My first post in this series focused on how to make the most from your PhD. The PhD is a critical step in the career path of a scientist, but it is just that – a step. Doing well in your PhD will increase your chances of securing a good post-doc position but it won’t guarantee a successful academic career. It just buys you a ticket to the game.
So in this second ‘tough love’ post I'm going to focus on how you can get ahead in that game as an early-career post-doc. Let me say at the outset that a lot of this advice overlaps with my earlier blog post for PhD students, so I recommend you read that one first. There is also some useful advice for post-docs to be found here.
As with my earlier post, this advice is intended for readers who want a career in academia – i.e. those who want to be principal investigators (PIs) and run their own labs. And again, the guide is targeted to those in biomedical science, especially psychology and neuroscience. Some of the advice here is based on a seminar ‘How to get a research fellowship’, which I gave in 2010 at a Marie Curie FP7 Advanced Training Course on brain imaging.
Just who am I to be dishing out advice on how to succeed as an early-career scientist? The short answer is, nobody in particular! You can find out about my background here, but my track record is nothing exceptional among PIs in my field. Maybe this is actually a good thing because it shows that an independent research career is achievable and doesn’t require special academic pedigree or genius. In brief, I did my post-doctoral research from 2002-2005 at the University of Melbourne, before moving to the UK in 2006 and taking up a BBSRC research fellowship at University College London. Since 2008 I've directed my own research group at Cardiff University. To date I have managed three post-doctoral researchers to the completion of 2-4 year contracts. So, overall, the advice stems from three sources of knowledge: things I’ve done myself, things I’ve seen others do, and things I’ve encouraged my own post-docs to do.
Your early post-doctoral years are formative. One of the troubling aspects of academia is that many good, even brilliant, scientists struggle to cope with the unrelenting pressure of post-doctoral science. The salary is modest at best, depressing at worst. The clock ticks faster than ever, and the pressure to publish hangs over everything like a merciless force of nature.
That’s the down side. On the up side, the publication pressure is certainly motivating and the post-doctoral life brings some pretty unique opportunities. I’ve heard it said that, second only to an independent research fellowship, the post-doctoral years provide the greatest professional freedom you can experience as a scientist. Emerging fresh from your PhD, you have a finely honed set of skills and knowledge, while at the same time you are (as yet) unencumbered by a heavy teaching load and the grind of administration. In many respects you are in the ‘zone’. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, your time in the zone is limited, so make the most of it!
Before we get into the specifics, one final warning. This post is about the real, not the ideal. There are many absurd and unfair aspects of the research culture in academia. You aren’t going to solve them as an early-career scientist, so I’m not going to discuss them here. Succeeding in your post-doc is about learning the rules of the game, such as they are, rather than moaning about them or trying to change them.
1. Throughout your academic career, nothing – and I repeat nothing – is more important than your publication profile. To succeed you need to think like a farmer and build a pipeline that includes periods for seeding (design), growth (experimentation), and harvesting (analysis and write-up). During your post-doc, ensure that you always have at least one paper under review and one in preparation. This means you are always waiting for reviews and writing. Always. When you begin your post-doc this pipeline will probably consist of papers from your PhD. Maintaining this pipeline will ensure a healthy output, and if you starting falling behind then you need to take a good look in the mirror. Am I procrastinating about writing? Am I endlessly reanalysing old data rather than eyeing it pragmatically? Does my portfolio of studies include an adequate balance between slow-burn and rapid-fire experiments? Facing your problems is crucial; otherwise that blur in the corner of your eye will be your competitors racing past you.
2. Be strategic about publishing. If, for instance, you have two studies that could be published either as two lower-impact papers or as one more definitive higher-impact paper, my general advice would be to combine them and shoot for a more prominent journal. You can always split them again later if the attempt fails. At the same time, keep an eye out for potboilers – results that will only ever be suitable for less prominent journals but which will be relatively quick and easy to publish. Don't waste precious time sending everything to Nature and Science.
3. When it comes to publications, quality is paramount but that doesn’t make quantity unimportant. There is an obvious truth that junior researchers sometimes forget: publishing a lot of papers proves that you can write, and write fast. It declares to the world that you can communicate your science in an effective and efficient manner. This is absolutely crucial as you move forward in your academic career; you must be recognised by your peers and funders not only as an effective scientist, but also as a capable communicator.
4. Aim to publish every year. Never allow a year's gap in your CV unless your career has been interrupted unavoidably or you have taken a justifiable career break. Otherwise a publication gap is extremely unattractive and akin to dangling a sign around your neck proclaiming “I struggle at publishing. You’ve been warned.” The rule of thumb in psychology and cognitive neuroscience is to publish four good papers per year, but this can vary. Whatever happens, be sure to publish something every year. If your experiments are slow or not yet producing publishable data, then publish a review paper.
5. Aim for as many first-authorships as possible. It is crucial in your early professional life to build your own ‘brand’ as a scientist, and to do this you need to stamp out your intellectual contribution. I recommend always bringing up the issue of authorship in job interviews with prospective PIs. This will show that you are ambitious and serious about achieving the output that is crucial for both you and your PI. And unless there are no other job options available, don’t ever take a post-doc position where the PI cannot guarantee you first authorship on the majority (and preferably 100%) of papers stemming from your own work.
6. Be sure to publish everything possible from your PhD. When you start your post-doc, you will probably have a lot of PhD experiments left to write up. Many post-docs have a strong aversion to doing this, bemoaning how much they are "over it" or how imperfect it all was. As natural as this instinct is, it must be firmly repelled because your future depends on maintaining your publication pipeline. If your PI is generous, s/he may be happy with you using some of your work hours for writing up PhD publications, but more often than not you will need to do this in your own time.
7. Minimise time spent on collaborations where you are neither first nor second author. In psychology and neuroscience, second authorships carry modest weight. But at a post-doc level, anything lower down the list is basically just padding. Watch out if your CV starts to fill up with middle authorships at the expense of first authorships. Doing so will earn you a reputation as a technician or assistant. This can haunt you when applying for senior post-docs, fellowships or lectureships.
8. Don’t waste time trying to be last author on papers. In the psych/biomedical world the final author position conveys seniority, but doing this as an early post-doc is like putting a toddler in a tuxedo. At best, readers will ignore it. At worst, you may come across as a careerist who elbowed their way into to a position they haven’t yet earned.
9. Even though you are a junior member of the academic pyramid, it’s important to realise that you are no longer a PhD student or research assistant. As a post-doc you are a research professional on the road to autonomy. Your PI will expect you to work relatively independently, showing research initiative and leadership. You shouldn’t be merely dancing to the beat of your PI’s drum.
10. Be proactive with the media and get to know your university press officer. Talking to journalists can be daunting at first, but it will help build your communication skills and your confidence. Discussing your own research with journalists is the gold standard, but it isn’t the only way you can interact. For instance, when emails get sent around your department from a journalist seeking comments on a particular issue, come forward if you know about the topic (and remember, you don't need to the world leader in the subject to have something worthwhile to say). If you’re based in the UK then register with the Science Media Centre. Many of your academic colleagues will, by default, shy away from such opportunities. But they do so at their peril, not least because funders are increasingly regarding public engagement as an important responsibility of professional scientists. Speaking up in the media is not without risks, but it is one way of fulfilling your public engagement obligations, while providing evidence of your independence and communication skills to a future employer or fellowship panel.
11. When it comes to running experiments, the motto of the day is parallelise, parallelise, parallelise. A great way of achieving this is to embrace the opportunities afforded by student supervision. Get involved in the co-supervision of PhD students with your PI, and be proactive in the supervision of undergraduate projects. Take on capable students as voluntary interns to run side projects. In my experience there is no shortage of intelligent and motivated undergraduates who are willing to give up their free time to get involved in research – it helps them and it can help you.
12. One of the best nuggets of advice I got as a post-doc was to aim to become the first to do something. It doesn’t have to discovering the Higgs boson, but aim to put your name to something new. This might be a new technique or behavioural task that overcomes limitations in existing paradigms, or a whole new way of thinking about a problem.
13. Start a blog. It’s a great way of communicating with the public and honing your writing skills. It’s for you to decide whether this is best done under your real name or under a pseudonym. There are sensible arguments on both sides and many excellent pseudonymous bloggers in psychology and neuroscience (e.g. Neuroskeptic and scicurious). But keep in mind that working behind a pseudonym offers fewer benefits for your own career and limits your ability for public outreach.
14. If you are employed on a grant held by your PI then negotiate carefully about which experiments are ‘hardwired’ and which can be modified through your input. This is a delicate piece of diplomacy. A good PI will listen if you bring creativity and insight to the table; on the other hand, s/he may be committed to prioritising certain aspects of the research grant even if your idea is better. So don’t be disheartened if your idea is shelved. Have a thick skin and return to it later.
15. It may seem obvious but be sure to arrange regular meetings with your PI. If s/he is extremely busy then those meetings may be infrequent, but try to ensure regularity and keep in touch by email. Speaking with my PI hat on, I can say that I very much like being updated about progress and important developments without having to ask.
16. Aim to write at least one successful grant application during your post-doc, either as PI or Co-I. Aside from the direct benefits to your research, being awarded grants is a sign of independence, creativity, and leadership potential.
17. Unlike a PhD, a post-doc position is a job – at least that’s what your Human Resources division will tell you. However, if you go into a post-doc job interview with that mindset then you will struggle to compete with those who have similar CVs but approach science with zeal. A wise mentor once told me that when PIs appoint post-docs, they aren't looking for slaves; they're looking for junior versions of themselves. And since few PIs have a 9-5 mentality, few will employ post-docs with one.
18. Aim to give at least 2-3 talks per year outside your own department. You don't need to wait for an invitation; you can always contact the seminar organisers directly and put yourself forward. Give local seminars as well. It is important to get noticed both within your own department and beyond.
19. Networking in science is crucial and not always easy. The two factors that I think are most important are your publication record and your social confidence. There is some great advice about how to network effectively over at Scicurious’ blog. One comment in the discussion stood out for me, “As soon as you publish noteworthy papers as a first- or senior-author, people will want to talk to you.” As a post-doc I found this to be true. So my advice is to publish hard and well. Then try to go to one good conference per year and meet people both independently and through your PI. Organising seminars can also be a great way to build important links with other researchers. When your PI has a visiting collaborator or speaker, get to know them. Join in with dinners and drinks at the pub. Don’t be shy.
20. Review papers for journals. If you haven't yet published enough to be invited to review, tell your PI that you would be happy to review papers that s/he is sent. Trust me, your PI will thank you!
21. Give yourself time to think. It’s easy to get swept up in the “chickens go in, pies come out” mentality of academia, but knowing when to stop and think is crucial for having much sought ‘Eureka’ moments. Give yourself time for reading and pondering.
22. Keep your website up to date. It never ceases to amaze me how many junior post-docs are sloppy with their web pages, failing to update their lists of publications, talks, or other achievements. If you don’t manage your public image, nobody else will do it for you.
23. Start developing your own big ideas for the future. As a post-doc I kept a notebook of random musings and it’s amazing how many of them bore fruit in later years, leading to successful fellowship and grant applications.
24. For better or worse, funding agencies are increasingly seeking to defer a portion of research costs to the private sector. If your PI has industry links then take advantage of opportunities to talk to / work with industry during your post-doc. These can be valuable links to forge as you advance in your career.
25. Finally, as you progress through your post-doc, be aware of the double-edged sword that is ‘larger than life’ syndrome. If your supervisor is famous then you will have a stronger chance of publishing in prominent journals, but many readers will also attribute the work to your PI. As a post-doc, publishing in good journals is of course paramount, but there are some techniques you can deploy to draw attention to yourself. The key one is to ensure that you are both the first author and the corresponding author. This means you will be the point of contact for reprint requests and media enquiries about your work.
So there it is. I hope you found it helpful. Much of this advice is common sense - and it isn't even particularly 'tough', in fact. As a post-doctoral scientist, you’ve passed through a major bottleneck in science. If you do good science and publish well, you’ll go even further and could be a PI within 5 years.
Good luck! Please do comment and leave any of your own tips for post-doctoral success.
Good luck! Please do comment and leave any of your own tips for post-doctoral success.