The importance of being assertive

As postdocs, we are expected to take charge of our careers. Yet many of us work in environments where we have little to no voice in highly competitive atmospheres. Being assertive might lead to retaliation, or worse, termination. The topic of this post was, in large part, motivated by discussions in a seminar I attended on Responsible Conduct of Research. This is not surprising, as seminars such as these are where issues such as setting professional boundaries and expectations, managing collaborations, and resolving conflicts often come up.

Some instances of research misconduct arise from a principal investigator’s (PI) personal desire to succeed, while others result from junior scientists struggling in a high-pressure environment created by their PIs, leading to falsification, fabrication, etc., of data. Being assertive and setting boundaries from day one can help manage expectations and avoid many unpleasant situations later on. Developing coherent opinions and communicating them professionally will go a long way in preparing you for any future career.

The need to be assertive

Being assertive is different from being aggressive and harboring passive-aggressive behavior. In being assertive, you state your opinions confidently, directly, and clearly while still being respectful of others. The goal of an assertive approach is to resolve issues in a way that’s beneficial to everyone without power plays and emotionally charged tactics. Ignoring or devaluing the opinions of others, personal attacks and insults, and approaching conflicts with the goal to win are all examples of aggressive behavior. When you are assertive instead of aggressive, you consider your actions in the context of others around you, and you can navigate difficult conversations professionally. If your voice is not welcomed at the table, it is a signal for you to move on.

A study published in October 2018 documented patterns that emerge from a lack of accountability for PIs and their consequences for postdocs. The study polled researchers at five major research institutions and found that PIs aren’t always prepared to launch the careers of their postdocs and that the resources available for transitioning to non-academic jobs are scarce. Consequently, postdocs are often left to fend for themselves in terms of job preparedness. Additionally, buried in the data were responses that caught the attention of the editorial board of Nature, attesting to the exploitation faced by some postdocs, in this case, due to their visa status.

While not all situations can be solved by a difficult conversation, the need to be assertive should not be dismissed. Being assertive from the beginning, such as during your interview for the postdoc position, can help you identify these potential issues and the recourses you may have available. For example, some institutions offer postdocs the opportunity to join the employee union, and specific departments may also offer postdocs the opportunity to have mentoring committees. Asking about the availability of such options is an example in which being assertive can help serve your interests in the long term and make your postdoc tenure a fruitful experience, where in addition to being productive, you will have the opportunity to develop and be recognized as an independent scientific thinker in the lab. Incidentally, that is the intended goal of postdoctoral training, per the NIH.

Five major benefits of being assertive

  1. Receiving credit for your ideas – When you come up with a new direction or experimental strategy for your project, test it out with the available literature and see if it tracks. If it has the potential to yield informative results, I would highly recommend recording it in your notebook and then coming up with an experimental plan to present to your PI. Make sure you’ve thought out the potential outcomes and are ready to defend your ideas as to why you should do that study. If your PI is as good a mentor as they are a scientist, they will welcome this approach and are likely to initiate more conversations with you about the actual planning of the research strategy for your project rather than just expecting you to finish the experiments. In the same vein, if you find your ideas annexed by your colleagues during lab meetings, for example, speak up and reiterate why you first brought up the idea and why you support it. If executing your idea involves a group effort, volunteer to lead the charge and see that it’s accomplished. This will ensure that your ideas are seen as yours and will help establish you as an independent contributor.
  2. Accurately assigned authorships – If you are working on a collaborative project, initiate meetings with all involved parties and ensure everyone’s work is laid out in a mutually agreeable manner. Of course, projects change over time and this will change each individual’s contributions, but make sure that the authorship expectations are adjusted accordingly. If you find key aspects of your project being delegated to others, broach the subject with your PI sooner rather than later. The results may not always be to your liking but you will hopefully have the transparency you need to make informed decisions going forward on your next projects.
  3. Salary increases – While NIH does stipulate a minimum salary for postdoctoral employees commensurate with experience and recommends annual raises, it is possible to negotiate for additional increases, especially if you live in an area with a high cost of living. Before you accept a postdoctoral position, ask if the position allows for yearly salary increases. For most institutions, the answer should be yes. Even if you are paid the NIH minimum, you are entitled to a raise like all university employees. This is important because your current salary is used to determine your next hiring salary and how much negotiating power you will have.
  4. Work-life balance – We’ve all been drilled about the importance of this elusive work-life balance. The reality is that the postdoc position rarely allows for an environment where a healthy balance is always in place, purely from a daily routine standpoint. Each experiment comes with its own time limitations that are often not flexible. However, you may have family obligations or are otherwise limited from working weekends (another job, need of downtime, or even as a personal choice), in your tenure. If you start out by working 80 hour weeks, your PI might expect that you can continue working at that pace all along. However, if your PI fully understands your time constraints from the beginning, you will have an easier time making your own schedule. Of course, this does not mean that you cannot put in extra time of your own volition when needed. However, if you’re coming in on a weekend just to take care of some steps of an experiment, your PI needs to understand that this does not mean you have time to pop into their office for a meeting if they happen to be there as well.
  5. Personal visibility and opportunities to network – You may be limited in the number of conferences you get to participate in every year. Ensure that you are allowed to attend at least one national and one regional conference every year on topics that you and your PI mutually agree upon. Set realistic benchmarks with your PI about what needs to be accomplished to ensure that you can present your work to a wider community. If your PI is worried about competition and hence prefers for the work to not be presented, ask for alternatives. Can you present a part of your work? Can you present it at a meeting of your interest but not that of your competitors’? How about a professional development conference? As a postdoc, you want your work to be seen. You will also need opportunities to meet colleagues you can connect with for future referrals or employment. If your PI is always presenting your work on your behalf, it is likely no one will be able to truly appreciate your contributions.

None of the above conversations are pleasant to have. Each scenario can potentially be confrontational, something we all like to avoid. However, it is worth it to make a tactful attempt for your future success and sanity. If you are unsure where to begin, this handout from NIH’s training website provides a good place to start, as well as this ASCB Careers post on negotiation.

The key factor to take away is that you have to at least attempt to verbalize your needs rather than just expect your PI to understand them. If you do not, then you rely on someone else’s goodwill to give you your due space and recognition. And that does not always work out.

Approaching these conversations in an assertive manner will require some tact, and you will need to take a constructive approach. But doing this will prevent unpleasant situations later on and will thus help you forge enduring workspace relationships. It is an important step to maturing into a professional and will help you develop valuable negotiation skills that you will require later on in your career.

About the Author:

Aditi Dubey is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University College of Dentistry in New York, NY. She studies mechanisms of craniofacial development in the vertebrate model system Xenopus laevis. She received her PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology from Rutgers Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in New Brunswick, NJ. Email: