By Ritu Raman, Ph.D.
There are many resources targeted at helping graduate students navigate their doctoral degrees, and more recently, an increasing number of resources aimed at helping young tenure-track faculty do the same. However, the postdoc – that transitory phase between these two established periods in the life of an academic – remains largely undefined and unsupported.
Why is this? A big reason is timing. Unlike graduate programs, or faculty tenure clocks, expectations for the duration of an academic postdoc vary wildly between fields and between individuals. Moreover, start-dates for postdocs are not aligned with academic semesters. As a result, incoming postdocs rarely interact with others in similar positions, fostering an incredibly isolating environment.
I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, and have been so for less than a year. I will not pretend to know how to shape the “perfect postdoc”, as I am still in the process of doing so, nor will I offer advice on transitioning to a post-postdoc career, as I have yet to do so. What I have done is built a supportive community for myself and found a way to be happy and fulfilled in my chosen path. As I hear from many fellow postdocs struggling to do the same, I will share a few core values that have helped me in my time at MIT.
1. Find what’s missing
I had an incredibly positive experience in graduate school, but there are certainly things I wish I had done, both personally and professionally, to better prepare me for my future. Before I started applying for postdocs, I identified the missing pieces of my academic training and wrote them down. I then created actionable plans for addressing these gaps in my knowledge at my future lab and university, and used those to guide my choice of advisor, project, and extracurricular activities. Hard things are easier to do when you know why you’re doing them.
2. Invest in social capital
Showing up at a new university and a new lab, with nothing but a cursory orientation on employee benefits and safety training to guide you, can be deeply discouraging and lonely. I attribute my success in graduate school largely to the supportive local network of friends and colleagues I built around myself. I chose to be intentional about doing the same at MIT by setting aside time for social activities and networking events. Many would consider this a waste of time, or a distraction from lab, but I know they directly impacted my current well being and have opened up many paths to future success.
3. Craft your story
While investing in social capital, you will introduce yourself many times, and you may realize you don’t have a cohesive explanation of who you are and why you do what you do. If this is the case, put effort into crafting a story that is honest to yourself, and conveys the things that are most important to you. Many people you meet will have the willingness and resources to help you pursue your dreams, but they can’t do so if they don’t know what your dreams are.
4. Be open to several exit strategies
Many PhDs start a postdoc with a career end-goal in mind. Often, as it was for me, that goal is a tenure-track faculty position. However, if you don’t find yourself questioning or testing your belief in that goal during your postdoc, I would argue that you are not fully embracing the exploratory nature of this phase of your career. If you haven’t heard of another career path that at least piques your interest, or distracts you for a little while, you are likely neglecting learning from the people and resources at your postdoc institution. Your end goal doesn’t have to change, but your postdoc should certainly strengthen your conviction in it.
Hope these tips on mindfully shaping your academic postdoc help you find value and balance in your chosen career!
If you are a graduate student on the hunt for an academic postdoc, check out a blog post I wrote on finding the right postdoc fit.
If you are a person who has found a post-postdoc career, please reach out to the postdoc community via blogs, twitter, etc. to share your postdoc experience and words of advice – we really need and appreciate it!
If you are a postdoc, I hope this was helpful to you, and would value hearing from you about things I’ve neglected to mention or am yet to learn. We are all in this together!
About the Author: Ritu Raman, Ph.D. is a member of the WIA Committee. She received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, with a minor in Biomedical Engineering, from Cornell University in 2012. She received her M.S. (2013) and Ph.D. (2016) in Mechanical Engineering as an NSF Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Find more about Dr. Raman via the links below.