September first is approaching. For many of us postdocs this is the time for a move and for a new beginning, new places, new faces. Here at Perimeter Institute, the new postdocs have already started to arrive.
Those of you who are not working in the field know the names of maybe a handful of the top postdocs in that are out there. But folks, there are thousands of us who you've never taken notice of. And those who I've met have all one thing in common: they are dedicated to their work. The reason I'd think is fairly simple. If you don't care about the field enough, you can get a better paid job with a better contract elsewhere. I don't know anybody holding a PhD in theoretical physics who ended up being unemployed*, nobody who had a serious problem finding a position outside academia.
However, I spend a lot of time on this blog telling you how great this job is, but today I want to mention the other side, where the grass is not all that green (see figure to the right). Besides the obvious fact that not everybody likes to move around and leave behind friends and family, there is the issue how you get treated at work. And over the years I have heard a lot of very nasty stories about supervisors. See, the most common conversation starter at a conference is "Who are you working with?"... "And how is he?". Gossip gets passed around because it's relevant for us to know - preferably before we accept an offer.
Here at PI, we don't have supervisors and I am perfectly happy with my position, so the following doesn't actually apply to my current job. But here is, for all the postdocs that are presently busy packing moving boxes, a note to the supervisors:
The most common complaint about supervisors is lacking respect. If you've hired that postdoc for his scientific expertise, then how about you listen to what he has to say and don't ignore his opinion?
A very typical example that I have heard in too many versions, and from almost all areas, is the supervisor with the supposedly great idea who wants the postdoc to do a time-consuming calculation, but doesn't even take the time to explain the context, or doesn't want to hear any feedback. Yes that's a cliché, but that doesn't make it less annoying. Of course you have a great idea that will change the world! That's what everybody thinks.
Also, don't shove and push around your postdocs, don't expect us to do duties that staff should be doing (like sending/typing letters, taking care of travel arrangements, or making coffee.) Don't outsource your problems, and use us to take care of that journalist, to answer the crackpot's inquiries, or to handle administrative issues on your behalf. And please don't blame us for other people's mistakes including your own.
It all comes down to the obvious line: treat others like you want to be treated yourself. You don't get respect if you don't earn it. What you get instead is gossip.
If your postdocs gives your lectures while you're travelling, writes your referee reports that have been due a month ago, arranges seminars, organizes conferences you insisted to hold, or takes care of that graduate student who's been sitting in front of your office for several hours a small 'Thank you' would be appropriate every now and then.
More generally, we postdocs don't run on dark energy that we get out of the vacuum. We want to know whether our work is actually good for something, and appreciate some motivation. We can't improve if we don't know how well we are doing, and need some feedback, preferably in a timely and meaningful manner - both when things are going well and when improvements are needed. Ignorance is much more annoying than constructive criticism.
Your postdoc relies on your experience. When it comes to proposals, applications, publishing, maybe giving an important talk, financial or general career questions your advise is needed. Your postdoc relies on you to introduce him to people who might be important for a project, expects you to point out relevant conferences that he might not be aware of, relies on you to mention related work that has been done possibly before he was even born. In most cases the default is to respect your intuition. Look - we know you have a headstart, but don't abuse our trust.
All of that however does only work if you actually provide this experience.
Like it or not, you're a role model. Try to be fair and honest, reliable, available and approachable. Just believe me we are not wasting your time on purpose, and wouldn't bother you unnecessarily. Don't postpone and cancel appointments repeatedly, or proclaim you are too busy with more important tasks - you are not the only one who has other things to do, and I don't care whether you've been nominated for the Nobel prize. Being constantly busy doesn't prove you're important but that you can't cope with your schedule and, worse, aren't even able to improve your time management.
If your postdoc mentions a deadline, try to meet it, it was probably not her idea. A friend of mine worked 24/7 doing a calculation, the numerics, the write-up for a project which was under time pressure - yet the almost finished paper laid on his supervisor's desk for three months before he got as much as an 'okay' as reaction. What kind of a behavior is that? Another friend was running into financial trouble, yet was unable to schedule a meeting or even a phone call to explain the issue, and I know more than one postdoc who has explained (only half jokingly) that the best occasion to talk to his supervisor is when they both happen to be on the same conference.
We don't expect you to be perfect, but in return try to realize we are only human. Don't expect your postdoc to work on weekends or late at night just because you do so, she might indeed have a life on her own. Don't even think about raising an eyebrow if he leaves 'already' at 7pm, or works 'only' 60 hours per week. Don't expect him to miraculously recover your lost password, have a backup of revision # 3.8 which you accidentally deleted, or find the bug in a 100,000 lines code over night. Instead, think for a moment where you'd be without him.
The easiest way to a good working environment is communication. I mean, one that goes both ways. You might find out your postdoc is actually worth the time talking to. Let's hope you find out before he leaves.
PS: Luckily, there are also many good supervisors around, and I'd like thank all of them for their time and efforts.
While browsing I found a summary of a small survey regarding the question 'What makes a good supervisor', from '99 by Mary Opperman at Cornell. You find the results here, it's very similar to what I've summarized above.
* With one exception who ended up in a sanatorium.