The path that postdocs tread is narrow, and the drop is shear and very high. Does this song ring a bell? Early career researchers in most countries live in a competitive environment where you are supposed to look for the legendary permanent position, usually as teaching staff. So what skills do you need to excel at, what makes you successful in Academia nowadays? But also, what if you look for greener pastures elsewhere, will you be prepared?
Over the last decades the postdoc group has kept on growing to the point that they now constitute the largest staff grouping in most research oriented universities. Academic tenure tracks, positions that allow independent research, haven’t increased in parallel. In the UK, maybe an extreme case
with a huge postdoc group, only about 4 out every 100 postdocs who come up on the academic rollercoaster are destined ultimately to stay in university; see this Nature paper for more details on the numbers.
So the question is not only what do you need to do as a postdoc to stand out and get a permanent position, but more, what can you do to get a good job when you leave the academic path and join one of the many careers available to researchers and managers with research experience.
YOU NEED TO MANAGE PRIORITIES AND YOURSELF
Focus. What is your top priority as researcher? You have a good chance of getting a fellowship or grant if you can produce original independent research. This research should be something that is closely linked or derives from your current employment. You most often have been hired as a postdoc to fulfil the goals of a research project, with a PI that has a research line progressing in said project. Do your goals align? Both your goals as a hired postdoc and as an early career research should be well aligned. What is that you are doing that qualifies as original independent research? You should be able to claim responsibility and leadership of a goal as a hired researcher that also qualifies as your independent research. If you don’t have an answer to this, you should drop everything and figure out what the answer is. Having an answer here forces clarity and focus. Not having an answer is dangerous – it guarantees that you’ll be working on unimportant things and wasting your precious time.
There will always be an endless stream of things to do. It’ll be tempting to do whatever is easiest, or most fun, or most familiar. But this is a trap that will screw you over in the long run. It’s better to make small progress on your most important thing than to finish lots of tasks that don’t actually move the needle.
Manage your goals as researcher. Make your goals and targets precise. You most certainly are part of a team, with a line supervisor that manages probably more people like you within related projects and lines of research. What is that you own in those? Ideally, it should be a metric that is tied to your top priority. If it isn’t, you should discuss it with your PI or boss and establish what your top priority really is. Have a framework plan for your goals as researcher, with needed experiments and so on, that shows what you are accountable for and where you can measure progress. Once you’ve settled on a metric you’ll want to make sure that you know as much as possible about how to make a positive dent in this metric. If things are vague or ambiguous, set aside time to make them precise. Don’t work with ambiguous plans – it’s a recipe for distraction. In general, learn to identify and clean vagueness in your own thinking, writing and communications.
Dominate your area of responsibility. You want to be really good at the thing that you’re supposed to be handling. Obvious, but sometimes it can be tempting to try to do a bunch of secondary things. Keep the main thing the main thing. Select and read papers on your field. Daily. Ask other people about techniques, access to equipment, about what they know; see point below about communication.
Be honest about what you don’t know. Be honest with yourself, most importantly. Practice communicating your uncertainty in a constructive, inviting way. It’s refreshing to be around people like that. Set aside time for learning. When you find good content about your field, bookmark it for later, and go through it at a regular interval. Weekly is pretty good, 30 minutes daily first thing in the morning is even better. If you’re doing a bunch of reading and learning, share your findings with someone else. This helps you understand. Implement your learnings. Set monthly and quarterly goals.
Have a schedule and respect it. Start by making really small, simple plans for the day and then get them done. Write down something that you can do in 5 minutes, then do it, and scratch it off. Do this over and over and get better at it.
Reflect and review on your past work. This helps you improve by figuring out what worked, what didn’t, what went well, what didn’t… you should be doing this regularly, on your own. Not everyone takes detailed notes and reviews them, but it pays off to be systematic and disciplined about this. Take time to use your lab book as an efficient tool for this.
Articulate your processes. This is helpful at multiple levels. First of all, simply taking something out of your brain and putting it on paper is an incredibly useful habit. It forces you to figure out what you really mean. What are you trying to achieve? How do you make decisions? When you articulate your processes, you can analyse them. You can look for weak points and improve them. It’s like watching a replay of yourself. You can share your processes with others, and get feedback. Again, use your lab book for this as much as possible.
You are in charge of yourself. Even if you have a great PI, you ultimately need to take responsibility for your own learning, your own execution, your own growth. It is common to spend the first years as postdoc in a sort of reactive mode (rather than proactive). A great manager will give you valuable targets, advice, context, structure and so on, but this can spoil you a little, because it is only you who can set loftier goals for yourself, and meet them. Nobody is going to push you as hard as you can push yourself, challenge yourself in terms of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Take care of your mental and emotional health. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, so it’s a good idea to do it well, to take it seriously, to enjoy it, to challenge yourself and so on. But if you find yourself getting burnt out, depressed and so on, don’t lie to yourself about it. You are the most important person in your life; take care of yourself. What makes you happy?
YOU NEED TO COMMUNICATE WELL
Improve your writing skills. Establish a good writing practice early in your career. Improve your grammar, punctuation, proofreading and editing skills. Learn what you need to write an excellent grant application or paper.
Communicate effectively, early, and often. Show your work. Share your sketches and drafts. Early-stage feedback is much more useful and actionable than late-stage feedback. Sometimes simply asking a few questions or chatting about something in an open-ended way can lead to superior ideas and solutions that you didn’t expect. Ask clarifying questions. Everything is vague to a degree you don’t realize. Make an effort to make things precise. Being clear about exactly what is expected is very important. People having different expectations, different understandings of a situation, interpreting vague instructions differently, etc – all of these are sources of lots of friction and frustration. It’s worth spending time and energy making sure everyone is aligned on whatever you’re doing.
Practice speaking, give talks, presentations, etc. Communicating what you know with other people is a powerful skill. It will make you a better professional. And you’ll feel lighter at work, too, because the act of teaching and sharing makes you more comfortable and confident in your area of expertise. Build your confidence by practising often. Learn strategies to control nerves, make the best use of your voice and pace your delivery.
Lean on your team; ask for help. Real life isn’t a closed-book examination, where you have to get everything done right yourself, in isolation. Ask for help if you need it. This may vary a little depending on your lab culture and personality. Some people might be intrusive and demanding. But I generally get the sense that smart, respectful people tend to err on the side of caution – not wanting to interrupt others. That said, when you ask for help, be simple and clear about it. «Hey, when you have a moment – I need some fresh eyes to look at my slides for a few minutes and offer copy suggestions». Don’t interrupt people with open-ended non-requests, that’s disrespectful. Give people a very clear ask, and sometimes they’ll even be grateful for the brief distraction and the chance to help move something along.
Be encouraging and supportive to others. It makes a difference. It can make all the difference.
YOU NEED TO CONNECT WITH PEOPLE
Always be networking. We are social animals, a society made of people; build relationships with them. Meet people who are in similar roles as you, doing work similar to what you’re doing. This will help you do your job better. And it’s also quite pleasurable and heartening in its own right, for its own sake. Most people will tell you things in person that they won’t ever write in an email or post online – and these will be some of the most powerful, useful things for you to know. They can open doors for you. They can set things up for you. Sometimes the problem you’ve been struggling with for weeks or months has a simple solution, and that solution happens to be inside somebody’s head – that you can access for the cost of a beer or coffee.
Meet also people who are in different but complementary roles to you. Are you a biomedical engineer? Meet with a medical doctor and talk about the clinical current practice of what you are doing in the lab.
Make a list of people you’d like to work with and learn from. Figure out how to engage with them. It makes sense to build relationships with people for the long haul. It’s good to know good people even if you aren’t necessarily going to make a career in a particular field.
Build and manage your public and online profile. Update and take care of your profile page at your institution. Build your Research Gate, Google Scholar, LinkedIn profiles. Discover the power of social media for communicating research and engaging with the public online. Use twitter, a personal or institutional blog to share your ideas and accomplishments. Engage with mass media and popular science outlets to help increase the reach of your research and the chances of linking to other opportunities.
YOU NEED TO IMPROVE YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF A CAREER IN RESEARCH
Learn the basics of team and project management. Learn what it takes to be a successful leader and influence others towards a common goal or purpose. Learn how to plan resources and time for a project, how to plan for risks, how to decide to kill or continue with a project. Even as a postdoc this will greatly help you when planning and executing your tasks, from daily work to multiyear goals.
Understand how research results are translated to commercial applications in your field. Sharpen your commercial awareness. Learn how executive teams in companies manage their research pipeline, what a newly formed start-up company or an entrepreneur want to see to agree to bring your exciting ideas to life. Learn about regulations and standards applicable to your field. On top of advancing knowledge, is your research likely to solve a problem, have an impact on other people’s life? Impact statements are of growing importance in most grant applications.
Find out about the research policies and support structures that affect you. Where does the money come from at your institution? Who are the research support office teams in it? Most academic institutions have one or several teams to support you with planning and managing research funding proposals and may offer training that is specific to the type of funder you are likely to interact with. Find out about your country’s funding programmes, European funding, contract research and so on.