July 11, 2012

On the pivotal role of post-doc in research groups

A sabbatical is a great opportunity to study the internal process of other research groups. For a young European scientist like me, there is much to get from observing what American professors implement for the management of their large teams. In general, academic people are reluctant to apply industry-like management processes, which are supposed to prevent groups to be creative and lively. However, the research is becoming objective-driven, and the raise of grant agencies and project-oriented funding makes that an unexperienced young professor can now receive enough money to hire a large team of researchers. There is a need to address the tabooed topic of research group management.

A unique characteristic of research groups is the huge gap between a graduate "master" student, who has some scientific background but actually knows nothing, and a senior post-doc, who is supposed to be a peer, fellow researcher. One of the purposes of a research group is to assist the development of new skills… and to let people leave when they are, at last, autonomous and efficient.

It is my understanding that post-docs are the most challenging to work with. Some of them are super-PhD, while some others are rather mini-professor. Most of them do no longer require to be "tutored", but they still have to acquire some critical skills. In particular post-docs should ideally develop their own ideas from scratch, tutor younger students, actively contribute to industrial collaborative project, and expand their professional network.

On the one hand, delegating is dangerous for a professor. If a collaborative project fails, the one that will be directly affected in the future is the professor, not the post-doc. If young students spend too much time working on barely publishable ideas, utilize old-school technologies and miss latest exciting papers, it is the professor who eventually has to make the student catch up, not the post-doc. On the other hand, delegating is a real chance to expand the research group, to work on new areas, and to offer the opportunity to the new post-doc to acquire critical skills/experiences she misses.

For these reasons, the management of a post-doc is very touchy. On my side, I consider the following:
  • before opening a post-doc position, I will clearly define my needs. I identified at least three critical needs that might pop up someday, and that would justify opening a post-doc position:
    • I want to be assisted for tutoring young students
    • I want to partly delegate the management of a heavy collaborative project
    • I want to explore a well-identified brand new topic
  • once my needs identified, I hope that finding a matching post-doc will be easier. Compared to my previous experience, I will pay more attention to the actual motivations of candidates, and I will pay less attention to their background or their past achievements. Of course it is important to know whether the candidate can write paper or produce experimental stuff at the expected level of quality for a top academic conferences, but it is even more important to know what is the status of the candidates regarding the need.
  • then, if objectives are clear and well-understood on both sides, I guess the collaboration shall be more productive.