4 September 2015

How to survive a postdoc

Postdocs face big challenges as they learn the ropes of real-life science. The MagLab and other institutions are doing more to help them make the most of these years of intensive training.


Last spring, after years of labs, exams and a thesis of herculean scope, tens of thousands of students in the U.S. reached the peak of their academic careers: a doctorate in science or engineering. They donned long, velvet-sleeved robes, savored the sound of Dr. in front of their names and braced themselves for the next grueling right of passage: a postdoctoral research job.

"Postdocs," a kind of advanced training period when newly-minted scientists learn to conduct independent research, are a common stepping stone toward a full-fledged career in academia or industry. About 43,000 postdocs are working in science and engineering in the U.S., and they make up a significant percentage of the scientific workforce. At the MagLab, 20 percent of the Ph.D.-holding staff are postdocs, as are 13 percent of the scientists who travel here to do experiments.

"You're on the edge of the nest. You're not being pushed out yet, but you want to be sure you're ready when you are."

— Kari Roberts

Although their experiences vary, most postdocs have a Dorothy moment early on: "Toto, we're not in grad school anymore." They are expected to work with more initiative and persistence – and less feedback and guidance – than they were used to.

"As a grad student, if you get stuck too long or don't make progress, then your advisor will come knocking on your door. He will either help or maybe be angry with you," explains Julia Wildeboer, a postdoc in the MagLab's condensed matter science research group. But postdocs learn to readjust their attitudes pronto. "You are now your own person, more or less," Wildeboer continued, " … you have to show that you can guide or lead yourself first."

If new postdocs struggle, well – that's part of the point. The sink-or-swim scenario shapes scientists who can solve problems for themselves and develop the grit that success in their fields demands.

But the landscape for postdocs has been changing. Increasingly, institutions are tossing them life preservers like support networks, planning tools and career development. A growing number of institutions, including Florida State University (home to MagLab headquarters) and the University of Florida (where two of the lab's facilities are sited) now have postdoctoral affairs offices. Postdoctoral student associations are cropping up on campuses; MagLab postdocs play key roles in FSU's. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently began requiring that grant proposals include mentoring plans for postdocs who would be on the payroll. Some of these changes have been spurred by the National Postdoctoral Association, a group formed in 2003 that advocates for postdocs, in part through events like National Postdoc Appreciation Week, which begins Sept. 21 this year.

The MagLab is also taking measures, and in 2014 created a new position to help the lab's 50-some postdocs through this period of intense learning and growth. "My main goal is to empower postdocs to make their experience their own," said the woman who took that job, Kari Roberts.

Still, the essential nature of the postdoc job – a kind of launch pad for fledgling scientists – remains the same. "You're on the edge of the nest," Roberts remarked. "You're not being pushed out yet, but you want to be sure you're ready when you are."

"Make things happen"

Like most science postdocs, physicist Audrey Grockowiak hails from another country and is married. But her age – 28 – and gender place her in the minority. Most science postdocs are in their 30s, and most are men; women made up about a third of science postdocs as a whole in 2013, according to the NSF, and even less of the physics postdocs (although those figures are on the rise).

When Grockowiak arrived at the MagLab's DC Field Facility in 2013, her supervisor, physicist Stan Tozer, debriefed her on the project: Use a technique called fiber bragg grating dilatometry to measure the properties of a class of compounds known as actinides. Plus, conduct the experiments under high pressure. And – minor detail – first build the experimental set-up where all this great work would take place.

Grockowiak is very smart – that's how she landed the MagLab job. But she had no experience in dilatometry (let alone fiber bragg grating), no experience in high pressure, and had never worked on actinides.

"Nothing is successful from the beginning. If it was too easy, it would have been done already."

— Audrey Grockowiak

"Stan gave me some boxes, said, ‘There's a fixture in this box, there's a camera in that box. Just put everything together and make things happen,'" the French national recalled. "You start with basically an empty lab, more or less. You have to build everything."

Grockowiak read the one relevant paper she could find on that cutting-edge topic … over and over and over. Out of necessity, she grew tenacious. That, and her "basic common sense as a physicist," helped her complete the lab. But the challenges kept coming: a hiccup in the computer program she wrote, fibers mysteriously breaking during experiments. "Sometimes you just want to go to bed," she conceded.

Tozer has supervised young scientists at all levels, starting with high school. At that age, he said, you can't expect much: just give them a sip of science and make the experience positive. But by the postdoc years, the bar is much higher: The learning they cram into their two to three years is equivalent to what grad students absorb over more than twice that much time. "For her," Tozer said of Grockowiak, "it's been learning a huge amount of stuff in a very, very short amount of time."

But toughing it out had a payoff: Grockowiak finds problems don't ruffle her the way they used to. Now she plays the calm, seasoned scientist to her younger sister, facing her own bumps in pursuit of a Ph.D. in biology.

"She'll get extremely frustrated," Grockowiak said. "And I was telling her all the different things that turn wrong in my experiment and she was like, ‘That happens to you too?' Yes, it happens to everyone who does an experiment! Nothing is successful from the beginning. If it was too easy, it would have been done already."

Supervising the self

Naomi Brownstein's "sink or swim" experience was even more extreme. Not only was she outside her area of expertise, she was outside her field entirely. A statistician, she was hired to share her knowledge with the chemists in the lab's Ion Cyclotron Resonance (ICR) Facility. But Brownstein knew zilch about ICR.

Naomi Brownstein.Naomi Brownstein.

"They gave me a paper to review the first day, and the idea was that I would learn everything as I'm reading it," Brownstein recalled. But she had to slog through it, googling, it seemed, every other word. It was like drowning in a sea of knowledge.

Brownstein reported weekly to her advisors when she was a doctoral student. She missed that built-in feedback loop in her new job, even though her postdoc supervisor said his door was always open. "It wasn't as structured – like, I had to do this by this week," she said.

Learning to swim takes time, and that's frustrating for high-achievers used to being productive. "I think that was probably the hardest part," said Brownstein, who completed her postdoc and is now on the faculty at FSU's College of Medicine, "trying to figure out, ‘What am I supposed to do, and what if I don't have enough direction, if I feel like progress just isn't getting done?' "

Many postdocs struggle with identifying that point when they should stop wrestling with a problem and ask for guidance.

Physicist Tiglet Besara walked that fine and frustrating line when his postdoc position required him to learn more chemistry and crystallography. "There was so much knowledge," he said, "but not time to get to all of it." His strategy: Learn to work more efficiently. "You don't continue grad student mentality, so to say," said Besara. "You step up, you take more responsibility."

Luyi Yang, a postdoc at the MagLab's Pulsed Field Facility, hears that "work smarter" refrain from her mentor, Scott Crooker. "He always says to me that I'm a postdoc, not a graduate student anymore," she said. "My postdoc appointment is only a couple of years, so I need to be very productive … If there was something that didn't work, I shouldn't spend a month to figure out what's wrong, I should switch to some new topic."

"You don't continue grad student mentality … You step up, you take more responsibility."

— Tiglet Besara

Time is of the essence, agreed MagLab physicist Theo Siegrist, Besara's supervisor. That makes the mentor-postdoc relationship all the more critical. "To show productivity, the postdoc needs to publish within less than 12 months, so that new results can be presented when interviewing for jobs," Siegrist said. "If the relationship is fine, then the postdoc can be productive and build a career. If the relationship does not work, then it very often affects the career of the postdoc negatively."

As months pass, postdocs typically come to treat their mentors – and be treated by them – more as peers. That shift from underling to colleague can be tricky, said MagLab postdoc liaison Roberts, especially for postdocs used to treating their professors deferentially. Clear communication is key: "If you really want to learn about x, y and z, ask for it," she said.

Postdocs should gradually claim more control over their work, agreed Tozer. But that process can be trying, and he and postdoc Grockowiak regularly lock horns. Their tug-of-war is symbolized by two eggcups – one shaped like a goat, the other a ram – staring each other down on a shelf in his office. Said Tozer, "I have met my match."

Navigating the wide world of science

Postdocs don't have to head to their supervisor's office for advice. As they mature into independent scientists, they should build a broad support network. No single mentor can meet their every need.

Julia Wildeboer.Julia Wildeboer. 

Ernesto Bosque, an engineering postdoc with the MagLab's Applied Superconductivity Center, is part of a team building a new kind of superconducting magnet dubbed the Platypus. His role: simulate experiments using complex software before the team actually runs them. When Bosque updates the team on his work during their regular meetings, he can count on an earful.

"Everyone has free reign to just go ahead and start throwing darts – ‘Well did you consider this?' … ‘Did you look at this?' … ‘How about this?'" said Bosque. He sees every question as a chance to be better. "As an engineer, you have to be able to accept constructive criticism, quickly recognize mistakes, and figure out how to ultimately get it right."

Sometimes finding relevant feedback means hopping a plane to meet specialists at conferences. "This traveling issue is crucial for postdocs," said Wildeboer.

Postdoc Yang agrees. "I go to conferences once every few months so that I can exchange ideas with other postdocs or students or experts in the field, if I have any questions," she said. "And also I can meet new people who can send me samples to study."

The soft skills of hard science

Scientists need to be savvy networkers. But that art, like many of the "soft skills" that help people build careers, is not always explicitly taught. To succeed, postdocs need to learn skills such as marketing, job-hunting, getting along with people from different cultures, time management and communicating their esoteric research to a broader audience.

MagLab postdoc liaison Roberts offers workshops and other resources on these skills and helps postdocs and their mentors with a tool designed to make sure they stick: the IDP. That stands for "independent development plan." The NSF requires that grant applications include IDPs for postdocs who would be employed under the grants; the National Institutes of Health also encourages the use of IDPs. Whether required or not, Roberts encourages all MagLab postdocs and their mentors to develop IDPs, and the practice has been catching on. "It forces you to think about things you wouldn't otherwise think about," said Roberts.

Roberts urges the lab's junior scientists to get as serious about managing their careers as they are about managing their science. The first day of your postdoc, she tells them, should be the first day of your job search.

Two years into her postdoc, Grockowiak takes that advice to heart. With the support of her mentor, who introduces her to potential employers, she is exploring her next professional step. Busy writing up her research for publication, she can now look back on her first stressful months at the lab with some perspective.

"The upside of that is that it makes me extremely independent," she said. "Stan giving me this project is probably the best thing that could happen to me at that point."

Making the most of a postdoc

MagLab scientists offer tips for surviving the grueling postdoc years.

Tiglet Besara: "Be open to acquiring new knowledge as your research is progressing. Even if it's not directly related to your research, you will benefit from the spread of knowledge and skills later on."

Ernesto Bosque: Bosque seconds Besara's advice and encourages what he calls "hobbies at work." Says Bosque, "It's a career killer if you're just mind-numbingly doing the same thing and you don't branch out and get new experiences."

Naomi Brownstein: "At the very beginning of the postdoc, the postdoc should meet with his/her mentor to set ambitious but reasonable goals, agree on an action plan and timeline to accomplish them, and schedule regular meetings at a mutually agreed upon frequency to discuss scientific and overall progress."

Audrey Grockowiak: "Be willing to learn as much as you can (and show it) to have as complete a set of skills as possible to sell yourself for the next position. Be as independent as possible. Do not neglect the soft skills: networking, communication. Interact with as many people as possible. Advertise yourself. Last, but not least, make your mentor mentor you."

Stan Tozer: Scientists are busy. Get the most out of your mentor's time by doing your homework first. "Come with informed questions. Read the literature. Go and talk to your peers, bang ideas around initially. Then come ask questions that are well thought out."

Julia Wildeboer: Cultivate your professional relationships, Wildeboer says. "If you lock yourself into your office for 18 hours a day, this is not beneficial for the quantity and quality of the output that you make or for future job possibilities."

Luyi Yang: Yang advises careful, long-term planning. "You need to find a group, a very productive group; that's important. Maybe the most important thing is, what's the goal, the plan in five years?"