When the COVID-19 pandemic first shut down university research labs, many trainees had to put their career progress on hold. Almost a full year later, many people have made career transitions and many others must continue their current career trajectories. I hope that my personal experience with transitioning from grad school to a postdoc in the past year will help you approach your own journey and that it will be useful even when the pandemic aspect becomes obsolete.
Start Your Search Early
I began my postdoc search about a year before I planned to start. I talked to my PhD advisor, committee members, and peers about potential labs. The list was a combination of labs whose work I admired, PIs with reputations for being great mentors, labs whose work was a little out of my field but was interesting, and PIs I had met in person who gave me a good gut feeling. I also heavily considered location. My partner was luckily able to move anywhere, but we both wanted to be in a city close to nature.
After I had narrowed down the list, I reached out to the PIs by email. It was a brief email about my PhD research and why I was interested in their lab, and I asked if they would like to meet at the ASCB Annual Meeting or talk on the phone/video chat. In the end, I had a few in-person meetings and a couple of Skype calls (Zoom wasn’t popular in December 2019; imagine that); a few PIs never responded. If you’re starting your search virtually, you should still reach out to PIs for initial meetings. These won’t be formal interviews, but a chance to talk about research interests, expectations, and goals.
What happens when your project doesn’t work? How do lab members interact with each other and the PI? Do you see yourself fitting in?
Starting the search early helped with timing for both me and the labs. It gave us time to set up initial conversations and interviews and for the labs to figure out if they would have space and funding by the time I started. It also gave me some wiggle room for graduating and moving.
Talk to More than Just the Lab Members
Most postdoc interviews include a presentation of your work, followed by individual meetings with lab members and the PI. In these meetings, it’s easy to get caught up talking about science. And that is important—you want to see if the lab is doing exciting and solid work. This is also when you can figure out the nuances of a lab, the things that don’t get published. What happens when your project doesn’t work? How do lab members interact with each other and the PI? Do you see yourself fitting in? Consider the things that made you choose, appreciate, or dislike previous labs you’ve worked in. Without being able to rotate in labs like you did in grad school, you will need to come up with professional ways of asking these questions during the interview.
The interview is also a chance to see the university and city; however, that becomes more difficult with virtual interviews. If you are doing a virtual interview, ask if someone can walk you through the lab and building. While what you see will probably not be a deal breaker, it could help you envision the next few years of your working life.
You go from being super competent in your grad lab to not knowing where anything is in your postdoc lab.
Aside from my interviews, as a proxy for spending time in person, I reached out to other people in my network. I asked friends of friends about how they liked living in the area. I talked to previous lab members and neighboring lab members about the labs I was interviewing with. I also spent some time on Google Earth, trying to imagine my life there—where would I live, how would I get to work—which made me feel less anxious about moving to a new city.
Consider All Aspects of Your Life When Choosing
Remember that you are a whole human being. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the next chapter of your life. You’re going to hear a lot of people telling you to go to the best possible lab at the best possible institution. There’s the undertone that your career will benefit from doing a postdoc at a prestigious school with a famous PI. That might be true, as in reality there is unfortunately an uneven distribution of resources among universities.
I’m a firm believer that you will be more successful if you’re genuinely happy in your environment. Consider whether you want to live close to family, or close to your hobbies. If you are seriously considering transitioning to industry, it might be an advantage to be in Boston or San Francisco where you could network with companies, but proximity alone is not a guarantee, nor necessarily the best way, to get that job. If you are seriously considering becoming faculty at a primarily undergraduate institution, you probably want to be at an institution that has opportunities for teaching and mentoring undergraduate students, but you can always seek these opportunities in creative ways.
There is no single correct path, only the path that is right for you. A lot of factors went into my decision, and there will always be the “what ifs” (I still think about the “what ifs” from choosing a grad school), but I believe that I made the right choice for me, at this moment.
Take Time Off (If You Can)
The pandemic part of my PhD burned me out. So I took four months off after graduating. It was really nice to be bored, and it made me appreciate being back at work. Logistically, it can be difficult or impossible to take that much time off. For one of those months, I was fortunate enough to live with my parents. I wasn’t sure when I would see them again after I moved across the country, and I also saved some money. For the other months, I was privileged because I had been able to save enough money to be unemployed for several months, though I lived very frugally. If you’re able to, take as much time as you need or want. At the very least, giving yourself a few days or a full week to move could help you start fresh.
Have Realistic Expectations
The consensus is that the third year of grad school is the slump, but it’s the first year for the postdoc. You go from being super competent in your grad lab to not knowing where anything is in your postdoc lab. Even if you’re in the same field or studying the same model organism, every lab does things a little differently. It has definitely been slowed down even further by pandemic safety precautions.
Nearly all of my onboarding was virtual. This included orientation with the university, meeting with the director of postdoc affairs, and initial conversations with my PI. Like my grad school, this university practices masking and social distancing, while operating at about half capacity at a time. To get started in the lab itself, I met with my PI and lab manager for a tour of the lab and facilities. When I need to learn a protocol, I will message someone and ask to set a time to be trained. If I just need to know where something is, I’ll ask someone who is in the lab. Fortunately, my coworkers are friendly and helpful (one of the reasons I chose the lab). For now, I’m focusing on one or two experiments at a time. It’s not as much as I wish I could do, but it’s also during a pandemic, and the vast majority of people are not working at maximum productivity.
I think the postdoc is heavily centered on self-motivation. You’re more independent, you’re driving your own project, and you’re setting the tone and pace for all of it. The stakes feel a little higher. If your goal is to have your own lab one day, you’re thinking about the short-term goals of getting a paper out, but also the long-term goals of your future lab’s focus. I’ve only been in my postdoc for about a month, but I can see how it could be overwhelming, or even easy to give up and take a back seat. It’s scary and exciting and my own. I’ll need to remember that being independent doesn’t mean doing it alone.
For more perspectives on postdocs, check out these past articles by COMPASS members:
Maximizing your postdoc (www.ascb.org/careers/maximizing-your-postdoc)
Five ways to prepare yourself to become a postdoc (www.ascb.org/careers/five-ways-to-prepare-yourself-to-become-a-postdoc)
Oh the places you’ll go (www.ascb.org/careers/oh-the-places-you-will-go-tips-for-choosing-a-postdoc-lab)
How to ignore good advice and postdoc in a newly opened lab (www.ascb.org/careers/how-to-ignore-good-advice-and-postdoc-in-a-newly-opened-lab)
The postdoc lab search (www.ascb.org/careers/the-postdoc-lab-search-becoming-a-little-fish-in-a-big-pond)
The challenges of obtaining a postdoctoral position in a new field and model organism in our current academic climate (www.ascb.org/careers/challenges-obtaining-postdoctoral-position-new-field-model-organism-current-academic-climate)
About the Author:
Sara Wong is the current co-Chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS). She is also a postdoctoral fellow in the Hughes lab at the University of Utah, studying mitochondrial-derived compartments.