Side note: I just had to have a track and field reference in the title. It’s been the one extracurricular that has kept me hungry in the world of science.
Five years ago, I had the choice to live and work in one of three places. 1. Dallas, TX where I would have worked in a a so called “postdoc factory;” 2. New York, NY where I would have done a blend of clinical and experimental work, and would’ve had to take out loans in the process since the typical salary for postdocs doesn’t adjust for cost of living; and 3. Atlanta, GA where I had the opportunity to fine tune the three-legged stool of research in a specialized sleep and circadian rhythms program and teaching at a historically black (HBCU), all-male college and medical school. I chose Atlanta.
Honestly, I hated being a postdoc relative to being a PHD student. It’s not that I hated my postdoc; my mentors were unbelievably awesome. I just missed graduate school much more. I did have a certain level of flexibility and autonomy with my National Research Service Award (NRSA). Still, I often felt like a glorified lab technician whom I have mad love and respect for and less like an early career researcher. It’s my own fault though and therefore, I learned many life lessons along the way.
I’m not saying I’m the wisest person, but I am pretty wise and fairly observant. I have been successful at “playing the game” or “climbing up the ivory tower” so to speak. My mentors taught me the ways. So, while your postdoc may be different than mine, I think each of these life lessons learned from my postdoc are critical and imperative to thrive and adapt to the fast-paced, uber competitive enterprise that is academic science.
1. Money is time, time is money.
Money talks. I advise my undergraduates to seek a lab with money over a lab that perfectly fits their research interests. Sure, you want some overlap, but you can’t do science if you don’t have money. During the first year of my postdoc, we were broke. My NRSA didn’t get funded because of this. A year later, I resubmitted my NRSA changing very little of the research strategy except for the fact that my boss had an R01. Needless to say, life was good (and still is) with the R01.
So what if you run into a situation when the lab goes broke? Well, you can still work hard, but you have to work smartly. Focus on the other legs of the stool: teaching, and service. For me, I wrote all my lectures for the neural systems course that I taught for all five years as a postdoc, served on the Board of Directors of the Sleep Research Society, and wrote a popular science book entitled, Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain. You can buy it on Amazon. These activities are what got me my interviews for tenure-track faculty positions at great schools.
2. Have your program officer on speed dial.
I was advised to be in constant contact with my program officers at the NIH early on in graduate school. I’m glad that I listened. I’m a decent grant writer. However, sometimes my specific aims can be too lofty, not terribly hypothesis-driven, and don’t align with fundable research opportunities. This is where constant email and phone communication with your program officer becomes imperative. It’s a win-win. They know what is getting funded and what’s not. They know the literature more than you because they are the ones funding it, for the most part. Plus, if your grant is on the bubble that one phone call with your program officer may be the difference between a job and no job. I’m pretty sure that I got my postdoctoral NRSA because of how often I reach out to my program officer. I still run ideas for future projects by him even with the funded grant.
3. Go to conferences.
This is where you learn science. It’s active learning. Plus, you meet the people who will become your biggest allies, adversaries, and employers for the rest of your life. I never skipped the major conferences of my field and I’m thankful that I didn’t. I have my dream job because of it. A week off from the bench to be social has life-long benefits. And why not just work double-time when you return?
4. Do service work.
Much like the benefit of going to conferences, service work is the easiest and most effective way to meet and become colleagues with leaders in your field. Plus, it’s the easiest and most effective way to ensure that your research agenda and interest has a voice, even if it’s just a small one.
5. Don’t plan your lifestyle around your career, plan your career around your lifestyle.
It’s a life hacking motto, trust me.
It also helps to study research problems that are of interest to your life, for whatever reason.
And now for the bad.
1. Sexism is pervasive.
Like many med schools, there are more mustaches than females in our department. For the record, I don’t tout myself as a feminist. My teammates call me their “browife.” I’m that kind of gal. I’m also kind of a narcissist and look good naked; these are relevant to this story. My point is that if I’m being told by colleagues that “I shouldn’t wear white pants because they aren’t slimming enough,” and that I should “host a luncheon with the other (few) females in the department to discuss issues of confidence,” then I can’t imagine how females who may not be as self-assertive and absorbed as me feel when these types of remarks are made.
So how do you combat this? You don’t perpetuate any preconceived stereotypes. You don’t overreact, you don’t get defensive, and you answer matter-of-factly. It’s difficult, trust me. But, these actions help to prevent from being told “your problem is that you are highly aggressive and overly emotional.”
2. Racism is real, for all races. I work at a historically black college. Before that, I did my undergraduate and graduate work at two of the most liberally progressive and diverse schools in the US. I’ve always been open-minded about race. I grew up in a city that is mostly black and many of my cousins are biracial. However, I have never felt so discriminated or profiled in my entire life as I have working for an HBCU. It took one of my closest friends in Atlanta (a black male) for me to recognize this fact, but once I became aware, I listened and observed a bit more. I’ve heard talk of me being the “privileged white girl with an Ivy League education,” when I’m sorry, I’m one of the most selfless, courteous, and appreciative staff members there. Just ask the administrative assistants. They are awesome peeps by the way who do amazing behind the scenes grunt work that we as scientists should be very grateful for. Anyway, it’s interesting and always will be that it took being at an HBCU for me to recognize that racism is a real problem and affects everyone of every color.
Aside from the sexism and racism that I’ve experienced, I have loved every minute of my postdoc. Sure I wouldn’t do it over again (much like I wouldn’t get my PHD again). I didn’t just have a successful postdoc because of me and my doings though. There are many folks who made it possible for me to grow as a scientist, a colleague, a person, and someday, the ability to mentor young people in science, so thank y’all. You know who you are.