With just days remaining of my Postdoc, I thought it would be worth reflecting on what I’ve learned from this experience over the past two years. Let me preface this post by saying that, like all PhDs, all Postdocs are different. My experience is just that, a single experience. But I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that, in retrospect, I wish I could have known in advance.
Postdoctoral fellowships are shrouded in mystery in much the same way as a PhD. In both cases, I had only a vague notion of what these commitments would entail before I got started. When the opportunities arose, I jumped at them. After all, who doesn’t want a Postdoc, right? I only found out what my Postdoc would really entail once I was already in the midst of it.
Sink or swim…
Tip #1: Find a good mentor. Look far and wide if you have to. Some people get lucky and find a mentor either in their PhD supervisor or their professional supervisor in the department hosting their Postdoc. If that’s you, fantastic. If that’s not you, don’t panic. There are various ways that you can go about finding a mentor. A good way to begin is by reading the profiles of faculty members at your host institution, looking out for people with similar interests to your own or who have built the sort of career you aspire to. I have found that well-established academics nearing the end of their careers and Emeritus Professors are generally more interested in fostering the development of young academics than mid-career colleagues who are (understandably) preoccupied with keeping their own careers on track.
Conferences and training courses also offer opportunities for meeting potential mentors, particularly practitioners working in your field. These people might not be able to coach you on the ins and outs of building an impressive academic profile, but they can provide invaluable advice on broader issues of professional development. A mentor working outside of the university sector can also offer an alternative perspective to counter the advice you receive from within the academy.
Tip #2: Write a book. Seriously. While I was on the lookout for a mentor from day one (and found two), I left the book project far too late. When I started my Postdoc, I vaguely knew that some people turned their PhD theses into books. But, to be absolutely frank, I wasn’t terribly interested in spending another year or more with a 300-page document that I thought I had just finished. I got caught up in the excitement of planning my next research project, put my thesis on a dusty shelf, and concentrated on journal publications. And then, after about 18 months, I learned that it is fairly standard practice to use a Postdoc to write a book. When I paused to assess my surroundings, I realized that approximately half of my Postdoc friends either have books already in print or complete manuscripts under review. Great.
Six months later, I have a book in the works myself; but writing it will carry over into my new, non-academic life. “Why bother?” you might be asking. The answer is simple: in this uncertain job market I want to keep my options open. I am moving from one contract position to another, and will be looking for my next job in two year’s time. If potential employers will be expecting to see a book on my CV alongside my Postdoc, I want to make sure I’m covered.
Tip #3: Find ways to achieve balance. This is a cutthroat business we’re in. If you think managing a PhD can be overwhelming, hold on tight because you haven’t experienced anything yet. Publication records, citation scores, speaking engagements, teaching assessments, records of professional service – all of these things will be quantified to determine your professional worth. Without a strategy for maintaining some semblance of balance, it is easy to become overwhelmed. The best advice I’ve come across for pursuing balance as a junior academic comes from Radhika Nagpal’s article The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life. While it is worth reading all seven of her strategies, I found strategies 4 (work fixed hours and in fixed amounts) and 5 (try to be the best whole person you can) particularly insightful. And encouraging.