I felt honoured to be asked to give a talk to the Science Faculty Post-doc Society on this topic. As we are all different I emailed colleagues for their perspectives and list a summary from 16 of them below. The above ‘wordle’ highlights the keywords in their replies. Note the importance of time (management), people, reading, skills, and (being alert to) opportunities.
Key points I made in my talk:
- We are different due to circumstances of natue and nurture. So what works for one person may not for another.
- Post-docs tend to worry about the uncertainty of their next position. Uncertainty is normal in most jobs in the world and something we need to learn to tolerate. On the positive side, for many post-doc’s it is a wonderful time with a salary, typically on one task, usually few responsibilities, and a future. Enjoy the opportunity to focus on the research and life’s opportunities. Figure out what you want in life and how to use your PhD to get there. This may not be in academia. Many people with PhD work in industry, government, consulting, teaching, and management. If you want a university position what sets you apart from others with similar skills and knowledge is your publications.
- A healthy mind needs a healthy body – take care of it, eat well and exercise. Take an hour a day “health break” with whatever you enjoy (e.g. meditation, sport, walking, playing music). Use the time away to focus and think. And nurture a good sense of humour.
- Happiness is a life of activity directed by reason. You cannot achieve this unless you know what you want. Then you can plan your long and short term goals.
- Most success in research developes over years – think big picture and long-term, with each paper a stepping stone.
- Learn by thinking, reading, doing (field, lab, analysis), writing, and talking to experts and non-experts. Everything needs practice to improve, never stop practicing and learning.
- Question paradigms and new findings, and when you think you have an answer then ask “So what does this mean?” – why is it important and what additional work would make it more important.
- Write every week if not day – publish, publish, publish. Read more but not at the expense of writing. Research is not complete until it is published. Publish in more widely read journals, typically those with higher Impact Factors.
- Foster collaboration with leaders in the field – you are likely to learn most from them and the relationships may help your career. So work with people who are nice and you can learn from. This is one of the benefits of moving around while a post-doc. Also consider visiting other labs to work on practical methods and co-write papers for days to months. Like in sport, you improve more by playing “up” a team rather than being the best player on your own team. This means engaging with people who bring you new skills, knowledge and ideas.
- Take advantage of the short courses on life and professional skills offered by employers for staff. I wish I had done the one on stress management ten years earlier! A colleague said a course on time management changed his life (and is now in senior university management). Other courses can cover with leadership, project management, teaching methods, and communication skills.
- Work hard. No truly successful person did not work hard, and pushed through the tedious and frustrating times.
Advice from colleagues
My main advice is that a young scientist should combine in his/her portfolio ground-breaking research that is typically high-risk and often requires time with more incremental research, which is lower-risk and produces constant outputs. I would also recommend that the young scientist strives for that sweet spot between specialisation and scatter in the research topics – both extremes are detrimental. Finally, I would encourage the researcher to build his/her scientific networks and develop a record of service at the science-policy interface.
My short response would be to prioritise time on the most important stuff (especially writing up research) and not get side tracked dealing with the chicken s**t. I’ve been very bad at following this advice! A year or two ago I read a book called ‘How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing’ by Paul Silvia, which recommends setting aside a few hours each day for writing at the time of day when you’re most productive, and then protecting this time against other things like you would if it was a lecture or scheduled meeting.
Something else I think young scientists need to consider is whether they’re more interested in the ‘science of science’ or the ‘business of science’. I.e., are they genuinely curious about how the natural world works, or is science just a vehicle for building a career? If the latter, then being a successful scientist is simply a matter of figuring out what you’re likely to be rewarded for and focussing on those things. http://profssrchaos.blogspot.co.nz/2008/08/whac-mole.html https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/michael-rosenzweig-an-appreciation/
Not sure if this is what you want, but beyond the usual stuff about reading widely, actively publishing, creating your own niche etc, one piece of advice I would give my younger self would be to take a long-term view. If every postdoc thought carefully about a simple, low cost (time and effort), long-term monitoring/experimental project that they could do, started it when they were a postdoc, and kept it running for the length of their career, they and we would have some extraordinary studies of, say, 20/30/40 years, available. I have always been impressed by those who spotted that opportunity, and kept it going.
I am not sure whether I belong to the wise group, but here are my 5ct – I must admit that they do not really attach to my personal career but also stem from my experience as a supervisor. The topic of your PhD needs to be one you are intellectually and emotionally related to. Doing a PhD because “it is the next logical step” or because “I somehow want to stay in science” is the best way to disaster. In many countries, PhD topics are pre-disposed by third party funding for the position – go beyond this constraint. Don’t be afraid if you become desperate at some point. Most extremely successful scientists I know had at least one point in their early career where they were close to quitting and doing something different. Dig deep into the literature. The current belief that all information is available is misleading, because intellectual ideas can only arise from what is in your head, not from what is on the internet. Try to cover the borders of your field, most incentives for new ideas come from the edge, not from the centre. Postdoc-time is fun-time – explore.
For me science is about ‘discovery’; pushing out the boundaries of knowledge. My advice to my younger self would be to better chart those boundaries, and better identify the problems and puzzles that your research will resolve both in the short and longer term. Which in some ways paraphrases Karl Popper’s philosophy that the scientific method consists of four steps ‘problems— theories— criticisms— new problems.’
That is an interesting question, and believe it or not, something that I have given a lot of thought given our tragic country situation and the way we had to swallow hard and restart a life from scratch at a not so young age. First things first: health. I would advise my younger self (as I did my children) to start serious yoga as soon as possible. Had I started in my teenage years, or even my twenties, I am sure I would not have had many health (structural) issues that I have now. Yoga not only works the body by improving strength, balance and flexibility, it also improves mind and spirit. Move your body, do a sport, or walk in the outdoors, or dance. Try to visit a new place each time you can. If you travel, engage in the local culture. Open your eyes to the world and to the people around you. Try to find the time for a hobby, play an instrument, knit, paint, sew, dance, do photography, mechanics, fishing, construction… any of this will give you calmness when you need it (and may be handy in times of trouble..).
On second things: nurture your relationships with others…your family, your friends, colleagues. These are the people that will share a lifetime with you, and life is so much better when there is peace, harmony, friendship, respect, solidarity. Be always the person that makes the place it is and was, a much better one. Smile. Be positive.
On politics: never never trust the military. They never bring good news. Never trust politicians, especially those that call themselves populists. They are there for their own profit but will shield under the banner of “we do it for the people”. Learn from history as history repeats itself and the outcome is always bad for everyone: the people suffer, they lose everything, families are separated, best case scenario they are displaced to a better place where they have to start from scratch, the political leader eventually dies as all living things do and leaves a country in ruins. Learn to detect the signs. Be warned.
On science: choose what you like if you can, but be aware of opportunities. Sometimes opportunities are not exactly in what you would have liked the most, but they will eventually take you there if you are steering the wheel. Work hard, build teams, collaborate, be curious, make yourself questions and find the responses, read, read, read. Read papers, read books, read novels of adventure, of love, of history, of science fiction, just read. Build up your knowledge and nurture your imagination with what you read.
Investments: invest in what is worth investing, spend your money wisely in things that matter, a home, education, a trip, your sport….remember that one day you will have a family to provide for and you will want to give them opportunities.
Always have faith in yourself. Do not be afraid to ask for help, and be there to help others, even before they ask.
Be good at heart, be good for something, make a difference wherever you go. Being a good scientist will be great, but personally, I rather that people remember me for what I was as a person, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a mother, a teacher….
Mostly I’d tell myself that line from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be alright in the end, if it’s not alright it’s not the end yet.” Also, if you’re seriously ambitious, postdoc somewhere other than where you did you PhD. And finally, if you want a rewarding academic career then realise service is as important as research, and teaching is far more important than either, we are unlikely to change the world ourselves but our students will create ripples that turn into tidal waves.
- Find a wealthy, tolerant and supportive life partner
- Coffee is a helpful lifelong partner in science
- Love your science, so engineer to make it as interesting as possible for you and for others.
Make sure you have a broad range of skills or skills that can be applied in many ways.
Make friends with lots of people. You might end up working with them, they might have a job or they might end up being the person who approves your grant or permit application! Form your own networks rather than relying on those of your supervisor or lab leader.
Don’t be afraid to leave school… remember there are lots of opportunities to work as a scientist outside academia. If you don’t like teaching then don’t become a university lecturer. Everyone ends up dissatisfied! If you want to be a lecturer then get your teaching skills up during your post-doc.
Just get on with it.
There is never a perfect time to have a baby. Just pick the other parent well. Their support is your success and happiness.
Some items that come to mind at this time: – enjoy time as a postdoc; – learn as much as you can; – while you may not have management responsibilities as a postdoc, take time to train in them perhaps even as taking an MBA (personnel management, finances, conflict resolution, leadership, etc); -be wary of harassment behavior when you see it, and recognize tendencies in yourself and fix them early in life. Help and mentor people that are experiencing such behavior from others; -recognize the likelihood that we all go through “impostor syndrome” feelings, this is normal and simply use this to improve yourself; -link with and help with networks of colleagues to develop and document best practices; -be humble while striving for excellence.
For the post-doc stage the reality is that there will not be enough jobs in academia, thus I think it is critical for post-docs for carefully evaluate their life goals and identify different career pathways along which they can achieve their goals – 1) know yourself, 2) give it your all in order to get to be where you want to be, and 3) have a back-up plan.
I keep a “TO DO LIST” for each day, and I never achieve my list: 1) be ambitious, and if academia is the objective, 2) take changes, and 3) stay in the game!!!
However, besides the high ranking Journals I would always also go for sustainability. Some papers in high ranking journals (if not most) are not cited after many years and more because they are obsolete due to novel data. However, evolutionary papers, systematic work, descriptions of species are usually cited for many years.
I would ask students to publish a soon as they have data, otherwise the data do not exist.
Always explain why you do stuff. Many students are just descriptive, but have to explain WHY they do what they do and finally …”follow your heart as well”! I think one also has to love what one does in order to be really good! Competition is high, but we also work in our fields for so long, so without having at least some fun we will not be as efficient and effective.
As a statistician, I might give myself different advice than if I were a scientist in a particular discipline, but here goes: “Focus on finding good problems to solve, and interesting data that go with them, and the good research papers will follow”.
Overall, however, I attribute the modicum of success I had had to two factors: (i) luck in having had bosses who provided me with opportunities, and colleagues/friends, many of whom helped construct the pyramids mentioned above and (ii) working hard on these pyramids, that is, long hours, non-stop, for decades, to compensate for my inability to build elegant, that is, svelte and tall towers. Thus, if I have any advice to give, it is that one should have friends, and work hard.
What a good question for a young postdoc! I took an unusual academic path going to work in a museum where everyone did their own research and no one collaborated. In fact I was unusual because I published! The mistake I made in my first 5-10 years was taking on too many poorly planned field projects and not completing them one at a time before starting the next one. As a result I still papers to complete from the 1980s. The second thing was I had no mentor to discuss where and how to publish – so I had too many useless book chapters. So get a good mentor, plan projects well through to publication and publish in the best places!
My main advice would be to think big geographically. It’s fine to spend the first couple of years on a local project but then invite yourself to labs elsewhere, ideally in other countries, to expand the generality. This will help in terms of making yourself known. More importantly, you should think about, and aim to have, results of interest to others in the same field in the US and Europe. Flights are cheap these days, and the best researchers are generally friendly; there is no good reason to confine yourself to the one location.
Further reading and listening:
Blog with the same name at https://www.publishingcampus.elsevier.com/pages/blog?id=475
3 min TED talk = Richard St. John: 8 secrets of success http://go.ted.com/4hSpyg