Ten Steps for Making the Most of Your Post-Doc Years

March 2, 2017

By Erin Zimmerman, Ph.D.

The years you spend as a post-doctoral fellow can be some of the most important—and most overwhelming—of your career. Not only have expectations of you increased, including  your expertise, your work ethic, and your level of professionalism, you also have only a few short years to transform yourself from a fresh-faced Ph.D. grad into someone ready to juggle the workload and responsibilities of a junior faculty member. With a supervisor who wants results, it’s easy to get lost in your project and develop too narrow a focus. Here are a few tips to help you keep all those balls up in the air.

1) Live and Breathe Your Project

This is a pretty obvious piece of advice, but it bears emphasizing here. Whatever project you have signed on to is now your best ticket to a career in research. Over the next couple of years, do your best to become a recognized expert in your little piece of scientific turf. Know everything that’s going on in the field currently, as well as relevant past literature and a basic history of its development. Become the best resource on this topic and, assuming it remains an active area of research, you’ll be in a good position to make a name for yourself.

2) Read Deeply and Broadly

If there’s one big mistake I made as a post-doc, it was neglecting research that didn’t have an obvious link to my work. If I couldn’t see how it applied to me, I probably didn’t spend much time on it. This is a very easy mistake to make when you’ve got so much on your plate, but tangentially-related research is often the stuff of good ideas and new approaches to research problems that may work for you. What’s more, I often found that papers I neglected were applicable in ways I simply didn’t see at the time. So while it goes without saying that you need to read deeply in your own immediate area, whenever possible, try to read around it as well.

3) Be An Excellent Communicator

This is an important skill at any level of scientific research, but given that promotion of yourself and your research is such a big part of being an early career researcher, now is the time to remedy any shortcomings you may have. Communication in this case means both verbal and written. If you need practice in the public speaking department, volunteer for departmental seminars and small regional conferences. These will give you a venue to practice without the pressure that comes with a large crowd or big stakes. And make sure you don’t miss any talks given in your department by job candidates; these seminars are a great chance to see where you’ll need to be in a few years in terms of your presenting abilities. Don’t forget to find out afterward what faculty members thought of the candidate’s performance.

If writing is your issue, bite the bullet and offer to take on writing duties for manuscripts whenever you can. Asking your supervisor if you can peer review articles when the opportunity arises will give you practice in recognizing good and bad writing and organization within a manuscript (check out our guide on how to peer review here).

4) Network & Collaborate

So much of climbing the career ladder in science is, right or wrong, about who you know. Nearly every scientific position I’ve had over twelve years of working in research came as a result of having known the right people. Networking and collaboration are how you meet “the right” people. Networking can be accomplished by going to conferences (and making sure you take part in the social activities there), belonging to professional associations, going to departmental meetings and seminars, even being part of your field’s community on Twitter. Look for opportunities to meet people who work in your area. You just never know when a casual acquaintance could turn into a future resource.

Collaborations need to be handled more carefully to make sure they’re beneficial to all the parties involved (for more on this, check out our recent post on the subject), but if there’s a need in your research that’s outside the range of expertise of your lab to fill, perhaps in the form of statistical know-how or mastery of a difficult technique, look for promising researchers who could fill that gap as a collaboration. Done right, these can be built into long-lasting relationships that will look good to a hiring committee.

5) Build a Brand for Yourself

This step will be anathema to a lot of science people, who tend to be in it for love rather than limelight, but it doesn’t have to be the shamelessly self-promotional enterprise you’re imagining. What you want is to give people who come looking a coherent picture of who you are, what you’ve done, what you can do, and what you’re interested in. Tie this up into a nice little package for them, so if they come looking, they don’t have to go searching all over the web to find out what you’ve been up to. The most important part of this is to set up a website or blog, but from there, you can move into Twitter, Instagram, or various other forms of social media. Having an online presence hits two birds with one stone, because in addition to presenting a professional face to the world, you’re showing that you’re motivated to talk about your research and be an effective communicator.

6) Take Initiative and Get Involved

Getting known around your department is tough if you never leave your lab and/or office. You want to be seen, and ideally, be seen doing helpful things that are good for your working community. So go volunteer to help set up at the next department luncheon, or put together the slideshow for your holiday party. Or better yet, start something new that brings people together. During my Ph.D., I started a welcome breakfast for new grad students to meet everyone each semester. Not only did I meet more of my peers, but eventually, faculty started seeking me out to make sure their new students were involved. These activities can be a big initial time investment, but the work decreases with recurring events, and there’s an excellent networking pay-off.

7) Develop Your Skill Set

Your post-doc years may be the last time in your career that you have the opportunity to really expand your hands-on skill set. Is one of your labmates, or a friend in the department using a new technique or high-tech toy you’d like to like to learn? See if you can tag along and learn with them. This is one of those activities that can seem like a time-waster in the moment, but a few years from now, it’ll be one more attractive line on your CV when it’s placed before a hiring committee.

8) Learn How a Lab is Run

Learning how to actually run a lab is an easy part of your career training to miss. The more you can learn now about the day to day business of running a lab—managing multiple projects, dealing with budgets and expenses, and training people—the better prepared you’ll be when you land that dream job. To a large extent, this is going to come down to observing how your advisor does it, but learning how to train personnel is something you can get actively involved in. Assuming you didn’t switch fields coming into your post-doc (if you did, you’ll have some catching up to do prior to this step), you almost certainly have a greater depth of expertise than most of your labmates. So be willing to lend a helping hand, and cultivate a reputation of being someone people can come to with questions. You can also help new students get oriented and started on their projects.

9) Learn How to Write Grant Proposals

Writing successful grant proposals is a crucial skill, both for your ability to fund future post-docs and for your eventual permanent job in research, yet it’s a skill that’s easy to miss out on learning. You may be able to find workshops on grant writing through your university or professional society, but your most accessible resource here is your supervisor. Ask him/her if you can look over both successful and unsuccessful grant proposals from the past, as well as those currently being written. Asking if you can write a portion of the proposal is win-win. Time saved for your supervisor, and good experience for you. Nothing tests your ability to distill the value in your research like summarizing it for a grant proposal.

10) Know Where to Draw the Line

Let me finish by saying that with all these demands on your plate, you really do need to know where to draw the line and when to say no. For many of us, post-docs are happening during the years that we’re settling down and starting families, which adds a lot of extra fatigue, time constraints, and ambivalence about where our energy is best spent. Even if you’re still footloose and fancy-free, spending 60 hours in the lab every week isn’t going to end well. So have a hobby, give your brain some time to cool off each day, and remember that neither your worth nor your eventual success will be determined by the exact number of hours you spent staring at a spreadsheet.

Do you have any advice to add to the list? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook. 

Erin Zimmerman (@DoctorZedd) is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds a B.Sc. in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in fungal genetics and molecular systematics, respectively, from the Université de Montréal. She blogs about evolution at Questionable Evolution. Find more of her writing at her website.

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