Navigating Postdocs Summary

EPSP Connects: Navigating Postdocs – A Discussion on best practices for applying to and getting the most out of postdocs
Panelists: Corina Cerovski-Darriau (US Geological Survey), Noah Finnegan (UC Santa Cruz), Raleigh Martin (American Geoscience Institute), and Duna Roda-Boluda (GFZ-Potsdam)
Summary compiled by Scott Feehan (University of Nevada Reno)

The following is a summary of the advice and experience shared by our panelist during the live meeting in June 2020.

Q: What is the main purpose of post-docs? What is the one thing that you wish you knew before you started your post-doc?

A: The main purpose of a post-doc depends on your career goals. Whether you want a job in academia/research or industry, gaining new skills is a key part of a post-doc, and will help both expand your research scope and technical skills. As you’re gaining new skills (or thinking about the new skills you will gain), put them in context and make sure you can leverage these skills to help launch your desired career. 

Q: What do you look for in a post-doc applicant? How different or similar do you want the applicant’s skillsets to be to the research project at hand?

A: A postdoc should open up new avenues of research with enough existing overlap to offer synergistic contributions for both yourself and your postdoc adviser. An ideal postdoc will not simply repeat your PhD, but it also won’t be so different that you need to start over from scratch.  Try to strike a balance between these so you can harness your skills and that of your adviser to work on new, fundamental science. Keep in mind that funding also plays a large factor, fellowships offer more flexibility in the projects you pursue while a postdoc adviser may have a funded project  and be seeking applicants with more specific skills. 

Q: How did you apply for your post-doc? Did you bring your own funding and research idea, or did you join an already ongoing project?

A: The time frame of applying for a post-doc can range from over a year to a few months before finishing your PhD and either way this is often a stressful time involving some combination of defending your PhD, applying for jobs, and figuring out what new city/state/country you will be moving to. If you are applying for a fellowship this timing will be dictated by the respective agency with some examples being the NSF EAR Postdoc Fellowship, USGS Mendanhall Fellowship and the USGS-NASA postdoc through the USGS Innovation Center

Q: How would you compare your PhD, your post-doc and your post-Post-Doc life? If you could elaborate a little about work-life balance during your post-doc.

A: Work-life balance is largely dictated by the culture of your research group and this may be influenced by country, institution, advisor, your peers, etc.  How you incorporate work-life balance into your work is also largely dependent on life stage. Our panelists felt there is often an existential crisis during postdocs brought on by alack of career-stability, and the panelists suggested it is important to  take time to think about these issues as you grapple with your future career choices. 

Q: For participants here who are close to completion of their post-docs, what is your suggestion for finding a permanent position, both TT as well as industry/federal jobs?

A: First,  applicants should match the search description. So long as you meet that, many universities will want to see that you’ve published papers on fundamental topics in your field. Additionally, demonstrating that you can raise funding (for example, by securing a grant to fund a portion of your postdoc or graduate work) is important.  Our panelists also emphasized that you can change careers, so finding a permanent position does not mean you have to stay there for the rest of your life.  

Q: Our final question, do you have any other advice that we didn’t cover?

A: Trust your instincts, having a background in science/earth science is useful to a wide variety ofcareers. Keep your options open and look broadly. It’s important to get career advice from people outside of academia. Often, we default to asking our research advisers for advice, keep in mind that our advisers are often academics, and have limited experience outside of universities. There are many other options out there! Throughout the process be patient and kind to yourself, getting to this point is extremely challenging so be sure to take some time to think about what you want to do with your life.