Welcome to the lab, Dr. Postdoc!

Mar 21 2012 Published by under academia, mentoring, on the job training

It wasn't that long ago that I was a new postdoc (shut up! It really wasn't that long ago). IME being a postdoc is awesome! You learned the basics of how to be a scientist as a graduate student. Now is you chance to develop your research skillz in a protected and supported environment. It is about as close to a CareBear Tea Party as you are gonna get in this business.

Being a postdoc is not always easy, and I know there are some disgruntled postdocs out there. There can be issues with your mentor, issues with the science. There are always going to be struggles as you work to find your own path and develop your career. It is hard work, and can be scary. You will most likely move to a new city. Maybe you moved to a new place for grad school, but this time you will not be entering with a bunch of classmates. You will be thrown into a fully-formed lab that may already have political baggage and/or a defined hierarchy. At some point you will start wondering what is expected of you. There is no universal answer, because every lab and every postdoc is different. But, here is a list of advice based on what I think helped me when I was a new postdoc and that I hope postdocs that join my lab will follow:

1. Don't assume that you know more than techs or graduate students because you have a PhD. Coming in as a n00b postdoc with a superiority complex will not help you. You will need help from your new colleagues, so don't act like a douche. Be a good lab citizen, and build a relationship with the lab folks.

2. Be ready to learn something new. Maybe you enter a whole new field and have to learn brand-new techniques and approaches. Perhaps you are in a lab that has some overlap with what you did as a grad student. Learn how folks in your new place do things. Realize that there is more than one way to do most things...and yours is not necessarily the "best".

3. Take the initiative. Don't expect for someone to "give" you a project. Find and read the important papers and come up with ideas of your own. Consider advice from your new PI, and people in the lab, but argue for your own ideas and approaches. Own your project. Find fellowships that you can apply for. Apply for them.

4. Get to know your colleagues. Find other new postdocs and get to know them. Actively build a network. You are going to need mentors, advice, and letter writers. You will have to talk to people that are not in your lab (or your institution) to do this. Don't wait to approach people until you need something. Build a relationship from the beginning. This includes other postdocs and grad students as well as faculty.

5. Think about what you want to do with your career. It is great if you want to stay in academia, but try to imagine a Plan B. If you don't want to stay in academia, figure out what you want to do. Then find out what skills you need to develop and find opportunities to do that. This can be teaching, writing, working with policy, interacting with tech transfer, etc.

6. Be realistic. It takes time to get a new project up and running. Science (and career development) takes time.

7. Don't play it safe. Your postdoc is a great time to try a high-risk/high-reward project. Be creative. You can have a back-up, "safe" project, but don't shy away from trying something "hard". Try to avoid the temptation of taking on the easy, obvious, "can't fail" project.

8. Ask questions. Lots of questions. At lab meetings, in seminars, walking through the hallways.

9. Make sure you know what is expected of you. Many of the poor postdoc-mentor relationships that I have seen stem from miscommunications. You need to make sure that you know if there are expectations about how many hours you are in lab. If you want to stay in academia, make sure you know whether you will get to take your project with you (have this conversation early in your postdoc, before it is clear how awesome your project is. Even if it is non-binding and is not a guarantee that the lab will not compete with you).

10. I honestly think that most PI want to be good mentors. Help us out! Be a good mentee.

Please add to this list in the comments! I have no doubt that there are other nuggets of advice out there for the newly-minted postdocs.

16 responses so far

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Self-assessment is essential. At 12 - 18 months into your postdoc you must decide whether to bail for another lab. This can be a very difficult judgement because you are not assessing whether you have succeeded in your postdoc lab, but rather whether it's an environment where you can and will succeed. Your project will probably not be cooking in a meaningful way yet, especially if you've changed fields, and you may be very frustrated by the science and/or your progress. Those are not reasons to leave.

    On the other hand, you may find yourself in an environment that is toxic, for one reason or another (it does happen), or you may discover that you cannot acquire the training or do the work in your new lab that you came for. In the latter cases your only and best option is to get out and into an environment that does work for you. Three years in is too late to make such a judgement.

    But as mentioned above, the key is to understand the difference between the totally normal growing pains of adapting to a new lab/advisor/project/field, and structural problems that will prevent you from doing what you're there to do.

    • gerty-z says:

      Great point. Staying in a bad environment will almost always either be unproductive or make you hate your job. This is one reason that it is important to find other mentors early, so that you have someone you trust (besides your PI) to talk about when it is time to make this assessment after ~1 yr.

  • Bashir says:

    11. If you have eyes for an eventual TT research position you need to learn about writing grants. Get examples of funded grants from local PIs (or anyone really). Look out for local workshops. Sign up for alerts from NIH/NSF/whomevergivesoutmoneyinyourarea. When appropriate apply for things.

    12. Try to find the other postdocs. Since there's no natural cohort and postdocs seem to burrow themselves in lab, they can be hard to find. My department apparently has 60+ postdocs and when I asked around people literally couldn't name more than 3. Finding them can be good for both professional and social reasons.

    13. Find a few good meetings (but not too many). If you are using your postdoc time to learn new things or otherwise broaden your knowledge this can be helped by sitting in on other lab/group meetings. A small related note: make sure you get on the right email lists. My department has a habit of sending talk announcements to faculty & grad students but not postdocs.

    • gerty-z says:

      yes, yes, and yes. I would say, however, that (in my field) you don't want to spend too much time trying to figure out grantsmanship right at the start. This is definitely a thing that you must work on, but writing grants will follow writing fellowship applications and getting a project going.

  • Scicurious says:

    Dang I want to throw this piece at every graduating student RIGHT NOW. So helpful.

  • Sxydocma1 says:

    This is great advice. I would add to point #9 that it is also very important to find out early on how your mentor defines productivity.

  • Thanks for the advice Gerty-Z, I especially like #7 Don't play it safe. I've thought of a rather high-risk project for myself in this post-doc (difficult techniques, still not entirely sure if it's going to be do-able) and it still makes me kind of nervous to even explain to people what I want to do without excusing myself for the high riskyness. (I do have a bunch of collaborative projects that will give me some 2nd authorship papers, so in case everything fails I won't walk away with nothing).

  • Yael says:

    "1. Don't assume that you know more than techs or graduate students because you have a PhD. Coming in as a n00b postdoc with a superiority complex will not help you. "

    YES x100000. And you will spend far more time re-inventing the wheel because people are reluctant to teach obnoxious people.

  • BugDoc says:

    Right on, Gerty-Z! In fact, I think that this is great advice for graduate students as well. Just a couple of amendments to:

    (4) "Get to know your colleagues" - seek out every opportunity to give talks/journal clubs in your department. It's much harder for postdocs to get to know the community than for students, who have built in networks. Giving a fantastic seminar or journal club will mark you as someone to watch in future in the eyes of a larger audience than your lab.

    (6) "Be realistic. It takes time to get a new project up and running." True. The best postdocs (and those who are most successful at science in academica and industry and elsewhere) are generally those that also recognize that they will be judged on productivity as well as big science. This means making sure you have a feasible project as well as a more risky exciting developmental project and also that you are responsible for making publications happen. Make them happen sooner rather than later! This can be achieved by either super efficiency or long hours (but usually you need one or the other) as well as a pragmatic focus. Enjoy every minute of your time in the lab and make sure that every minute counts as much as you can. The length of an average postdoc (whatever that is in biomes sciences, 5 years?) is not all that much time to get things done.

    • gerty-z says:

      Thanks for stopping by. I agree that giving talks and journal clubs can be excellent ways to develop your peer network. Great point! I think that productivity depends a lot on your field and even lab. Some projects develop quickly, others take a while. You definitely must be productive, however you and your PI define that. But don't get wrapped up in the timeline. If you are making progress (and your PI agrees), that is productivity. And the publications with follow.

      And yes, those postdoc years can really fly by!

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