By producing new research publications in science journals, postdoctoral fellows try to grow their reputation as active young scientists full of promise (see: “Postdocs, Part 2” ). Postdoctoral researchers also typically solidify their identity with a given field of science. One or more postdoctoral training periods usually are followed by acquisition of professional employment in universities, medical schools, industries, science-related organizations, new small businesses, etc.
This article is only for postdocs! It uses a question and answer format to offer my advice about some common problematic situations faced by postdocs in any area of science. This advice is based upon my own experiences and observations during 2 postdoctoral appointments, and later as a faculty researcher and teacher. I hope all of this will prove interesting and useful to you!
What practical accomplishments should I work for as a Postdoc?
Number one is to make research discoveries of importance, so that you will be first author of publications in major science journals. Number 2 is to expand your technical expertise with research instruments, experimental approaches, and, subjects being investigated (e.g., other minerals, other stars, other life forms, other bases for chemical synthesis, etc.). Number 3 is to make yourself known to leaders in your chosen research field; this often will provide more opportunities later when you are seeking a job opening, a collaborator, or, advice and counsel. All of these will help establish your identity and reputation as a professional scientist.
How can I work on my own special subject of interest as a postdoc?
This common question is misplaced, since you should have settled this before accepting any appointment as a postdoctoral fellow (see “Postdocs, Part 2” ). Once your position starts, your options are limited because you then are obligated to work on the research project(s) of your chosen mentor. Recognize that all the skills and experience you acquire now with any research operations can be used sometime later to examine your own favorite research subjects.
Should I work only on a single research project as a postdoc?
If your mentor approves, you can work on other projects, too, if they do not interfere with your primary research objective. For example, you might contribute your expertise with some research instrument to the project of a fellow postdoc who does not know how to operate that, but needs the data. These internal collaborations are a good way to get some extra publications and to increase your range of research experience. But, remember what your chief effort always must be given to!
How can I, as a young postdoctoral researcher, get noticed by other scientists?
You must take the lead! The number one way to get noticed is to publish important results of your research in good science journals; quality always gets noticed, and speaks for itself. You should present research results every year at science meetings. At meetings, you can invite a few selected scientists to come and look at your poster; if they have given an invited talk, find them and ask one or 2 well-phrased questions about their research. Another good request is to ask for permission to show one of their published figures during your presentation of an abstract at a science meeting.
Should I take a second or third postdoctoral position?
If you are committed to finding employment as a research scientist, but no suitable job openings are available, then the answer is “yes”. With an additional postdoctoral period, you then will be able to continue doing research and will gain additional publications. However, if you have not found a job because you are out-competed by other job seekers, you should look for additional training at another postdoctoral position so that will fill in your weak area(s). There is nothing wrong with working as a postdoc for some longer time, provided you are not used as a technician or a slave. If you can find a suitable mentor who values your work, has research interests like yours, and is well-funded, this can be eminently satisfactory; as a “Research Associate”, your salary will advance, you will publish as first author, and you will not need to worry about getting research grants.
How can I learn about good job openings?
As the saying goes, “Read Science (magazine) backwards!”. Study all their listed jobs every week, so that you can discern who is offering jobs, what types of positions are available, and which job opportunities and requirements are prominent with different fields and different kinds of employers; there also are several other good sites listing science job openings on the web. Annual meetings of science societies often have a job center listing current openings; in some cases, interviews are conducted at these meetings. Let a few of your professional contacts (e.g., scientists familiar with your work, your former thesis advisor, members of your thesis committee, external collaborators, etc.) know that you are actively looking for a position; not all jobs are advertised, and your associates might bring a few of those to your attention.
What is most valuable in a postdoc’s curriculum vitae (c.v.) for landing a good job?
Number one is peer-reviewed publications of your important research results. Number 2 is how many research methods and instruments you have used and mastered. Having given some guest lectures in a course could help in getting a university faculty job. Attending advanced technical workshops can be a plus. Applying for a patent, receiving a postdoctoral grant, or giving invited seminars always is impressive. Customize your c.v. for each open position (i.e., an application for a university job is quite different from an application submitted for a job at an industrial R&D center).
What should I present for my job seminar?
Present something that is interesting, very solid science, and not too controversial. Include some results that are not yet published, and be absolutely certain to leave at least 10 minutes for questions from the audience before your scheduled time limit is over. Remember that your audience must be able to comprehend everything you say, and must see exactly how you and your research will fit into their local activities (i.e., not all employers want to hire a super hot dog researcher!).
How do I find out about the research grant system?
First, ask your postdoctoral mentor and other local research grant holders to advise you about their strategy for meriting an award. If your mentor reviews grant applications, request that you will be allowed to read one of them and then to also read their critique. Second, carefully study the detailed instructions for writing a grant application put out by the several different federal granting agencies. Third, if and when you feel up to it, spend one month to compose a practice grant application; ask your mentor to criticize it, and you then will learn very much that you now do not know! Lastly, study my recent article on “Unasked Questions about Research Grants for Science, and My Answers!” .
Why will I later have to spend so very much time with research grant applications? I want to work on research, not on shuffling papers!
The short answer is that science faculty in academia need to obtain money for their research expenses, and research grants are the traditional way to get that. What makes this much more difficult nowadays is the intense hyper-competition for getting research grant awards (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ); every scientist is competing with all other scientists, and everything in a career as a university scientist depends upon getting and staying funded. Recognize clearly that as a university scientist you also will be a business person (see: “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities “ , and, “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” )!
After my first postdoctoral job, I have decided that I will not work in a university. I want a science-related job in business. How should I apply for such?
My best suggestion is for you to seek advice on good approaches from one or more scientists having exactly such a position. Be rigorous in checking out all possible employers, and note who has been hired recently. Before your interview, get facts and figures about each business, and then adapt your c.v. or resume to the specific company or opening. Try to construct a few ideas whereby your science and research training will help them with their business activities and objectives. Be aware that many large companies have an initial training period when the new employee is fully instructed about their business and the employee’s role(s).
For many university scientists, their postdoctoral years were the best and most exciting in their entire career. Work hard and enjoy it!
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