Sunday, January 22, 2012

Deciding on the PostDoc

You are almost finished with the PhD! You are writing up the chapters, editing, adding the tables, figures and writing the lighthearted notes for the acknowledgements. Perhaps you have already found the postdoc or are still looking.

With all the combined experiences of my friends and colleagues, here would be my advice. Mind you, it is only my view. It you are pursuing a career in academia, find a postdoc that is related to your state-of-the-art PhD project, but perhaps with slight variation. You may be learning a new technique or model, but it moves forward the work you laid out for your PhD. If you had a stellar PhD thesis, finding a lab elsewhere (a collaborator or trusted colleague) to host you for a few years should be no problem. Just make sure you work out any details with your PhD advisor so you either remain collaborators or you delve into something that is not in direct competition with their research. You could also go find something totally unrelated. However, if you do, be prepared to spend many years becoming an expert in that new field, possibly 4-5, to be expert enough to write your own grants. Having said this, I have also known industry directors look for postdocs with publications without the name of the PhD supervisor and more collaborative work in the new field.

My friends who are successful academics and mothers are those that had successful PhDs and remained with their research. One stayed as a postdoc in the same lab, research associate and then a PI as her work was very compelling. Another carried her work through her postdoc in another university out of country, and then was given an academic position back home. On a side note, it is not easy maintaining a research lab while nursing that first year - there is much help from nannies and pumping in the office :) But is can be done.

If you are aiming for an industry position, you can even try right after the PhD, if you have some connections. However, these are rare, and industry postdocs are available as well, like those through programs like mitacs. Whichever postdoc you choose, plan a path. What do you hope to get out of it? What type of mentor will you have? Are they going to help you with your career goals? They may be able to, if you ask the right questions. Ask for their alumni contact list and talk to them to get a feel for their experience. You can "learn" science forever; but at the end of it all, you need to find the best pathway to achieve your career goals.

Find out how to transition from postdoc to academic or industry position. What are the requirements for the position you are aiming for? What grants can your write? Attend grant workshops. Talk to other close faculty members who will mentor you through the grant maze.

Even though the late nights and publications are a huge part of the postdoc experience, it is just as important to find career guidance to where you want to be a few years down the road. There is no boxed solution for is up to you to find those mentors.

(Other factors that you should consider are location, family issues and spouse's career, which you can read about in a future post.)

As for me, my postdoc was not in the field of my PhD. Even though my graduate work was extremely promising (it has been continued on by other PIs now), I felt like I needed to leave the familiarity of my 5 years of research. I did not carry any aspect of my PhD with me, not knowing that it would have been beneficial if I had wanted to pursue academia. Two years into my postdoc and with family issues, I wanted to step into the "real" world of science.

I did learn quite a bit as a postdoc, but I was ready to go for my industry job hunt. The details of which are in my next entry. Stay tuned! :)

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  1. An interesting and useful post. I've always been under the impression that one must change his or her field of research when transitioning from PhD to post-doc. It's refreshing to get a different perspective.

  2. If you want to start from scratch again, with technique AND topic, it will take you another 5 years to get established in that field to be good enough for an academic position. If you take the technique to another model OR take the same topic but learn another technique for that problem - you don't have to start all over again. It may save you some time. It may not. Having said that, I have heard of scientists who take on whole different projects and are now professors. Yes, just a different perspective.


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