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Surviving as a Postdoc

For many of us, the postdoc period coincides with the stage of life when we are becoming real grown-ups. We may be paying mortgages and balancing the demands of partners and new families. At the same time, we are working to build our careers and establish academic independence, pouring an enormous amount of dedication and hard work into publications, grant proposals, scientific presentations, and teaching duties. Coupled with this is the uncertainty of not knowing how long our jobs will last, because the majority of us are employed on “soft money” as we await the fulfillment of the remote dream of a permanent faculty job.

This cauldron of pressures leads us to become superb jugglers, but it can also make us feel like we're giving neither our families nor our work responsibilities the attention they deserve. I write this piece to share my experience and to offer tips on how to make it through this early phase of a research career.

During all these work and life transitions, I have found that to be a happy scientist, one needs a level of satisfaction both at work and at home.

—Charmaine Tam

Maintain optimism and enthusiasm

I started my research career by doing a Ph.D. in a children's hospital in the western suburbs of my native Sydney. A very encouraging supervisor and a supportive and fun group of colleagues made my first taste of research very positive. I had a few good publications by the time I finished my Ph.D.

Still, it was during this time that I had my first research-related disappointments. My naïve enthusiasm and grand ideas faded as I realized that our group didn't have the lab space, let alone the funding, to carry out my desired experiments. I spent many hours laboring over papers and grant applications only to see them rejected. My first Ph.D. paper was rejected five times before it was finally accepted. I applied for a travel scholarship 3 years in a row and was on the verge of giving up when I got it the third time.

Such elation and disappointment seem even more pronounced during our postdoc years. As we attempt to transition toward independence, accepted grants and publications become the benchmarks of our success. Conversations with well-established researchers have helped me realize that how we respond to disappointments largely underpins success. We must maintain an optimistic view, even in the face of painful setbacks. We need to remind ourselves often of how far we've come as scientists and celebrate achievements as they come, no matter how small, and to let rejections go.

Charmaine Tam

Charmaine Tam

CREDIT: Pennington Biomedical Research Center/Charmaine Tam

Collaborate and network

Being short of funds and lab space during my Ph.D. taught me how to be resourceful and to seek out collaborators, which are vital in research. I learned to prioritize the time and energy that goes into finding and developing good collaborations. I have found having a network to be very important for developing my research career and a competitive track record. I have also found that the bigger and more diverse the team, the more creative the collaboration and the greater the exchange of new ideas.

Seek support and be resourceful

Some of my colleagues and collaborators have become trusted mentors from whom I seek advice and with whom I stay in contact. They encourage me on my research journey, celebrating successes with me and helping me deal with disappointments. I know they have my personal and professional interests at heart. If you don't have a trusted colleague or mentor, find one who can understand and support your aspirations.

Sometimes people outside your research group have the best insights into your research ideas and career plans, and they can give the best advice. Early-career workshops and forums, and publications like Science Careers, can offer practical advice on career advancement. At universities and research institutes, social networking Web sites have emerged that are aimed at meeting the needs of postdocs. Grassroots organizations like the U.S. National Postdoctoral Association maintain online forums and offer great resources and strategic advice.

Surround yourself with like-minded people

Our peers are going through the same process that we are going through. We should try and minimize feelings of competition and be confident in our own abilities. I find it deflating and counterproductive to dwell on the fact that competing researchers are applying for the same limited government funding that I am. Maintaining a collegial and collaborative mindset, and surrounding myself with motivating and enthusiastic colleagues, reminds me why I work in research in the first place and keeps me from getting bogged down in the negative. The success of other researchers advances the field and makes it more exciting. It generates more interest and funding in the field, ultimately making it easier to receive support and publish.

Be flexible with your expectations

There is enormous pressure for us to go overseas, or at least to another state to gain experience in other labs. But this is not always possible for many reasons: children, finances, partners, personal responsibilities, or just because we don't want to. I have worked overseas twice in my career. I went to Paris for 6 months during my Ph.D. Later, I took a 2-year postdoc in the United States. The first time was easy, as I was single and excited to travel.

The second time was harder because I had just gotten married and my husband, who was building his own career, had to compromise. At an international meeting, I met a preeminent researcher in my field. He offered me a dream postdoc in one of the best labs in the world. I hoped that this one position would get me through the postdoc stage so that I could move on to the next stage: finding a permanent position and starting a family.

We uprooted our lives, and my postdoc exceeded all of my scientific expectations. But my husband, who had put his career on hold, felt miserable. My academic life was hugely fulfilling but I was living in a perpetual state of guilt and conflict. After 2 years in the United States, I applied for—and received—a competitive fellowship that brought us back to Sydney.

In moving back home, I had to expand my research focus. I employed the skills that I had learned to develop new and diverse collaborations and initiate novel research projects while remaining on a trajectory toward my long-term research and career goals. Importantly, my family life was much more harmonious.

During all these work and life transitions, I have found that to be a happy scientist, one needs a level of satisfaction both at work and at home. It's important to constantly reassess your personal and academic expectations, being flexible on both. Ask yourself what new areas your research skills could fit, and expand your research horizons.

Remember your happiness

Whether your goal is to be an internationally recognized leader in your field, a parent running a small lab, or a financially secure company employee, you are in charge of your own research life and should feel happy and satisfied with the choices you've made. I will always prioritize family happiness and work-life balance over career goals. This is my choice, and I know this decision will likely be reflected in my track record. All the same, I genuinely love research and my current dream is to lead my own small laboratory, doing research that makes a meaningful difference in the treatment of human disease and providing junior scientists the support they need to fulfill their aspirations. I remain optimistic about the possibility of having it all.

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