The post-doctoral twilight zone
The transition from PhD student to post-doc is incredibly exciting. Moving to a new place, an unknown institution or a new lab, possibly switching fields, or learning a new set of methods can be thrilling. It is what makes the transition from a PhD student to a post-doc so special and simultaneously challenging. But it can come with dips in (perceived) productivity, and with dips in publication output.
After graduate school, I switched fields – from vision science to chronobiology. I had completed my PhD at Penn, investigating how the light-sensitive protein melanopsin in the human eye contributes to how we see the world. Towards the end of my graduate school career, it was clear to me that I wanted to examine melanopsin’s level at a different level. Melanopsin signals in the retina, in addition to allowing us to see, also helps the circadian rhythms in our physiology and behaviour to synchronise to the light-dark cycle in the environment.
In my first post-doc at Stanford University, I examined how light flashes of different durations can move the timing of our clock around. Currently, I am researching similar topics – effectively – four-year Wellcome Trust fellowship, working at the University of Oxford and the Centre for Chronobiology in Basel. It is only now that I am ready to publish novel empirical work generated after my PhD. There are several reasons for that: Chronobiological experiments take time (many hours for one data point). Setting up, testing and calibrating new equipment and developing new research protocols can take a long time – in particular when you have to learn a lot from scratch.
Of course, post-doctoral research positions come in different shapes and sizes, so the post-PhD dip may not be universal. Joining a laboratory as a post-doc to work on a specific, already-funded project places altogether different demands on the recent PhD graduate than an independent post-doctoral fellowship. And of course, an altogether different problem is that of “carry-over” of which plagues most of us: writing up work from a previous position.
Publishing pre-prints is a great opportunity to make original research available without subjecting it to the uncertain timelines of peer-review. In the post-doctoral “twilight zone”, timing is key, in particular with respect to funding or job applications. Many funders now accept pre-prints in applicant’s publication records, providing much stronger evidence of an applicant’s publication record than the largely ill-defined and un-evidencable designations “in prep.”, “submitted”, or “under review”.
Scientific writing: more than the “big two” genres
Scientific writing has many faces, and many facets. Indeed, the “Article types” section in the author guidelines of any journal will reveal that there are many other types of academic writing other than the “big two” – original research articles and reviews.
If, for example, you do not agree with a specific interpretation or think that you could make an intellectual contribution which would add to the scientific literature as a response to another article, consider writing and submitting a Letter to the Editor (note that sometimes, this format can be called differently at different journals, e.g., Correspondence or Matters Arising). It will not be a waste of ink: Scientific correspondence gives you an opportunity to develop your voice as an independent scientist and scholar. Of course, as with any activity you may choose to engage in, make sure that you’re fair and that you don’t waste your and other people’s time – and don’t get hung up on desk rejections. It is also worth noting that some journals peer-review these types of submissions, while others don’t. In your CV, it should be in any event be noted which listed publications are peer-reviewed.
Aside from these formal ways of publishing, there are other, less formal ones to not lose the practice of writing. Recently, I was asked to write a “spotlight summary” of 200 words max. for a paper published by a team of researchers in the Journal of the Optical Society of America. This provided me with an opportunity to exercise concise writing on a specific paper written by another group. Such writing does not contribute to my formal publication record, but such an opportunity to write is again great for developing your voice as a scientist.
Keeping a healthy attitude towards writing and publishing
It’s easy to get bogged down in feeling a strong pressure to publish. This feeling might be stronger when we feel that our peers – people from our cohort, or academic acquaintances from conferences – seem to publish better papers in higher-IF journals. But envy or jealousy of other’s successes is at best unproductive and at worst toxic. Instead, we should celebrate the scientific accomplishments of our colleagues. After all, we’re all in this together — even if everyone’s journey is different.