Your postdoc questions answered (an EMBL Careers Webinar Q&A)

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On 11th September, TIR writer Brooke Morriswood participated in an EMBL Careers Webinar with Kristina Havas-Cavaletti and Mariana de Niz on “how to choose a postdoc position”. Some of the questions asked by webinar attendees, and the panel’s answers, are below.

What is more important when choosing a lab: A big name or a supportive PI?

Brooke: A supportive PI, definitely. You need to be trying to get to the best destination you can, but the personal relationship you have with your postdoc mentor is incredibly important. You need to get into an environment that is best for your personal growth and will catalyse your own transition to an independent position. If that means going to a slightly less prestigious group, but one where you feel you have most opportunity for growth – I would say go for that.

Kristina: In my career I’ve worked mainly for very young group leaders. So of course, they didn’t have big names, they had great careers before starting and I found that to be very stimulating. Because when you enter a young lab, you are involved in their most brilliant ideas, as they are at the start of their career and it’s crucial that the projects they are ongoing are going to take off and do well. I found that to be a really stimulating environment for me.

There’s another issue that hasn’t even been brought up in the questions, is that you are not just joining a group leader, you are joining a group. It’s important that you have as many opportunities as you can to see how that group leader – whether they are prestigious or a rising star – interacts with the people in the lab. It is important to understand from the other people’s personal experiences what they are like to work for. That is going to be critical to your success.

Mariana: Just to add to that – when you are interviewing you should ask those questions. If you ask the right question – you can sugar coat it or ask it very direct – people will usually answer. What you want to avoid, and I have experienced this sometimes, is that you can be very successful on paper and the publications are great, but you can be completely burned out if that support was not there.  This can be a real breaker – and then you’ll be saying all these publications are okay, but right now I just want to sleep for a year. You want to avoid that.

 

What are the key things you should take into account when you are looking for a good mentor?

Kristina: This is very personal. A good mentor for me will be different to a good mentor for you. So you want someone who is on a similar scientific wavelength as you, that gets excited by similar tasks and discussions. And that you have a very open and honest working relationship with. I think that this is key. And there is really no magic bullet here. And that is why it is important, like Mariana said, to speak to people in the lab about the relationships. But also try to speak throughout your career to as many people as you can, so that you can start to identify to the type of styles that perhaps match your own personal taste.

Brooke: Adding to that, when you are looking at future mentors, you have to like them as people. This is someone you are going to have a career-long association with. So if you get the opportunity to talk to them in an informal context, and you feel that there is the makings of a personal relationship, that is extremely important. I think you also need to have the feeling that you can learn something from them. Usually, although not always, this might mean they feel brighter than you. And crucially you have to feel confident that you would feel comfortable going to them and asking for help. This applies at both PhD and postdoc level – if you wouldn’t feel comfortable kicking in the office door and saying I’m lost, you’ve got to help me here, then that would be something to bear in mind.

Mariana: I agree with Kristina and Brooke on the importance of rapport. Usually I trust my gut feeling there, and in the interview you will have heard from some people on how good a mentor they are. One thing I experienced, and I don’t know if this applies to others, is that I thought it would be like a ladder. My PhD supervisor had some great things, and I thought my postdoc supervisor would have those plus some others. But it wasn’t like that. So don’t expect that. So even if the things are there that make them a great mentor, it will be a different experience.

 

Do you recommend doing a second postdoc?

Brooke: One key thing to bear in mind here is the experience trap: the way that the funding system is set up, is that as soon as you start your first postdoc, the clock starts ticking. There are loads and loads of funding opportunities and fellowship programs for people who are fresh out of their PhD. There are incredibly few opportunities to raise funding for a second postdoc. This is something that disproportionally affects people who get their PhDs quite young, which is often the case for people coming from the UK. I was 26 when I started my first postdoc. In theory, there is nothing wrong with doing two or three postdocs – you should not start aiming for an independent position until you feel ready to run your own group so let that process take its time. But keep in mind that it is much harder to get independent funding for a second or third postdoc, so you will be relying more on having a group that is well-funded and can pay you directly.

Kristina: I also have realized that it’s not just going to affect your postdoc, it’s also going to affect – if you want to stay in academia – your funding as a junior group leader. The further you are from your PhD, the harder it is going to be to get funding. So I think you have to ask yourself, why do I want to look for a second postdoc? Is it because I know that I want this track but I am not ready yet and I know that that lab is going to make a difference? Or is it just because I don’t know what I want to do yet? And I think these are really difficult questions to ask yourself, and these are not always questions I asked myself. During my postdoc period, I was happy to be where I was when I was there because I liked it, but I wasn’t thinking ahead. And I think when you are making these types of decisions, you should be asking yourself, why am I confronting this? And if you are going to do a second postdoc, make sure it is going to provide you with exactly what you need to get where you want to be.

Mariana: It depends also what else it brings. So, for example, in my case, I’m doing a second postdoc and something that triggered this decision is that in the UK they gave training on equality and diversity, and I found it super useful. One of the topics discussed was women leaders in science. I realised that up until then I had been in institutes with very few women, and I had never worked with a woman, and I thought if I continue on this track and become a group leader, I have never seen this life – what are the challenges, what are the differences in styles of leadership and how would this be for me? But I agree – it should not be just extended, extended, extended always doing the same thing.

 

What is your opinion on doing several short post-docs (1 year) opposed to one longer stay (3 year)?

Kristina: I think you have to ask yourself why you are doing them. Is it that you want to change your model system and get experience in a particular system? From a wet lab point of view, it is very difficult to reach a successful conclusion in terms of a paper in the span of one year. And so, personally, I think you are only going to weaken your CV if you are going for more experiences, without having something tangible that comes out of these in terms of publications. Because at the end of the day, whether we like it or not, that is how we are going to be judged as scientists. So it depends on the circumstance, but personally I think 1-year postdocs are very difficult.

Brooke: I would echo that. You will find people who have made every kind of combination of positions that work, and there are some fields where you can get a lot done in one year – for example bioinformatics – and if you walk into a project that is already set-up and optimised you can hit the ground running. But the goal of the postdoc period is to generate enough publications to make you an attractive faculty proposition. And it’s almost certainly going to be easier to achieve that if you have a more sustained stay in one environment.

 

When changing fields from PhD into postdoc, how can we make sure that research output is high despite new methods/questions/field?

Mariana: There’s always going to be a learning curve. As Brooke said, and I think the suggestion is great, change one of these three things: system, topic, or technique. If you change too many, it might become unmanageable, so the learning curve will be very steep for everything. You will feel lost and it will take some time. On the other hand, perhaps at the end of that you will know a lot more. But you want to keep productivity to a certain level consistent. I changed field, and I was very happy. Having done all of my degrees and a first postdoc in malaria, I wanted to be excited about something I don’t know anything about. And this was great for me to switch fields.

Brooke: You’re absolutely right to identify productivity as a key parameter for the postdoc period. You need to change a little but not too much, so you can maintain productivity when you start the postdoc. Perhaps one further thing I would add based on my own experience is that in a postdoc project, if you are looking to maintain productivity, you should also be prepared to walk away from a particular line of research if it looks unproductive. In my case, it turned out that after about a year in, that the main hypothesis that the project was based on was not really holding up. So I had the choice whether to follow it through and see if we could work out what was happening, or walk away and do something new within the same group. In my PhD, I had just missed out on something that blew up just after I left, so I wanted to follow it through and see where the project led me, but I always wonder if that was the right decision or not. It is worth always asking yourself “does this look like a high-yield line of enquiry or am I gambling too much?”.

Kristina: If I can add to this… Number one: there is no guarantee in any project. Very eminent people have said every now and again you get an amazing result and you just know this is going to be big. But day in and day out most of what we are doing is important – but that doesn’t mean that you are going to walk into any project and you’re guaranteed that it will be successful, regardless of the system. I have changed pretty dramatically my model system from an all-yeast system, where I thought going in vivo was touching yeast, to working with mouse models. So I was a pure biochemist and now I’m working with mice, and have done everything in between. It’s always challenging; I think that changing your system and retaining your productivity is also on you – are you willing to put in the time? Because it will need time particularly at the beginning. But there are also programmes that help you and support you taking these changes and doing more interdisciplinary work. EMBL is one of these programmes. And I hate to plug EMBL – but I love EMBL and they have this postdoc programme which is called EIPOD. This is an interdisciplinary programme that allows you to bring together two very different fields and create one project. This is also a unique and exciting way to really experience another field – which is perhaps very far out, maybe a different model system or combining bioinformatics with wet lab – in a more safe environment, where you know you’re rooted in something you are familiar with, but you are also bringing in something new. And I don’t think EMBL is alone in offering these types of programmes, so it’s something you might want to consider if you are thinking about making a big change but are a little scared of it.

 

How much do you think would influence someone’s career path to take 1-2 years doing something else between the PhD and the postdoc?

Kristina: I’ve done this. I left science. For me, I was really lucky. You need some luck to get back in. There is funding available, particularly for women or other people who have taken family leave who want to go back into research. But it’s not easy, and you need to find a group leader who is going to support you in that. Saying that, despite it not being easy, for me it was crucial. I did my PhD in the UK system and I think I was too young. I admit it – I was not mature enough when I finished my PhD. I didn’t really know what I wanted yet – and my PhD was pretty easy. I had a great mentor and did really well. I think it was all too easy. Having time away and then making that decision to come back, meant that for the first time in a long time, I knew what I wanted. So if you are not sure and you want to take 1-2 years out, by all means do it. Just be aware that it’s not easy to get back in, and once you are back in, the clock is already ticking so grant opportunities can be more difficult.

Brooke: If you’re a group leader, good people are always worth waiting for. So if you have a good candidate who can explain why they have chosen to have a gap in their CV, this is absolutely no disadvantage or barrier whatsoever. But I think that is the key thing – that the gap can be articulated in some understandable way. If you needed some time out to figure out what you really want, that’s totally justifiable. But if you create the impression that you don’t really know what you want and you’re just ambling around, this sends out a more negative signal. So in principle there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you can justify it.

Kristina: I was just reflecting on this. Taking time away is great – I did it and it can work. But when you come back, there’s a lag time. You forget – I didn’t put methanol in my transfer buffer for my first western blot when I came back. So that’s something you also need to think about. Being away from the lab or computer, whatever type of science you do, and dedicating yourself to something else for 2 years, means that when you come back you are going to have to dedicate extra time to get yourself back up and running.

 

What is the role that networking has played in your career?

Mariana:  I think it’s super important for many different reasons. One is that your network will support you. I’ve had many mentors who were and were not my bosses – so for example, one was my mentor through EMBO when I was an EMBL fellow. I think that type of support makes a huge difference. But also to learn new techniques, collaborate with people…it’s really helpful. So I wouldn’t stay in a little bubble. A friend of mine in a different lab even sent me notices of positions that were open, so here’s where your network really plays a role. If they like your work and they like you personally, they will invite you to apply and you will hear more of those things. If no-one knows you, it is a bit difficult even if you are very talented.

Kristina: Adding on to that, number one – your network is gold. I am where I am today, because of my network. Someone picked up the phone and said “You should have a look at her as she would be a really good fit into that place”. I know that – and am not ashamed of that. Your network is going to be an advantage beyond your position. Your network is going to become your scientific bubble. When you go to send in your papers, when you want to be invited to conferences to give a talk – these are all highly influenced by your network. The broader your network is, the more colleagues you are able to maintain good ties with…not that it will make your career easier, but it is going to facilitate things, like getting yourself in the line-up of speakers at a conference, having your paper land on the desk of someone you know when they go out to review. It’s hard, because science has become an enormous would. And it’s hard not to be able to remain invisible sometimes. It’s hard for me – I suffer greatly from imposter syndrome, where I don’t think I belong. It’s really difficult to put yourself out, but I think it’s the most valuable thing you can do.

Brooke: There’s a phenomenon in human culture called the Matthew effect – which is this rich-get-richer property. So if you are coming from places like EMBL, LMB – you have that on your CV – you have an automatic access to a quite powerful disseminated network that can be of great use. If you are coming from institutions that don’t have that same reach, I think that does mean that you might need to work a little harder at developing that network, because unfortunately you won’t have the same access to the same opportunities that exist elsewhere. I’m very much a fan of informal networking. I kind of dislike the term networking, because it sounds like a business activity. To me networking is having a drink, having a chat. I think you can go a long way by using informal channels of communication, rather than official ones.

 

When you are thinking of establishing yourself as a PI, is it better to have had a post-doc in the institute/country you want to find yourself? Or is it easier to do the post-doc somewhere else and start your lab in another country, networking-wise?

Mariana: I don’t think it affects you – I have applied for PI positions that were not where I did previous things. Also, there are fellowships that are prohibitive to do that, so they specifically say you that if did your PhD or postdoc here, you cannot apply here. One thing I think was very valuable is that the PIs I worked for who had travelled more, were more conscious of different things for people coming from abroad – so the cultural clash, not knowing the language, and all the bureaucracies to settle. So if anything, moving has given me that. I know how difficult it can be to settle and adapt to some places. So I wouldn’t find it bad to move.

Brooke: I would echo that – I think that there are huge gains to be had from experiencing different academic systems and cultures. We are extremely lucky as scientists that this is one of the few genuine global professions, where you can go almost anywhere in the world to do your job. And there are enormous personal benefits from that. You can have an absolutely glittering academic career without leaving the bounds of your home country. But I think you will almost always be better as a person if you can go and live abroad. Equally, there may be very compelling personal reasons why that is not possible. If you are in the position that you are childless and single, which is the case for a lot of people at the beginning of the postdoc – that might be the last opportunity you have to relocate internationally as moving with kids is an orders of magnitude different proposition. Also, when you’ve had time abroad, you bring something back with you to the institution you ultimately join, even if you end up in the same department where you started your academic journey.

Kristina: Just to add to that and play devil’s advocate: I’m currently in Italy, and there are people in this institute who did everything in this institute – they did their PhD here, stayed here, and now they are group leaders here. Coming from outside in this situation can be quite tough actually. In some institutes there can be quite a political structure, where there could be an advantage from being in that country, getting a network up and running in that country – if you know that that’s the country you want to be in and it’s either a very political country, or it’s a country where there are limited opportunities, which is the case for some of the southern countries who have very limited opportunities. And that is a horrible reality of doing science in the south. It’s also a fun thing – because once you are in that network, Italy has a very dynamic research community. There are some brilliant minds here. But to come in from outside is hard and it’s not for the fainthearted. So if there is a country you want to be in and you think it could be an advantage to you either politically or from a network point of view, that is something that you have to consider. Though as Mariana rightly pointed out, mobility is a point that will be evaluated in your grant applications. Staying in one place is never something that is going to be favourable – but if you are successful, it often doesn’t matter.

 

Generally, how common is it that a PI needs a postdoc for a specific project vs expects you to come up with your own?

Mariana: This varies so much. Having a fellowship doesn’t guarantee that you will have intellectual freedom. It’s supposed to, but I’ve seen all sorts of variations in the places I’ve worked – sometimes even people without their own fellowships are treated as young PIs. Where I did my PhD, the philosophy of my group leader was that the postdocs here are young PIs. They gave that freedom to them – they could have PhD students and had their own projects. The agreement was that it was the postdoc’s own ideas and when the postdoc left, they could take those ideas with them. This is super generous. But it is not the case everywhere. There are fellowships like Human Frontiers or EMBO, where they specify that this needs to be intellectually independent. And still there will be labs where you won’t have that independence.

Kristina: I think this is where you need to speak to people in the lab and see how this works. Personally, when I recruit people for my lab, I want people who are smarter than me. I have ideas, but I don’t know where that project is going to go. I have a question to ask, and want that project to be developed so whoever is going to take that into their hand, I’m really hoping that they are going to become drivers of that – or that we can be co-drivers until they feel comfortable. As a mentor, I think my primary goal is to form a scientist who is better than me. So that’s what I want from the people who work for me. I want them to come out of here with a good scientific process and to be highly independent. And they can only do that if they are given a certain amount of freedom. Saying that, I’ve seen and continue to see group leaders who use their postdocs as technicians. They have projects in mind, and know exactly what they want done, and that person just has to do that. You can get a really good feel for if this is going to be the case at interview. And I think this is really important, because in order to develop yourself scientifically, freedom is the only way. The whole purpose of a postdoc is that you are not quite ready yet, so you have a mentor-mentee relationship that fosters your growth – but you need to do that with some degree of freedom.

Brooke: I agree 100%. The point of the postdoc is to catalyse your own maturation to full professional competence. You need independence and freedom to do that. Any group leader who is not willing to give you that is not interested in you as a person, they are looking for a pair of hands and that’s not a situation you should be aiming to put yourself in.

 

How did you define your own “niche” and when did you start to think about this?

Mariana: I think you should already think about it for your postdoc. I changed fields for this reason. You realise you have a gap in some specific knowledge that you will need to set up your own lab, and you should fill it from early on. This is where the intellectual independence is also really important. Many times in interviews, they will ask you how does this differ from your boss’ line of work. And the last thing you want to be competing with your boss or the network of that boss. Find a gap in the field that interests you, and then move in this direction. Do in whatever is necessary to settle there.

Kristina: I think that this can is something that can difficult.  When I was leaving my postdoc, I was the only postdoc in what was at the time a very young lab. The project that I was working on was something the group leader wanted to continue working on in the lab. That was difficult for me as I had developed that project, I felt ownership. Yet I had to find a way to carve out something that was truly mine. And I hadn’t started thinking about it too much ahead of time because I didn’t give any importance – maybe I should have. Over time I made difficult decisions to leave parts of it that I felt attached to with my former group leader – and developed things that I knew he wasn’t going to develop and that excited me. I don’t think this is the best way to find your own niche. But what I have found is that in the three years since I gained independence, my niche is constantly evolving. I am working within the broad range of things I thought I would be working in, but as my experience grows and my intellectual bubble enlarges, my niche is becoming ever more mine. So I can really now distinguish what I am doing independently from what I was doing as a postdoc. I think it’s a great question, and Mariana is right to say you should start thinking about it right away, because it’s not always simple and it’s a discussion you must have with your group leader.

Brooke: In terms of finding your niche, this is also a really good reason to change one of the three things (system, topic, technique) as you become a postdoc. Because as you go through the postdoc, you will get a sense of whether you want to shift more in the current direction or go back towards to what you were doing in the PhD. It just gives you a few more things in play, when you start to consider what direction to go in. Finally, I just want to say that people in science today do not spend enough time reading. You should read and read and read as much as you can. Find out what’s exciting and new, which areas of research are blowing up, which organisms are coming online as tractable lab models. Find out what excites you – and I think this is easier if you are reading as much and as broadly as possible. And as Kristina said, definitely talk to your mentor. Get them to help you thrash out an independent plan.

 

Postscript:

This is just a fraction of the questions asked during the webinar, which we’ll be dealing with in later iterations of this series. Keep your eyes peeled for Part 2…

Do you have any questions on how to choose a postdoc? Leave a comment on the posting and the panel will get back to you.

Note that EMBL runs a whole series of events dealing with different aspects of scientific careers, of which this webinar was one.

Finally, a big thanks to Rachel Coulthard-Graf and Patricia Cabezas for organising the webinar and assisting with this posting.

 

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