The importance of The Post-doc

Dec 22 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

There has been a lot written about getting jobs on blogs recently, so I am not going to further that discussion here other than to recommend the jobs wiki as a resource to anyone in the market. It's not a comprehensive list of jobs, but if you get involved it is a tremendous way to get insight into the progress of searches. Waiting is the most maddening part of the process, especially when some schools (about half) never take the time to bother writing you back about your application. The community there can let you know when others have heard anything back from the same search committees you have applications into, reducing some of the wait. There is also a good discussion forum there.
However, what I would like to talk about in my final post before a brief break is the importance of getting a good post-doc position. I can only speak from my experience, but this is where many careers either float or end up timbers on the rocks. There are more than enough PhDs out there for the various tt positions that come up in the annual feeding frenzy, so if that is your ultimate goal it is essential to differentiate yourself from the rest as a post-doc. The following are a list of factors I would strongly recommend considering when looking for a post-doc position. Take it or leave it.

1) Do something different!
This varies between fields and some of the BioMed folks may take issue with this idea, but I think it is a massive mistake to stay within your comfort zone as a post-doc and pursue research that is very similar to your PhD work. By exploring a new field for a few years you can bring expertise from your PhD while continuing to learn new techniques and approaches to problems. Though it may not be obvious from the beginning, this will give you an advantage when starting your own research program. By combining diverse training you are more likely to come up with novel and innovative research questions that a peer who has spent their time in only one field may not think of.

2) Look for an interactive group.
Even though you will be working in one lab, it will be to your benefit if your lab is part of a collaborative group or center that regularly brings together (through lab meetings, or even socially) several different labs working in a particular sub-field rather than being isolated in a department. Not only does this open you up to new ideas and collaborations, but these types of groups tend to have more equipment and techniques available to their members, which is helpful when you want to chase something down that is out of your lab's expertise. Also, if the group is made up of PIs at different points in their careers (the established head honchos and a couple of rising stars), this is ideal.

3) Don't be a number.
Again, this may be different in BioMed, but IME, being in a lab that is not the size of a small corporation means that you can actually interact with the PI and regularly bounce ideas off them. This can be important if you follow #1 and speed your development. Also, enormous labs tend to just buy anything they need, which is great from a productivity stand-point, but sucks for your development as a researcher and thinker. Personally, I would rather be the scrappy motherfucker who knows where his meat comes from because he grew up on a farm and not the guy who sees steak as just something that is in every grocery store, as though delivered in the middle of the night by meat fairies.

4) Write, write, write.
I know this is hardly novel, but a bit too important to leave off the list. I have often heard the unsubstantiated rumor of The Rule of 20. Essentially, if you don't have 20 pubs on your CV (not all first author), SCs are going to file your application in the big round file that gets taken out by the janitorial staff. If you have a bunch of first author C/N/S papers and only 10 pubs, I'm sure this would not apply. But for the human among us who publish some in specialty journals, get the papers on your CV. My goal was to average 5 pubs a year as a post-doc. Seek out opportunities to write reviews and opinions whenever appropriate.

5) Review, review, review.
Grants, manuscripts, cake recipes - whatever anyone will send you. It may not make for the most productive of times in the short-term, but it will make you a better writer, editor and grantsmith (which is an art). Once your name gets on a few lists, and don't hesitate to mention to senior colleagues that you would be willing to review, quantity should not be a problem.

I'm sure I will think of other things as soon as a post this, but my point is that you have to view a post-doc as a transition between being a student and being a mentor. This is a developmental process and it is critical that you chose a place where you can develop the necessary skills and be selfish about the importance of this stage of your career. A good mentor will see a post-doc as more than a skilled set of hands and it is up to you make the most of the situation you are in by taking advantage of the resources available to you.

Happy holidays all.

2 responses so far

  • Phagenista says:

    This is the first time I have seen someone stress that postdocs should be reviewing, reviewing, reviewing. I'm of two minds about this. I certainly think postdocs should be considered as potential reviewers, and I think one has more of a chance to review as a postdoc than one will have as a tenure-track professor. But I, personally, went overboard on reviewing as a postdoc and was universally told to stop reviewing so much. Ask around what the typical burden is in your field (often 2-3X the number of papers you submit), get to review at that level, and don't review more than that. Learning to say no is a critical skill.A downside of anonymous reviewing is that only your editors know that you're a fantastic reviewer. From a game theoretic perspective, there's very little cost of cheating (not doing your fair share of reviewing) and there's a large cost to doing more than your fair share (your own papers don't get out as quickly). I'm all for changing the system to reward reviewers for their generosity and/or merit of their reviews, but within the broken system we have, it's easy to get carried away to one's own detriment.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I think this depends on each person's comfort level and the timing of the reviews. Obviously, it is unwise to take on a couple of reviews in the middle of writing a manuscript, but I always found reviews were a great thing during the time I was just in the lab. I agree that 10-15 a year is probably a good pace, without including the writing you review for colleagues and students. However, I don't look at reviewing as something that is just a duty and that I should be rewarded for. Reviewing constantly improves my writing and keeps me on top of the latest developments in my field. Often, I don't have the time to evaluate a paper I am just reading to nearly the same extent as one I am reviewing. If I am just reading a paper I pull out the information I can use and I either think the writers did a good job or not, but I move on. When I am reviewing it gives me the opportunity to spend more time with the data, think about whether I would have done something differently and how, and then articulate that back to the authors and editor. I find this a useful exercise, particularly because I commonly go looking for other papers to support my case (positive or negative). Sure, all this takes time and I have turned down reviews because they came in when I was swamped and couldn't do a proper job. But when I do review a manuscript, I always approach it in a way where I gain something from the experience as well. My point for post-docs is that everything should be viewed this way during this phase of your career, because it is critical to use every opportunity to move yourself forward, even if it's learning about a topic only marginally related to your own. As with everything, however, there are only so many hours in a day.

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