5 things I learned from my first post-doc

As I prepare to take up a lectureship at the start of April, I’ve been reflecting on what I have learned in the 15 months since I finished my PhD. No doubt there are many new challenges which await me as a new member of faculty, but it occurred to me that there are elements of my experience as a post-doc and insights I’ve had – many of which surprised me – which might be useful to others who are about to take up their first post-doc posts. DSC_0174

This post tries to summarise some of the key lessons and will hopefully be useful to some in preparing for what lies ahead.

1. It will take you a while to get over your PhD

This was a big surprise for me. I was lucky to have a largely enjoyable and disaster free PhD experience, which enabled me to finish off my thesis before the money ran out. Still, I found the final year of my PhD very intense and exhausting, and was dealing with a lot of stress in the final few months. I expected to feel ecstatically relieved and free when I took up a my post-doc job, as I could finally work as part of  a team and would no longer be wholly responsible for the end results. On top of this, my new job was in a city and department which I knew very well and enabled me to carry on working with my PhD supervisor with whom I had built up an excellent working relationship.

However, while there were many aspects of the work I enjoyed, I felt pretty anxious, lacking in enthusiasm and just generally pretty low for my first few months in the position. I think this was for a number of reasons which are worth thinking about and preparing yourself for:

  • Your PhD becomes a big part of your identity, so you cannot let go of it instantly.
  • You probably exhausted a lot of your intellectual and emotional reserves of energy to finish your PhD, so you might also need a bit of time to let these recharge.
  • Even if  you have excelled as a PhD student and already had a few papers published, spoken at conferences or done engagement work, all of this starts to look a lot less impressive when you start to compare yourself to other post-docs, some of whom will be more than 5 years post PhD.
  • Academic job transitions are rarely completely smooth – brace yourself for contract and pay issues. I didn’t get my first pay cheque until the end of my second month as a post-doc. Though I was very fortunate to have the resources to deal with this, it was a source of stress.
  • It takes a while to get used to a new role and new relationships with your colleagues, which will develop and change slowly through your post.

2. Maintain your support networks – don’t withdraw

For many of the reasons outlined above, I felt drained of energy at the start of my post-doc, so I pulled back from some of my research group responsibilities and stopped going along to as many research group meetings, as well as partially withdrawing from some of my online networks, such as Twitter. As a research associate I was very keenly aware that I was being paid to work full-time on a research project, so I wanted to avoid time-wasting and distractions.

However, when I actually started playing a more active role again in my research group and on Twiter, among other things, I actually found that they were generally a source of energy rather than a drain on it. I would usually leave research group meetings enthused and I found similar sources of motivation and inspiration online. Furthermore, both fora were useful sources of advice and assistance in the professional transitions I was making. These support networks were also very helpful to me in securing my lectureship.

3. It is ok to take time to work on your own projects

In my experience, nobody will tell you this explicitly, but I think it is tacitly acknowledged that in all academic positions some of your time will be spent following up on old projects and fulfilling other aspects of the academic role which go beyond the project you are being paid to work on. This took me a long time to realise and acknowledge – for the first 6 months of my post-doc I let my research blog go pretty much dormant and I was worried about taking too much time out to write up papers from my PhD work. I’ve only managed to get 1 additional paper from my PhD work published so far.

However, slowly over the last 6 months I’ve built up a new research blogging presence, started working up my remaining PhD papers and put myself forward for involvement in workshops and other pieces of work which are not directly related to my post-doc. These activities were very important in helping me to develop my own professional identity when making job applications, but they have also helped me to regain some of my self-confidence and enthusiasm. If anything, this new-found motivation has spurred on my post-doc work and helped me to develop new ideas around it – far from being a distraction or preventing me from making progress.

I suspect it always takes a while to find the appropriate balance with this, and how free you are to get involved in other projects will also depend your who your PI is. Mine is always very supportive when I let him know what I’m doing.

4. Be proactive about taking opportunities to develop your career

The reality of post-doc-ing is that you always have to have half an eye on the horizon, working out what you want to do next and where the opportunities are likely to emerge. There are lots of things you can do during your post-doc to improve your chances of getting the next job – such as speaking at conferences, giving invited talks, engaging with policy-makers and of course writing papers.

Your PI will probably have hundreds of other things to do with their time, as well as potentially working on multiple other research projects, so you can’t always rely on them to spot these opportunities. Of course, you will probably automatically be writing papers together from your research, but you can be proactive about time-tabling this and setting appropriate deadlines to make sure this happens. You will probably also have more time to follow policy developments and catch interesting calls for papers, so you can identify opportunities to speak, network and engage, which will also be beneficial for the project.

Having already written a policy report and given talks based on my current project I realised that what was missing from my CV was organising a conference panel. So I suggested this to my PI and we developed three conference session plans together for the summer to help disseminate our project findings.

5. You will eventually get used to 9-5 working – if you want to

Whilst my working practices as a PhD student were reasonably consistent, I couldn’t hand-on-heart say that I managed to keep to a 9-5 working day. There were times when I worked more or less, or when work bled into evenings and weekends in order to make deadlines. And towards the end of my time as a PhD student I actually found that I was far more productive working fewer hours with lots of breaks. On top of this, I am really not a morning person, so at the start of my post-doc I found it really difficult to keep to the hours I thought I should be working. I felt exhausted, but also guilty, because I was being paid to work full-time. I understand that 9-5 hours aren’t for everyone, but also I wanted to maintain some semblance of a work-life balance, and so didn’t want to feel obliged to work evenings or weekends.

My experience has been that the 9-5 hours become easier to manage. I think my stamina has improved. I find I am more productive when I have several different tasks on the go at once, rather than one really large and seemingly unending task – another reason why it is good to take time to work on other projects. But I try not to beat myself up too much if I haven’t had a productive day. I’ve also tried to fill my weekends and evenings with fun and fulfilling activities, so there really is no time to get my work done other than in working hours.

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