Independent Postdocs, Part 2: OntheGround Experiences

Last month in “Independent Postdocs, Part 1: Gaining Early Autonomy,” we got some tips from group leaders and career advisers on how to negotiate more autonomy with your principal investigator (PI) while you are still a postdoc. We also highlighted some of the schemes put in place in recent years to help postdocs pursue an independent research project or even set up their own small research groups. (See our Resource Page for more of these.)

But how does this play out on the ground? To find out, we asked some other experts: three postdocs, all at different stages on their way to independence.

“I, of course, get some advice from my committee, but in the end it’s me who decides.” –Peggy Stolt-Bergner.

Early autonomy, inch by inch

True independence is a long shot when you are still working in your PI’s lab. But as Stacy Gelhaus, a postdoc in Ian Blair’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, found out, there are many small ways that traditional postdocs can gain some early autonomy and, in the long run, prepare themselves for an independent position.

Gelhaus initiated her journey toward independence by making sure her postdoc lab would offer her some autonomy before she even joined. As a Ph.D. student in analytical chemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Gelhaus felt limited in what she calls “a micromanaging environment.” So after graduating in 2005, she chose to go to a large lab. “I feel like I function better in an environment where [there is] more freedom,” and that requires more self-motivation, she says.

While pursuing her project on how environmental contaminants and oxidative stress cause lung cancer, Gelhaus complemented her postdoctoral training by spending some time with other PIs at Penn. “She has worked hard to develop skills that are independent of those available in my own laboratory while working on a project that is central to my research program,” Blair writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “These efforts have significantly increased her skills as an independent researcher and provided a solid background that will enable her to write competitive independent research proposals.”

In the 2nd year of her postdoc, with her adviser’s encouragement, Gelhaus applied for an individual NRSA Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The main focus of the grant was her PI’s original research idea, but applying for the fellowship, Gelhaus says, forces you “to really start thinking about your own ideas and how to focus them in grant-writing.” She got the fellowship, and as part of it, Gelhaus has been receiving a stipend as well as a small amount of money for travel, research supplies, and health insurance.

A collaboration Gelhaus initiated with another professor at Penn on the role of oxidative stress molecules in schizophrenia also led to a grant application from a private foundation–on which Gelhaus served as co-PI, at her suggestion. Postdocs shouldn’t be afraid to negotiate credit for their work. “It is hard to do, but … you just have to be upfront,” Gelhaus says. The grant application was unsuccessful, but it was, nonetheless, an important gesture toward independence: Gelhaus still spends about 10% of her time working on that project.

In addition to gaining scientific skills, Gelhaus also works on the transferable skills she’ll later need as a PI: She has been managing undergrads and graduate students on rotation in the lab and teaching biochemistry classes. She is also involved with the National Postdoctoral Association, acting as the current chair of its board of directors. “This has helped her mature as a scientist and given her insight into what is necessary to succeed as an independent investigator,” Blair says.

Today, with 1 year left on her 3-year NRSA fellowship, Gelhaus is preparing to apply for an NIH Pathway to Independence Award, which would give her funding for two more years in her PI’s lab, followed by 3 years’ support for an independent faculty position. “I’m trying to see … how I can take what we do now and direct that into a different area so I’m not doing the same thing that my adviser does,” she says. Over time, Gelhaus spun an independent interest in the contribution of environmental compounds to noncancerous lung and airway diseases out of her original project. She hopes her research on the topic–which her PI now lets her spend about half of her time working on–will eventually earn her true independence. “Now that [project has] developed into my aims for my next grant,” she says. “It was kind of a natural progression.”

A real taste of independence

In recent years, a small but steadily increasing number of funding programs have been put in place to help postdocs pursue their own research projects while remaining in someone else’s lab. One such program–the Hubble Fellowships offered by NASA–has given Italian astronomer Niccolò Bucciantini unprecedented independence.

Astronomy is a field that gives its young scientists an unusual amount of autonomy, and “in the places where I have been, … I’d always been quite free to pursue my own research,” says Bucciantini, who joined Jonathan Arons’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004 after earning a Ph.D. from the University of Florence. But a Hubble Fellowship brings you closer to peer-level with your PI, he adds. “It’s a step in between just being a postdoc who … collaborate[s] on a project to being a professor or someone who has his own research group.”

Bucciantini obtained the Hubble Fellowship 2 years into his postdoc. He put together an independent research proposal that was based on research he was already working on in his PI’s lab: the development of computer models for gamma-ray bursts. Bucciantini ultimately decided on the proposal’s research direction, but the proposal “was amply discussed and written and rewritten and corrected with my adviser,” Bucciantini says.

The Hubble Fellowship has provided Bucciantini with a stipend and health insurance for 3 years, as well as some research funding, which amounted to about $16,000 in his 1st year, start-up funds included. In a theoretical field like his, “it was enough to buy basically everything I needed,” he says. Bucciantini still needs to get his PI to authorize his expenses, but he says, “I know exactly how much I’m going to have, and I can budget and plan based on that.”

The greatest benefit of such a fellowship, Bucciantini says, is the self-esteem and encouragement it gives you: “It’s a recognition from the community that you can put forward interesting research.” The fellowship has also given him a head start on developing grant-writing and administrative skills he will later need as a PI, he adds. But freedom comes with additional challenges. If something goes wrong, he notes, you can’t blame it on your adviser. “You have to take responsibility for what you do,” Bucciantini says. He found the budgeting responsibilities particularly stressful and the extra bureaucracy time-consuming.

With the Hubble Fellowship nearing its end, Bucciantini has secured another independent postdoc position. This September, he will start a 2-year fellowship at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm with his own salary and research funding. There, he will continue his research on computer models for gamma-ray bursts.

Independence, with no safety net

New programs offering postdocs sufficient funding and lab space for them to start an independent minigroup have multiplied, especially in Europe, where the launch of the Starting Grants by the European Research Council has prompted the creation of more junior-PI-like positions. Peggy Stolt-Bergner, a postdoc at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna, knows firsthand the benefits and potential downsides that come with such a position.

After earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular pharmacology from Harvard Medical School in Boston in 2004, “I already felt like I was quite independent,” Stolt-Bergner says. She was doing a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt, Germany, when she saw an ad for a postdoctoral fellowship at IMP that offered a position “similar to a group leader or a normal principal investigator,” she says. She won the fellowship and joined IMP in 2006. The fellowship provided Stolt-Bergner a salary for 5 years, her own lab space, start-up funds, and money to employ two people. She was also given access to equipment available in other IMP labs.

Stolt-Bergner has spent the past 3 years developing her research on the structure-function analysis of membrane transporters. In the early days, she joined the lab meetings and journal clubs of another structural biologist at IMP, and she still meets with a faculty committee every 6 months or so. But in every practical way, she is her own boss. “I, of course, get some advice from my committee, but in the end it’s me who decides,” Stolt-Bergner says. “I’m completely independent in terms of what research areas I pursue and in terms of publications, and … I can also write grants.”

With 2 years left on her independent fellowship, Stolt-Bergner’s lab now employs two Ph.D. students, one master’s student, and two technicians. She has secured further funding from the Austrian Science Fund as part of an Austrian network and a new national doctoral program in her field.

But the learning curve, she says, was steep. For most postdocs, “a lot of the skills and techniques and expertise that you need for that project to succeed are already established [in the lab], whereas if you start off as an independent postdoc, it may be that you want to do something that you don’t have very much experience with, so you then need to either seek outside help or get these things set up on your own,” Stolt-Bergner says. She went through what she calls “a rough period” about 6 months into her new position: “That’s when you really have to start setting up all the equipment you need in your lab and to really get things going and then … to look for people to hire,” Stolt-Bergner says. “It’s a lot to balance all at once, so [it] was a little bit overwhelming.” It took a couple of years, she says, before things were “really starting to go uphill.”

Stolt-Bergner will be evaluated for potential promotion to a junior group leader position at IMP in her 5th year, and she feels that she would also have an advantage in the broader job market. “You can already prove that you have an ability to get external funding and that you can supervise people, and so that you can actually do everything required to run a lab,” she says. You also have publications under your own name, which counts for a lot. But Stolt-Bergner says that she worries that “if I had done a traditional postdoc, … I would probably end up with stronger publications. It’s still not clear to me how things will really work out.”

Stolt-Bergner observes that the main benefit to having a position like hers is “the chance to be independent and so to pursue your own ideas.” But so much early independence may not be for everyone, she adds. Even if your research group is small, “these are people that you need to supervise and instruct and make sure that they’re doing things the way you want to, and so maybe some people don’t want to have to be in that position at that point in their career,” she says. “When you’re a traditional postdoc, … you can basically just be in the lab, work on your project, and not worry about anything else. … I miss that sometimes.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Biotech Scale Up: People

Science Communication: Science’s Next Frontier