Securing a postdoctoral research post is often regarded as a major milestone in an academic’s career.
Making the transition from a short-term research contract post to a permanent academic post is, however, far more difficult than it once was.
A recent study by the European Science Foundation, which tracked doctoral holders from seven major research organisations, found that only a third obtained a tenured position within seven years of graduation.
The situation is similar in the US, where the system is “training seven times more people for the same job than could ever get it”, according to Keith Micoli, postdoctoral programme director at New York University School of Medicine and chairman of the US National Postdoctoral Association.
So what can postdocs do to get ahead in the academic rat race?
Publishing a clutch of well-received peer-reviewed papers in top journals and establishing an extensive range of contacts will, of course, help enormously when finding that first job.
However, simply establishing good habits can make postdocs more employable, said Catherine L. Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Professor Drennan, who has five postdocs and eight graduate students in her Boston lab, recently published a list of “10 habits for a successful postdoc” that asked readers to consider how day-to-day activities might improve their career prospects.
Many of the tips challenge postdocs to think of themselves not as junior academics but as future professors and department heads.
“Postdocs need to think about how they are positioning themselves,” Professor Drennan told Times Higher Education.
“It’s not just about having the skills at the lab bench, but having other skills you need,” she said.
Seizing opportunities to hone your writing, presenting and interviewing skills is crucial, while postdocs should identify weak points on their CV and improve on them, she added.
Postdocs should, for example, take the lead in writing papers and critique other people’s articles.
They should also “take every opportunity to practise giving talks” – at seminar series, lunchtime events or at group, area and national conferences, she added.
As Professor Drennan put it: “Good letters get you an interview, a good talk gets you a job.”
But it is equally important to “be a good citizen of the lab and the department”, she said, adding that “recommendation letters are more important to your future than anything else”.
“Whenever I get phone calls from employers, they never ask questions about how smart that postdoc is – they want to know how well they work with others,” she said.
Showing that you can work effectively in a team is hugely desired by universities as well as industry, with firms always on the lookout for promising postdocs, she added.
“Some faculty think you need to be really competitive and push your way to the top – I don’t buy that at all.
“It’s so much better if you can create a good collegiate working environment, and the science is so much better,” said Professor Drennan, who also said that support for colleagues will be appreciated and recognised.
Postdocs should reassess their strengths regularly, keep their options open and may possibly decide that an academic career is not for them, she added.
But postdocs should not be deterred from a career they love just because the going gets tough.
“Having love for your work is important,” she said. “If you really hate your job, then just being there for 15 minutes is awful.”
What it takes: Catherine Drennan’s 10 habits for a successful postdoc
- Take ownership of your project
Your project is your baby. There will be loss of sleep, and growing pains, but you will have a special bond. You should know more about your project than anyone else.
- Read broadly and learn more about research
Position yourself to run your own research group by learning the requisite skills/information.
- Learn how to train people
People with PhDs lead research teams (either in industry or academia). They rarely work in isolation.
- Learn how to write scientific papers, and learn how to give scientific talks
Take the lead in writing papers based on your research. Critique other people’s papers.
- Position yourself to get good letters of reference
Recommendation letters are more important to your future than anything else.
- Learn organisational skills
Learn how to keep a notebook and records. Practise time management.
- Be a good citizen of the lab and the department
Research is about teamwork. Show that you can get along well with others, and help out.
Networking isn’t just about getting a good job, it is about positioning yourself to be successful in that job.
- Learn how to write grants and apply for your own funding
Learn how to write research proposals by applying for your own funding. Help your PI write a grant even if it isn’t on the topic of your research.
- Finish papers before you leave your postdoc
The number of papers you publish is important to your career, and once you leave your postdoc, the chances of an unfinished paper getting finished decrease dramatically.