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Tales from the postdoc

Early-career scientists open up about their experiences and lessons learned

by Anna Tomberg, Kristina Pagh Friis, Jeffrey M. Ting, Tesia Stephenson, Robert Wexler, Alexander Cook, Julia G. Pribyl, Janus Juul Eriksen, Suzanne E. Witt
September 9, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 35




Why we chose to do a postdoc in industry

Anna Tomberg , Kristina Pagh Friis, Astrazeneca, Göteborg, Sweden
Photo of Anna Tomberg and Kristina Pagh Friis.
Credit: Michael Muratore
Anna Tomberg (left) and Kristina Pagh Friis

At every conference we have attended since we started working in pharma, we get the inevitable question: “Do you actually like it in industry?” The answer is always, “I love it!” This often stirs up a mixture of astonishment and doubt, but it is true. We love working in industry because the pace is fast, the goals are clear, and the standards are high. The notion circulating among young researchers that only an academic career allows scientific freedom is a misconception. While industrial research projects are considerably more goal oriented, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that we have the freedom to follow the science using any ethical approach to successfully achieve our objective. This comes with the responsibility to learn many new skills and to do it fast. However, hard work is not the only attribute that would set one up for success; in contrast to an academic setting, industrial projects are substantially more collaborative. Your greatest resource is no longer just your principal investigator but all your colleagues, highlighting the need for good communication skills. In industry, networking is everything: your next coffee break chat might be the one that leads to the tools or know-how to reach your goal this month instead of next year.



Why postdocs should spend time building bridges

Jeffrey M. Ting, University of Chicago
Photo of Jeffrey Ting.
Credit: Siqi Meng
Jeffrey Ting

When I decided to pursue a postdoc, one of my PhD advisers offered advice to guide my search: “In the next few years, only part of your role will be to conduct exciting research and publish papers. The more important goal is to get the next job afterward.” I took this to heart and reflected on what tools I needed to build a bridge to the next stage of my professional career as an independent academic investigator. Learning new technical skills in a new research field was important to me, but gaining leadership and mentoring experience was something I also valued.

A few months after starting my postdoc in 2017, an opportunity emerged to start a new researcher-led safety team, the Joint Research Safety Initiative (JRSI), whose mission is to improve the lab safety culture at the University of Chicago. I realized that I could assist in launching this effort with other enthusiastic researchers that value this goal, and shape sustainable programs that can address unmet safety needs. It’s challenging for me to balance my time between research and involvement as JRSI vice president, but the experiences and soft skills are invaluable and can serve as examples in the behavioral interviews I will encounter as I look for jobs this fall.

Every postdoc experience is unique, but there is so much more to the experience than conducting lab research. I strongly encourage potential postdocs to begin with the end in mind and seek career development and leadership opportunities that will help you build a bridge to your next job.



Finding the right postdoc mentor matters

Tesia Stephenson, Scripps Research
Photo of Tesia Stephenson.
Credit: Weichao Li
Tesia Stephenson

Adorned in a blue gown with black velvet panels, seated alongside fellow scholars, I peered into the crowd of proud friends and families of the graduates. I couldn’t find the face of the one who encouraged and congratulated me at every ascension throughout my academic endeavors—my mother, who was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer during my doctoral program; she passed shortly after her diagnosis.

Although it was difficult to continue in her absence, I managed to earn a PhD in organic chemistry in what became a callous environment. I realized that the ephemeral excitement of synthesizing potential cancer therapeutics was gone, and I questioned whether to continue doing the research that had left me overwhelmingly empty and exhausted. I was later offered a postdoc position by a compassionate female scientist with a contagious fervor for biomedical research, and I joined her newly established academic glycobiology lab. I chose a project in which I’d synthesize molecular probes to characterize effects of proteoglycan structure on skeletal muscle differentiation.

This postdoc experience reinvigorated my desire to ameliorate human health. I urge those contemplating a postdoc to identify what features exist at prospective institutes that align with your career goals. For me, this was an intellectually stimulating project that leveraged my expertise, a collaborative environment, and acquisition of a new transferable skill set. It’s imperative to choose a principal investigator with a compatible mentoring style and vested interest in ensuring an upward trajectory along your career path. I’m nearing the end of the first year of my postdoc, and if given the option to reconsider, I wouldn’t change a thing!



Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Robert Wexler, Princeton University
Photo of Robert Wexler.
Credit: Sai Gautam Gopalakrishnan
Robert Wexler

During the first few months of my PhD, I overheard an adviser telling their postdoc that they should know everything and that they’re not allowed to ask questions. I remember thinking, “I’m glad I’m not a postdoc,” and for a few years after that, I was seriously exploring nonacademic career paths. However, as my research projects progressed and my knowledge grew, I began to fall in love with my research, and this newfound passion could be satiated only by doing a postdoc. I’ve been a postdoc for only a few months, but my advice for others would be as follows: be confident but not afraid to ask for help. Your adviser will certainly expect a high level of independence, creativity, and productivity. Additionally, they likely hired you with the hope that you can bring something new to their group and teach them something that they did not know. But the relationship between adviser and postdoc is a symbiotic one; you have accepted the position with the hope that you can take something from the group and learn something that you did not know. Your expertise is unique and irreplaceable, but don’t be afraid to ask for help, because the help you receive will broaden your knowledge and prepare you for greater independence in the future. While some view the postdoc as a burden, it is the last time you will be able to really focus on learning, so take advantage of it!



A postdoc under the Ligurian sun

Alexander Cook, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia
Photo of Alexander Cook.
Credit: James Robertson
Alexander Cook

I step out from the cool shade of the gray marble entranceway into the dazzling sun. Vespas whiz past me, beeping their horns. I catch the smell of espresso as it drifts from the bar next door, where local Italians are eating focaccia for breakfast. Since starting my postdoc in Italy, my morning commute to the lab is in stark contrast to the sleepy English countryside where I studied for my PhD.

For postdocs, often on precarious short-term contracts, the decision to change countries is a particularly difficult one. For me, this has been an incredibly enriching experience, with many professional benefits, including developing an international research network, meeting new collaborators, and having access to expertise in a complementary but new field of research. The Italian food, wine, and beaches are a nice bonus! However, there are many difficulties—financial, personal, and family based. It is simply not possible for some people to move to a completely new country for a position with little long-term stability, particularly when young families with children are concerned. I was fortunate to have help securing accommodation, residency, and bank accounts, but this isn’t true for everyone, and it’s even harder if you do not speak the local language.

My tips: Weigh the pros and cons of any move. Ask yourself questions like, “What is achievable in the time frame of this position? What am I sacrificing, and what benefits will I gain at the new institution?” Also: plan, plan, plan. Having detailed goals and time frames written down will help you keep on top of things, feel more secure, and focus on having the best experience possible.



Getting comfortable in a new lab

Julia G. Pribyl, University Of Florida
Photo of Julia G. Pribyl.
Credit: Samantha McDonald
Julia G. Pribyl

The most succinct way I can describe my experience as a postdoctoral researcher so far is to reference a quote I love by Gretchen Rubin: “The days are long, but the years are short.” Since starting in my new lab last November, the first days were spent walking into a new laboratory and learning the quirks of my (new to me) lab equipment. The feeling was familiar yet strange. Familiarity stemmed from the feeling that I was once again a novice, but strangely, and happily, my learning curve lasted only days instead of weeks. I was empowered by my ability to read and learn quickly, a skill obviously honed during my PhD studies. I didn’t feel until then that those skills were truly tested. I arrived in my current research group as the sole member at the tail end of my adviser’s tremendous career as a professor. This meant I should try to guide my project to an elegant close and perhaps I should mentor a couple of undergraduate students. I took on these challenges, and before long, walking into my “new” environment felt comfortable and routine. Now I’ve blinked and the first year is nearly done. Postdoctoral research is all the excitement of PhD science without any of the PhD-program hoops to jump through. My advice to those wanting to retain the joys of PhD research a little longer? Take a postdoc position, and you will be rewarded with self-affirmation and a career jump start.



Tales from a nomadic postdoc

Janus Juul Eriksen, University of Bristol
Photo of Janus Juul Eriksen.
Credit: Susannah Bourne-Worster
Janus Juul Eriksen

Some time ago, I told my current postdoc adviser in the UK how I was occasionally left perplexed by his views on things. I recall this peculiar expression on his face afterward—as if he didn’t know what to make of a comment like that. But it’s the most sincere scientific compliment I could pay him. Being confronted with unfamiliar conceptions of topics that I’ve studied extensively for years is something I find truly exciting. The chance to learn things over again in novel ways is something that one must actively seek, which is why I’ve recently started taking comfort in not knowing much at all.

“With mobility comes experience,” they all told me as my PhD studies in Denmark were drawing to an end, but I initially thought it would come in many shapes different from what has actually been the case. It turns out that experiences are made not only in the academic sense. As in my example, venturing across Europe speaking foreign tongues, accompanied by two small kids, continues to stimulate and inspire. Although I wouldn’t have dared to venture much had it not been for my wife and fellow nomad. By questioning everything I’ve ever learned, befriending new colleagues, and adjusting to new settings and bureaucracies—all while battling bleak uncertainties of what the future holds—I’m becoming a much more experienced scientist than I was when I started my postdoc.



On being a postdoc and a government employee

Suzanne E. Witt, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Photo of Suzanne Witt.
Credit: Fan Zhang
Suzanne Witt

One of my first days at my postdoc, I got to see a Nobel laureate speak. It was then that the reality that I had secured a position in a federal laboratory settled in. Actually, I take that back. The reality settled in when I had to fill out a mountain of paperwork just to step foot in the place unescorted.

Jokes aside, being a postdoc at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been nothing short of cool. I am surrounded by brilliant minds and fascinating research. People are eager to collaborate, and I have received tons of support as I dip my toes into materials science for the first time. Furthermore, my fellow postdocs and I are well connected, and I quickly made friends in my new city.

However, I won’t pretend that my experience hasn’t had its ups and downs. Six weeks after I started, the longest US government shutdown commenced. This was a particularly hard time for us early-career researchers. I had been unemployed for 2 months prior to starting at NIST and had barely begun building my savings back up when we were furloughed. It was an anxious 35 days of wondering how long I’d have to go without an income, again. Furthermore, I had lost a precious 5 weeks of my 2-year postdoc—a significant chunk of research time that I won’t get back. On the bright side, I had already formed a solid network of colleagues, and we all checked in on one another during our unplanned time off.

Like any job, there are pros and cons to being a government employee. There are so many interesting projects that go on here and tons of resources at your disposal. Sometimes that gets lost, however, in instances that you are yanked around by the powers that be. But the whole organization is in the same boat, and there will be people to weather the storm with you.

Oh, and there’s a form for everything.

Note: These opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of NIST or the US government.


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