Five tips for transitioning from PhD to postdoc

The end of your PhD is one of the most hectic times of your life. You have a huge list of experiments to finish, papers to complete, a thesis to write, a defense to prepare for, as well as the small matter of applying for jobs, attending interviews, and making all sorts of huge life decisions. However, if you do end up choosing to do a postdoc, you are going to wake up one day and find that your life is drastically slowing down. As an early-stage postdoc, your work is not going to proceed at the same pace as when you are finishing up your PhD project. What’s more, it would be untenable for anyone to keep up with that crazy pace of work and life for a sustained period of time! Here are five of my top tips to help you shift gears and successfully adapt to life as an early-stage postdoc.

  1. Make a conscious effort to leave on time
    After months of leaving the lab late at night and trying to get as much done as possible, hitting the road at five o’clock will feel weird. As a consequence, you will find yourself making all sorts of excuses to stay longer. Try to be firm with yourself and make a concerted effort to leave at a sensible time. Get used to the idea that you can always get things done tomorrow (or even, shockingly, next week).
  2. Re-acquaint yourself with your non-science interests
    Chances are, by the end of your PhD, you’ve shelved your non-science interests in favor of trying to get all your work done. At least get some sleep and occasionally see your loved ones. It’s important to take those long-forgotten hobbies and interests off the shelf. What could probably be considered a waste of time when you were in the midst of trying to finish your experiments is now a valuable part of the complex tapestry that is your life. Get your sketchbook out of the closet, go back to dance class, or dust off the cobwebs from your long-forgotten clarinet! Keep reminding yourself that every minute of every day no longer needs to be productive.
  3. Get back on the healthy bandwagon
    If you are anything like me (or any of my PhD friends) you will have to admit to yourself that you have officially fallen off the healthy-diet-and-exercise bandwagon. I once gifted a grad school friend a shirt that read “thesis calories don’t count”—and of course a few months of living on chocolate muffins and ramen from the vending machine is not the end of the world. However, once your PhD is all over, you really need to get back to doing your best to live a healthy lifestyle. After all, this is the beginning of the rest of your life! You now have time to go to the gym, cook, and generally look after yourself!
  4. No more shortcuts in the lab!
    Let’s be honest, if you’ve had to really get down and dirty during the end of your PhD, you have probably resorted to a couple of shortcuts. Maybe you haven’t been very consistent in making new batches of reagents once they get low, maybe you’ve stopped reading papers that are not immediately relevant to your day-to-day work (or maybe you’ve just started reading abstracts because reading every paper all the way through would have gotten totally out of control). Perhaps you’ve started using pre-made reagents which save you precious time, but are really costly, or you have completely lost track of your little side projects. This is the time to nip these bad habits in the bud!
  5. Set yourself manageable amounts of work
    Having finished your PhD, you now truly know what you are capable of—and let’s face it, it’s impressive! However, this new phase of your career is not to do with achieving as much as you can in the smallest possible amount of time, but about working in a way that is sustainable over the years. Set yourself a sensible amount of work that you can achieve while working at a reasonable pace. Remember, you now have time! So much time! While of course you want to be a productive postdoc, you are going to be a lot more effective in the long term if you pace yourself. While the end of your PhD was a sprint race, you are now starting a marathon, and of course it makes no sense to start a marathon at the same pace at which you would finish a 100-meter race. Track-and-field metaphors aside, setting yourself manageable amounts of work is the most essential thing you can do to make sure you successfully shift gears into your new postdoc life.

Starting a postdoc can be a really overwhelming time as you start to work as an increasingly independent scientist. Learning to work at a sustainable pace can be a  great tool to not only help you manage but also really thrive in the next stage of your career. Let us know what you think of these tips and whether you have any of your own in the comments below!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Gaia obtained her PhD from King's College, London working on melanoma cell plasticity and how it affects metastasis and patient survival. She has since moved to the United States, where she is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke University. Her work focuses on understanding how breast cancer metastasizes to the bone and manipulates the tumor micro-environment. She loves writing about science and communicating her passion for all things biology. You can find more of her writing here: