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Career Advice

From your lab to your livelihood: Part II

Strategies for success in your postdoc


Click here to read part one of this article.

So you’ve pinned with the perfect P.I.; now what? Making the most of your fellowship experience requires some foresight and flexibility. Here are some tips to help keep you on the rails toward success.

Making a plan (and sticking to it…)

Unlike a PhD candidate, as a postdoc you are much more the author (or maybe more accurately, the ghost writer) of your own fate. While your Principal Investigator might help you pilot the shoals or to manage intersections with other research in their lab, the open water is up to you.

1. In practical terms, your postdoc has one simple goal: to make you more competitive on the job market of your choosing. Knowing where you want to end up is the easiest part. Knowing how to plod that path isn’t. What’s more, the timetable of most fellowships (two years or less) demands that you quickly establish a range of short to medium-term objectives that contributes clearly to your marketability.

Your medium-term goals should take shape around the types of ‘outputs’ by which you will be assessed for research positions: good publications, posters and panel presentations at conferences, and grant applications. Try to identify at least one substantial but realistic goal in each of these dimensions for every full year of your postdoctoral research, and be specific in outlining target venues (particular journals, conferences, funding agencies) and deadlines. While an article, a conference, and a grant application might seem modest as the balance of a year’s work, it probably exceeds the rate of production of a typical postdoc.

As for the daily grind, a clear and consistent ordering principle can help you use your regular working time most efficiently. Your day-by-week-by-month activities should always be easily read in terms of these interim ‘production’ goals, and if a task or external request doesn’t seem to square with them, then delete it or defer it.

Appropriately allocating time, even to tasks that are relevant to your objectives, can also be a challenge, but is essential. The time you give your most pressing goals should always be consistent and (hopefully) inviolable. Set aside ‘protected’ work time, by day or duration, that is dedicated to specific research-related goals. Nobody is suggesting that you need to map out every day of the rest of your life in the lab, but you can’t afford any measure of tangential in your ‘to do’s’.

2. Forgetting your plan and bringing forward ‘back-ups’…

Not even the clearest goals or excellent time management skills can overcome failed experiments or a project that gets scooped. When the results lead nowhere, maintaining your motivation and career orientation requires recourse to another plan. Keeping a few well-developed project ideas or possible collaborations on the shelf could mean the difference between a hiccup and a heart-attack for your research career. Even if doomsday never comes, a back-burner is a good habit for any research career.

Sometimes other life changing events, like a pregnancy or illness, can quickly require you to reduce the scale and scope of your research goals. Ask yourself: how would your project change with half the time and grant money? At another lab? With an interruption of a year? Your research plan should offer options that are nested in ambition and scope to allow for contingencies other than a Nobel-prize-or-nothing.

3. Forging effective collaboration, with and beyond your P.I.

Part of maturing into a scholar comes with the transition from working for someone to working with a lab. Your collaborations as a graduate student are largely pre-arranged by your supervisor and his or her research affiliates. Now, perhaps for the first time, you will have to act as your own agent to establish effective networks, collaborations and mentoring relationships that serve your own research.

Your P.I. can be your best collaborator and most trusted mentor, but an effective working relationship begins with realistic expectations. You can legitimately expect your P.I. to meet with you at regular intervals, assure adequate access to lab resources, and invite your participation in publishing and conference opportunities as relevant to your common work. A good P.I., probably even prior to you joining the lab, will also make clear what sorts of rules or expectations pertain to the propriety, divisibility and portability of the research and results that you share. If the P.I. didn’t broach this topic, you must. Disputes of this variety can severely limit or preclude a continuing research relationship, so make sure you are both on the same page from the start.

Your efforts toward collaboration should extend well beyond your P.I. Make and take the time to attend seminars that are offered by members of your lab and their affiliates: ‘Strategic serendipity’ also plays a part in finding effective research partners. Even where there isn’t necessarily a direct convergence of research interests, a reputation among colleagues as an affable and interested associate tends to extend your reach as they pass along relevant opportunities, either to you or for you. These kinds of connections can become especially useful if you decide to pursue a non-academic research career or some other alternative where your area expertise might not be the prime variable.

4. Does this lab coat have a parachute?

Both P.I.’s and postdocs enter their relationship with high expectations and hopes. Nobody takes on a postdoc aiming for a fight, but serious conflicts, both professional and personal, do happen. While you tend to have a bit more parity in this relationship than the one you left with your supervisor, flight is still more likely to suit your interests than going to the mat. The real question at such an impasse becomes: does remaining with this lab continue to serve any of your goals of objectives? Not unlike switching supervisors, jumping from a postdoc prematurely is fraught with hazards, and the optics of leaving are difficult to explain.

That said, staying for the sake of it in a toxic lab might do more harm than good. You need to provide yourself with a lab environment that gives you access to resources and welcomes your participation, even if that means going elsewhere. Before you do, try as much as you can to achieve at least one concrete output you can point to from your time there for your CV. On this basis, it becomes far easier to describe your choice to move on as “the close to a phase in the project”, rather than as an abrupt or rash decision.

Related Articles and Resources

Sigma Xi’s Postdoctoral Survey

Jeff Osweiler is a former careers editor at University Affairs.

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