The postdoc situation is tough right now. Hours are long, salaries are low, and the faculty job market is tight. But it’s also a valuable time to develop independence, branch out from your Ph.D. research field, and pick up new skills and expertise. For this year’s National Postdoc Appreciation Week, senior postdocs and early-career professors reflect on their postdoctoral experiences and offer advice about how to get the most out of this crucial transitional period. Their accounts have been edited for brevity and clarity.
For my postdoc, I made the somewhat scary transition from chemical engineering to the basic sciences. In the first few months, I was simply overwhelmed and frustrated with my lack of progress. Suddenly, I had gone from being a super-productive graduate student with seven publications to someone who didn’t know where the pipettes were stored! Cultural differences between engineering and biology emerged, too. My Ph.D. lab consisted mostly of graduate students; my postdoc lab was made up of fellow postdocs who were far more accomplished than I was. I met with my Ph.D. adviser nearly every week; I chatted with my postdoc adviser perhaps five or six times total over 3 years. But my mentor afforded me almost limitless freedom to explore my ideas, and alongside this cohort of talented labmates, I learned to think about biology at a depth that I never had before.
I took advantage of my freedom to write fellowship applications. One of these enabled me to travel to the United Kingdom to strike up a collaboration with an expert scientist to learn how to cultivate anaerobic gut fungi. That skill set opened the way for a whole new area of science that I had not considered: engineering “non-model” microbes for applications in synthetic biology, chemical production, and natural product discovery. At the end of 2 years, I had developed these ideas to the point where I was ready to apply for tenure-track positions.
My advice is to look for labs that take you out of your comfort zone. Learn new skills that will make you uniquely poised to work on an important problem. Sometimes this means working with a younger principal investigator (PI) without a proven track record, and that’s OK. Also, embrace your independence. Think of this as a time to develop ideas. Write fellowship proposals and talk with others about them. Network with your fellow labmates and other PIs—they could be your collaborators one day! As much as possible, try to be fearless, and don’t be afraid to straddle the lines between disciplines. That’s where all the good problems are that need solving.
Initially, I did a postdoc because I thought it would be a good way to transition into a more applied field of study compared to what I worked on as a Ph.D. student. I was also eager to get a few more papers under my belt before my next career step. I ended up completing two different postdoc experiences, one through Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and the other at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Both were really valuable in terms of learning new techniques and instruments, getting practice writing proposals, and learning how to multitask between several projects happening at once.
But what I found most valuable was the experience managing a small research team. As a graduate student, I was working mostly independently on my research, and although I actively collaborated with several people both within and outside the university, my work and progress were not dependent on their contributions. As a postdoc, though, I had to monitor the research output from all the team members, integrate them with my own results, and manage various resources in the lab to make sure we hit all our deadlines and milestones. In the same way, this was also probably my greatest challenge as a postdoc. It was also really great practice for being a PI!
My advice is to pay attention to opportunities to learn “non-bench” skills needed for the next part of your career. Have conversations with PIs or other lead scientists about strategies for managing group dynamics or fiscal matters, and definitely take every opportunity to lead proposal writing efforts. As you progress in your career, your non-bench skills become an increasingly important part of your professional responsibilities.
I saw the postdoc as an important step in developing into an independent scientist. The idea was to join a group with diverse research projects so that I could be immersed in as many topics as possible while building a foundation in one, which was polymer chemistry for me. I started with a mindset of using my postdoctoral training as a springboard into industry. But learning so much about polymer chemistry and growing to appreciate what a fertile ground this field is, I completely changed my career goals and decided to go into academia.
This transition stemmed from the fact that not only was I exposed to so many collaborative projects, which were a lot of fun, but I was also in a healthy, fun, functional research group where our adviser created such a positive environment that I wanted to continue working like that. My adviser focused a lot on personal development, and that's the approach that I want to mimic.
The highlight of my postdoc, oddly enough, was group meetings. I looked forward to those Friday afternoons because the meetings were conducted in a very relaxed and welcoming way that triggered great discussions. That's also where all group members got together and we all saw each other. It was so unifying that it bred a stimulating environment, and I learned a lot from everyone's diverse projects.
Learning how to navigate working with so many people who have very different personalities was a challenge. But again, that's something that I really valued as well. We spent so much time with each other in the lab that we all needed to learn how to deal with each other in a professional way when differences arose. At the same time, many close friendships were born out of those same interactions. Keep an open mind about working with people who are different than you. This will be extremely beneficial in your independent career.
A month into my postdoc, I delivered my first presentation to the group. Although most of the presentation covered my graduate work, I was nervous because I had included a 10-minute pitch for a new project. My adviser supports new research directions and encourages postdocs to be independent. Still, I wondered what the group would think of my project. Would it fit with other research in the group? Would they find my approach creative, static, or aimless?
After my presentation, the group asked questions—a lot of questions. But as I answered them, I first felt a sense of relief and then genuine excitement. Maybe I hadn’t thought of everything, but I had vetted the idea enough to lead a meaningful scientific discussion. Even more encouraging, people contributed suggestions and their technical expertise. My self-doubt abated, allowing me to focus on solving the problem at hand.
This moment crystallized a grain of confidence in myself as an independent researcher. Over time, my postdoc experience added to this confidence. It carried me forward to a position as a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, and it carried me further through a round of faculty interviews, which was ultimately successful. I will be starting as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin in July 2017.
Although I originally pursued a postdoc to diversify my science, perhaps more valuable was a supportive environment in which to take the risks necessary to develop confidence in my own ideas. I would encourage new postdocs and grad students to constantly seek out feedback on their ideas. This can be done in many ways: giving oral presentations, writing postdoc fellowships, assisting with grant proposals, or starting new collaborations. You never know where you will find the most helpful suggestions or inspirations!
I have known that I want to be a professor since early in my graduate studies, so I’ve been working hard to prepare myself for a career at a research-intensive university. I started attending seminars and workshops on the faculty job application process during my first year as a postdoc so that I could learn more about the skills and experiences I would need to be a successful candidate. I also audited courses to improve my subject area expertise and participated in various outreach activities. Over the past few years, my project leader has also given me more opportunities to participate in the administrative side of our lab, and that has helped me develop skills that are essential for a project leader.
I don’t have a singular “aha” moment in my postdoc career that has absolutely confirmed for me that I’m on the right career path. Rather, I still love what I’m doing (even after 5-plus years!) and am ready and eager to take the next career step. I recently had my major postdoc project published in a high-profile journal, and instead of just sitting back and relaxing, I’ve been enthusiastically (and almost compulsively) finding new things to do—working on other projects that had been sidelined, writing up other papers, developing new research projects, and more.
My time as a postdoc hasn’t been easy. I’ve had lots of long days (and nights) in the lab doing experiments or at my desk writing. My multitasking ability has grown by leaps and bounds (out of necessity), and there have been several times that my work-life balance has almost completely fallen apart. But, I have appreciated the opportunities that my position has afforded me, and I look forward to my remaining time.
For new postdocs, I recommend establishing an open and honest communication with your adviser early on. If you discuss what you’d like to accomplish during your postdoc and how that will help you advance toward your career goals, your adviser can help you develop skills and find opportunities. I’ve witnessed many senior postdocs struggle with what to do after their postdoc ends, mostly because they didn’t plan ahead, so be proactive and communicative!
*Correction, 20 September, 12:30 p.m.: This article has been corrected to clarify that Sarah Hind works at the Boyce Thompson Institute, which is affiliated with Cornell University