Planning for a positive postdoc

If you want to give your postdoctoral position the best chance of being a success, you need a plan. That is one of the strong messages to come from a recent survey of US postdocs, conducted by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Over the course of a year, Sigma Xi assessed the productivity and workplace satisfaction of some 7,600 postdocs. Those who had sat down with their supervisors to draw up a plan at the start of their postdoc were more likely to have a happy and productive lab life, the survey found.

Specifically, the 72% of postdocs who made such plans were 40% less likely to be dissatisfied with their overall experience, 30% less likely to have had conflicts with their advisers, and submitted 10% more papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals per year than those who did not.

The details of the plan also seemed to make a difference. The 39% of postdocs whose plan covered not only what they would do, but also what their advisers would do, were better off still.

Why do plans make such a difference? One explanation is that they are effective time-management tools that can help you to work more productively. A well thought-out research plan can focus your efforts and stop you from heading down blind alleys or working ineffectually.

A plan can also prevent disappointment and misunderstandings by setting your own and your adviser's expectations at an appropriate level from the outset.

An alternative explanation is that plans may be a good indicator of the quality of a lab's management. Ask yourself who is more likely to be a good mentor: someone who sits down with you to draw up a career and research plan or someone who just turns you loose in the lab?

Indeed, 69% of those with a plan — and 80% of those whose plans included details of what their adviser would do — considered their advisers to be mentors, compared with only 48% of those with no plan.

So next time you are weighing up the pros and cons of a postdoctoral opportunity, you might do well to ask your prospective adviser about his or her management style. And you would certainly do well to check up on their track record for laying research and career plans for their postdocs.