From trainee scientist to paid employee. It's what every PhD student is aiming for. But letters after your name and a pay slip aren't enough to see you through to retirement. If you want your career to develop there's still more to learn and new skills to acquire. So, Phil Dee continues his dispatches from the lab in a new series, sharing his experiences of the real world of work with other new (and wannabe) postdocs.
My thesis is all but finished (no, really, it is ...). My first paper has been accepted for publication. Even more incredibly, I have a new job and a new source of income in the bag. To think that I've gone from ham-fisted lab wrecker to competent, employable scientist in 3 years flat! But since it was 'job-o-phobia' that prompted most of us to opt for a PhD in the first place (wasn't it?), the prospect of getting a job--knuckling down to a proper career and all that--can be even more frightening than that looming viva.
The trouble is, you need to invest an enormous amount of time and effort thinking seriously about your next step, which can be difficult whilst you are still going flat out on your PhD. However, I found that the thought of a real pay slip was enough to concentrate my mind.
I began thinking about my first research job at the end of the second year of my PhD. I started by 'cold-mailing' a few project leaders to see what projects they might have in the pipeline. I just sent them a one-paragraph e-mail, selling, but not overselling, myself. This approach resulted in a range of responses: 'Contact me again in a few months' time'; 'Can you send me your CV?'; 'You might like to apply for this job I'm advertising in September'; and, best of all, 'Perhaps you'd like to come and visit my lab'. OK, so they were far from offers of formal interviews, but what did I expect at this stage? Only time would tell whether these first contacts might lead to something more concrete later on. At least I'd got in early and hopefully made a positive impression.
But as it turned out, my job didn't result from one of those ads in the scientific press. I was fortunate enough to secure my first job without ever having an interview. I created it myself.
If this strikes you as unlikely, let me explain how I did it, and try to convince you that you too can have a crack at controlling your own fate.
Step one: I had a really good idea for a project. To be honest, I just got lucky. You see, I heard about an exciting new result at a conference. The lucky bit is that I was at that particular session at all, and that I was paying attention at the crucial moment! Immediately I recognised that this finding had enormous implications for my own future research. I guess this is the 1% inspiration dear old Edison referred to. Like surfing, science is all about catching the big wave at the right time. I think someone was looking after me that day.
Step two: No funding body would give the money directly to me, more's the pity, so I had to find myself a potential project leader. I had already decided to move on from my current lab after my PhD. My PhD advisor and I got on OK, but I didn't like the thought of another 3-year stint with them, that's all. It was nothing personal you understand. Earlier on, I was lucky enough to meet an excellent alternative boss when visiting another university. If only I could find a way to work with him! Gingerly, I sent off a short e-mail stating my idea in a nutshell and suggesting that we co-write a grant application. Fortunately, my cheekiness paid off ... He loved the idea and thought it would stand a fair chance of being funded. A couple of weeks later we had a face-to-face meeting to hammer out the details of the proposal. He added lots of his own ideas. I didn't mind this at all--I knew I needed his input and streetwise approach if this grant was going to stand a chance of being funded.
Step three: We decided to apply for funding from three very different sources. We knew that two of these applications were long shots. It was the third, most likely source, that in the end provided the funding. As it turned out, there weren't many other sources we could have tried for but we never got around to writing more than three. This wasn't just a case of making life easy on ourselves. We also knew that it's an unwritten 'no-no' to submit endless applications for exactly the same project.
However, writing to three different funders meant tailoring what we proposed to suit each different readership. I wrote the bulk of the two long-shot grants myself, with my would-be boss doing the polishing and approval bit. He then wrote most of the third proposal based largely on the other two. As any project leader will confirm, writing good fundable grant applications takes a lot of attention to detail ... and a lot of time. Writing my first grant proposal was like nothing I'd ever written before. I had to pin down specific, achievable aims and objectives and estimate how long it was going to take me to complete each stage. I had to show that this project was all but guaranteed to make a significant new contribution to knowledge and that the work done would meet international standards. To make matters worse, all three of the application forms had different formats and different requirements!
If I thought that writing the proposals was difficult, waiting for the response once they were submitted was even worse. The waiting lasted for months and was utterly interminable. I just tried to throw myself into my remaining research and forget about the applications. When the first two rejection letters eventually arrived I got a little depressed. I knew that each application had taken the best part of two whole weeks out of my PhD. We weren't even short-listed. Now I know that these letters are a fairly frequent occurrence for university lecturers. But whereas these guys already have a job, I felt that my whole future was resting on the outcome of my one remaining application. It didn't look good. I started to think a lot about the earlier groundwork I'd done. At the time I was really glad I at least had the sniff of a fallback position. I kept on nurturing my other contacts right up until the final verdict.
Step four: In the end all the effort paid off--we were funded! I found it a scary and humbling experience to realise that my initial idea had been funded to the tune of ... well, a lot of money. And it was a wonderful feeling of relief to know that I had a job in the bag before I'd even started writing my thesis. What an incentive to crack on during the few remaining months and finish it off! So many people had already warned me about the dangers of writing up whilst working.
Having read about the amount of work involved, you may feel that you'd rather give all this a miss and wait for the job adverts. After all, at least that way you know they've got the money to hire you ... all you have to do is compete for the job. But for those of you who feel a little reckless and foolhardy, I'd urge you to give the grant-writing thing a go. Regardless of what doom-and-gloom stories you might hear, there is money out there to be won, even by would-be postdocs!