Postdoc life: six months in

I received my PhD from the University of Reading on 29 October 2021, and on 14 November I moved to New York City to start a new job as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University. Somehow, six months have passed since then, and I’ve been reflecting this week on my time as a postdoc so far. I was hesitant about writing a blog post on advice for new postdocs, because I feel that these can be a bit overwhelming and (much like PhDs) each postdoc is a unique function of the project, the department, the PI, and the person (you) — and I’m only six months in; perhaps my advice would be different after another six months. But here are some takeaways from my time at Columbia so far.

Hello! This is me on a sunny April day on the George Washington Bridge (my favourite NYC bridge) with downtown Manhattan in the background. Columbia’s main campus is located in Morningside Heights, in Upper Manhattan adjacent to Harlem and the Upper West Side.

Accept that the reality of a postdoc is sub-optimal

I don’t think people outside academia know what constitutes a postdoc (or that it is time-limited by definition), and it can sometimes feel a bit like you’ve fallen down a crack between PhD students and faculty. Nature wrote extensively about the challenges facing present-day postdocs (including one article with a particularly apt title for a New York resident), and the pandemic has exaggerated these difficulties: I know people who have effectively done an entire postdoc virtually. Holding a PhD but no permanent job and no guarantee about your future career — often unlike friends who left academia years ago — is not ideal. But I think of a postdoc as a unique, limited opportunity to do the most to develop yourself as a self-driven scientist for your future — whatever that might be. I came to the US to make it even more of an opportunity to network widely but also experience living and working in another country. If that’s something you can do, I’d definitely recommend it.

Relax, there’s no thesis/dissertation

This seems kind of obvious, but after living under the shadow of a looming thesis (or dissertation, if you’re American — I’m not sure why that difference in nomenclature exists) for years, it can be useful to remind yourself to relax: this doesn’t all have to build toward one big cohesive whole. It turns out that science is much less stressful and more freeing without that on the horizon!

Be prepared for a fiddly ‘onboarding’

This is probably particularly true for postdocs coming from overseas, which adds additional paperwork. Unlike a cohort of PhD students, postdocs arrive on their own and at ad-hoc times during the academic year. That can slow things down, and lead to a slower process of being fully integrated into a university’s HR system. As frustrating as it might be, it seems to be commonplace, but has probably been exaggerated by the pandemic. I think the takeaway would be not to assume your first salary instalment arrives on time and plan financially for that.

Give (at least one) seminar!

You’ve just done however many years of research into a very specific subject area. Tell people about it! This not only helps everyone in the department know you and what you’re about — which will make you feel more at home — but can foster collaborations and spark further research ideas. As you most likely turn up on your own, rather than as part of a cohort, it’s also a good way to announce your arrival. I gave a seminar to NASA GISS (closely linked to Columbia) in January which, if you’re so inclined, you can watch on YouTube.

Take initiative

Although it varies between projects, you have more freedom as a postdoc than as a PhD student — use that to your advantage. Speak to people. Get involved with side-projects. Analyse that random thing that’s been bugging you (I’ve got a meeting next week about exactly this sort of thing, and hopefully it will turn into something really cool!). PhDs are great but they are narrow and restrictive by definition. Ultimately, do what you can to show you can be a successful independent scientist.

Take steps to keep things interesting

I spend a lot of my time sitting silently at a computer in a windowless office. That doesn’t sound particularly exciting, and if I had to do that all-day every day, it wouldn’t be, especially if I only had my primary project to work on. This is where it falls down to the individual to spice things up. Go somewhere interesting to read a paper (today, I went to a nice local café to read a paper I’m reviewing — NYC has abundant places to do that). Set up meetings with people — this can be social as well as work-related, and I’ve had plenty of discussions which haven’t led to anything specifically (yet!), but it’s important to bounce ideas around and useful for other scientists to know what you do. Review journal papers (I say yes to review requests too easily, but usually because they are papers I really want to read) — these will help you stay on top of the latest science and learn who is working on what project. You could even get involved with a journal in a more formal capacity (I’m a Chief Editor — but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that unless you’re really keen…). Keeping variety in your week (perhaps block out some time to do different tasks) also helps.

Keep an eye on jobs

Given that you’re on a time-limited contract, at some point in the not-so-distant future, you will be unemployed unless you do something about it. Because of the typically large length of time between when applications open for academic jobs/fellowships and when the job would be yours (this can be as much as 1 year), it’s worth keeping an eye on job postings and thinking far enough ahead so that you can apply at the right time. If academia isn’t for you, then it’s also a good idea to see what private sector jobs might be a good fit (you can then tailor your work and skillset to these more specifically). For atmospheric/climate science, the met-jobs mailing list is an incredible resource, as is RMetS jobs.

Don’t let yourself feel like a PhD student

… because you’re not! (even if being called “Dr Lee” has yet to stop being weird.)

Use a managed to-do list

I’d be lost without Teux Deux, which I think is fantastic, but there are other good options (for example, there’s the typically Microsoft uninspired-named Microsoft To-Do, which seems decent). I use Teux Deux to plan my week and work out what I’m doing and when, what I must do on certain days, and what is an optional bonus (because we all think we can do more in a day than we can, right?).

Would you know your dream job if it hit you in the face?

I’ll leave you with this thought. For many of us in academia, we are chasing some ideal of a “dream job” — for some this is a tenure-track faculty job, for others it’s pure research (in academia or otherwise). But do you really know what your dream job is? Use your time as a postdoc to get a better idea of what your dream job looks like — maybe your postdoc is close to this ideal, or maybe it isn’t, or maybe the concept of a dream job is all wrong. Imagine telling your younger self about the job you have now… I’m sure they would be more excited about it than you currently are, and that’s always a nice reminder of where you’re at.

What was your experience as a postdoc like? Do you have other tips or thoughts to share? Please feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading.

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