocre postdocs exist, they have not come to work with me.
I am glad that NSF is taking postdoctoral experiences seriously, not just in terms of the research but in terms of the overall experience of postdocs and at least asking PIs to contemplate career development issues with respect to supervising postdocs. Perhaps just recognizing the importance of these activities is a major first step towards realizing the goal of improving postdoctoral experiences.
That said, I hope that NSF will cut me some slack if I write a rather lame statement and will consider my track record of postdoc supervision.
If any readers have already written one of these postdoc mentoring statements and is willing to share it (or a draft), please send it to me by email and I will post some/all of them. In addition, postdoctoral readers should feel free to add to the official list of NSF items above; what else should it include?
13 years ago