8 things to consider for early career researchers

As I am coming to the end of my time as postdoc I have been thinking a lot about what I have learnt and perhaps wish I knew when I started out. Inspired by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters To A Young Poet’, I am noting down some thoughts which may come in useful for those considering a career in academia. This first post deals with navigating a postdoc, and I plan to follow it up with what I learnt while applying for permanent positions. I hope some of this may be useful to you!

1) Choose something you are passionate about.

This is definitely the most important thing. It is easy to lose sight of the things that get you into science in the first place. But without the passion you may as well be doing something else!

2) Choose your host lab wisely

Finding the right fit for you is essential. Many of the things to consider are the same as deciding on a PhD lab (a good list of questions can be found here) but there are a few additional things to consider:

  • Top lab in your field vs New PI? Each have pros and cons, but it should be a successful one, otherwise you are unlikely to progress in your career.
  • Money, passion and PI are all important.
  • Something I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is can you find out how many postdocs have gone on to establish their own group out of the lab you are considering. Obviously this is partly dependent on how long a lab has been running, but if it is fairly well established (i.e. more than 10 years) it can provide a valuable insight. Some group leaders are much better than others at helping their staff obtain positions, this can come down to a number of factors including 1) whether they are willing to let postdocs develop their own projects to take away. 2) Do they allow postdocs to remain in the same general research area? It is tough to get an academic position, but this will be made considerably harder if you have to leave your area of interest. 3) Do they allow postdocs to take on responsibilities such as teaching/lecturing, reviewing etc. to gain experience to build up a research profile?
  • Finally there are many other issues you may want to consider ranging from mobility to working with industry as covered in a series of excellent articles in Science.

3) Apply for any funding you can get. This will give you a degree of independence and help build your confidence. They can also be great way to establish new collaborations and will really help build up your CV, which will be useful when you are making the next step in your career as potential employers like to see evidence you can obtaining funding.

  • If you are just starting out, consider applying for a postdoctoral fellowship (e.g. Marie Curie, EMBO, Wellcome Trust etc).
  • During your postdoc you might consider applying for travel grants — these can be to go to conferences or short (several month) trips to another laboratory to learn a new technique. There are many sources for these and where to look depends on your research field, but to give some examples — SEB CoB Travel Grant, RSC Travel Grants, Royal Society of Biology etc.
  • If you are lucky some institutions have internal sources of funding to apply for (for example in Cambridge I was fortunate to have several opportunities ) , so keep an eye out for these too.

4) Remember Your Time is Short!

Don’t hang around! Time as a postdoc is limited, and the longer you are one the harder it gets to move out of academia. An important thing to realize is, if you want it, it is possible to get an academic position after only three years of postdoc. Start thinking from day one about obtaining a position — focus, focus, focus — in terms of research output all you really need is one (or possibly two) good papers. Don’t get bogged down starting lots of different projects you either won’t finish or will take five years.

5) Get a technique.

This was a piece of advice I picked up at a conference near the end of my PhD and it was valuable. What is meant by ‘get a technique’ is become an expert in a particular approach that is not common to your field but valuable for answering the question you are interested in. This will let you make new advances, and will be important when you move on to start your own group.

6) Don’t just do your supervisors work.

This might sound counterproductive, but again was some advice I was given near the end of my PhD that is very important to consider. In the long run it is your career, so you really need to get your work done first — try not to fall into the trap of saying yes too often, otherwise you will loose focus.

7) Networking and Communicating.

Get out of the lab and let people know who you are. You can do this in many ways:

  • Social media, there are loads of guides (and here) out there about how to most effectively do this, but the main point is to find out about the latest developments in your field, help publicize your work and get involved with the wider scientific community. Twitter, LinkedIn and facebook are the main sites, but also using services such as figshare (for poster presentations/talks/data) protocols.io and github to share materials, protocols and code is a great way to increase your impact. Further if you are keen, you might consider starting your own blog, there are many excellent sites run by scientists exploring topics related to their work (to give just a few examples — Michael Eisen, Mick Watson, Gaetan Burgio, PLOS blogs network etc). You can register your own site for free on blogging sites such as tumblr (short format), medium or blogger.
  • Attend conferences and apply to give a talk. In a three year postdoc you should definitely be aiming to do this from halfway in. I have also seen instances when super keen postdocs when visiting a place will try to arrange small seminars to a group of researchers.
  • Consider joining societies, there are many national/international scientific societies which postdocs can join, and if there isn’t one for your research field possibly consider starting one. These are a good way to meet your peers and potential sources of collaboration which could last throughout your career. An example from my own experience is EUSynBioS, (the European Association of Students and Post-docs in Synthetic Biology) which runs a blog and organizes a conference once a year.
  • Take every available opportunity to get involved in your department — postdoc committees, organizing speakers, sitting on committees. This again helps to build connections and beef up your CV, but also allows you to have a say on how your department develops.
  • Meet as many of the invited speakers as you can (departments often run lunches where speakers can get to talk to postdocs). Find out about their work, maybe they have some cool techniques you can apply, maybe there are areas for collaboration. The world of academia is small, so being known by as many people as possible can help — they may review your papers, grant applications or even future job applications, it always helps to put a name to a face.

8) Do You Really Want It?

It is actually really important to ask yourself ‘why do I want to be an academic?’ or would you actually prefer an alternate career path (again great resources in Science and Nature about careers away from the bench). If you are not already aware of it — a very small percentage of postgraduates go on to hold permanent academic positions (for example in the UK this is ~3.5%). So it is advisable to develop your wider skills as much as possible. The worst outcome is if you have spent 5–6 years in the lab with some scientific papers, but can’t get a position and have no evidence of ‘transferable skills’ which can be used in other career paths.