Transition to researcher
ORI Introduction to RCR: Chapter 7. Mentor and Trainee Responsibilities
The ultimate goal of research training is to produce independent researchers who can establish their own research programs, take on trainees, and help research-dependent disciplines grow. This means that the mentor’s final responsibility to trainees is to help them get established as independent researchers.
History has repeatedly shown that experienced researchers often do not give over control to the next generation easily. They have a difficult time seeing ideas they planted grow in another person or having someone they trained head out in new directions. And yet in many fields, it is well documented that researchers are most productive early in their careers, when they are first making their way as independent researchers.
The problem of trainee versus independent researcher is most apparent in postdoctoral training. Postdocs, as they are commonly known, are usually well prepared to undertake independent work, and yet they are still working under someone else’s supervision. The fact that they are neither official students nor official faculty gives them few rights and protections. The fact that they are usually supported by someone else’s funding leaves them open to exploitation. To protect against such exploitation, a new organization, the National Postdoctoral Association, has recently been established “to address national issues relevant to postdocs and focus public debate on how to improve the lives of postdocs at all levels.”
Researchers who supervise postdocs should carefully work out their relationship with this unique and important group of researchers in training. Some supervision is still necessary, but not as much as for graduate students. Postdocs may have their own funding and assume all the duties of a principal investigator, even if for administrative purposes their funding comes through their mentor. They may deserve first authorship on all of their papers, even though the mentor was involved in the research. Most importantly, they should be encouraged to develop the independence and record needed to get a regular research appointment, thereby paying back society’s investment in years of research training and the student’s investment in her or his own career.