Postdoc-ing for dummies
11 Feb 2016. It’s been over a year since I submitted my PhD thesis, and I’m finally starting to settle into postdoc shoes. Although I’m feeling relaxed about it now, I look back and realise that I felt very overwhelmed during the transition from PhD to postdoc. It came in waves, where I felt like I was totally on top of things and adapting really quickly to the new work and environment, to feeling like I was completely out of my depth. I had lost my safety net, and was starting to develop a serious case of imposter syndrome.
During one wave of ‘what-the-hell-is-happening-to-me’, I decided it would be helpful to think about what was the purpose of being a postdoc, what I should be aiming to get out of it, and whether I was ticking all things off the “postdoc bucket list”. I found some articles online written by other postdocs, detailing the various issues that they had faced. However I didn’t really find a ‘how-to postdoc’ guide (which was honestly what I wanted). So, I’m attempting to write one.
Although the issues experienced during the PhD-to-postdoc-transition are going to vary from individual to individual, I think some themes are felt by most people.
Below are some of the issues that I faced and how I managed it.
***Before you start: is a postdoc really the right thing for you?
Not sure? Read this.
If your answer is yes, please proceed.
Building your CV. Acquiring a postdoctoral position is a long term process and commitment that starts during your PhD studies or before. It’s critical to build your CV with papers – but grants, awards, scholarships, conference service, and professional activities are also very important (as long as they are not severely impacting on your PhD progress – don’t participate in things just to procrastinate!). Having a strong CV ensures that you are competitive for landing a postdoc when you finish your PhD. In general, you want your CV to subliminally show that you are passionate about your research and that you are good at it.
Apply for everything. The more you apply for, the more you will receive. However as above, it is a fine balance – you should have a shot at everything but you need to be wise about not wasting your time e.g. if its for something out of your league, if you can not recycle the application again next year when you’ll be bigger and better, or if you are using the exercise as a PhD procrastination tool. However applying for awards and little grants during your PhD helps you to learn how to write successful applications, which you need to master ASAP. This is important whether or not you get them, but if you are successful, it adds to your CV and track record.
Start jotting down unique ideas for projects for grant applications. More often than not, you will need to start applying for fellowships and postdoc positions in the last year of your studies so that you have the next step sorted out, and are not left stranded after submission. It will be important to have some of your own unique ideas which you can develop for the applications.
Bigger network = bigger opportunity. Collaborations and networks built during your PhD are very important (go to conferences, talk to people, get twitter), as usually this will be how you will be provided with your first stepping stone post-PhD. Some people will be lucky enough to have a PhD PI who can keep them on after submission, but changing environments asap is usually the most beneficial for you and your career.
Start applying for fellowships during your PhD. Applying for fellowships as early as possible is important because learning the art of writing a grant takes time- but is a skill which needs to be mastered quickly. My personal opinion about how to become good at it, fast, is to have a go: get in there and do it for yourself, ask as many people as you can for feedback, and then learn from your inevitable mistakes.
Learn to juggle, asap. A lot of PhD students get overwhelmed thinking about how they are going to write a grant while they are doing their PhD and focusing on writing up their thesis. I was once at a workshop for early career researchers, and a speaker made the important point that what you are dealing with at the end of your PhD is nothing compared to what you will experience as a young academic. You will not only have to juggle your research and writing several papers/applications at once, but also juggle people, teaching and administration. If you’re headed for a postdoc, get used to juggling and use the fellowship apps as practice.
Tip: If you are still a PhD student approaching “the end” and you want to postdoc, I recommend reading Tenure She Wrote’s article on Transitioning from Grad Student to a Postdoc. Actually, the whole blog is jam packed with great advice.
Career goals that you should aim to achieve during your postdoc.
So, you have a PhD and you’re in your first postdoc position – but now, things have changed. All your energy was once focused on getting those three little letters at the end of your name… now what? What are your new targets and career goals that you need to work towards?
In the e-book “A PhD is not enough“, Peter Feibelman explains that there are three major aims for your postdoc years.
(1) You need to choose the area of science to make your name.
(2) You need to finish at least one significant project.
(3) You need to establish your own identity in the research community to ensure your longevity in research or whatever other position you ultimately seek (industry, government etc.)
Your goal as a postdoc is to start to move towards independent research – this includes learning to become both a leader and a manager. I have been told that it is important to be good at your technical skills during your postdoc years, so if you are a dry-lab scientist, you need to be an expert analyst. If you’re a wet-lab scientist, it’s paramount that you are proficient in lab skills. This ensures you get some good data and output during this time which gets you through the mid-career bottle neck problem.
In saying that, a postdoc is still training, so you need to branch out and learn new things too – it’s about exploring all the possibilities. You can’t develop innovative research in the future if you don’t understand what’s even possible. So, broadening your scope of methods and novel technologies, as well as your general knowledge, is key
You are responsible for your own career.
Stay up to date. As a postdoc, it is your responsibility to be up to date with your field of research, and about new technologies at the forefront of your field. It is not your mentor’s job to spoon feed these to you. I went to a lot of conferences in the first year of my postdoc (national and international) and I found them extremely helpful to get back on top of the field after having my head stuck in my PhD project (a tiny tiny specialisation). I’ve also started #366papers where I read a paper a day on top of my usual load – this broadens my knowledge base and keeps me on my toes.
Build your network. I think I did this well last year because I went to so many conferences and met tons of people, mainly friends of friends (the best way to network). Another great way to help build your network is to help organise meetings, get involved with professional societies, use social networking sites to stay in touch, and organise a symposium.
Get your elevator pitch right. When I first started my postdoc, which was in a different field to my PhD studies, I attended an international conference in the first two weeks of my new job. I was speaking with some VIP who asked me what I do, and I honestly couldn’t answer. After a bit of spluttering, someone I knew stepped in and saved me. I had practiced my PhD pitch a billion times, but suddenly I was totally caught off guard. No one tells you to keep your elevator pitch up to date, so there you go.
Organise a symposium and give guest talks. Postdoc years are the foundation for developing your niche and building your reputation. Organising symposia (as chair or even co-chair, which is a good idea if it is a big conference where acceptance is competitive) is a great way to meet people in your field (by inviting speakers to participate), while also adding to your conference service and building your reputation as an expert in your field.
Expectations of your new mentor or boss.
There are certain things which are reasonable to negotiate or expect from your mentor. This includes:
- Help and support achieving your goals (but it is your responsibility to ask for it, not their job to spoon feed you)
- That they are available either in person, phone, over email for you to discuss issues with, that they provide feedback and constructive criticism, and that they provide you with letters of recommendation. However PIs and academics are busy people, so I think it’s important to not be needy and to help yourself as much as you can before you consult with them (remember, you are working towards independence, so there is definitely a fine line with bogging down people around you with common sense stuff or insignificant problems)
- I think it’s fair to sit down with your mentor 1-2 times a year and have a chat about how you’ve been doing, whether you are getting closer to your goals and recalibrate if necessary.
- The most important thing is to make sure you and your mentor are always on the same page. you need to have an open line of communication for this to be possible
Starting a new project.
When you change jobs or start a fellowship, you usually change projects. It can either be similar to what you have done before, or very different – usually a combination of both.
Changing fields or types of research. In my situation, I moved into a different field (postmortem brain molecular biology to imaging genetics, but both in the field of schizophrenia research). I swung between loving the challenge and opportunity to learn something new, to being an imposter and frustrated with the process. I had to do a lot of reading to try to learn things, sometimes just to understand one paper I had to read ten others to learn the ground work. It was tiring, and both my boss and I once acknowledged that it affected my confidence. Ultimately, this was pressure I was putting on myself to be perfect.
It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. That’s what they say. That’s 20 hours for 50 weeks a year for ten years. Even though this is kind of excessive, 4 months of a postdoc in a new field was not going to cut it. There is no quick fix, except to remain positive, don’t expect too much of yourself, and keep on reading and consolidating your knowledge. One day, it starts to all come together. My friend Helen MacPherson (@brainy_gal) recently wrote a really good article about this, “Teaching a young dog new tricks: learning new skills as an early career researcher” – highly recommend.
How to remain productive during the transition. Try to do as much reading as you can before you start your job to give you a head start. Keep on reading during the entire transition. This is probably the single most important thing you can do, to make sure you are knowledgeable and it keeps you productive later on when you have your data, you can just write instead of having to do more groundwork. While your career will certainly be disrupted when you change positions, this will not count as formal career disruption. So, you have to learn to manage it. There isn’t a lot you can do if you’re in a wet lab, just have patience and good things will come. During this time, you will also usually have left over projects to work on from their last job, and it is important to keep going with these so you don’t have a break in your CV.
Great things don’t come from comfort zones. Although it was tough and I am definitely not an expert, I am really grateful for the last year I’ve had, the in depth overview I have in a new field, and what it has taught me about myself and how I work best. When it all got to me, I would try to think, I’m uncomfortable, therefore I’m onto something great.
Moving overseas/interstate? Read this. I did not go overseas straight out of my PhD. I have been employed off a major national funded project grant, working on something completely different to my PhD work. This was not planned, but just the way it turned out. In hindsight, I think this was the best thing that could have happened. The first transition to another lab and new field of research was already very tough. I learned A LOT this past 12 months, not just about the science but about life as a scientist, which I believe has put me in a good position for the big move and the more independent position which is to come.
@JennyMartin_UQ was also kind enough to offer me some advice a few months ago about transitioning overseas. In Jenny’s experience, it takes some time (up to 2 years) to get the first paper out after moving country and getting set up in the new lab. She advised to set reasonable expectations for yourself and for your mentor. When choosing collaborations, Jenny also advised to work with people you trust, respect and like. It is best to do the ground work for this, by talking to students and post docs, and working out how people operate. Also find a circle of peers that you can ask advice from, like how to identify the best suppliers, and information about your collaborators. I think the critical point for being successful in this career, is never be afraid to ask for help or advice.
- I recommend Adam Micolich’s 12 guidelines for surviving science. I strongly concur with every single point.
- If you’re thinking about heading overseas, read Lauren Drogo’s article: International Postdoc: What to ask.
- I also recommend this guest blog post in scientific american about taking off the pressure, The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc.
My final 2 cents:
A successful postdoc experience will prepare you for the next step, whatever you choose to do next. It is an important time to achieve some key goals to work towards the next phase of your career. There is no black and white way to do this, you need to sit down and really think about where you want to go, then research and ask all the people around you how to do it. In general, keep your chin up and keep going. It gets better, and it won’t be long before being a postdoc doesn’t feel so weird and it becomes the new normal.