February 2015 was the end of an era for me. After over 12 years of postdocing (minus three periods of parental leave and one move abroad), I transitioned into a standard academic role. Was 12 years too long? Many suggest that it’s easy to be a postdoc for too long but given the current job market, I didn’t have much choice. So, I like to think I’ve been very successful in keeping a career going on small pots of money and I’ve certainly learnt a thing or two. Here I introduce the three breeds of postdoc: the superstar, the coat-tail rider and the mixed-bagger.
There are two main types of postdoctoral fellowships. Those that are for a specific role and those that are open to a wide range of research with the project specified by the fellow. In the first instance, a PI (or group of researchers) wins some funding then advertises for a postdoc with the appropriate skills and experience to fill the position. The second involves the potential fellow approaching a suitable advisor, finding a funding scheme, writing a proposal and hoping it wins some money. A ready-made postdoc involves less work to land but you have to be lucky to find a position that matches your skillset. The make-your-own positions can be highly competitive and it can take a few tries for success but you can often work on whatever you want, wherever you want.
In terms of success strategies, there are three main breeds of postdoc. The most successful postdocs (in terms of longevity) have often done a bit of each.
1) The superstar
We all want to be this person. They seem to win every scholarship and grant they apply for. They are highly motivated and very driven. They are the sort of person who will win a write-your-own fellowship because they are well-connected, plan well and have an amazing track record. Aspiring to be this person and going for the prestigious fellowships is a good thing even if you don’t win the grant, you will still be building networks, improving your grant writing skills and learning more about your field of research.
Here in NZ, the main fellowships to apply for are the NZ Postdoctoral Fellowships and Rutherford Discovery Fellowships for early to mid-career researchers but in some fields the Agmardt Fellowships may be applicable and check out this great new website for postdoc schemes worldwide.
2) The coat-tail rider
Find a successful PI or professor and make yourself indispensable to them. This often begins with a defined project and continues with subsequent projects if a good working relationship develops into a symbiotic relationship. I did this perfectly happily for seven years with contracts ranging in length from one to three years. When it works well, the PI finds the money and the fellow does the work. Obviously you need to maintain a good working relationship and if you’ve accumulated enough corporate knowledge, the PI will want to keep you on rather than hiring and training someone new.
Towards the end of my time doing this, I met a recently retired academic who said he had a fantastic research fellow who worked with him for over 15 years. I asked what she did when he retired and he said she retired too. At that point, I realised I couldn’t stay in the same partnership forever and in reality, many fellows advance to Senior Research Fellow and eventually become too expensive to maintain on short-term contracts but in my case, we moved overseas for my husband’s work so I had to do some mixed bagging (see below).
One thing to watch out for is that some PIs can rely on postdocs to do their supervision and other tasks that don’t advance the career of the fellow. Its fine to do some of that work but make sure you keep publishing and developing your own career so you will be able to eventually establish an independent lab one day. Look for a PI who is known as a good mentor and clearly looks after their fellows.
3) The mixed-bagger
There’s no shame in cobbling together some smaller grants, consulting projects and casual teaching to keep you going while you wait for a grant outcome or look for other roles but it’s stressful to do and isn’t a great long-term strategy. If you do find yourself in this position, think about how you present yourself. It helps to maintain and project a certain level of confidence in yourself. Keep acting like a postdoc and talking like a postdoc. Make sure you maintain networks and remain visible so if something does come up, people naturally think of you for the role. Most importantly, keep publishing to maintain your track record.
1) It’s never too early to start thinking about postdocs
Many of the schemes only take applications once a year and few of us win the first position we apply for so it’s important to plan a strategy early. Your strategy should also include a plan b (and c and even d). I suggest students start thinking about this in their first year of a PhD so they make the most of any opportunity to get their work seen and make a name for themselves. Start by looking into the options available to you. Are you mobile? Is there one particular person you want to work with? Map out your ideal pathway and enlist the help of advisors and mentors in making it happen.
2) Network, network, network
Ask your supervisor to introduce you to their networks. Attend conferences (locally and abroad) to meet new people and when you are at the conferences, force yourself to get out of your comfort zone and talk to people. Then don’t be afraid to follow-up with people you meet. Think about lab visits you may be able to do as a student or consider having an international advisor. Get on Twitter and start making virtual connections and looking for places to find out about positions. It’s all about getting your work known by the right people. Two of my thesis examiners offered me a position so let your supervisor know about your plans so they can make decisions to help you achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask successful postdocs for local tips and advice.
3) Publish, publish, publish
This should be number one really because without a strong track record, you won’t get a postdoctoral fellowship of any flavour. Make sure you are publishing in international journals and think about nominating a potential postdoc advisor as a reviewer when you submit your papers to journals.
Possibly the most important message I have for people starting out is to have a strong support network. There will be plenty of rejections and times when you wonder if you have what it takes. Make sure there are people you can turn to for support and guidance.
Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Lecturer in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions.