Five ways to prepare yourself to become a postdoc

The end of a PhD is undoubtedly the end of an era. You’ve worked hard, and your work has paid off. You are now a full-fledged Doctor of Philosophy. You successfully played the field and got yourself a postdoctoral position in your dream lab. You’re no longer a student; you are now a professional scientist. While this is definitely a very exciting time, it can also be really daunting. Here are a few tips that might help with the transition.

Your non-science life is important, too.

Science is important, in fact, if you are starting a postdoc, science might be one of the most important aspects of your life. Key is, one of. Make sure you look after yourself during the transition or both you and your work will suffer! Many PhD students move for their postdoc, so make sure you establish a well-balanced life for yourself in your new home. Explore the surrounding areas and take time to make new friends—after all, a postdoc can also be a chance to get to know a new part of the country or a new country all together. Getting in touch with your local postdoc association, for instance, is a great way to start building a network of new peers.

Read up!

As a postdoc, you will most likely be starting a new project and devoting many months of your blood, sweat, and tears to it. It is therefore very important that you start on a solid foundation and that you design a great project for yourself (with the help of your new mentor, of course). Bear in mind that compared to graduate school, supervision will be minimal now that you are a postdoc. While this means more freedom, it also carries more responsibility. Make sure you take your time and thoroughly read about your subject before you dive in to any experiments in your new lab. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, or worse overlook some huge part of your project that could potentially lead you to exciting results. Most PhD students shift areas when they start their postdoc, which means you are going from “knowing everything” to not knowing very much at all. The beginning of your postdoc is your time to build up some base knowledge and slowly find your way through this new and uncharted territory. Writing a grant application or a short review early on will not only jump-start your postdoc but also will really help you expand your knowledge base and help you explore your new area.

Work on your weaknesses.

Most likely, you are going to be the most junior person at your new job. There will be many techniques you have never heard of, and chances are you are not going to be very good at them. However, having to learn something new will actually be a strength rather than a weakness in the long term. My advice is to not shy away from new challenges and really concentrate on what you can learn. After all, that’s the whole point. The beginning of your postdoc is a great chance to learn new things and really understand how they work, so that one day you can teach new lab members. Perhaps your new lab is very focused on in vivo work, while you have previously worked on in vitro systems. Perhaps your new lab does some cool biophysics on protein-protein interactions you have never heard of. Embrace these new ideas and become a pro! Don’t be afraid to ask questions; there’s no such thing as a dumb question. Keep your mind open, and bear in mind that everyone in your new lab will have something interesting to teach you.

Exploit your strengths.

While it’s important to focus on your weaknesses, exploiting your strengths can be a great way to ease yourself into postdoc life. As a senior PhD student, you were presumably an absolute pro at a few techniques. Can you incorporate them into your postdoc work in a useful way? This can be a good way to show your new lab what you can do, contribute to their research, and ease yourself back into the swing of things. In fact, you might be able to bring new techniques into your lab, thus giving back to all those patient people who are taking time out of their busy schedules to help you out.

Enjoy yourself!

Let’s face it, you’re not in this for the money, the fame, the fabulous outfits or the great hours. You’re in this because you love science, and working in science makes you happy. Therefore, make sure you pause every now and again and take a moment to enjoy what you’re doing. After all, this is a huge step! You are now a professional scientist, and you get to learn new, cutting edge techniques that will allow you to tackle fascinating questions and make the world a better place. Enjoy it!

Are you a postdoc? What are your tips for starting out, common mistakes you’ve witnessed, and things you wish you knew in your first few months? Let us know in the comments below.

This blog post presented by COMPASS, ASCB’s Committee for Postdocs and Students).

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:

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