Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Postdoctoral Feedback

My thoughts on postdoctoral "supervision" stem from the various experiences collected over the years, some are currently in academia. The postdoctoral experience for many is a time of excitement for new research but also a time for uncertainty, as the window to the "real" career is fast approaching. Some feel this is the time you should be committed to the lab all hours of the day and night, making those critical connections, giving those plenary session talks in lieu of your famous PI. It is also the time when most people are likely to have little children and a spouse. So, it is crucial that your hours in the lab away from family and in planning for the experiments are efficient and effective.

What is not mentioned with the lab environment or even your own PI is the feedback you should be receiving from your PI. As a postdoc, you should be an autonomous researcher. However, you do present your data in lab meetings and even if your PI is never in the lab, he/she does hear about your work. You may be publishing papers, reviewing grants, training grad students, presenting at conferences. What most postdocs do not hear or receive communication about is how they are doing in the lab with all of their work or their career development. You may attend career workshops and perhaps your job has already been lined up. However, just as a committee meeting or progress report helps out a grad student with their objectives and timelines, I think it is important to have a similar document for the postdoc with at least one other committee member.

I illustrate some real postdoc experiences below.

Postdoc 1 worked with a PI who was well known for her power publications. She worked long hours with a daily 25 minute commute to her home and husband. She had to keep looking at her watch if she left the lab for a meal break. I remember it was 7 pm one evening. She started an experiment to run and was leaving the lab to grab a bite to eat when her PI asked her "Where are you going?" When she explained she was hungry and was off to dinner, her PI gave her a "look" and shuffled away to her office. Intense. Since there really is no "check" system placed in the postdoc world, some people like my friend, feel "trapped" as they know the PI's recommendation letter may make or break the next career move. Several years later, this PI came under university investigation from several postdoc complaints.

Postdoc 2 also worked in high power lab, and he thought things were going well. He was reporting every week about his findings at his lab meetings. His supervisor did not express any negative comments. In fact, they had a jovial relationship. He thought he had found his niche in a specific area which he made collaborations with other departments and published several papers. Having said all this, he did not receive any career development guidance and one day in his third year, his PI asked for a private meeting. It was during this discussion that his PI talked about how he was not happy with his performance, and that he thought it was best for everyone if he left in 3 months. Postdoc 2 feels blindsided. "Since when?" he asks.
"Since the last quarter of year 1."
"How come you never told me?"
"I thought you would improve on your own."
"Well, if you never told me you were not happy, how am I supposed to know?"

In both of these instances, effective communication on both sides with an official progress and feedback system would have prevented all the headache for everyone involved. It was stories like these that inspired me to write a feedback form for the postdoc association. It was a one page document to be completed every 3-4 months with postdoc name, PI name and date. It included 1) experimental milestones achieved, 2) publication progress, 3) performance feedback for postdoc,  4) performance feedback for the PI,  5) career development, objectives review. The performance feedback would include questions like a) what did you appreciate about the performance of the postdoc (PI)? and b) what would like to see improved?

Having this type of progress report would provide written documentation to improve communications, enhance the postdoctoral experience, and improve the postdoctoral mentorship. Alongside the publications, the postdoc has a written record of the work that was accomplished, scientifically and otherwise. If issues do arise from this type of communication, a third party at the university (postdoctoral affairs) can step in to mediate a solution.

If you university or mentor has an official form like this, then awesome! However, most do not. It can be your first contribution to the lab. I am sure your new PI will have no issue with writing it up. You may space it out as you wish, but twice a year at the least sounds about right. It is always about two-way communication; and just like in a marriage, feedback for the postdoc-PI relationship is critical.

Resources: (see p19)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Total Pageviews