9 tips for a successful postdoctoral experience

By Guest Blogger

This post was contributed by Erik Snapp, the Director of Student and Postdoctoral Programs at the
Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Today's postdoctoral fellows (PFs) face a number of challenges ranging from long periods of training to limited job opportunities in academia - the main reason most people enter postdoctoral training. Similarly, there are several factors to consider when selecting a postdoc mentor and lab. These topics have been addressed in numerous essays and workshops (see the Careers essays in the journals Nature and Science, for example).

This blog post is about how to get the most out of your postdoctoral training experience. If you're going to commit to doing a postdoctoral fellowship, what are you signing up for and how can you do it well? Below, I briefly describe some tips for a successful postdoc fellowship.

1. Reverse engineer success

On Day 1 of your postdoctoral experience, define what will be needed to achieve your intended next career stage and create a timeline for achieving these goals. Planning is often more easily done in reverse. Assuming you want to become competitive for a Group Leader position, what will you need?

  • Multiple first or corresponding author publications (published, not in preparation)
  • A history of successful funding (fellowship grants)
  • A project with sufficient preliminary data to establish your own lab and get an independent investigator grant (e.g. an R01 from the NIH, in the United States)
  • Strong letters of reference that attest to your talent and expertise as a researcher. Depending on the position, you may also want some evidence of teaching experience.

How do you get there and more practically, when do you need to be there? A typical biomedical postdoc fellowship lasts five years. Most universities and institutes annually advertise for Group Leader positions starting in August, the year before the position would begin- for you, at the beginning of Year 5.

Now work backwards. To publish a submitted manuscript in a high-profile journal typically takes 6-12 months depending on the revisions and the amount of time spent shopping a manuscript. Manuscript writing can take weeks to a couple of months and requires that all of the experiments have been completed. Therefore, to be ready to apply for a Group Leader position, key first author manuscripts need to be ready to write by Year 3.5. Thus, it is critical to get an experimental system up and running very early on. Once your system is working, you should maximize data production with the end goal of having sufficient data to write a manuscript. Consider questions like: What figures are missing? For example, are additional controls necessary? As you build your story, are additional data needed to rule out alternative models or to strengthen your new model?  PFs need to be regularly thinking about manuscripts.

The other items will follow. If you get more publications, you will be more competitive for fellowships. If you explore your system more, you will have a better idea of how to leverage it to ask new and interesting questions in your own lab.

2. Seek multiple mentors during your postdoc

At the end of grad school, you searched for and eventually identified a postdoctoral mentor. A good mentor typically writes the grants that fund your research, guides the research directions of the lab, gives you constructive feedback on your research, and teaches you how to write as well as mentor. Yet, even the most dedicated mentor is not always available for mentees due to travel, teaching, grant writing, etc. Also, it is unlikely that a mentor has the only relevant expertise and perspective for your project. Furthermore, Group Leader position applications require 3 letters of reference- the graduate school mentor, the postdoctoral mentor, and at least one more person that knows you and your research well. Who could fill these different roles? A second or third mentor. Therefore, seek out additional mentors. I found this beneficial for my projects, my training, and when I went on the job market. Additional mentors are not so different from having a thesis committee in graduate school. Thesis committee members provide expertise in designing and interpreting experiments, as well as career guidance.

In my own experience, great mentors often can be found during conversations with senior investigators. Discussions can reveal mutual scientific interests, complementary perspectives, a shared communication style. You “get” each other. The other factor is how available the potential mentor is. If the person makes time for you, as needed, this is a strong indicator that this person cares about your science and your development. Taken together, all of this means that you need to introduce yourself to and talk with more senior scientists.

3. Work intensely, but intelligently

Before you do your first experiment in your new lab, stop and plan it out. Some questions to answer include:

  • What is the goal of the experiment?
  • What are the anticipated outcomes?
  • What are your controls?
  • Will these controls enable you to interpret your results?
  • Will the experiment actually answer your question?
  • If you're using a new protocol or reagents, do you understand all of the steps?
  • Do you know how the reagents have been validated?
  • How will the results fit into a future manuscript?

You could easily spend a day or a week planning an experiment, even a relatively simple experiment. However, by taking this time, you can help ensure that you understand the methodology and can have confidence in the reagents and outcomes. This is preferable to finding out you've been doing something all wrong or that a reagent has not been convincingly demonstrated to work for your specific assay. "Quick and dirty" experiments often eat far more of your time as they can result in spurious yet intriguing findings that fail to replicate. Plan experiments logically and strategically to increase your rate of productive results and thereby help decrease the time to your first manuscripts.

4. Balance focus and exploration

Blugene with magnifying glassResearchers face a fundamental conflict. Science is about exploration, discovering new information. There are literally infinite questions one could pursue and experiments to perform. It is tempting to pursue a new line of inquiry that arises from an unexpected experimental result. First, your main project may seem stuck in a rut. Second, many of the great discoveries in science arose from surprising findings when studying a seemingly unrelated problem.

However, you have finite time and resources. You typically have 4-5 years to make discoveries and publish papers to position yourself for a job search. Therefore, you must balance these competing goals. Knowing when to follow a lead and when to terminate a project are fundamental skills that all group leaders must master. While the calculus of these decisions is complex, here are a few guidelines to help you evaluate projects:  

  • blugene SafariIf all of your experiments work as predicted and you get the result you anticipate, what is the best possible outcome, e.g. where could you publish this and how important is the result?
  • Is there a tractable question or are you simply describing a phenomenon? Exploration can be important, but it is equally important to have a plan to get to mechanism.
  • Do the necessary tools exist to tackle the problem and if so, do you have ways to access these tools? Plenty of questions concern great scientific problems, but the technology may not exist to answer the question or it might be extremely difficult for you to get the needed tools and/or expertise.

5. Present your work often

Blugene PresentingSurprisingly, many PFs are reluctant to give talks or posters about their research. They dread giving a departmental seminar or a joint lab meeting. I've been told that PFs feel like it's too much work, they don't like speaking, they don't feel like they get useful feedback, and they don't feel like they've made enough progress since the last presentation.

Yet, PFs need to tell and sell their stories to get jobs. PFs (and mentors) can never be too well practiced or too skilled at presenting and answering questions. Organizing a thoughtful engaging talk takes significant effort. It requires evaluation of all of the data and any recent relevant studies in the literature. Plus, presentations benefit from practice.

If you simply recycle slides from the last time you gave a presentation to a specific group and tack on a few new pieces of data, your talk will probably not inspire you or the audience. Ask yourself:

  • What is the most exciting story I can tell with my data? 

  • Can I make better slides that more effectively tell a story?

Generally, the answer to the second question is yes. As you get better at telling your story, you can find clearer ways to consolidate or present your data. You can create more detailed or functional models or more helpful background slides. If you don't have much new data, speculate on what you hope to accomplish and how your research fits in with the current literature. Finally, if you give your talk or poster to enough different kinds of audiences and if you pay attention to how the audience responds to your presentations, you will become a more confident and skilled speaker.

There's a more fundamental reason to give presentations - networking! People get to know you through your presentations and will be able to provide letters of reference, informal recommendations, more positive grant application and manuscript reviews, etc. You'll also meet future collaborators and get access to unpublished information and reagents. Part of the reason I got my first faculty position was because the search committee asked someone at my institute about me, even though I had not asked this person to write a letter of reference. The group leader had attended my department presentations and could speak knowledgeably about my research and my abilities. Word to the wise:  Do NOT be the group leader candidate that people in your postdoc department do not know....

6. Go to science meetings big and small

Meetings give you and your research exposure. Use meetings to introduce yourself to and interact with the members of your field, and present your research. Face to face meetings can make favorable impressions on potential manuscript or fellowship reviewers, expose your research to search committees, and can lead to mutually beneficial collaborations.

Blugene writing7. You cannot get too much practice writing

Young group leaders are rarely great writers. There are two ingredients to becoming a better writer. First, practice often. Seek opportunities to write manuscript drafts, reviews, cover letters, fellowships, etc. Second, get constructive feedback from experts. If someone crosses out something, find out why. Ask successful writers about their strategies for organizing and self-critiquing their own writings.

8. Learn to mentor, manage, communicate, and teach

The dirty secret about becoming a group leader is that people are typically hired for a job that is orthogonal to their scientific research skill set. You'll need to motivate your trainees, communicate your expectations, and teach classes. Therefore, seek out management and conflict resolution workshops. Get teaching experience and learn about modern pedagogy techniques, especially active learning. Serve as a daily mentor for a summer undergrad, rotating grad student or high school student. Learn to teach how to design, perform, and interpret experiments. You'll be better prepared for your future intended career and you'll become a better scientist in the process.

9. Avoid burnout

Blugene gardeningThe suggestions in this blog add up to a substantial amount of time- most of your waking hours. This is doable and it's a preview of what you are signing up for as a group leader. That said, being a PF can be exhausting. Now is the time to develop strategies to rest and re-energize yourself, and to address all of the other parts of your life, which, inconveniently, do not take time off when you are a PF. Here is my personal list:  

  1. Exercise - nothing dissipates stress and improves your perspective like intense exercise. I highly recommend running or biking or something that demands your attention.
  2. Eat well- a diet rich in vegetables, foods with minimal processing, and low in empty calories will make you feel better and help maintain your health.
  3. Have a hobby- do something that gets you away from thinking about the lab and provides a sense of accomplishment. Experimental successes can be infrequent and a hobby that provides instant gratification can help boost your ego in between scientific achievements. I've found cooking, gardening, hiking, and photography to be very satisfying.

Finally, many PFs are in committed relationships and/or have started a family. Those people are your support network, so remember to thank them verbally and often for their love and support.

Download Addgene's science career guide

Many thanks to our guest blogger, Erik Snapp!

Erik Snapp HeadshotErik Lee Snapp received his PhD in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from Oregon Health Sciences University, did his postdoctoral fellowship with Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz at the National Institutes of Health, was an Associate Professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, and now serves as the Director of Student and Postdoctoral Programs at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His interests include the quality control of secretory proteins in the Endoplasmic Reticulum, optimization of fluorescent proteins,  and live cell imaging approaches. Erik is also an avid long distance runner, gardener, cook, and outdoor photographer

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Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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