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 was on top of things and adapting quickly to the environment, to feeling like I was out of my depth. I lost my safety net, and developed 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 moving in a positive direction.
Although the issues experienced during the PhD-to-postdoc-transition vary from individual to individual, I think some themes are felt by most people. Hopefully there’ll be something helpful here for everyone.
***Before you start: is a postdoc really the right thing for you? Not sure? Read this.
CV building. Getting a postdoc position is a long term process and commitment that starts during the PhD or before. A strong CV goes a long way: including papers, grants, awards, scholarships, conference service, and professional activities. Having a strong CV is really the basis for landing a postdoc. The CV tends to tell a story about passion and strengths and skills.
Apply for everything. The more you apply for, the more you will receive. A lot of the time, applications can be recycled and they help to build grant-writing skills. This is important whether or not the award/grant/opportunity eventuates, and if you are successful, it adds to your CV and track record.
Jot down unique ideas for future projects for grant applications. Great to have this inventory of unique ideas, driven by you, for when starting to apply for fellowships and postdoc positions in the last year of your studies. Ideas take time to brew, writing them down can be effective for allowing space to think and expand on them.
Bigger network = bigger opportunity. Collaborations and networks built during the PhD stage are very important as usually this provides a first stepping stone post-PhD. I don’t know many post-doc’s who have their position from formally applying to an ad, usually it is from an existing relationship. Some people will be lucky enough to have a PhD PI who can keep them on after submission, but changing environments is usually encouraged to expand training and personal growth.
Apply early. Applying for fellowships as early as possible is important because learning to write grants takes time, but is a skill that needs to be mastered quickly. Best way to learn is to have a go and ask as many people as possible for feedback, which can be integrated and learned from.
Learning to juggle. Many 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 comment 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, this is an opportunity to practice and getting into good habits for working productively while still ensuring balance.
Tip: If you are 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. The whole blog is jam packed with great advice.
Career goals during the postdoc.
What are the targets and career goals of a new postdoc?
In the e-book “A PhD is not enough“, Peter Feibelman explains that there are three major aims for the postdoc years.
(1) Choosing the area of science to make your name.
(2) Finishing at least one significant project.
(3) Establishing your own identity in the research community to ensure your longevity in research or whatever other position you ultimately seek (industry, government etc.)
The postdoc is about training to undertake independent research, including how to be both a leader and a manager. Technical skills during your postdoc years are important in ensuring high quality output during this time which helps navigate the mid-career bottle neck problem.
In saying that, a postdoc is still training, so it’s important to branch out and learn new things too – explore all the possibilities. Developing innovative research can only come from understanding what’s possible. Work on broadening your skillset with methods and novel technologies, as well as your general knowledge.
Staying up to date. As a postdoc, it is your responsibility to be up to date with your field of research and new technologies at the forefront of your field. I went to a lot of conferences in the first year of my postdoc 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.
Network building. Attending conferences and meeting people, especially friends of friends I think is the best way to network. Another great way to help build your network is to help organise meetings, get involved with professional societies, and using social networking sites to stay in touch.
The elevator pitch. When I first started my postdoc and the new project, I was speaking with a VIP at a conference who asked me what I do, and I wasn’t ready to 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 a niche and building a reputation. Organising symposia, as chair or even co-chair, is a great way to meet people in your field by inviting speakers to participate while building the CV.
Expectations of your new mentor or boss.
There are certain things which are reasonable to negotiate or expect from your mentor.
- 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.
- 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. Having an open line of communication is essential.
Starting a new project.
When changing jobs or starting a fellowship, you usually change projects too. 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.
They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. That’s 20 hours for 50 weeks a year for ten years. Even though this is kind of excessive, a few months of a postdoc in a new field doesn’t 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 postdoc, 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.