I Found a Postdoc in the Sciences: Now What? (Pt 2)

Photo of a woman sitting alone on a mountain peak.

Postdocs can be solitary; create opportunities to build connections. (Photo by StockSnap)

The most popular Emerging Scholars blog post is “Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences: Nailing the Interview.” It’s part of a larger series on finding a postdoc which is also frequently visited. We figured it was time for a follow-up on what to do once you’ve found the postdoc you were looking for.

Last week I shared a little about my postdoc experience and my advice to treat your postdoc as an experience that needs to be worthwhile on its own terms and not merely as a means to reach the next step. At the same time, postdocs aren’t forever. So this week I wanted to share a few thoughts on how I think I could have improved my postdoc experience and been better prepared for life after postdoc.

  • Cultivate a broader skill set: I mentioned last week that I spent my postdoc focused on learning and doing more science. What I didn’t fully appreciate was that at some point that stops being enough. If you intend to continue on in academia, you’ll need to develop skills in teaching, managing a lab, funding a research program, and so on. If you have different career goals, identify the skills that career requires. As it turned out, the other skill I was developing was software engineering, which is probably why I wound up working for a software company. But that was less of a deliberate decision on my part and more of a happy accident. You might want to be more proactive.
  • Get out of the lab: There will always be more work to do in the lab or the field or wherever you are practicing your science. And there are no course requirements or other natural excuses for getting out and mixing with new folks. So you may need to manufacture some opportunities to interact with fellow postdocs and junior faculty who can give you advice on all the other facets of a career besides the specific scientific expertise of your research group. You may even need to leave the university grounds altogether sometimes, especially if you think your career path might take you beyond academia.
  • Get some funding success: Science can be expensive, and chances are no matter where you ultimately end up you will need to figure out how to pay for it. I had a grant writing class in grad school, which taught me what kinds of sections belong in a grant, but not what kinds of grants get funded or how to recognize which grants are worth your time to respond to. I had some chances to write actual grants as a postdoc, but none were successful. So I never got that feedback of what differentiated a fundable proposal from a nonfundable one. Getting that opportunity might require collaborating with someone who already has a track record of successful funding in your specific area of interest.
  • Get some help: Postdocs may be kind of weird, but you aren’t the first person to navigate one. There’s no need to reinvent all the necessary wheels. A good place to start is this post from our last postdoc series, which has plenty of resources.

Those suggestions apply to the hours you spend working on your postdoc. But there is also the rest of your life. Maybe you have moved to a new city for your position. Or maybe you expect to move after your postdoc. Or both. Because one of the few guarantees with a postdoc is that it will come to an end sooner rather than later, you might be tempted to treat everything else about your living situation as temporary too. But people aren’t really built for temporary. Do your best to connect to your current situation: make friends, find a church, register to vote, get a library card, pick a favorite restaurant. In short, build or continue building a life in your current community.

Those are my thoughts. If you are currently or have been a postdoc, I’d love to hear about your experience and what has or hasn’t been helpful for you. Share your thoughts in the comments below or consider writing your own post(s) for the blog!


Don’t forget to check out Royce’s ongoing immigration series.

I’ve gotten some great input already on future directions for the blog. I’d still love to hear from you! Please share your thoughts in the comments of this post.

And if you couldn’t make it to the ASA meeting last month, or if you did make attend but can only occupy one space at one time and so missed some of the parallel sessions, check out the archive of talks. You’ll find some familiar names and some compelling talks. Video of the plenary talks are at the top; most of the other talks have audio and slides.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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One Comment

  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    keseaton commented on August 17, 2018 Reply

    Great thoughts! I would also add – look for professional associations that may be in your area and see if they have social events or other opportunities to network and meet people. This is particularly useful if you are exploring a shift away from the bench or into a different area of science.

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