The postdoc bucket list
2 Feb 2017. “The postdoc bucket list” is a summary of goals and intentions that I developed with my mentors during my postdoc. It’s also been good for me to periodically revisit this list when it’s time to recalibrate, refocus and realign.
The Postdoc Bucket List
In the early stages
- Intricate planning. This means making detailed goals and deadlines, broken down into months and weeks, which helps to create daily targets. Also a good idea to revisit these often to stay on track.
- Publishing. Always be writing. My mentors all echoed that nothing is more important than publication record. A good place to start is getting out all data that might be left over from your PhD. Chip away at them as often as possible – an hour here and there may not seem like much but it adds up. It’s also a good habit to carve out time to write every day, even when focusing on lab work. All those sentences eventually turn into papers.
- Strategic publishing. Striking a balance between selling the work short and wasting time submitting and re-submitting can be tough. Quality is important, and so is quantity. Mentors always give great advice with this, as they have a lot of experience with it. I always find it helpful to look at target journals and see if they have been publishing papers similar to the scope and size of what I would like to submit. It also helps to identify “model” papers in those target journals for inspiration.
- Anticipating (and circumventing) gaps in track record. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but even being aware that this is something that can happen can be helpful. There are some situations where gaps can be mitigated with planning. Mentors can help, but ultimately it’s up to the individual to drive and take responsibility for their own track record. A good idea is to plan out future outputs and if targets are not being met, analyse why. Reviews and opinion pieces can be good to circumvent large gaps when, for example, lab work is delayed or there will be career disruptions like moving or parental leave.
- Seek advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or direction. Something I learned moving into a much larger research group is that it can be easy to be forgotten in a sea of busy trainees. I struggled with the feeling of not wanting to be annoying or seem incompetent, but the only person who suffered was me. I’ve taken responsibility of asking for help now, and things are moving a lot faster!
- Cautiously co-authoring. Co-authorships are important, but only if it doesn’t jeopardise first author work. The problem with collaborative papers is that you can’t control their progress and submission schedule. So while they are important, the majority of time should be focused on first author papers.
- Teaching. If you’re aiming for a lecturing position and you have the opportunity, you should consult with one of your mentors about whether teaching is something essential to add into your postdoc bucket list. The advice I’ve received is that teaching positions are chosen mainly based on research output, so while teaching experience is great, it shouldn’t jeopardise the research.
- Staying in touch with colleagues. They are familiar faces when everything else is changing rapidly, and can provide advice, support and encouragement. I’ve developed some special relationships with people I’ve met over the years, and it’s great to keep this going with monthly zooms and whatsapp messages.
- Network growth. While PhD students engage primarily with other students and trainees, at the postdoc level its good to interact with more senior people too. I use social media for this, it’s a great way to open doors and gain visibility.
- Visibility. Research that is noticed has more potential for impact. Visibility can also improve motivation, open doors of opportunity and it’s great to give back to the public. Spend some time thinking about who is your audience? Your answer might include colleagues, leaders in your field, researchers in parallel fields, and the public. Then it’s easier to figure out how to reach them. Visibility can be improved through social media, traditional media, giving talks, and preprints.
In the later stages
- 3-5 years. An exercise to complete with pen and paper: What do you want to do after your postdoc? What do you need to get there? This forms a to-do list. It takes time to tick boxes, so always good to start planning early.
- Last author publications. Towards the end of the post-doc, many trainees work with their mentor to run their own projects where they can be last author. A mentors’ opinion on this can vary greatly, but most I know are very supportive. If you are lucky enough to be in a lab where this is supported, it is a great opportunity.
- Funding. If you are the postdoc who wants to stay on a research track, grants are essential. There are some organisations and charities which provide start up funding as well as internal university grants. Keeping an eye out for these opportunities and building a track record in funding is an important aspect of being a researcher and can never start too soon.