Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences: One Postdoc’s Journey

We have recently featured series about surviving graduate school from a humanities PhD and life as a faculty member from an anthropologist. Now we begin a series about finding a postdoc in the sciences and flourishing in the process. Guest writer Kelly Seaton, currently a postdoc at Duke University, will grace the blog for the next few weeks with her series Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences. Most of the series will focus on practical details of the process, but Kelly begins this week with some personal reflections. Thank you, Kelly! ~ Mike

God’s faithfulness and life beyond grad school

Francis Collins and postdocs

NIH Director (and IVP author) Francis Collins speaking to postdocs at the Indiana University School of Medicine

I suppose I ought to answer the burning question right off the bat – yes, there is life after graduate school! Graduate school can be a rough and challenging process, but there definitely is light at the end of the tunnel. My hope is that this series of posts will bring encouragement to you wherever you are on your journey, as well as providing some practical tips to help navigate your way to a postdoc position.

One of the major things I have appreciated along the journey is ESN’s encouragement to wholeheartedly pursue professional skills, passion, and Christian witness together – as part of an integrated life. I have come to appreciate that Christian witness is not distinct from everyday life. In fact, everyday life can provide rich opportunities to share Christ’s love – without, I might add, a lot of extra time or effort. The next logical question might be – so how does a postdoc position fit in? Is it really necessary, or is it simply glorified graduate school (long hours, little pay, and no real recognition)?

Photo Credit: IU School of Medicine via Flickr

Is a Postdoc Necessary?

Most academics and scientists will tell you that yes, a postdoc is highly recommended, even necessary for most positions. Unless you were fortunate enough to publish several papers and write multiple successful grant applications in graduate school (in the field you ultimately want to pursue), a postdoctoral position is necessary. Postdoctoral positions allow you to gain valuable experience, exposure, networking opportunities, and to establish yourself in the field. I have found this to be true even if you want to pursue industry positions, start your own biotech, or foray into science writing. While there may still be long hours and relatively little pay, a postdoc position is more flexible than graduate school. Postdocs also provide opportunities to learn new techniques or areas of research that interest you, not just your advisor or mentor. It also allows you to pursue your professional career without the added stressors of a faculty position and the pressure to obtain tenure.

With that in mind, I will offer some general thoughts on calling and the postdoc, with specifics on the postdoc search to follow in subsequent posts.

There are four things that guide me as I think about vocation and calling as follower of Christ – Passion, People, Purpose, and Prayer.

Passion

Most scientists are passionate about something – learning, helping others, or even the insatiable quest to answer questions such as How? and Why? Perhaps along the way though, that passion has been diminished by circumstances, by pressure from well-meaning friends and family, or long hours spent in lab. My challenge to you would be to rediscover that passion – what makes you get up in the morning, what satisfies your intellectual curiosity, what makes you excited to see how God knit the world together and what He has purposed for creation. Take your science and run with it – run with teaching or benchwork, crime scene investigation, or public policy – if that’s where your passions lie. Remember to spread that enthusiasm to others around you – it’s contagious!

People

This brings me to my second “P” – people. Our work as scientists has a great effect on many different people, some of whom are obvious, some of whom are not as immediately obvious. It’s very easy in the midst of experiments and grant writing and deadlines to look at science as work to be accomplished, a job, or a way to get ahead and achieve personal success. Oftentimes, we can forget that science is driven by people, by our role in bringing healing as a larger part of God’s redemption for humanity. We’re not just running a Western blot or drug screening assay, but we are moving that much closer to bringing hope to those struggling with Alzheimer’s, cancer and HIV.
Then there are those who we touch in a different, but very real way. They are the kids who look up to you, and are amazed when you can make volcanoes in the kitchen with baking soda and vinegar or build an aerodynamic paper airplane that flies super far. They are even the undergraduates that ask you to describe what it feels like to be a “woman in science” and “what field should I major in when I’m done?” We have a great opportunity to inspire those coming behind us – and in turn, they will fuel our passions and purpose.

Purpose

Science is not done in a box – each and every one of us has a purpose and a calling in what we do. That purpose is driven by the first two P’s – passion and people. Now that I can look back on my graduate school days, I can see how I had a lot to learn (and no idea what I was getting into!). But all of my graduate school experiences – both good and bad – had a purpose. It is extremely easy to feel like we aren’t making a difference, that one little experiment, one thesis project, or one person isn’t going to change the world. But just think of Ben Franklin and his one little experiment with electricity, or Carol Greider’s thesis project on telomerase that won a Nobel Prize in 2009, or one man named Paul Farmer who is bringing hope and health to the people of Haiti.

Prayer

Finally, remember that prayer is the most essential element of any endeavor we attempt. Ask, seek and knock for God to open doors for you in your professional vocation. Ask Him to lead you to the right postdoc position, for enjoyment in your work, and opportunities to share Christ’s love with others.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)

What questions do you have for Kelly about finding a postdoc? Do you have any thoughts or comments about the “Four Ps” that Kelly shared above?

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kle.seaton@gmail.com'

Kelly Seaton

Kelly Seaton lives in Durham, North Carolina (go Duke!), where she is an HIV vaccine researcher. She is a graduate of Messiah College and Penn State University-Hershey. Her cross-cultural experience includes studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain, as well as traveling to Haiti and South Africa. She loves the movies Emma and The Shawshank Redemption. Outside of work, she loves hanging with friends, playing volleyball, and any and all outdoors. Her post Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences: Nailing the Interview is the most visited ESN blog post.

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10 Comments

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

    Thank-you Kelly! Love the “Four Ps.” What a joy to read your testimony of God’s continuing “workmanship” in your life. Praying for you, along with a number of graduate students/post-docs, as I head to PSU-Hershey today. To God be the glory!

  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

    Do humanities disciplines do post docs?

    • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
      Kelly commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Kristen,

      I do know a postdoc in the humanities, but it is definitely much less common. Others would probably be more qualified than I am to talk about the practical aspects of it though!

      • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
        Kelly commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

        Sorry, I meant Katelin!

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

      They are much less common, but they do exist. Here is a list of postdoc opportunities that I found from UC-Berkeley: http://www.spo.berkeley.edu/Fund/hpostdoc.html

  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

    Am in the sciences (neuroscience), and have been toying with the idea of doing a postdoc abroad because it seem like a great opportunity to have a finite international experience. Would this endanger my career though?

    Also, kids during postdoc? Seems to be good middle time to start a family?

    • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
      Kelly commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

      Katelin –

      As far as an international postdoc – I personally think that’s a great idea, and shouldn’t endanger your career. Science is becoming increasingly global, and having experience with scientists from other cultures should be a plus. You’d have to do homework of course on funding opportunities and visas, but it’s definitely doable.

      As far as a family, I can address some of the more practical aspects in the next few posts. I don’t have kids myself, but I have several friends who have started a family at the end of grad school and during their postdoc.

  • julierey52@hotmail.com'
    JulieR commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

    Thank you for this post, Kelly. I have been struggling with my science postdoc lately and your reminders about passion and people are encouraging.

    Katelin, I had, or planned to have kids between finishing my PhD and my postdoc. God had other plans. I’d be happy to talk about it if you’re interested.

    • Katelin108@gmail.com'
      Katelin commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

      @JulieR Yes, please! Katelin108 at gmail dot com

      @Kelly Do you have suggestions one where to do such homework. Would my schools study aboard office know? or career development?

  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    Kelly commented on October 11, 2011 Reply

    Katelin –

    Depending on the size of your university, I would check with the career office. Also, programs like the Fulbright Scholars or International Research Fellowship Program
    (http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5179) are ways to get funding for work overseas.

    Generally, large pharmaceutical companies with presence overseas (Roche, BASF, etc…) have postdoctoral fellowships as well.

    You could also look at well known PIs in your field located internationally or at places like the Pasteur Institute, which might have postitions or funding opportunities

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