How to Become a Successful Postdoc

By Mika Ono

How can you get the most out of postdoctoral training at The Scripps Research Institute? Postdocs, faculty, and others interested in the topic packed the Keck Auditorium last Wednesday to hear lab heads Sandra Schmid, Phil Dawson, and M.G. Finn, and a panel of current and former postdocs give their answers to this question.

After an introduction by Associate Professor Luc Teyton, Sandra Schmid, professor and chair of the Department of Cell Biology, presented her ideas.

"You are well on your way to becoming independent scientists," she said, addressing the postdocs in the audience. "You are highly educated, highly trained individuals entering a pivotal stage in your career. We want to empower you for success."

According to Schmid, research associates should keep three goals in mind during their postdoctoral training:

  • Decide on an area of science to pursue. "Become an expert in your field," Schmid urged. "Look for the 'white space'—the unanswered questions and areas where new approaches are needed."
  • Finish at least one significant project. "'Finished' means published!" she said.
  • Establish your identity in the research community. "Go to seminars, ask questions, get to know faculty members, present your work whenever possible..." she explained. "Get to be known as an intellectual force."

Schmid cautioned against being distracted by "urgent but not important" tasks such as answering e-mail instead of focusing on "important but not urgent" work such as attending seminars, interacting with colleagues, and planning ahead.

"There's also no substitute for working hard," Schmid noted.

Dawson, an assistant professor at Scripps Research and its Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology, seconded Schmid's advice, adding a few words for those in the field of chemical synthesis.

"It's a small community," Dawson noted. "You tend to know all the players. The person working next to you at the bench today could easily be talking to someone who is thinking of hiring you tomorrow. These 'informal references' are one more reason to take the time to get to know the other members of your lab."

Finn, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, added two practical suggestions for postdocs. First, he advised, get a reference citation program to keep track of papers you have read. This kind of program makes it easy to produce bibliographies on topics of interest.

Second, learn to write well. "Learning to write well is a skill that takes a lot of hard work," he said, "But it's worth it." According to Finn, writing well can help scientists convey their research more effectively and win grants.

Later in the program, members of the audience had the opportunity to ask questions to current and former Scripps Research postdocs—Matthias Jost of Biosite, Nick Boddy (former postdoc, current assistant professor) of Scripps Research, Sean Ryder (current postdoc) of Scripps Research, Lisa Hannan of the journal Traffic, and Brian Moyer of Senomyx, Inc.

The ensuing discussion covered a range of topics and included the following words of wisdom:

  • Short postdocs (two years) are usually better than long postdocs (four years);
  • Independent funding can help ensure independent research;
  • To switch research focus, combine elements of your previous experience;
  • Apply early, apply often for jobs.

The seminar—arranged by Schmid, the Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department, the Society of Fellows, and the Network for Women in Science at Scripps—was part of a larger initiative to enhance the postdoctoral experience at Scripps Research. The Society of Fellows also recently hosted a seminar on alternative careers in science, covering venture capital, management consulting, law, and scientific publishing.

The next event for postdocs is an open forum with Jeffrey Kelly, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the Kellogg School of Science and Technology, on March 30 at 2:30 PM in the Committee Lecture Hall.

Jan Hill, director of the Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department, also noted that a wealth of resources for postdocs, including job postings and a calendar of seminars, is available at her department's web site at:


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The audience listened attentively as principal investigator Sandra Schmid pointed out that it is important to keep larger goals in mind and not get distracted by day-to-day minutia. Photo by Jason Bardi.











A panel of current and former postdocs fielded questions from the audience. Photo by Jason Bardi.