The Other Side of the Tracks—Tips for Transitioning from PhD Student to Postdoc

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*This is the final part of a series on transitioning from PhD student to postdoctoral fellow. Here you can find parts one, two, and three.*

The first year of the postdoc is an exciting time, but it can also be a little nerve-racking. You’ve entered a new space without a cohort of friends along for the ride with you. You’ve gone from being the senior graduate student, who knows the history of your field of interest and can recite paper authors and results off the tip of your tongue, to being the new kid on the block. Although you may feel a little lonely during your first year as a postdoctoral fellow, there are ways to ensure that this feeling won’t last forever. Below are some tips that I wish I had known prior to my first year as a postdoc.

  1. Take advantage of your new beginning. At the start of your postdoc there is usually a period where you are trying to get experiments up and running. Depending on the system you’re using, getting results could take a month or more. Take advantage of this time to read as much of the literature as you can. If you’ve entered a new field or are working with a new model organism, this will allow you to catch up on the history and become familiar with the tools available.
  1. Get your feet wet. Entering a new environment can be intimidating at first. However, there are ways to become comfortable quickly in your new setting. If you’ve moved to a new model organism, utilize the first week to ask your new labmates for tips on how to organize your time and experiments. In addition, you can learn techniques that will be important for when you do a “real” experiment. For example, I had never dissected Drosophila ovaries during my PhD studies. While I was expanding my stocks during the first few weeks of my postdoc, I spent that time dissecting wild-type females to get used to using both of my hands, staining the tissue, and identifying the structures that would be important for my research. This approach can be applied for many other organisms and systems. If you are staying in a familiar field and/or model system, talk to your new labmates about how they may do a technique in that lab. Realizing that all labs have set protocols and techniques that may differ from your PhD lab will be beneficial in the future.
  1. Set goals for yourself. When my grad school “big brother” entered his postdoc position, he told me that “the number one job of a postdoc is to not be a postdoc anymore.” That sentence has stuck with me. In essence, the statement means that the postdoc should be treated as a temporary position, and one way to be successful is to set goals for yourself. Many institutions have implemented the Individual Development Plan (IDP) for their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. This document not only allows you and your advisor to reflect on your progress, but will also establish goals for your future. Information about the IDP can be found here, and the template that my department uses (based off of the IDP from Vanderbilt University) can be found here.
  1. Establish a postdoc committee. Similarly to your PhD thesis committee, a postdoc committee can be established where the postdoctoral fellow presents his/her research and obtains feedback from faculty besides their primary mentor. In 2014 the National Research Council stressed that mentorship should be at the center of the postdoc experience and encouraged “postdoctoral scholars to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple advisers, in addition to their immediate supervisor.” Many departments have suggested this idea, but it is usually up to the fellow to seek out this additional mentorship. In addition to having feedback on your research, it will also be a way to establish yourself as a scientist in your new field and get to know faculty at your new institution/department.
  1. Ask to review manuscripts. One way to quickly jump into a new field is to ask your postdoctoral mentor if you could peer-review manuscripts with him or her. This will force you to catch up on the literature, as well as help to start thinking broadly about the research in your new field of interest. Learning how to be critical of experiments and implications others make based on their data will be beneficial to your own training and thinking of the proper controls for your experiments.
  1. Apply for fellowships. Another way to jump right into your new field of interest is to immediately apply for funding. Also, having your own funding will look good on your CV if you decide to apply for an academic position. However, many postdoctoral fellowships have a cut-off date within the first year after obtaining your PhD. These fellowships include the Jane Coffin Childs, Damon Runyon Cancer Foundation, and Helen Hay Whitney Foundation fellowships. Additional fellowships that are available include the Life Sciences Research Foundation, The American Cancer Society, the Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA F32, many National Science Foundation fellowships, as well as a multitude of others. In addition, it will be good to keep in mind that a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence award is also available from the NIH. Most postdocs begin preparing their application for their first submission by the end of their second year, as you are no longer eligible for the award after 4 years into your postdoctoral fellowship.
  2. Take advantage of campus resources. If there is not a postdoctoral club or association established at your university, it might be well worth your time to get one started. My current department has monthly postdoc clubs run by a senior faculty member that aims to give postdocs additional opportunities to present their research as well as provide information on nonacademic career paths. These monthly get-togethers allow new postdocs in the department to meet each other, as well as provide an opportunity for potential collaborations between labs. In addition, many postdoctoral associations host events for postdoctoral fellows that provide information about postdoc rights as well as fun opportunities for postdocs in different departments to get to know each other. Many universities also have a professional development office on campus that has information and seminars on how to prepare your CV, apply for faculty and nonacademic career positions, and can supply information for teaching and funding opportunities. In addition, if you are planning to enter a non-academic position after your postdoc, look for opportunities and classes at your university and the professional development office to help strengthen your training and CV. Taking advantage of these additional resources can help make you feel welcome at your new institution as well as further enhance your postdoctoral training.

Hopefully these tips will be helpful in transitioning from PhD student to postdoc. Although at times I felt like a complete idiot and thought I was going to be fired multiple times during my first year, I realized that I do contribute and bring a different way of thinking to my new lab. Adam Ruben described the postdoc as a “special kind of hell,” however, I personally don’t find it that bad. Each postdoc experience is different, and the success of postdoctoral fellows usually depends on the opportunities individuals take advantage of as well as their attitude.

Do you have tips that are helpful for transitioning from PhD student to postdoc? Please leave them below in the comments section!

About the Author:


Lesley Weaver is interested in understanding how multiple cells within a tissue communicate with each other to regulate cell proliferation and differentiation. Her doctoral studies were performed in the laboratory of Claire Walczak at Indiana University-Bloomington where she studied how mitotic kinesins are regulated to influence spindle morphology. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Daniela Drummond-Barbosa at The Johns Hopkins University where they utilize the Drosophila ovary to understand how inter-organ and systemic signals influence oogenesis. Email: lweave11@jhu.edu

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