Postdoc Musings

If you are reading this, you might be a newly minted Doctor of Philosophy, or about to be one! Congratulations! Now is the time to refine your craft, make a name for yourself and hone in on what your career will entail.
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Postdoc Musings

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This post was originally published on the Nature Research Microbiology Community.

Postdoc Musings

What follows is similar to my post about what I learned as a PhD student, but aimed for those of you late in your doctoral work or looking for postdoc positions. As I noted in my previous post – these are based on my experiences or experiences of friends and are not meant to be broadly applicable to everyone. If you have other experiences, please comment on the post, below. 

  1. Most people look back at their time as a postdoc as ‘the best scientific years of their life.’ Enjoy it.
  2. I made the decision on where to do my first postdoc while still in ‘PhD-mode’. What I mean by ‘PhD-mode’ is that I was thinking about what would be most similar to the work I did for my PhD. I was not thinking about what I wanted my future career to look like or what skills I did not have, but wanted to gain. I found that by failing to take these factors into account, I stifled my growth as a scientist, which led me to question whether I wanted to continue in science at all (or at least continue in academia). For my second postdoc, I deliberately sought a lab that would teach me skills and perspectives that I was unexposed to previously – and it completely rejuvenated my interest in science and helped me identify a career path.
  3. Outside of the laboratory, there are other important things to consider when choosing a postdoctoral position. For example, I did not think (hard enough) about the city I was moving to and accessibility to things that made me happy outside of the lab when choosing my first postdoc position. In part, this was because wrapping up my doctoral work was so consuming that I had minimal interests outside of the lab. I learned that the culture of a geographic area is very important. For example, if you thrive off the city life, don’t move to a rural area, or vice versa. Other things to consider: Do the values of your neighbors and colleagues match yours? If you have children (even very young children) - are the local schools good? How much does it cost to live (see the next point)?
  4. Keep in mind: Even though you will make more money as a postdoc, you will almost certainly jump to the next highest tax bracket (in the US). Also, being a student has other tax advantages that you will lose as a postdoc. That means that after taxes, the increase in pay your get as a postdoc will not be quite as much as you thought.
  5. There are mainly three types of postdoc positions that you can obtain:
    1. Project based postdoc– These are positions that are linked to funding for a specific project (and sometimes to startup funds). These can be great if you were involved in creating the project (see c, below), but can be risky if you were not. Things to consider when deciding to accept a project-based postdoc: Was the project well designed (just because it was funded, doesn’t mean that it was well designed)? What if things go wrong and the project doesn’t work – what will you do?  Are there backup or side projects in the lab that also interest you? Would your postdoc advisor be willing to change your plan if needed to keep you engaged and give you what you need? All of these things are great questions to ask potential postdoc advisors when you are making your decision.
    2. Obtain your own funding - This is a great situation for several reasons. First, you can usually go where you want and work on a project of your choosing if you bring your own money. Second, acquiring your own funding is evidence that you can get funded. This is extremely important when applying for faculty and other jobs.
    3. The third type is a hybrid of a) and b) where you develop a project alongside a faculty member to work in their lab. If funded, these are excellent positions as well – you have been funded and you had a role designing the project.
  6. Trust your gut. If your discussions/negotiations get pushy or seem rushed, or on a visit you don’t feel 100% comfortable with the decision to join a lab: don’t join. Pay attention to the body language of the lab’s current members. Do they seem overworked and unhappy? Did their advisor criticize them in front of you? Are women and men treated equally in the lab? Yes, it’s completely normal to be a little nervous about the upcoming change, but if it doesn’t feel right, it is probably not the right position for you.
  7. I expect this to be controversial: Several people advised me to not accept a postdoc stint with non-tenured faculty. The rationale for this advice was simple: non-tenured faculty are under an immense amount of pressure to secure tenure and often (but not always) that pressure gets transferred to the postdoc. I blatantly ignored this advice and not only joined the lab of a non-tenured faculty member but was the FIRST postdoc in that lab. I did this because we shared many common scientific interests. I did not experience this pressure from my advisor. In fact, the experience that followed prepared me more for what lie ahead as a new faculty member than I ever could have learned from the lab of someone more established. I witnessed firsthand a lot of the hardships all new faculty go through – learning how to run a lab is really hard! This ‘crystal ball’ glimpse into my own future as the head of a lab enabled me plan for things and situations that I would have otherwise been unaware of. I still draw on this experience almost daily.
  8. Branch out to a new field. Often, within our respective fields and sub-disciplines, we get so stuck on “this is the path I should take,” that we forget variety is the spice of life. For example, I obtained my doctoral degree in marine microbiology. For my second postdoc, I accepted a postdoc position looking at soil microbial communities. Many of the overarching questions are similar in the two ecosystems, but the approaches, limitations, and viewpoints couldn’t be more distinct. These contrasting perspectives fostered the formation of new ideas in unexpected ways. Remember that everyone’s scientific journey is different and what worked for someone else may not work for you.
  9. I also expect this to be controversial: Try to acclimate yourself to not doing your own research as a postdoc. That is, begin to learn how to be a manager and start to train undergraduates or graduate students to do the laboratory work for you. This transition was extremely hard for me and I still struggle with it as a lab head. Specifically, I struggled to trust others and to be patient with them while they learned how to do science. Even though I know I can complete the experiments in less time, in reality I don’t have time to do that. I started by managing a few undergraduates as a postdoc. The most important lessons I learned were: 1) how to be constructively critical of someone with little or no experience; and 2) how to be patient with them as they begin the path to research independence.
  10. Try to work hard on learning work/life balance. Ideally, this starts during your doctoral work. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to lay the foundation for a healthy life. This might mean unlearning bad habits. Make time to exercise. Eat well. Learn healthy ways to deal with stress. If you are on the academic route, it’s important to learn these habits before you run your own lab because it will be much, much harder to find the time and energy to learn these habits as a new professor.
  11. It’s always a great idea (the best idea, really) to finish and publish your dissertation work before you graduate. In reality, this might not be possible. However, it’s essential to finish these papers if you want to be competitive for most faculty positions. After graduating, it’s best if you finish these up on your own time.
  12. If you don’t feel ready to apply for faculty jobs: don’t apply. Several people recommended that I apply for faculty positions two months after starting my first postdoc. I didn’t feel ready (and I was not ready!) and this created a huge amount of anxiety for me. This feeling dissipated after I got more experience under my belt and when I finally did start applying, I felt much more prepared to take the next step.
  13. Realize that nearly everyone is as insecure about finding a faculty job as you are.
  14. Learn to drive 55. More specifically, learn to write to ~5500 words. Verbose writing is for PhD dissertations with no page limit; indeed, a solid “thud” on your advisor’s desk is immensely satisfying. But for those of us that will be reading and citing your published work, length is unnecessary. Get to the point quickly, state the largest two to three impacts and wrap it up. Unless you are writing a review or a book chapter, papers longer than 5,500 words are unnecessary. If the story is that complex, split it into two papers. If you need space to explain results that don’t make sense, don’t publish the paper.
  15. Make a website and have both a google scholar and a ResearchGate profile. Google Scholar and ResearchGate are free. A website is a relatively small investment that will pay off in the long run. The website I had as a postdoc read like a brief CV. Also, please post a relatively recent picture of yourself. We all want to know what you look like (just like you want to know what we all look like)! This is the time to take control (and clean up, if need be) your online persona. I want people to know Paul Carini the scientist, not Paul Carini the mortgage broker (though he seems like a nice guy).
  16. Join twitter, and actually interact with other people in your field. Twitter is the new LinkedIn! I specifically joined twitter to engage a broader community without the need to travel a lot. It has worked surprisingly well! Some people will engage with you and collaborations and friendships will develop. As an added bonus, as you gain followers, you will find that conferences are not so lonely, as many of your twitter friends are there. A word of caution: At times, twitter induces a lot of anxiety in me. There are two main reasons for that: 1) Fear of missing out. Sometimes it seems like everyone is at a conference that I should be at seeing cool talks that I should be seeing. In reality, there are lots of people not at that conference and I’d be sitting on my laptop checking my email or twitter if I were there! 2) Sometimes I get massively overwhelmed and even discouraged because it seems like everyone is doing cool science, but I am just plodding along. It’s taken me a while to realize that in reality this is not true and that as long as I’m moving forward I’m probably doing OK.
  17. Try to stop being so critical. As scientists, we are taught to pick apart the technical minutiae of every paper. As a doctoral student, I was part of a journal club and would often completely dismantle papers published in high profile journals. We’re scientists – it’s what we do. But at some point, it’s important to realize that not every paper will be written how we would have written it. Not every experiment is the one we would have chosen. Not every analysis will resolve every question to completeness. It’s essential to see – and acknowledge - the incremental aspects of research. If there are big problems – state them. If there is a disagreement of interpretation or of what was actually done, write a blog post.

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Go to the profile of Paul Woods
about 6 years ago

I wanted to develop your point (2)... it is very good to learn new skills, for sure, and it is useful that when you're looking to transition to a new position, you look for ways to develop yourself, not just do the same thing you've already been doing... in terms of skills and knowledge base. But I would advise against jumping to a completely different field, as I did. This can certainly develop you, as a person and a scientist, but it is not necessarily good for an academic career, where you really need to establish your expertise in a certain topic. So yes, look for opportunities to learn new things when you move jobs, but don't make a huge leap into a completely different topic (unless you're unhappy with your current topic, of course!).