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
- 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
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 postdocsMatthias
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
- Apply early, apply often for jobs.
The seminararranged by Schmid, the Counseling and
Postdoctoral Services Department, the Society of Fellows,
and the Network for Women in Science at Scrippswas 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
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: http://www.scripps.edu/services/postdocs/.
Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu
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
A panel of current and former postdocs
fielded questions from the audience.
Photo by Jason Bardi.