The postdoc bucket list
2 Feb 2017. I’ve written some postdoc resources before, to try to help those transitioning from PhD to postdoc (see Postdoc-ing for dummies) and also those moving jobs, particularly overseas (see Local to international postdoc). Manu Saunders recently wrote a follow up, Postdoc in Transit which is also a great postdoc resource worth checking out.
I’d like to add another resource – the postdoc bucket list – as a summary of some things to keep in mind and aim for during a postdoc. It’s also been good for me to revisit this list as well, when its time to recalibrate, focus and remember what the goals are.
The Postdoc Bucket List
In the early stages
- Plan your postdoc as intricately as possible. This means detailed goals and deadlines, broken down into months and semesters. This helps you to have daily targets. Also a good idea to revisit these often to make sure you stay on track!
- Nothing is more important than your publication record. Submit as many papers as you can. This includes everything left over from your PhD studies. Chip away at them as often as possible – an hour here and there may not seem like much but it adds up.
- Be strategic about where you publish. Don’t sell yourself short but don’t waste all your time submitting everything to Nature. Quality is important, but so is quantity. You need to balance it, and a mentor is good here to give you advice on how.
- Try not to allow gaps in your CV. Sometimes it’s out of your control but try to do some damage control if you foresee this as a possibility. It can sometimes be mitigated with planning. Again, mentors can help!
- Seek advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or direction. Something I learned moving into a much larger group than I was used to is that its up to me to ask for help. Its easy to be forgotten in a big sea of busy researchers. At first I would battle with the feeling of not wanting to be annoying or seem incompetent, but the only person who suffered was me. Now I have no shame 😉 and things are moving a lot faster!
- Co-author cautiously. Co-authorships are important, but only if it doesn’t jeopardise your first author work. The problem with collaborative papers is that you can’t control their progress and submission schedule. So while they are nice, don’t depend on them. Focus on first (and maybe second) author papers (in that order).
- Figure out, do you really need to teach? I personally don’t. This is partly because I am no longer in a university environment, partly because I choose to spend the time on my research and publications. I find teaching sucks up all my time. However, if you’re aiming for a lecturing position and you’re based in a university where you have the opportunity, you should consult with one of your mentors about whether this is something essential to add into your postdoc bucket list. The advice I’ve received though is that teaching positions are chosen mainly based on research output, so its something to think seriously about.
- Stay in touch with your peers, old and young. They are familiar faces when everything else is changing rapidly, and in my experience, they are always super helpful – not just for advice but also for support and encouragement. You develop a special relationship with the people you meet over the years, and it’s great to keep this going.
- Grow your network. While PhD students engage primarily with other students and trainees, it’s now important to surround yourself with people at the next level: senior postdocs and PIs, and also scientists outside of your field. Use social media here, it’s amazing for this purpose.This opens doors and starts to help build your own reputation.
- Grow your audience. Getting your research noticed is important for several reasons, including keeping you motivated, opening new doors of opportunity and giving back to the public. Spend some time thinking about this: who is your audience? Your answer might include people from your institute, your peers, leaders in your field, other labs across the world, other medical research scientists, and the public. While the “social entrepreneurship” side of science is in early days for academics, its worth thinking about the fact that everything is moving online and that social media can really help to build your presence both online and in the world. If this sounds like something you’d like to get on board with but not sure how, you might like to read my post “To blog or not to blog?”. At a minimum I recommend getting twitter and engaging with the huge online scientific community (follow me @nataliematosin).
- Be mindful of the environment around your lab. Your profile inside your current institution is as important as the outside one. All of these people have networks, sit on panels/boards and likely own equipment of interest. Being a respected professional colleague will go a long way and get you in the door for research students, particularly if you don’t teach. You only have two hands, so your output can benefit from a student, but you need the input from other lecturers to find good ones.
In the later stages
- The 3-5 year plan. Its time to start thinking about what you want to do after your postdoc and start planning for it. Think about it this way: don’t think about whether you will get through the next stage (be that junior PI or tenure or the equivalent). Think about what boxes you need to tick to be a successful candidate. Then make a plan on how you’re going to tick the boxes.
- Last author publications. If you’re getting towards the end of your postdoc, it might be time to have the conversation with your mentor about running your own small “side” projects and transitioning to last author. Mentors’ opinion on this varies greatly, understandably, because there is often a lot at stake. If you are lucky enough to be in a lab where this type of thing is supported, you should definitely capitalise on the opportunity! Remember that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
- Grants. If you are the postdoc who wants to stay in academia, perhaps now is the time to start thinking about grants. There are some organisations and charities which provide start up funding (like NARSAD in my field, which also has the perk of being movable between institutions), as well as internal university grants. The other place to get funding is your department head. In Australia we don’t really get “start up” so research how to get funding and resources in your country by talking to mentors, peers and also dipping into all the advice which is online on this topic.