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Is it a transition or a continuation? From PhD student to Postdoc.

I spent five and a half years to finish my master-PhD program and graduated in January 2019.  Some graduates pursue to work in industry, but that was never for me. To become an independent scientist, a postdoc can serve as a bridge into the academic environment and to leave the student role behind. So I decided to go for postdoc training after my PhD, since I love academia so much and to do research.

At the time of graduating I was working on mitochondria dynamics in rodent liver but I wanted to shift to another scientific field. Since I always have had an interest into neuroscience, I saw this as an opportunity to pursue this dream of mine. However, I also realized that this transition could be hard and challenging. However, switching fields requires thoughtful analysis, research, and due diligence. I therefore began to search for postdoc positions right after I finished my thesis.

As far as I’m concerned, the rule of thumb is to select a lab that you think can make you excited and happy even when you are frustrated. Interest is the most imperative of all and can serve as a lighthouse wherever you are in the career path. I therefore focused on labs working on neuroscience and whose focus related to my PhD work. Although, I got replies from many of the labs I approached, most were polite rejections. This made me questioning myself and my motives. Was I not good enough for the labs I applied for? Was I not the kind of person to make this kind of switch?Maybe I wouldn’t end up in neuroscience, but I refused not give up my postdoc aspiration. After several rounds of interviews for 6 months with different labs, I finally got a job to work on metabolism, which I touched a little as a postgraduate, so things worked out in the end.

From my personal experience, I would like to share some general tips that I believe can be useful for aspiring postdocs.

 

Selecting a postdoc position 

Whether or not you should change your research field is very important to think about, since what you do for postdoc training is usually what you will end up with as an independent researcher. The journal Science has provided some advice and there are several rules to take into consideration when selecting postdoc position. PLOS ECR writer Dan Jeffries also has some tips regarding the transition blues from PhD student to postdoc. It is important to remember that we don’t have to be anxious or depressed when we find ourselves at different crossroads. Remember that you are not alone and that all PhD graduates face the same issue. Give yourself some time instead, get involved and try to calm down.

 

Learn from interviews

To prepare for interviews is almost like a self-training process. Interviews can be seen as a transition to independence, since most of the time, you have to work on you own to figure it out, but don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance.

When preparing for an actual interview, collect the information of a lab including the head’s C.V., research field, published papers and anything you can find online or through people you know. Nowadays, it’s easy to find such information, but the difficult part is to organize the sources you have and pick up the useful ones. Combine the points you think is vital and your own background.

Prepare the questions that you think might come up during the interview. Although preparation can be very time consuming it’s worthwhile for future interviews and for your research. Questions could be things like why you want to join a certain lab, how you are the right person for the job and what expertise you bring to the group.

Try to harbor the experience from every interview, even if the decision was a negative one. Even the negative decisions can serve as a lesson for future interviews.

 

Always calm down

I myself was fairly excited even before I met my supervisor in person and when he was telling me the project I was going to work on, I was thrilled.

During PhD training, I had been in two different labs, because my first lab was shut down and all students had to shift to other labs to continue our projects. At this stage, I was both disappointed and excited, mostly the latter since shifting to a brand-new lab was an important experience. I believe this gave me a smoother transition from PhD student to postdoc. Although I had been familiar with several techniques, I still had to get used to the new environment. Instructions from supervisor, resource information from various media, knowledge learnt from peers, lectures, seminars, symposiums all flooded into my mind simultaneously. Every day I came home with large sums of knowledge and I couldn’t digest it all. At times, it felt hopeless and I had no idea what exactly I was doing. Not until I got to know a professor during a luncheon that helped me. She advised me to calm down and to write an outline of my project like a chalk talk. The outline should include a brief introduction about the question I wanted to address, the reason why it was important, what the aim of the project was and how it could be realized, what results I expected and possible conclusions.

 

Be independent and innovative

As postdoc you need to hypothesize and work out conclusions more independently than as a PhD student, and you are more treated as a peer than a student. Here you are seen as an independent scientist and are expected to come up with your own ideas and not rely on your PI.

If you already developed an independent mind and could discuss scientific questions with your PI and peers, then it is easier to make the transition. Nonetheless, if your PI acts as a commander and takes care of everything, then it would take a while to fully transit into an independent researcher.

The way to better transit is to provide yourself with more opportunities to listen to other scientists present their work and join their discussions even if it’s not your field of interest. Therefore, attend as many seminars, symposiums or conferences as you can. Present your work publicly, since oral presentations is better than just presenting a poster.

To sum up, I switched from studying an organelle in the liver to cell metabolism as a whole. I appreciated the invaluable frustrations I had, as it led me all the way to the project I now love. Transition is in a way a form of continuation, to basically continue to do research, but in a new area. Science requires this transition and new blood and bold thinking. So, if you are considering a postdoc after your PhD training, don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone. I bet you won’t regret it.

 

Featured image is from Pixabay and is used under a Creative Commons License 2.0 (CC BY 2.0).

 

References

  1. Philip E Bourne, Iddo Friedberg (November 24, 2006). Ten Simple Rules for Selecting a Postdoctoral Position, PLoS Comput Biol 2(11): e121.
  2. Dan Jeffries (July 15, 2019). Tips on a smooth Ph.D. – Postdoc transition; avoiding the post-graduation blues, Early Career Research Community.
  3. Alaina G. Levine (August 28, 2015). Transitioning fields between a Ph.D. and postdoc, Science.

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