• September 1, 2015

Making the Most of Your Postdoc

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Postdoctoral positions are a common, and often necessary, interlude between graduate study and tenure-track life. The experiences and training gained from a postdoc can shape the rest of your career. Yet it can be challenging to find out even the most basic information about such opportunities.

As postdoctoral fellows in a federal research center, we would like to share some of the resources we have found useful as well as offer advice that may help you make the most of your postdoctoral experience.

Not just a research job. No two postdocs are alike since they vary by time frame, scientific field, location, goals, and expectations, among other factors. However, one aspect common to all fields is that a postdoc is not just a research position; it's an opportunity to develop and enhance your technical skills and your career prospects. Knowing what you want to achieve during your postdoc—and clarifying your advisor's expectations as well as your own—is a key first step.

Make a plan. Early in your postdoc, discuss, prioritize, and write down the goals that both you and your advisor hope you will accomplish. That includes research goals, such as the number of publications you hope to write or co-write, and other professional goals, such as teaching experience, organizing a symposium or workshop, writing a review paper, or improving your grant-writing skills. Make sure your plan takes into account your personal and family responsibilities.

Get a head start. The key to a productive postdoc is often a quick start. Using available data sets and collaborating on existing research can be a good way to boost your publication record while waiting for your own new data. That can also be a good time to write meta-analyses and literature reviews. Your advisor is likely to have valuable advice on those processes. You might also consider developing side projects that are extensions of your research and capitalize on resources available at your institution.

Preliminary data are essential to attract money for your research proposals, and we recommend writing your own grant proposals. Tailor them to the specific goals of the grant agency. If you can obtain a grant that would travel with you to your next job, then you are well on your way to landing that job.

Take advantage of professional-development opportunities. University and government institutions often provide subsidized workshops and seminars for improving technical and communication skills. But other programs are available, too. Make yourself known to your grants offices and library. Networks like the National Postdoctoral Association hold annual meetings that offer both information and contacts. Travel grants are available to help you attend the NPA conference (see www.nationalpostdoc.org).

You can improve your teaching skills through programs such as the Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching, which focuses on improving undergraduate biology education. Direct teaching experience in a local college, university, or community college is also valuable. Many adjunct positions are available that allow you to organize and teach a complete course, not just a lab section or a guest lecture. Often these positions are advertised in e-mail discussion groups; for example, a major group for people in environmental science and ecology is Ecolog-L. Ask colleagues in your department or laboratory which online groups you should participate in to hear about potential training opportunities.

Find a mentor. It should be someone you respect, regardless of their field or position, and someone with whom you meet on a semiregular basis for advice and support. It doesn't have to be a formal arrangement, although you may receive more attention if you request your mentor's active involvement. Voicing your ideas, achievements, and worries with someone else can provide valuable insight about your career progress and can help you alleviate self-doubt, which is not uncommon among postdocs. If you don't have a mentor in mind, try using a national program called MentorNet (www.mentornet.net), which helps link graduate students, postdocs, and professionals. You might also consider becoming a mentor for a rising graduate student.

Two brains are better than one. Postdocs are a great time to begin collaborations that could last a lifetime. Talk to people around you, including peers and other principal investigators, and not just those in your lab. Find areas of common interest that could develop into proposals and projects.

Attend conferences as much as possible. Besides giving you a chance to show off your research, the social opportunities are key to building your network. Those connections could lead to research collaborations, job openings, or valuable friendships that you will treasure throughout your career. After all, nobody knows what you're going through better than other postdocs.

Go international. Overseas experience is a fantastic way to discover how science works in other countries and cultures, and to appreciate how the focus of science may vary depending on the issues that different countries face. Since moving overseas can be challenging, it is worth investigating whether fellowships offer assistance with relocation expenses and visa troubles. People at your host institution may be willing to help you settle in.

Network online as much as possible. Hiring committees usually search the Web for information about potential candidates. It's imperative that you take time to create a professional-looking Web site with information about your research, teaching, and publications. While most universities will offer you space for a Web site, you may acquire one on your own.

Check first with your institution's IT office. Most will have software and other resources to assist in the creation of a Web site. In addition, there are many free templates released under the Creative Commons license (see, for example, freeCSStemplates.org) to help you design an appropriate Web site.

You might also consider opportunities for making your research available to the public, such as setting up your own blog and taking advantage of online networks such as LinkedIn that may help you locate a job or collaborator.

Think carefully, however, about how you use social-networking media (Facebook and the like), where the information you post may be more public than you realize.

Learn how the hiring game works. If your goal is to obtain a tenure-track position, you need to know the basics: how to find those positions, how to be a competitive candidate, how to prepare a CV, and how to conduct yourself in an interview. Asking other postdocs and your advisor for advice is a useful first step.

Spend time personalizing your application for each institution you apply to. That takes time but is necessary for a successful search. Subscribing to job networks and forums is a good way to keep an eye on the market throughout your postdoc.

Alternately, you may decide that academe is not for you, in which case you will need to broaden your job search. During your postdoc, be on the lookout for other nonacademic opportunities that interest you in government or the private sector. Consider applying for fellowships that allow you to explore nonacademic career options.

Timing is also important, since there may be seasonal employment periods, and some positions (such as government graduate and fellowship positions) can take months to secure.

Balancing work and life. Postdoctoral positions are often undertaken by people in the process of starting families and planning their futures after years of study. Before you accept a postdoc, we recommend you ask questions about benefits included in the position and about any policies related to parental leave. The National Postdoctoral Association Web site provides suggested policies as a useful starting point. Postdocs typically involve long hours. Set boundaries between your professional and personal life (as hard as that can be to do), and develop habits to improve your efficiency, enabling you to spend quality time with family and friends.

Have a life! It's important to have at least one hobby or outside pursuit that you do just for yourself, to keep you motivated and refreshed. Particularly as the length of time spent in postdoctoral positions increases, it is important to keep a healthy work-life balance.

Good luck and enjoy the journey.

Zoe Smith and Ariana Sutton-Grier are postdoctoral fellows at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland.


1. raymond_j_ritchie - July 19, 2010 at 12:10 am

Most of what Zoe & Ariana say is sound advice. I was a post-doc in Scotland, USA (twice), Canada and Australia. The mistake I made in my career was that I was a post-doc too long. One should draw a line somewhere. I think two post-docs are enough. If you cannot get a reasonable real job from 2 post-docs you probably never will and there is no point in taking up a third.

They seem to be off-planet on some things. I was never offered any kind of relocation expenses. Never heard of such a thing being given to anyone except those on prestigious (but poorly paid) fellowships. I had to pay my own airfares and expenses to Europe and North America. My married colleagues found that often they had to cut their post-docs short in Canada and the US simply because their spouses could not work and they were not paid enough to feed two people.

International experience is important. Few Australians imagine they will get anywhere without international experience but I was astonished that North American graduate students and post-docs seemed to be mystified why they should go overseas for a while. Americans really should get out more. I speak only English but that has never been a professional problem for me however, it is important to discover that English-speaking countries have less in common than is generally realised.

Being a post-doc in a foreign country can be a lonely existence. You are living out of a suitcase and you are quickly told you are an itinerant if you want to do something radical like borrow money to buy a decent car. Having a post-doc in a country generally is little help to you if you want to try to immigrate. It can serve as an opportunity to look a country over beforehand. I foolishly tried to immigrate to Canada in 1990 - they were quite unimpressed with my Australian PhD in Plant Science and I was rejected on the grounds that my skills "were of limited value to the Canadian economy". Just as well, because I found I did not like living there and probably would not have moved there permanently after my experience of the place.

Standards of treatment vary greatly. Never stay on in a place you do not like. Always have enough cash to be able to resign and leave on two-weeks notice.

2. translogistique - July 20, 2010 at 02:59 am

Thanks to the financial generosity of the GUST president, Dr Mohammed Al Muhailan,in 2007 who offered me the chance to do my summer fellowship at the University of Missouri, St Louis (UMSL).

I gained valuable research insight in the Centre of Transportation Studies that provided me enough resources John Barringer library that became my home for a period of 3 weeks to do the work and network with colleagues on the campus during the short stint. I completed my work on Intermodal Transportation: Adapting Technology and System to the policy makers in Kuwait and GCC

It was a very successful experience as I was able to establish i-FUN ( Intelligent Friends in the University Network)that culminated my experince at GUST in Kuwait (2009).

More on this at http://ca.linkedin.com/in/aburishi

The experience and recommendations ofthe authors (Zoe Smith and Ariana Sutton-Grier)in this article has stimulated my thinkig now in different directions of research in Canada.

3. physicsprof - July 21, 2010 at 10:40 am

Lots of good advice in the article, but everything listed is secondary. May be the most important things are obvious, but it is still worth listing them explicitly.

1) Work like there is no tomorrow if you are interested in that "tenure-track life", especially in the fields competitive enough (are there any unlike that nowadays?). Remember you are not working for your adviser, you are working for yourself. The advice to set "research goals, such as the number of publications you hope to write or co-write" is not the best one. First of all any serious adviser will simply smile back and say that it depends on how well you work and how hard you party for the next couple of years. Second, what if you exceed your plans? You'll be tempted to take a rest instead of pushing even harder for that finish line.
2) Try to establish your OWN research effort. Even if it is of lesser quality and quantity than your supervised one you will need to stand apart from other candidates. You will want to appear a research leader in the making. Believe me, so few faculty candidates look like ones.
3) Be ambitious. If you work 9-5, there is really no chance for a good career unless you have brains of Witten or Feynman (and the chances are if you do you'll be working long hours because you enjoy it anyway). Too many postdocs are becoming complacent after initial success and slack of.

The bottomline: work hard, if it feels comfortable you are not doing it right.

4. raymond_j_ritchie - July 22, 2010 at 05:38 am

Dear Physicsprof,
I do not disagree with you but there are some important caveats to what you say;
(a) It is important to realise that you can work very hard, do good work and do all the right things and still never be able to get a decent job or career in the sciences. There is a substantial amount of sheer dumb luck. A young hot-shot post-doc may not understand that.
(b) The career structure in the sciences is poor. Any mug student knows that. That is why you see so few american-born PhD students and post-docs in the labs in the US. You see the same phenomenon in British, Canadian and Australian labs. I fear for the future.
(c) Working harder does not necessarily eliminate problems #a and #b. Remember what happened to the hard-working old horse in Orwell's Animal Farm. He voluntarily worked himself very hard but when he eventually weakened he was immediately sent to the knackery.
(d) Decades of dependence on foreign PhD students and post-docs has bred some very bad attitudes. There is no reason to treat them well because they can be instantly replaced. Many foreigners working in labs are treated as completely disposable labor like a kitchen hand in a restaurant. I often did not like what I heard and saw in Nth American labs. Left a very bad taste in my mouth.
(e) I am old enough to remember academics who treated their Honours students, PhD students and Post-docs as young colleagues who would one day have their job. I think that time has passed.
(f) If you are not a citizen or a permanent resident of the country where you are working you usually cannot apply for their grants. That is a real drawback to working as a post-doc overseas.
(g) Then there are all the non-merit items: citizenship, sex, race, children, age etc.

5. blueconcrete - July 22, 2010 at 09:27 pm

@2 translogistique,

Your attempt to hijack the conversation and promote your CV was noticed, but not for the reasons you intended.

6. tigerbear - July 23, 2010 at 12:03 am

I thought this was really good advice. Looking back, I didn't follow a lot of it, and I didn't have a successful postdoc.

The advice about making a plan with your advisor at the start seems very good to me. It's not so much that you need a plan, and you certainly don't have to stick to it or hold yourself back like Physicsprof says. But it's good to say these things out loud with your advisor to make sure you're on the same page.

Personally my postdoctoral advisor was really busy when I arrived at my (overseas) postdoc, and we didn't even meet for the first few months, which became the pattern. At the beginning worked really hard on my research, and I think in hindsight I didn't concentrate enough on settling in and getting to know people around me. Before I knew it, I was terribly lonely and miserable, and a long way away from my partner, my family and my friends. I think I became depressed - I certainly showed most of the symptoms - and this affected my work. As a foreigner I found it really hard to get support for this. After that I recommend choosing working at a university over an institute, because universities usually have better infrastructural support.

My postdoctoral employer paid for my relocation expenses.

7. physicsprof - July 23, 2010 at 02:08 pm

Re: raymond_j_ritchie (#4):
I am not discussing nor validating the current academic system, it is tough, and the success is never guaranteed (concerning your a) and is a function of one's resilience (with regards to your pp. b-g) as well as personality (it often helps to be thick-skinned). But certain things help to shift the odds in your favor.

Re: tigerbear (#6):
Never did I say that goal-setting is bad. When smart it is good ("I want to solve this problem no matter what it takes and then I'll tacke that one") while some other goal-setting (advised in the article) is outright silly ("I want to write X number of papers").

8. physicsprof - July 23, 2010 at 02:09 pm

tacke = tackle

9. gahnett - July 25, 2010 at 02:26 pm

I have found that there are different types of mentors: those who think like poster #3 and those who are like #4. Where you fit in as a postdoc depends on who you are, how much you're aware and why you're doing what you're doing.

People go through life thinking that as long as they work hard, they'll get the next thing. That's kind of true, unless you're just really bad at something.

I agree with those who say that whichever experience you choose, make sure to be clear about stuff before you begin. It prevents a lot of headaches later.

10. pbalan112 - July 26, 2010 at 11:10 pm

I found this articke to be quite useful. Thanks to the author!

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