The life of postdocs - Part 2: The importance of support

Moving toward independence is important for postdocs, said Iqbal Ahmad, Ph.D., director, postdoctoral education and research, because the most creative period of a scientist's career is often during an investigator's thirties.

You don't want to miss that window of brilliance working in someone else's lab.

Their own homes

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UNMC junior faculty member Moorthy Palanimuthu Ponnusamy, Ph.D., was a postdoc who benefitted greatly from the strong mentorship of Surinder Batra, Ph.D.
A postdoc needs to get his or her own place. And to do that, postdocs need to know more than just hard work.

"They should be able to speak in public," Dr. Ahmad said. "They should be good writers. They should be able to write their own grants. They should have the skills to interview."

They should know how to mesh with their mentors, in order to find a direction, and to set and attain career goals.

A key element

The relationship with one's mentor is a huge part of this process, and a not-so-small emphasis within the postdoctoral affairs office. Mentors are asked to provide intellectual support in addition to simply giving tasks and directions.

Mentors are counseled, too: "Be supportive," Dr. Ahmad said. "Be encouraging. Be critical! That's very important. Honest and critical. Because if you're not you may be masking some of the deficiencies that may become detrimental when they become independent."

For example

Moorthy Palanimuthu Ponnusamy, Ph.D.'s, mentor is Surinder Batra, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the UNMC Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

"A mentor should understand the postdoc's feelings," Dr. Ponnusamy said, and it's clear Dr. Batra did. The principal investigator was both sounding board and rock, encouraging his student to keep striving.

"If I write a grant, he runs behind me," said Dr. Ponnusamy, who was UNMC's 2010 Postdoc of the Year.

Needed help

And while we're not sure quite what that means, we do know it's exactly what we would want from a mentor. We know it's easier to do great work with support like that.

Most postdocs could use the help. The math is against them. UNMC has close to 180 postdocs. The environment nationally is incredibly competitive. Funding is dwindling. There aren't enough jobs in academia to keep up with the number of Ph.D.'s churned out.

"We want to tell these guys, the university is behind them in shaping their careers," Dr. Ahmad said.


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