Dear former graduate student

It was great to hear from you. You were in such a hurry to leave, after defending your PhD dissertation, that I hardly had even the time to take you to dinner to celebrate. I sort of understand, though. I myself, after finishing my doctorate, was eager to move on to the next stage, which, just like it is for you, was a postdoctoral appointment.
I am pleased to learn that you are getting adjusted to your new place, that you have found an apartment, that you had a productive first meeting with your postdoctoral advisor (PA), have met your fellow postdocs and most of the graduate students, and that you are ready to start new and exciting research. And of course, the fact that you are making a great deal more money is a welcome development as well.

From your letter, I gather that you are excited but also worried about what lies ahead. I know, the first impact is intimidating; even though it is over fifteen years ago, I remember vividly what it felt like. Much like you, I went from the quiet and nurturing atmosphere of a second-tier university, to the competitive and humbling environment of a prominent research institution. The “group” went overnight from consisting of a PhD advisor and three graduate students, to including fifteen or more people of different seniority (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, visiting professors). All of a sudden, it felt as if everyone around was smarter, had published more, done better work and knew more than me. Well, you better get used to that; that feeling never goes away, as long as one is in research alive.
And you know what ? It’s probably a good thing. It keeps us on our toes, and makes us want to learn more. Complacency and self-assuredness do not a good scientist make, despite what the prevalent attitude in our field may suggest.

I was struck by some of your questions: “What exactly is a postdoc supposed to do ?”, “Should I work on my own projects, or simply do what my PA tells me to do ?”, “How will I know that things are going well for me ?”… You’re right, I guess we never really did have a conversation about all of this, in the commotion of the past six months, when all that mattered was wrapping up your work and finishing your dissertation.

It is temporary
You know how you told me recently that, even though you have spent five years here, you feel as though you barely know the city and its surroundings, which you have hardly explored, as you have always been focused like a laser beam on your graduate studies and research ? This remains true at the postdoctoral level; even more so, in fact. Now, more than ever, you need to stay focused.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. You know me. We have talked about this, many times. I am not telling you not to have a life, not to take time off, not to have fun like every normal person (especially at your age). I am simply telling you this: your postdoc is a starting point, not one of arrival. And yes, you still have to prove yourself.
I know, it is unfair. You feel as though, with the completion of your doctorate, you have put a major undertaking behind you, and richly deserve to take a “mental holiday” from worrying about your future. But, see, the future is right around the corner. Let me give you an idea of your time table:
Twelve months from now you will, in all likelihood, be sending out applications; for a second postdoc, for tenure-track faculty positions, for industry jobs. It is important that your CV feature, at that time, something more than it does now (even though it looks pretty good now). One major piece of work, a significant research accomplishment resulting from your postdoctoral work will convey a clear sense of intellectual growth, and justify an enthusiastic letter of support from your PA (without any new result, not even the most glowing recommendation will be taken seriously). It is also important that that research undertaking not be seen as a mere spinoff of your doctoral work; it has to be something new for you, where you can demonstrate your ability to switch to a new subject, and keep doing good work independently, without anyone holding your hand. By now you know how long it takes to get started on a new project, and carry it to fruition. You do the math…
Yes, I know, your postdoc seems like a great position, one in which you could happily settle for the next umpteen years, if it only were possible. Alas, it is not possible. It is a (short) term appointment. Before you even know it, you’ll be off to a new position. You should not take your postdoc as a nine-to-five job. It is an opportunity for you to build the best research credentials you can. It is up to you to make the most of it. Remember, having landed a postdoc does not mean that a permanent job (of any kind) is waiting for you down the road. Unfortunately, things do not work that way. There is absolutely no guarantee; the academic and industrial job markets are extremely competitive.

Publish or perish ?
Many are telling you that it’s all about publishing. There is some truth to that, in that low productivity is usually looked upon unfavorably. No publication after 12-15 months in your postdoc, not even a preprint, is not a good thing. You should make sure that that does not happen.
However, above a minimum threshold below which a researcher is regarded as “unproductive”, quality will trump quantity any day. Engaging in the frantic production of scarcely relevant papers is not the way to build an impressive research portfolio. Pick few projects instead, of higher risk but also of potentially broad impact, and with an ensuing greater reward for you if successful.
How do you balance risk with the need of ensuring a minimal level of productivity ? One way is to set aside some time (something like a quarter or so) to work on a project that is relatively “safe”. This may well be related to your doctoral work; perhaps it could be that calculation about which we talked, but which you did not have the time to complete before graduating. How about you do it on your own, now… You are more than capable, and this should give you at least one publication, in case nothing else works out. But you don’t need more than one such “backup project”.

How do I pick my “main” project ?
In general, it is a good idea if your main research project is chosen in agreement with your PA. Ideally it will be something in which (s)he has a big stake and a lot of interest. The reason is that, if (s)he is excited about it, (s)he will be promoting your work (and yourself) to the greater community, speaking at conferences or in seminars [0].
However, you should be selective, and exercise good judgment. Simply accepting a project that is a mere continuation of a line of work that has existed in that research group for a long time, predates you and will continue after you are gone, is probably not in your best interest. I recommend picking something that is new for both yourself and your PA, where his/her experience and guidance can prove valuable but where there is also room for you to make your own original contribution.

What is expected of me ?
That you be able to think and work independently. You need to develop your own ideas and take charge of your research project(s). A postdoc who is just like a beginning graduate student, needs constant help to make simple experimental or computational decisions, input from the PA to decide “what to do next”, is a PA’s worst nightmare. In fact, not only should you not expect (much less wish) your PA to be looking over your shoulder all the time to make sure that you are doing the right thing, there is a pretty good chance that you will be expected to supervise the work of the PA’s graduate students (after all, graduate student supervision is another thing that you have to learn how to do, during your postdoctoral training). Conversely, a successful postdoc is one about whom the PA will be able to say with confidence “this person is ready to start his/her own independent research program”. In any case, when you eventually get to give your own seminar (i.e., during a job interview), it will show whether you have simply followed orders or whether you are truly the driving force behind the work that you are describing. Also, as a graduate student you have focused on your own specific research project, but as a postdoc it is important that you start the process of developing a broad vision of your field of research as a whole. This is why attending seminars and group meetings remains very important.

What is the PA going to do for me ?
Other than paying your salary, you mean ?
A PA might teach you some new experimental/computational/what-have-you “tricks”, but that is not going to be their main contribution, nor what you should expect the most out of them (other postdocs or graduate students will probably teach you more of that stuff — but mostly you’ll learn it on your own). A PA will first and foremost help you identify a research project or area, where you will be able to produce significant new results (thereby making a name for yourself), taking advantage of the skills and expertise that you have developed in graduate school.
And, the PA will also be your main advocate to the rest of the community; (s)he will be talking about you to colleagues looking for promising young scientists to hire, mentioning your name for a speaking slot at some prominent conference, making phone calls, making it possible for you to attend meetings where you may speak to future employers, and in general creating opportunities for you to have some “face time” with people who may be interested in hiring you.

How often should I speak to my PA ?
I think a good rule of thumb is to have an individual meeting, say, once a month. The purpose is to assess the status of the various research projects and discuss (in general terms) what should be done next. There will be other occasions (e.g., in the lab, or at group meetings) where you will be able to ask specific questions. You should not be afraid to seek feedback, nor should you have any hesitation sharing with your PA any concerns that you may have regarding your long term career prospects. Doing so too often is probably useless and counter-productive, but three or four times a year is quite appropriate. A PA ought not be reluctant to discuss such an all-important aspect.
At the beginning of the last year of your appointment, there should be an open and frank exchange between you and your PA about your future, namely jobs for which you might apply, and strategies to adopt in order to maximize the likelihood of a positive outcome. It is the job of the PA to initiate that discussion and take the lead. A PA acting as though that is not his/her problem, or as if that were not an issue, telling the postdoc “oh, well, I don’t know about that, why don’t you finish your project first and then we’ll talk about this…” is a bad PA, and bad news for the postdoc. A contingency plan is more than likely needed, in that situation.

Should I beware of getting too cozy with other postdocs ? After all, they are my competitors…
I have heard that contention myself, many a time. I really do not know from where it originates, but it is one the worst pieces of nonsense that circulate in our environment. Your fellow postdocs are a tremendous resource; you should not be afraid of sharing your knowledge with them, and at the same time you should try to learn from them as much as possible.
It is true that you will likely be competing for the same jobs, but that remains true in any case; there are plenty other postdocs everywhere else in the world who will also be competing with you. Actually, the fact that you all share the same aspirations and dreams will often foster comradeship among all of you, rather than jealousy. And you need to take a longer term view of it; these are the people who later on, may hire your own students, review your own articles and grant proposals, invite you to give talks and spend sabbatical years. It is in your best interest to make them your friends.

I do not know if academia is what I want, or if it is the right choice for me, in the long run…
Your postdoc is precisely the time to find that out. Give it your best shot, try to do the best work that you can (hopefully having fun at it), and then decide. But make it your decision, do not let others talk you into jumping ship too early, before you even have had a chance of finding out what it is all about, and whether you like it or not. As a postdoc, you are moving a step closer to what your life would be like as an academic (even though being a postdoc is not the same as being a full-fledge professor). That will put you in a better position to assess whether it is the right path for you or not.
If at some point you decide that you would rather do something else in life, do not worry: no sane person will ever hold it against you. Not I, not your PA, nobody else that matters. You are not “disappointing” anyone. It’s your life; you are in charge. Just make sure, for your own future happiness, that whatever decision you make, it is for the right reasons (namely, your own, not someone else’s). Whether or not you enjoy research, and the way it is carried out in academia, is perhaps the most important criterion to determine whether it is for you or not. But there are many other legitimate, valid reasons for opting out of academia and research. There is no shame in doing that (nor could there possibly be, given that only a minority of postdocs continue on in research and/or academia [1]).
But that does not mean that you should not give your postdoctoral appointment your best shot. Even if you decide that you want to work in industry eventually, or choose another professional path, your postdoctoral time is never wasted. Your research training will prove valuable later on, in ways you cannot even imagine now.

Can I still talk to you for advice ?
Of course ! The fact that I have signed off on your dissertation, as well as the fact that, as normal human beings, we have had our differences and gotten on each other’s last nerve, more than once over the past few years, does not mean that I want to forget about you. It is important to me that you succeed (by that I mean, for you get to wherever it is that you wish to be, be that in research, academia, or anywhere else). Even from the most selfish point of view, my own reputation as an academic, as well as my future chances of attracting graduate students, rest on how well my previous advisees do [2]. “Doing well” means, to be happy.
I shall always take pride in supervised students who are happy with what and where they are, especially if they keep in touch and have fond memories of the time spent working with me, deeming it meaningful and rewarding regardless of where life has eventually taken them. So, it is in my best interest to keep in touch with you and help you, to the extent that I can. Please keep that always in mind.

Best of luck,

Massimo

Notes
[0] The reason why your PA is invited to give talks instead of you, is that (s)he is better known, because (s)he has been around longer than you have. Resenting the fact that your PA is presenting your work in your place is silly, and misses the point. You are never going to be in competition with your PA for the same job. Your PA is the one who can give your work exposure, and more than likely (s)he will do a better job than you presenting it in the appropriate context, if nothing else because (s)he knows the literature more extensively than you. If your work elicits interest, eventually the community will identify you as the reference person and primary investigator.
[1] See, for instance, the Sigma Xi postdoc survey.
[2] I mean this quite literally. Most granting agencies in North America evaluate a research proposal also based on the effectiveness of the principal investigator at training Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP); this is typically very broadly defined, to encompass professional outcomes quite removed from academia and research. See here, for instance.

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15 Responses to “Dear former graduate student”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for this post. Although I am still a grad student I have thought about these issues and know I have an answer.

    You mention that the project has to be new for the Postdoc. What does that exactly mean? As a theorist I feel it’s easier to work on different problems because the training seems a bit more general (at the end the math is similar if not the same). But as an experimentalist, one spends ~5 years learning a technique, to then go on to a postdoc position and start something new?
    I’ve heard the goal of the PhD is to become the world’s expert in our own project, if true, it seems somewhat weird to have to go on to a different project where we have to start from zero.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Thank you for your comment. You are asking deep questions, and all I can offer is my opinion, based on my experience and observation.
      In order to determine what one should try and accomplish during one’s postdoc, it is important to think ahead, in terms of what people will be looking for in one’s CV, the day one applies for tenure-track faculty jobs (even if the plan is to go to industry, I think it’s a good idea to switch to a different topic — perhaps even more so).
      The new professor will be expected to start an independent research program, generating interesting problems for graduate students to work on for twenty, thirty years. The person must have a broad vision, and be capable of switching to new subjects and keep up with the evolution of his/her field. The more evidence your CV provides to the effect that you have these qualities, the better.

      In the course of one’s PhD education, one will indeed become a “world expert” on a very narrow subject. None of what you have done will ever be forgotten, it will remain permanently a part of your background and list of accomplishments. But it is not enough. The work you have done as a graduate student was supervised, and there is no way for an outside observer of assessing the contribution of your advisor, who will say great things about you in his/her letter but who is obviously biased.
      Being able to move to a different subject and produce equally good quality work with much less supervision, is strong evidence that you are a versatile and visionary scientist who can think outside your immediate problem of interest.

      So, picking only, or mostly projects that can be seen as an almost direct continuation of your PhD thesis is probably not the best idea. Much better is to work on something that can be perceived as “disconnected”, and where your contribution is not mostly “technical” (as it is presumed to be, if you are a graduate student), but rather of scientific leadership (from choosing the problem, to deciding the methodology, to presenting the results to the community)

      I think this is equally true of experimentalists, and indeed in my experience the most successful postdocs do move on to a subject different than that of their PhD dissertation. Of course, that does not mean to build another apparatus from scratch, more likely it will consist of utilizing an existing one, or perhaps help a graduate student build one. Also, whereas if you are a theorist you can continue in your new place as if you had never left (as the math and/or the computer codes will be the same), the lab in which you will be working will always be slightly different — no two labs are identical, I think. So, there will always be some change… Naturally, though, an experimentalist is really the person to talk to, about this.
      I have written about this general subject in a previous post too.

    • Anonymous Says:

      “But as an experimentalist, one spends ~5 years learning a technique, to then go on to a postdoc position and start something new?”

      Indeed, that can be one of the most rewarding postdoc types. I spent my PhD making DNA alkylating drugs, and spent my postdoc learning kinase signaling cell biology and proteomics. Totally different, but helped me grow into a much better scientist.

      This is a great letter okham!

      Arlenna

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        Totally different, but helped me grow into a much better scientist.

        That is what I think too. Of course, there is always the feeling that one is “not publishing as much as the person next door”, who is instead continuing mostly along the lines of his/her graduate work… A good PhD advisor and/or a good PA will be able to make it clear that it is not the number of papers that matters, that one highly cited paper is worth much more than ten papers ignored by the community, etc.

        This is a great letter okham!

        Thank you (blush)…

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Perfect. I will simply refer my soon-to-graduate student to this letter — it will save me some time.

    By the way — send it to the Chronicle of Higher Education Careers section, I think it is worth a bigger audience.

    Mark (the one who bugged you on the verifiability of numerical work, Netherlands’ first ‘offside’ goal and Canadian passports)

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Great stuff!

    It is fantastic that you still mentor your former students. I still occasionally go to my PhD supervisor for advice (e.g. my move out of research), and I see my postdoc supervisor all the time (in fact I’m going to her house on Friday for a get-together with my old lab). It really is a life-long relationship.

    CAE

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Re: Great stuff!

      Thank you… you know, I am just being selfish. As far as I am concerned, research is great and everything but, if one were to take away from this profession the interaction with graduate students and postdocs, there would not be much left…

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I’m the first anonymous. Thanks for your response. It makes a lot of sense, and because I still have a few years left before graduation I can probably start making use of this info.

    This is without a doubt one of the most useful posts I have seen in a blog.

    ARL

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Thank you. You know, I just realized that my sentence

      “The new professor will be expected to start an independent research program, generating interesting problems for graduate students to work on for twenty, thirty years

      could have been taken the wrong way too :-)

      • Anonymous Says:

        Ha,ha.

        You are right. Well, that way maybe a postdoc position in the CV won’t be needed!

        ARL

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Amazing post

    Thanks for this. I’m coming to the end of my postdoc (tenure track soon!) and I can use very little of this advice now. But in looking back at the things me and my PAs did right, I can say your advice is right on target! I didn’t do things perfectly of course and I do find myself wishing I had someone telling me all this 2 years ago. So this should be very useful for postdocs and grad students.

    The part about thinking ahead about how your CV should look by the time you’re applying for jobs is key… I sort of worked on this, had good career support from advisors and also got lucky… But in retrospect, that’s what I should have had in mind throughout my postdoc 100% of the time. No use worrying about feeling inadequate in Postdoc Institution, feel freaked out for not having Science/Nature papers etc… You can and should take direction of your career and focus. And use all the help and support you can get from PAs and other postdocs/students/faculty.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Just wandered over here from reading your comments on CAE’s VXYNot blog and must say that I found this a very interesting post. And I must say – I wish my former advisor felt the way you do about staying in touch!

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