10 habits for a successful postdoc

10 must-dos for postdocs identified by Catherine L Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

September 9, 2015
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Professor Drennan, who has five postdocs and eight graduate students in her Boston lab, has 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:

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.

Get the help you need. Take full advantage of group meetings, faculty, others in the lab. Being a postdoc doesn’t mean that you should know everything.

Read broadly and learn more about research
As a postdoc, it is time to start the transition to your independent career, and you will need to assume more and more responsibility for your own training and education.

Read the literature and attend seminars. If you are applying for faculty positions, you will need to write proposals, and thus you will need new ideas.

Make sure that you are continuing to develop your skill set. For example, take the time to help a lab mate do an experiment if it means that you will fill in a hole in your education.

Position yourself to run your own research group by learning the requisite skills/information.

Learn how to train people
If you want only to do research with your own two hands, you shouldn’t have got a PhD. People with PhDs lead research teams (either in industry or academia). They rarely work in isolation.

Train undergraduate research opportunity programme (UROP) students.

Take the time to show others in the group how to do something.

Take courses in mentoring and teaching.

Learn how to write scientific papers, and learn how to give scientific talks
No matter what you do with your life, it is important to know how to do this.

Take the lead in writing papers based on your research. Critique other people’s papers.

Take every opportunity to practise giving talks. Whether applying for industry or academic positions your job seminar is extremely important.

Good letters get you an interview, a good talk gets you the job.

Position yourself to get good letters of reference
Recommendation letters are more important to your future than anything else.

Take every opportunity to network with collaborators (send regular progress updates, for example), and talk about your research in front of other faculty. Many MIT seminar series invite postdoc speakers (biophysics, microbial systems, biochemistry to name a few).

Also speak at joint group meetings or your collaborator’s group meeting or area meetings.

Learn organisational skills
Learn how to keep a good notebook and good records. Practise time management. Organisational skills will benefit you in any job.

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 when the situation calls for it.

No matter what you want to do with your life, networking is important. Networking isn’t just about getting a good job, it is about positioning yourself to be successful in that job. Identify the scientific community that you want to be in, and get to know that community.

If you find that you don’t like the community, you will have time to switch gears.

While some networking opportunities are expensive such as attending national meetings in other cities, others are free and/or cheaper. Free activities include meetings with seminar speakers (ask your principal investigator if you can attend and present at his/her meeting with the speaker); lunches with seminar speakers; and hosting a seminar speaker. Attend free local meetings (MIT hosts many) and present a poster and attend national meetings when they are in your area.

Ask your principal investigator if they know of any speaking opportunities (sometimes a PI will let you give the talk at the meeting).

Learn how to write grants and apply for your own funding
Pitching ideas for money is a very useful skill. 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. Ask others to see copies of their successful grants (sometimes they will even give you the critiques). Good grant writing is something that can be learned.

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. Finish everything!


This guide was first published on MIT’s website and has been reproduced with Professor Drennan’s permission.

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