From PhD To Postdoc

Some advice on how to make the tricky transition from student to independent, well-rounded researcher.

AsianScientist (Apr. 5, 2018) – Completing a PhD can, like many other end-of-chapter moments in life, trigger mixed feelings. There’s joy, relief, sadness, but also fear and uncertainty as to what lies next. It’s at this juncture where many choose to commit to a life in academia, or leave to pursue other pastures.

At Asian Scientist Magazine, we know that change can be difficult. In this month’s column post—the second of our four-part series focusing on transitions—we hope to ease some of that anxiety about crossing over from PhD to postdoc. Just for you, we spoke to three of Asia’s leading scientists, who had these words of wisdom to share:

1. Let go of the coattails

A postdoc is an inherently different beast to a PhD. Simply put, it’s not just PhD version 2.0.

“A PhD is a training of the mind to solve a research problem,” says Professor Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). “A postdoc is further experience in doing that, but also in beginning to manage smaller teams by yourself, to maintain a certain degree of independence, and then hopefully the ability to use this to transition into an independent career.”

This means demonstrating plenty of initiative as a postdoc fellow.

“Before that, you’re just exercising questions posed by someone else,” says physicist Professor G. Ravindra Kumar from TIFR. But at the postdoc level, “you should start thinking about generating your own ideas and not hanging onto somebody’s coattails to tell you where the next steps are.”

“I think what you do at the post-doc level, is where your real personality comes out,” says Kumar.

2. Make some waves

The time to start planning your postdoc is in the penultimate or final year of your PhD, say our experts.

“That’s when you have work you can talk about at meetings, papers being published, etc,” says Vaidya. “This is the time for you to travel, to talk, to attend meetings, to network with the community and really identify potential places that you might be able to go to for your postdoc.”

It’s important to network proactively, she says.

“There’s a huge difference between writing somebody a cold email and having met them at a meeting, or listened to their talk, or having a chance to interact with them to build some sort of a relation before writing to them to say, ‘I would be really interested in working with you.’”

Vaidya is also impressed by potential applicants who demonstrate initiative by writing their own grants or attempting to raise travel funding to meetings and conferences.

“This is very attractive as it indicates to me they are clearly putting in the effort to drive their own career,” she says.

Self-motivation is key, agrees Professor Michael Lai, molecular biologist and Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Academy of Taiwan. When he interviews a candidate, Lai considers their publication record and whether they’ve won any awards or fellowships. But just as important, he looks to see whether the person is motivated in what they want to do in the future.

“Career objectives are very important because I feel I have a responsibility for a postdoc. I want to make sure that after he finishes training, he can get a job,” says Lai.

3. Bigger isn’t always better

Vital to having a good postdoc experience is finding a lab that’s a good fit.

“Sometimes there’s a fascination with very well-known groups,” says Kumar. “But it’s a bandwagon effect that people have to guard against.”

Big-name labs often have overarching goals they’re striving towards, goals that they may want you to contribute a little to, he says.

“But this little bit might take a long time. If you then end up without a few good publications from your postdoc period, that goes against you when you apply for a faculty position.”

It’s also crucial to explore whether a potential lab will match your expectations, Vaidya says.

“Let’s say you have an expectation to be substantially mentored and you have a PI who is really really busy and won’t have the time to mentor you,” she says. “Then maybe this is not the right lab for you to pick,” she says.

“Or let’s say you really want independence and the ability to take the project with you when you set up your own lab. Then going to a young lab that is pre-tenure is probably not the right fit because that lab is first worrying about its own survival and is unlikely to give you a large project that you can take away with you,” says Vaidya.

“In many ways, you have to tailor-make it to your own expectations of what you want out of a postdoc, then ask yourself if it’s realistic to expect those things to be fulfilled,” she says.

4. Become an all-rounder

While research is naturally important as you embark along the postdoc pathway, there are other things that matter too.

“A postdoc is a very interesting phase where you grow a lot personally because you’ve already learnt a lot of skills that you can shape further,” says Kumar. “But it’s also where you can build the soft skills, the people skills… smoothing rough edges, uniting people to work together, and so on.”

“You learn how to manage small teams, how to supervise graduate students or undergraduates,” adds Vaidya. “This is something that really gets honed only after you finish your PhD, because up till then, you’re super focused on your own project.”

A postdoc is also the time to think about teaching and mentoring. Teaching is very important because postdoc positions often transition into academic ones, says Lai.

“Unfortunately, at most institutions, teaching is almost always a hindsight.”

But postdocs can try to seek out opportunities to hone their pedagogical skills, for example by asking their mentors whether they can give guest lectures or substitute for them while they’re travelling, says Kumar.

Apart from that, he believes it’s important for a postdoc to be able to think broadly.

“Lateral thinking is so important in modern science and is what most students overlook,” Kumar says.

“Keep up to date with what’s happening in the ‘neighborhood’ of your chosen speciality, spread yourself out and survey the fields nearby,” he says. “Because you can’t just be doing one thing—where will you get new ideas?”

At the end of the day, Kumar says “you have to jump into stuff and own it” when you transition from a PhD to a postdoc. “Just put your best foot forward.”

This article is from a monthly column called Beyond The Bench. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Sandy holds a BSc in life sciences, and masters degrees in both forensic science and journalism.

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