By Florence Chaverneff, PhD
Chances are, if you have been a postdoctoral fellow for a little while, you have at some point or another (unless it is constantly) felt like the ‘Desperate man’ in this painting by Gustave Courbet. So, in the aim of trying to help and save you from pulling your hair out of your head, here are a few pointers gathered both from personal experience and that of friends and co-workers which I hope will help you cruise through this particular phase of your career and make the most of it, whichever your next step.
1. Prepare your next step
Certainly, as a postdoctoral fellow, most of your efforts should be concentrated on making advances on your project(s) and getting fabulous data worthy of a 30+ impact factor journal. Equally as important, you should start thinking as early as possible about what your next step should be. If you’re not planning on staying in academia to pursue a tenure track position, which, according to statistics should be the case for about 85% of you, you will need to have a plan B. Some sectors are more popular or should I say, more intuitive as a career alternative (think pharma and biotech sectors). But you shouldn’t limit yourself to those areas, as a whole array of attractive options is available to a postdoctoral fellow seeking to transition outside of academia. What these alternatives are and how to figure out which ones fit(s) you best, as well as how to land a job will be the subject of a future post. Utilize the resources available to you at your current institution as much as you can. If you are as lucky as I am, your university will have a very active office of postdoctoral affairs that organizes a plethora of events aimed at helping fellows with their ‘individual development plan’, a term I only learnt about quite recently I’m afraid to admit.You don’t want to be a postdoc forever. No, really, you don’t. Knowing what’s coming next undoubtedly will help you tackle with poise the many challenges you will be facing during this period. As a side note, international postdocs intending on pursuing their career in the U.S. should also plan on acquiring permanent residency while in academia.
2. Manage your stress
Start to realize that most of the stress you experience is self-imposed. So, make it easy on yourself and go to yoga. Free yoga if you can, cause, you know… Naturally, your PI will most likely be starving for data from everyone in the lab, including you, and knowingly or not, also constitute a sizeable source of stress. Just remember one thing. Your advisor is a whole lot more stressed than you are. And that might have to do with the fact that he/she NEEDS data. No data, no publications. No publications, no grant. No grant, no money. And, well, no money, no lab. It is visibly in everyone’s interest to keep the lab. You know the not so old adage, so I’m not going to repeat it. So, learn to deal with your advisor. This might require a good deal of social and emotional intelligence from you. Developing such skills to the point where they become automatic will be essential throughout your career in dealing effectively with bosses and co-workers. You might find it useful to get acquainted with personality tests such as the well-renowned and widely-used Myers-Briggs. This is a great tool to learn about yourself, of course, but also to use as a complement to social and emotional intelligence to successfully interact and work with any personality type.
3. Ask for help
Another great source of frustration in the professional life of a postdoc is dealing with experiments that either simply fail, are not reproducible, do not yield statistically significant results, or even, contradict your working hypothesis, without even mentioning all kinds of other mishaps that are likely to happen along the way. The best way to deal with these issues is to talk them through with your labmates. They might have great insights about things you wouldn’t think of or notice because you are so involved in your project and experiments. So, don’t hesitate to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness!
4. Enjoy your free time
Finally, by all means, try and manage a proper work-life balance. I mentioned yoga earlier, but really, anything that floats your boat and takes you out of the lab, not just outside the door, but literally outdoors. Too many postdocs I have encountered spend most of their awake time in the lab, the rest being spent eating, grocery shopping or doing house chores. If that sounds fun to you, I’m not sure what to tell you. In the opposite case, try and make time to spend on your favorite activity, be it sports, playing guitar or painting. And hang out with your friends and family. Working 24/7 is plain unhealthy and unproductive. So if you feel like you don’t have the time, it most likely is because you’re not managing your time properly. Then, I recommend you learn about time management, be it in a course, a book or on the internet. Also, instead of spending long incubation periods chatting with labmates or surfing the web to whatever websites you favor, do something productive, like catching up on your reading, planning your next experiments, analyzing data…There is plenty to be done and lots of options to pick from. If your project is simply extremely labor-intensive, find yourself an eager undergrad to help lighten the workload. In addition to saving you precious time, you will get practice in mentoring and teaching.
I hope these few tips will help you be a happier postdoc!