Saturday, August 1, 2015

How to be a Postdoc.

I just participated in a career mentoring session at a scientific conference: Stickleback 2015 organized by Mike Bell. Many of the questions were related to the transition between graduate school and a career – essentially encompassing the postdoc period. I found myself saying a lot of things that I had intended to put in my next “How To …” post on postdocs (earlier posts are listed at the end). So, right after the session ended, I went off to a coffee shop to bang out a first draft.

An important point at the outset – as in my previous “How To …” posts – is that the suggestions I give aren’t universal truths. The reality is that postdoctoral positions and the gains derived from them will vary among countries, universities, disciplines, PIs, and the postdocs themselves. I will try to note some of these distinctions but I am sure I will forget some – please let me know what I have missed. Also, the postdoc you choose and the way in which you implement it should depend on your career goals and thus the types of skills, expertise, and experience that you need. For instance, such decisions depend on whether you want to pursue a career in government, the private sector, or various types of universities (primary undergraduate, research intensive, etc.). And, of course, your career path might not benefit much from a postdoc anyway.
Many career routes are possible: From

Postdoctoral positions are often the most rewarding, creative, and productive time of your career. You don’t have any of the limitations and constraints of a graduate student: you are already experienced and knowledgeable in research and you don’t have the same annoying and time-consuming non-research requirements (qualifying exams, classes, etc.). At the same time, you don’t have any of the non-research responsibilities (committees, committees, committees) of a faculty member. Now is the time when you can fully (or mostly) dedicate yourself to research and let your creativity and originality have (almost) free reign. Thus, a first important rule is POSTDOC AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. Never again can you be so free, so creative, and so inspired. Of course, there are exceptions when the postdoctoral position or project is very restrictive or just not very fun or you are very stressed about the future (but you needn’t be – as I will explain in a later post on “How to Get a Faculty Position”). Moreover, at some point, it might look bad to have been a postdoc for too long, perhaps somewhere around 6 years - depending on the discipline. Yet, I think that most faculty look back on their postdocs as a truly formative and fun time of their career. So let’s get to it.

Long postdoc periods are common: From

How to get a postdoc

The first necessity is usually money – one can rarely do a postdoc without decent funding for salary and for research. Funding options fall into several categories: competitive external fellowships, institutional/programmatic postdocs, and targeted project-based postdocs. (In writing these options out, I realize that I did one of each of them.) External postdoctoral fellowships (mine was from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada – NSERC) are typically the most flexible, giving you the maximum range of options because it is less likely to tie you in advance to a specific university, lab, or project. Moreover, the PI should allow you more flexibility because they are not paying your salary out of their grant – and for the same reason, they might have more money to contribute to the research. So, it is a great idea to apply for these fellowships – frequently and widely. Institutional/programmatic postdoctoral positions are less common but often quite rewarding – mine was the “Darwin Fellowship” at UMASS Amherst – because you are often expected to take on a leadership role (sometimes with a bit of teaching) that begins to prepare you to be a faculty member. They can be great for building a range of collaborations and projects and for establishing a large network of colleagues. Project-based postdocs (mine was on Darwin’s finches with Jeff Podos at UMASS Amherst) are probably the most common option, especially in the U.S. These are usually advertised by the PI with whom you interview. The PI then funds your salary to do a particular project set out in advance. One advantage here is that the project is usually associated with a brand-new grant for which they have lots of money to spend. A limitation is the lack of flexibility and dependence on the PI funding you.


How to choose a postdoc

People often choose graduate schools largely for personal reasons – proximity to family, good weather, good skiing, good music, good surfing, etc. Although these considerations can also play into picking a postdoc position, they are more likely to be subsumed by decisions made with an eye to career advancement. That is, people typically want their postdoc to help them take their research to the next level and – in essence – get them the best possible job. So how does one make the choice of postdoctoral position beyond the first concern of making sure that some money is available? Several strategies are possible. All of them can work but they present different opportunities and risks.

Work with a famous PI. Famous PIs tend to be famous for a good reason – they do good work and the people in their labs are usually successful. If you can get into one of these labs, then you are likely to have good funds, good projects, and good career prospects owing to your good work, your “success by association,” and the contacts you will get. Of course, these positions can be hard to obtain because famous PIs usually have a lot of applicants and can afford to be picky. In addition, not all famous PIs are good supervisors or good for the careers of their postdocs – so you need to do your homework on how well the former postdocs in the lab have done. But, in the case of “good” famous PIs, this is probably the best route to career advancement. You will have to make sure you can demonstrate that your success is not simply a function of the famous PI, however – you have to be a good independent scientist (more on this point below).

Work with a cool system. Many graduate students work on study systems that lack key resources – such as annotated genomes, experimental manipulability, or good ecological background knowledge. These students are often so annoyed by such limitations that they choose to do their postdoc work with a better-developed “model system” – threespine stickleback! This can be a great way to conduct more sophisticated and advanced research, but it can also be difficult to establish an identity for yourself in a crowded research area with many researcher that are already well-established. One can also run afoul of the problem of having to stay on the cutting edge of research methodologies, which are expensive and often difficult to develop. In essence: you might be a big fish, but in a pond full of much bigger fish you will still look small.

Work with a fun lab. Some labs have all the fun. They are exciting (cool projects even if they aren’t publishing a lot in those weekly periodicals), dynamic (numerous energetic people, invigorating weekly lab meetings), and fun (they party hard at conferences, have heated but respectful debates, have fun retreats, and the like). These labs are always great to be a part of but sometimes aren’t the best way to career advancement (although they can be).

Follow your muse. Sometimes you just have your own ideas and you really want to pursue them: a novel study system, a novel method, a bizarre question. In this case, you need to pitch your
 idea to as many people as possible to find one who will let you forge your own way in their lab. This is generally a high-risk but potentially high-reward route. That is, you are less likely to publish a lot in fancy journals, but you also have the potential to do something creative and new that is totally yours and that can really change the way we think about the world or do science. That is, you can end up being by far the biggest fish in a very cool pond that is newly discovered. And, even if that doesn’t happen, at least you know you went your own way and on your own merits. And, of course, if you succeed, then you are clearly independent, successful, motivated, passionate, and creative (see comments below).

Importantly, these are not mutually exclusive options. In fact, a famous PI working on a model system can have a fun lab with a lot of money in which they will let you follow your own muse. And those people are ………………………..

Use your postdoc to “finish” your PhD

As noted earlier, many people expect their postdoc to be what “puts them over the top” or “takes them to the next level.” This might well be the case but it is a delayed payoff. Instead, research during your current postdoc rarely will be what gets you your next position. The reason is that most postdoctoral positions are too short for you to have any publications from the work by the time you are applying for your next position. Thus, people who do only a single 2-year postdoc are going to be chosen for an interview based on the publication record from their PhD, not their postdoc. Certainly the promise of your postdoctoral work (how good the project looks on paper, who the supervisor is, some preliminary data) will help, especially during an interview, but you won’t have many (or, more commonly, any) publications from your postdoc by the time you are applying for your next position. Hence, it is critical to use your postdoctoral time to finish up work you had been doing previously: publish all those PhD chapters, continue those side projects you started, write that review paper you had been thinking about. (Although it might seem that your postdoc work will be so much better you’re your PhD work that it isn’t worth finishing up the earlier stuff, you need to resist the grass-is-greener syndrome.) These will be the things that get you your next position. Your current postdoc will be what gets you tenure!!!!!! (Note also that this can be harder in a project-based postdoc.)

Establish your identity

In the panel discussion that prompted me to finally write this post, almost all of the panelists forged their current career trajectories during their postdocs. In short, postdocs are when you really establish the sort of work you want to do, the questions you want to ask, the collaborations you want to develop, and – more generally – the type of scientist you want to be. In addition to this maturation of yourself as a scientist, establishing an identity is also important from a practical career-advancement perspective. For instance, job search committees often spend time debating whether or not an applicant’s publications really reflect their own abilities or whether they instead reflect the abilities of the supervisor. Thus, it is great if you can generate some first-authored papers that do not have a “silverback” author on them – and the same is true during your PhD. These publications help to confirm that you can drive a research agenda and do good work independently of established mentors. In addition, search committees will want to see that you have a long-term plan in mind. Thus, you want to establish a research plan that is integrated, comprehensive, creative, exciting, and cohesive (completely different projects are OK as long as you have a body of work – with or without side projects – that builds to a greater whole). Your postdoc is the time to do this - indeed it is also the time you have to write those “research plans” that search committees want to see, and the time you have to construct compelling and exciting hour-long seminars that show not only what you have done but what you plan to do and how it all (or at least a bunch of it) fits together into a reasonably cohesive research agenda.

Related to this, it is generally a good idea to switch labs – and ideally universities and even countries – between your PhD and your postdoc. Doing so helps with all of the above points – and, of course, it broads your perspectives and knowledge and helps you to see a given problem from multiple angles. Also, this switch is sometimes required by particular search committees, departments, universities, or even countries. However, it isn’t absolutely essential in all cases. For instance, sometimes you have started something amazing with your PhD that you can really take to the next level only by continuing on in the same lab where you already know what you are doing, you have the resources and support, and you can most easily take the next step. Staying in the same lab, or at least the same institution, is sometimes also important for personal reasons, such as family.

Build collaborations – but don’t get carried away

Continuing the above themes, one way to build an identity, show creativity and independence, explore new directions, and generally have a good time is to build collaborations. This statement holds true during graduate school but even more so during your postdoc: now is the time to seek links with labs employing sophisticated methodologies (various -omics!), with people having important skills (bioinformatics, theory, stats) or good ideas, with complementary systems (stickleback, guppies, and finches!), and so on. But you have to be careful. First, you will want to work with people you like personally – it can be miserable to be stuck in a project with someone you can’t stand (or, much more likely in my case, someone who can’t stand you). Second, you would ideally have some collaborative projects that will generate first-authored papers for you. First-authored papers are vastly more important for getting a job than are co-authored papers. It will not benefit your career if you accumulate a bunch of co-authored papers at the expense of first-authored papers. And collaborations take time – so don’t start them just because you think you should be collaborating more. Third – and related to the above points – you need to be a GOOD collaborator. For instance, you shouldn’t be the one who holds up the project; that builds bad blood and annoyance, and if you get a reputation as a bad collaborator that is very bad for your job prospects (word does get around!). Fourth, some of the best collaborations emerge organically or by chance, such as during late-night conversations over beer. Of course, you will likely also want to seek out collaborators with particular skills and contact them specifically about collaborations. Both approaches can work.

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With so many papers out there, you need to promote your work if it is to be noticed. From

Network, network, network

Collaborations are increasingly common: From
In the old days, maybe 50 years or so ago, so few journals existed in a given discipline that everyone in the field would read (or at least see) all of the same papers. This made further promotion of your work somewhat unnecessary. Now, however, so many journals are publishing so many papers that each scientist in a given discipline reads (or even sees) only a small fraction of the papers in that discipline. In this high-volume era, it is essential to further promote your work – especially as a postdoc hoping to get a permanent position. You need to get your work and yourself in front of as many people as possible and do your best to explain the importance and excitement of your work while acknowledging the importance of related work (especially that conducted by the person you are talking to). A key route to this networking is to attend scientific meetings in your field and give talks. Posters can work too, but at the postdoc stage you should be presenting orally as much as possible. Job interviews often hinge primarily on the research presentation, so you need to get practice. You might also “pre-impress” potential colleagues and employers who might be in the audience (word gets around here too). Also, try to attend social events at meetings and actively seek out and talk energetically to as many people as possible in your field. These sorts of interactions can make a difference in cases where search committees are debating among various candidates to interview.

Networking is hard for shy people who just won’t be comfortable becoming a social butterfly. However, it is great to try to interact as much as you can – it will almost always be rewarding. (And note that sometimes the bigwig you are talking too can be just as shy.) In addition, shy people can sometimes promote their work and careers remotely, such as through email and social media. More generally, social media is an effective means of promoting your work and yourself regardless of where you fall on the shy–bold continuum. Blogs (as long as they are good and regular) can raise your profile, and Twitter (or equivalent outlets) can get your name and papers and ideas to a wide audience within your specific field and within science more generally. Yet, in a day with limited minutes, doing your science can trade off with promoting your science. So it is worth asking yourself: just how many new Twitter followers would it take to make up for not publishing a first-authored paper. Many thousands certainly. In addition, a big social media profile is really only good for a career in academia if you can back it up with good science. (See the quirky paper on the Kardashian Index for scientists with a social media presence out of proportion to the influence of their actual research.)  

A strong social media presence should be backed up with a strong research record. From


A postdoc is a stepping-stone, and in life generally you don't step onto a stepping-stone without some picture of what the *next* stepping-stone will be, and perhaps the next one after that, and where the path overall is leading.  In other words, use your postdoc strategically; it should be crafted to connect you to the skills, the systems, the people, the institutions, etc., that will facilitate your future path.  The coolest, most fun, most interesting postdoc is not very useful if it is a stepping-stone in a direction that is not ultimately the direction in which you want to go.  Of course it's hard to know and plan at this level when you've just finished your PhD, but try.

*Written by Ben Haller who felt the post needed a conclusion. His suggested text was so good, I just put it in verbatim. Thanks also to the other panelists at the career mentoring session at Stickleback 2015: Katie Peichel, Matt Wund, Ionna Katsiadaki, Juha Merila, and Windsor Aguirre.

Previous "How to" posts

Links to other blog posts with advice for postdocs

Dynamic Ecology


The Professor Is In

The Trophic Link

I will add more as people suggest them


  1. Great advice. I would particularly echo the suggestion of changing labs (and better, countries) between postdoc stints. In search committees I've been part of, someone who stays a postdoc in the same lab for more than 2.5 years is viewed with some suspicion. People wonder if such a person is more of a technician than a postdoc, and they wonder if there's some reason other PIs aren't taking him or her on. They also wonder if such a person's skill set and perspective will be limited, or that they will be an intellectual clone of the PI. These suspicions may not be fair, but they exist. So: part of "how to be a postdoc" is how to stop being one postdoc, and start becoming a different one!

  2. Although a clone of a superstar might not be so bad ...

  3. Thanks for this really good compilation of tips, ideas and advices. While I can see that nomadic PostDocs wandering around the globe every two years will have certain benefits, as suggested by Stephen, I think that staying for longer at one location to develop your own research agenda has several benefits too. The point here is the source of funding Andrew acknowledged in the beginning of his post. Some countries in the EU even offer PostDoc grants that go for 3+3 years (maybe there is nothing comparable to this in North America?). I think thats an excellent opportunity for a young researcher to develop his/her own research agenda with a mid-term job security. And I think there is nothing suspicious about a PostDoc spending six years at one place wich such a funding, developing & following his own research agenda and do great work.
    I think Stevens comment is mostly adviced to PostDocs with PI's project-based (aka least flexible) funding. Here, I would totally agree with him that hanging around in not self-developed projects for a longer period may make one suspicious on the long run as that person isn't proofing its ablity to work (and think) independently.
    But even this barely happens in the EU as this funding goes mostly to PhD students which are cheaper than PostDocs (which is the other way around in North America if I remember correctly, thanks to the tuition fees to spend in PhD related funding). So, in essence there are some important differences in PostDoc-ing on both sides of the Atlantic which should be acknowledged when evaluating candidates for job interviews.

  4. Yes, I agree with your points. EU postdocs tend to be longer and they do let help you to develop yourself as an independent scientist. I also agree that it is not necessarily looked on as bad if your postdoc is longer in Europe. Regardless, the main point is that postdocing for a long time is generally a good idea. That works well in the EU and NA. At the same time, there is something to be said for getting diverse perspectives and world views that come from working in multiple places. No magic "one size fits all" solution!

  5. I was once told the best postdoc is a tenure track job.

    1. The best postdoc is the last one you do while you have a job already arranged for after.

  6. I have been doing research, teaching, and supporting myself (i.e., getting money) since I finished my PhD (three and a half years ago). I would not say that most of what I've been doing, however, falls into those three neat postdoc categories (competitive external fellowships, institutional/programmatic postdocs, and targeted project-based postdocs). I've done research contracts with NGO's, industry partners, and academic PI's, some full-time, some part-time, and combined them with occasional sessional teaching positions. I guess my point is that I think that the definition of a 'postdoc' is fairly nebulous, and the goal (after finishing a PhD, before getting a permanent position of some kind) is 'simply' to continue doing interesting work and remaining productive. A key for me has been networking, which, in my case, meant always being highly involved in my academic department. So, when I go to people looking for my next research contract or sessional position, I'm much more than a faceless postdoc sending an email.


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