The life of postdocs - Part 1

We know what postdocs do. They work. They put in the hours at the labs. They are, said Iqbal Ahmad, Ph.D., "basically the driver of the research enterprise all over the country."

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Iqbal Ahmad, Ph.D., center, with UNMC's 2009 Postdocs of the Year Xinming Liu, Ph.D., left, and Gurudutt Pendyala, Ph.D. Dr. Ahmad, associate dean and director of postdoctoral education and research, works to make UNMC a place where post docs can grow and develop into independent researchers. Dr. Liu is now on faculty as part of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience and Dr. Pendyala is an instructor in the Munroe-Meyer Institute.
In the old days you would know it by seeing the lights on at the lab, late at night. These days, the number of first-authorships in published papers is the measuring stick. A UNMC survey found that from 2005-2011 UNMC postdoctoral scholars were first authors on an average of 134.6 peer-reviewed papers per year.

A time to work and grow

Dr. Ahmad, professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences, associate dean, academic affairs, and director, postdoctoral education and research at UNMC, remembers his time as a postdoc vividly. Then, there were two primary destination points for postdocs. One was the work bench. The other was the nearby couch.

They would crash there. He doesn't think it was a bad thing.

To an ambitious young investigator, a postdoc is an apprenticeship. It's a time when a young scientist gets the necessary training and freedom needed to fully come into his or her own.

Stunted growth

But unfortunately, many modern postdocs remain apprentices. In a time of less funding and fewer available tenure-track positions, as well as less emphasis on putting in sleep-on-the-couch hours, some postdocs find themselves in holding patterns for five, six, seven years.

Ideally, one should stay a postdoc for three to five years, Dr. Ahmad said. Ideally, one should strike out on one's own.

Ideally ...

But it's not happening, or at least not soon enough. Too many investigators are stuck in the scientific equivalent of living at home.

Understandable -- these are tough times. But UNMC is making moves to help its postdocs leave the nest, to give them a road map out.

Real support for post docs

It has established the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, with the notion that UNMC's mission is not just to work these investigators, but to groom them into the next generation of scientists.

UNMC used to honor the postdoc scholar of the year. This fall the top postdoc will receive the newly-named UNMC Pathway to Independence award.

"They should obtain independent positions and outrank their mentors," Dr. Ahmad said. "That would be the best thing that can happen."


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