In case you missed it, last week was National Postdoc Appreciation Week. I almost missed it, but Harvard conveniently put up a huge banner and offered us a bit of free food (Super yummy Mexican food this year!) Good food = appreciation? Sure, why not.
September seems to be a common time for new postdocs to start. “So I’m a postdoc now,” tweeted Allison Barner  who is a top contender in the “best personal research website ever”. Seriously. Click through. at the beginning of this month, asking for advice on being a postdoc. Her tweets were quickly rebroadcast as other new postdocs waited for replies.
And I realized, wow, I’ve been a postdoc for more than 2.5 years. I have advice! So too do many others. Here’s a quick run-down on all the advice offered (with credit to Naupaka Zimmerman, Sarah Supp, Terry McGlynn, Kate Boersma, Natalie Sopinka, Timothée Poisot, DavidLawrenceMiller, Jonathan Tonkin, Joshua Drew, Fiona Ingleby, Noam Ross, Markus Eichhorn, Kendra Maas, KatMM, Dr. Zee, and rachelss, for all their advice).
Figure out your relationship with your mentor/boss
If you are on an independent postdoc fellowship, this might be the first time you are truly independent. Talk with your mentor to figure out how they can best assist you to achieve your goals.
If you are a hired postdoc, this might be the first time you really have a boss. Talk with your boss frequently in the first few months. In particular, you want to establish (1) what your boss’s goals for you are; (2) what you have to do to be considered “successful” in your boss’s eyes; (3) your boss’s views on what postdocs are for (which could be anything from “primarily advanced trainee” to “paid worker to get lab research done.”) Put down in writing what your boss’s goals for you are and revisit them periodically. Plan on scheduling 3-month or 6-month check-in meetings with your mentor/boss. DLM said that he found this resource to be useful in guiding those discussions.
Understand your pay and benefits
There are three different points here. The first is related to the points about your boss. If you are on fellowship of more than a year and are a paid postdoc, establish with your boss how your pay will rise. Will there be a simple cost-of-living adjustment once per year? Or will you have to meet certain goal in order to get merit raises? Both? Neither? Talking about this feels uncomfortable, but it’s best to do it early.
The second point is that you may be paid on a different schedule than when you were a grad student. I am paid monthly and so is my husband and it is a royal pain in the neck. We have to be very careful with our boom-and-bust household budget, as we live close to our means. If your payment schedule or your living expenses are changing, keep an eye on your personal finances.
Third, make sure you understand your benefits. They may be very different from what they were when you were a grad student. If your institution offers a ‘new employee orientation,’ go to it, even if it seems very boring. If that sort of thing isn’t offered, schedule an hour to sit down with the appropriate administrator to go over your benefits in detail. Understanding it all at the beginning will save time and headaches and money later on.
Set long-term goals
The postdoc is ideally a transitory job, so figure out where you’re going. What type of job do you want after your postdoc? If you were to apply for that position right now, where would you be lacking? Here are some possibilities:
- If you aspire to a teaching-oriented academic position, do you have actual teaching experience beyond teaching assistant? Have you taught your own course? Have you done any course design?
- If you aspire to a research-oriented academic position, do you have a solid set of first-author and collaborative papers? Do you have a (small) reputation beyond the institutions where you’ve done your graduate work? Do you have a “niche”? Do you have a “brand”? If you were to give an elevator speech or put together a tagline on your professional online presence, what would it say?
- If you aspire to career outside of academia, what additional skills do you want to learn or practice? What sort of people could you connect with during your postdoc to help you find jobs? What experiences could you gain that would make you stand out on a resume or in an interview?
Other long-term goals might be more personal. For example, you may want to publish your dissertation chapters even if you don’t aspire to a research-oriented academic job.
Your goals may not perfectly align with your boss’s. That’s okay and very normal! You need to figure out how to meet your own goals while also meeting your boss’s.
And your goals may change over time. That is also okay and very normal. Revisit your goals regularly, with the help of a mentor if possible.
Realize that the postdoc years can be wonderful or awful and prepare
The other day someone asked me what I thought about my job. Without hesitation, I exclaimed, “I love it!” I surprised myself, as I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about “what next.” On the other hand, these years can be very difficult, lonely, stressful, or heart-wrenching. Learn early on about what sorts of services your university or institution offers for mental health, conflict resolution, and social network development. Some recommendations for maintaining your physical and mental health:  If you tend to put these sorts of things off, remember that they will help you achieve your goals.
- Are you in a new place? Make an effort to meet new people. Develop a social network, preferably one that doesn’t completely overlap your work network.
- Figure out an exercise regime that works for you. If you can make it a social exercise activity, you’re more likely to stick with it and likely to make new friends.
- Pay attention to when, what, and where you eat. Try to eat healthily. Try to eat meals with other people. Try not to eat while staring at a screen.
- Prioritize sleep. When you are in a new place with a new job and new people, life can seem overwhelming. Make sure you get a solid chance to recharge each night. Protip: keeping a regular bedtime makes getting a good night’s sleep easier.
Meet people and collaborate…
As a postdoc, it’s often harder to casually meet people than when you were a grad student. You’re probably going to have to make a bit of an effort. But it’s not all that hard. People love meeting postdocs. Grad students aren’t typically intimidated by you. Professors tend to see you as junior scientists bringing new ideas and approaches to their department. Other postdocs are happy to network. So, attend social functions. Ask your mentor/boss to introduce you around. Invite other postdocs to lunch. Gab with grad students in the hall or lounge. (Grad students know All The Things. Make sure you befriend a few!) Schedule an afternoon coffee with faculty who share your interests. Volunteer to give a department or sub-department talk. Join your university’s postdoc association, if there is one.
SS had several tweets on building a foundation of mentors for career advancement: “Look beyond your immediate advisor for career/research mentors to help get to next stage. Set up meetings with researchers at your university or at conferences to talk science and get career advice. It helps to collaborate and development good working relationships outside of your main lab.”
If you’re an ecologist, consider joining the ESA Early Career Section. This section is made up mostly of postdocs, assistant professors, and non-academic equivalents. The section advocates for early career researchers within ESA, providing a voice for those in this tricky career stage.
… But also say ‘no’ …
One thing that can be challenging about being a postdoc is that you seem to have So Much Time. You’re not taking classes. You typically don’t have teaching responsibilities. You don’t have committee responsibilities. And so you have very little to structure your day at the outset. The trouble with So Much Time is the tendency to fill it up — and to fill it up with requests from other people rather than with the things that will move you towards your goals. So think very carefully before starting new collaborations or agreeing to take on a new responsibility. Think about what things will move you towards your ultimate goal most and what you might have to put off if you take on the new task. Prioritize, prioritize. Because soon you will find that you have Too Little Time.
… But also take some risks
Serendipity can play a large part in life and in careers.  e.g. My fun side project as a grad student ended up getting me my postdoc, not my dissertation research. If something sounds fun and exciting, you don’t necessarily have to say ‘no’ just because it doesn’t seem to be working towards one of your career goals. Life is not a flowchart. Experiment.
Invest in skills
Invest time in learning the skills you will want later, whether it’s teaching or coding or taking tree core samples. If you feel you want skills in case academia doesn’t work out, computer skills and communication skills are your best bets for re-use in industry. If you want a research job in academia, consider writing or co-writing a major grant from start to end, including the budget and all the minutia.
Live life and have fun
You may be in a new country, or a new part of a country, or a new institution. There are likely many cool and new things to explore both on-campus and off-campus. Check out the campus museums. See what sort of places are affiliated with your institution and visit them. Explore area restaurants. Be a tourist in your new town or country. Make a bucket list of things you’d like to see/do/experience, because if you’re like me, you’ll put them off if you don’t. Then commit to doing one thing per week or month. Your adventures are the things you’ll remember most about your time as a postdoc, not the many hours you sit at your desk.
A few final nuggets of wisdom
- “Don’t be afraid of not knowing something. You have a PhD now: you are an expert learner!” – SS
- “Find a comfortable way of asserting yourself – get credit where it’s due for research & teaching.” – FI
- “You don’t have to stay for the whole time. You can leave a postdoc early if you don’t like it or find something better.” – DLM