Edit 28/04/2014: alternate views here and here  (though of course I didn’t state 80 hours – I said 37.5 + 10-20 hours)

This post is aimed at young academic scientists, particularly post-docs.  Please note, I am a biologist, so some of my recommendations may be specific to this field.

A huge number of tweets appear in my feed about the lack of opportunities/jobs for young students in academic science, and there is an excellent piece in Nature Biotechnology that addresses the problem.  The paper contains this scary graph:

nbt.2706-F1The scary graph is accompanied by the scary text:

Since 1982, almost 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields, whereas only about 100,000 academic faculty positions were created in those fields within the same time frame

This looks terrible.  This is clearly competition in academic science, and with way more PhDs being awarded than faculty positions being created, there is a problem.  Rather than add to the noise of people calling for change, I thought I’d try and produce some recommendations for what to do in the current system – and I’m certainly not alone in doing this.


DISCLAIMER 1: these are my views and in no way do they represent the views of my current employer, any of my past employers, or any of my future employers

DISCLAIMER 2: this post does not mean that I endorse the current “system”.

DISCLAIMER 3: I work in bioinformatics, and I know many bioinformaticians work in “support” or “service” based bioinformatics.  The recommendations for you guys are different, and the post below is not for you; read it, by all means, there is some useful advice for you in there; but the piece below is aimed for those who want a career in research.

How to stand out as a post-doc

These are recommendations on how to get noticed based on my 11 years’ experience as a PI in academic science in the UK.

1. Learn to write papers

You may be suffering under the illusion that something else in your career matters, but you’d be wrong.  Nothing else matters, other than publications.  Not your skills, not your experience, nothing.  Having your name on peer-reviewed publications is the major, if not the only, aspect of your career that you will be judged on.  It’s what will get you your next post-doc; it’s what will get you promoted; and a lack of it is what will get you ignored.

When I mean “write papers”, I mean when the results are in and no other work needs to be done, going from those results to a first draft that other authors can comment on and change.  I’ll break this down into sections:

Introduction: as a post-doc, you may not have the encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject area that your PI does, so the intro will be tough, but at the very least you should be able to identify relevant related papers from the literature, write a few sentences about each, and explain why you did the research

Methods: If you are the senior post-doc author on the paper, this should be simple and quick.  It’s what you did.  Write it up.  If you’re a great post-doc, you already have a perfect record of it in your lab notebook.

Results: Again, if you are the person who produced the results, you should be able to write these up too, without much difficulty.  If you need inspiration on presentation style, look at how other papers have presented similar results (it’s not OK to plagiarise, but it is OK to be inspired by).

Discussion: This might be the toughest section of all, but you should be able to have a stab at a few paragraphs.  Your PI may rip these to shreds, but you should have enough knowledge about the subject area to say how your results enhance knowledge in the area, what the implications are and how they relate to previously published work

References: Possibly the biggest source of frustration.  You cannot make any factual statement in a paper without backing it up with a reference (or results).  As a post-doc, you should know about referencing; and you should know about referencing the correct paper (e.g. reference the original work, not a review)

2. Write fast

OK, so you know how to write papers (see point 1 above).  Now, here’s the thing – to really stand out, you need to learn how to do it quickly.  Most areas of science move very quickly, and therefore your PI probably spends most of their time in fear of being scooped.  You are no use to your PI if you take 6 months to go from results to a first draft of a paper.

I’ll try and give some benchmarks: last year, I wrote a grant application in 3 days, totally 4808 words.  So that’s 1800 words of properly referenced and formatted, structured and edited scientific text per day.  At that rate, a 35000 word thesis would have taken me less than 3 weeks to write.  I’d say most PIs can write a first draft paper in 2-3 days.  You’re not a PI, so you can take longer, but we’re talking 1-2 weeks maximum here.  Here’s some rough ideas of what I would expect from a good post-doc:

  • Time from results to a first draft paper: 1-2 weeks
  • Time taken to write 30 minute powerpoint presentation: 1-2 hours
  • Time taken to write conference poster: 1 hour

There are always going to be cases where the above expectations are too high – but remember, the point of this post is that I’m telling you how to stand out from everyone else.

3. Know more than your PI 

This can be split into i) knowledge, and ii) skills.  Let’s tackle the first one, knowledge:

Picture the scene.  You open up your e-mail software, and sat in your inbox is an e-mail from your PI.  They’ve found a paper, very recently published, it’s relevant to your project, they’re excited about it and they think you should read it.  Good.  This happens in labs all the time throughout the World.

Now reverse the scenario – your PI is opening their e-mail software, and the e-mail is from you, the post-doc, about a hot-off-the-press paper that you think is relevant.  You’re excited about it and you think they should read it.  That.  That’s what you need to do to stand out.

Now, onto skills.  The very, very best way to ensure you are employed constantly is to have skills that are in demand; to be able to do something that people need.  I can’t really say much more than that – just figure out the one skill that your PI needs above anything else and learn it; become irreplaceable.  You’d be amazed how quickly PIs will find funding to keep you on if your skills are i) rare, and ii) essential for their future research.  (HINT: from my own experience, bioinformatics skills are a good bet)

4. Finish stuff

I’m going to invoke “Watson’s 90:10” rule here (others may have coined this already; please tell me if so!).  Basically, the rule states that:

90% of the work will take 10% of the time; the remaining 10% of the work will take 90% of the time

I invoke this in many different scenarios, so don’t get confused, but in this scenario I mean that, often, the published paper is the 10%.  Don’t underestimate how much work it is, or how long it will take.  Be the person who can do the 90% and the 10%.

You may not be aware of it, but there are many theories of roles within teams, and you can read about some of those roles here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Team_Role_Inventories. In particular, look at the “Finisher” role, which I replicate here:

The Finisher is a perfectionist and will often go the extra mile to make sure everything is “just right,” and the things he or she delivers can be trusted to have been double-checked and then checked again. The Completer Finisher has a strong inward sense of the need for accuracy, and sets his or her own high standards rather than working on the encouragement of others. They may frustrate their teammates by worrying excessively about minor details and by refusing to delegate tasks that they do not trust anyone else to perform.

Everything but the last sentence is very good advice for how to stand out as a post-doc.  Be a finisher.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that ideas are easy – many people have them, and it’s rare that you find an original idea anyway.  Don’t rely on being the “ideas person”; far more valuable is the person who takes ideas and turns them into a finished product (in academic circles: the paper).

And just to add to that, point 2 is relevant here.  Yes, double-check and check again – but make sure that this doesn’t take months to do; time is hugely important in scientific research.  Do it, but do it quickly!

So in summary, my recommendations are: learn to turn your research outputs into papers, and learn how to produce research outputs in a short space of time; learn skills that are rare and in high demand; and learn how to take projects to completion.

Now a few opinions on the next step – becoming a PI

Making the transition from post-doc to PI

Your opportunities to do this will be limited by only one thing: publications. What counts is the number you have, whether or not you are first author, and the perceived impact of the research.  There it is.  That’s the current system.  At the very least, you will need lots of first author papers before anyone will consider you for a PI position; and at worst, you will need some of those publications to be in high impact journals.

Another thing to consider is that there is attrition in every area.  Not every estate agent will become branch manager; not every salesperson will become area manager; not every post-doc will become a PI.  Some people inevitably will never go beyond post-doc level in academic science.  That’s expected.

Before you decide you want to become a PI, let’s look at the species in all their glory (?!).  For some people, science is a job, for others it is a way of life;  for some, reading and writing about scientific research is a chore, for others it is a pleasure.  Are you the person who will spend their evenings and weekends reading papers, not because they are paid to do it, but because that’s what they enjoy doing?  In all cases, I’d say that PIs are enriched for the second set of characteristics.  They live and breath their science.  They do what they do for love, not money.

Ask yourself: are you that person?

Forget for a moment about whether it is right, or moral, or ethical.  We are where we are, the system might change, but that’s not what this post is about.  The majority of PIs I know work long hours, and they do it willingly; their employer doesn’t even have to ask.  It’s just what they do.

Are you like this?  Do you want to be like this?  Do you have what it takes to be like this?

Sure, it should be possible for someone to work 37.5 hours per week and still get senior positions in academic science;  it should be the case.  However, I fear it is not.  And what incentive does the academic science have to change?  What universities have are a workforce who happily work their 37.5 hours per week and then stick an extra 10-20 hours per week on top voluntarily.  A workforce who don’t take their entire annual leave allowance.  A workforce who work when they are sick and rarely take time off.

If that’s to change, then there is a lot of work to be done; until then, that’s what you have to do to go from being a post-doc to a PI – be willing to work, live and breath your scientific discipline.

Ask yourself: Is it really what you want?  If so, good luck to you; if not, there is no shame in that, and good luck in your alternative science career!