The challenges of being a postdoc
20 September 2019
To mark Postdoc Appreciation Week, Lise Chauveau, Chair of the MRC WIMM Postdoc Association, reflects on the challenges of being a postdoc, and explains how the association is developing initiatives to support and encourage this peer group.
Postdocs can be seen in many ways. Students in the lab might see them as knowledgeable, well trained and good sources of scientific or technical information. PIs might see them as technically very good and a source of help in reviewing/writing papers and grant applications, yet still requiring training and support. Either way, because postdocs have completed a PhD, they are expected to be very good scientists and to successfully lead projects.
There is also an expectation by those entering this stage in their career that, by this point, your personal life will be stable, you will have a good work/life balance and this will have a positive effect on your lab work. However, life is not that simple, and juggling personal life and lab work is never easy. In fact, whether you had kids during your PhD or are thinking of having them during your postdoc; you have a partner or not; you moved country for your postdoc or remained in the same place: the postdoc usually corresponds to a challenging period in life, where you are trying to establish a stable personal life and don’t necessarily have a routine in place yet. These stresses are amplified by the fact that short term contracts are not uncommon.
All these uncertainties are at play when your responsibilities in the lab and elsewhere in your academic career start increasing. Depending on your lab or interests, you could be writing fellowship/grant applications, writing/reviewing papers, supervising MSc or PhD students day-to-day (or even officially supervising them), joining committees, helping with symposia organisation, handling collaborations, etc… These tasks are added on top of the science-related tasks that you became familiar with during your PhD, such as keeping up with the literature, presenting your work at conferences and designing, planning and doing experiments. This means that your experimental work needs to be very efficient because your timeframe for doing experiments shrinks.
All these sources of pressure mean that doing a postdoc is no easy feat. Of course, not all of this is specific to a postdoc, and additional pressures naturally come with increasing responsibility. We accept it as part of the job, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. However, postdocs do not benefit from the support and social network that, for example, PhD students have (especially in Oxford), and can sometimes be quite isolating. This could be the case, for example, because you have just moved into a new city and into a small lab, and none of your friends are around. Or maybe you have family responsibilities that do not allow you to participate in social or peer support activities. Many of us struggle with these new challenges, even if we don’t show it.
Building a support network
Associate Professor in Chemistry at Emory University (and advocate for a better work culture in academia) Jen Heemstra wrote in her latest column in Chemical and Engineering News: “similar to the runners who work together to keep pace and encourage each other, postdocs have much to gain from working together with a small group of people who have the same career goals and ambition level.”
The goal of the MRC WIMM Postdoc Association is to help build such a supportive network of postdocs in the MRC WIMM. This is why we are already organising a range of events such as our annual MRC WIMM Postdoc Symposium, postdoc socials, career seminars and the Science-in-Progress series. These projects aim to provide opportunities for postdocs to meet, network and think about solutions to challenges they face. Networking with scientist at other career stages is equally important, so we have also recently started “WIMM’s O’clock”, a monthly social event open to all MRC WIMM members, in collaboration with the MRC WIMM Graduate Student Association. All these events would not be possible without the amazing postdocs in the association, who give their time and energy to organise them. I want to take this opportunity to thank them all. Their efforts are greatly appreciated and the positive impact on research at the MRC WIMM is clearly visible.
To further encourage networking and peer support, we will launch two new schemes this month. The first is running Job Clubs. These will allow small groups of 2-3 postdocs to help each other in their job searches and applications, whether they want to stay in academia or not. The second follows the advice Jan Rehwinkel (Associate Professor in the MRC Human Immunology Unit) gave at our latest science-in-progress event on “playing the publication game”. He suggested that, whenever we write a manuscript, it would be helpful if a peer working on a different topic was able to review it, to ensure that it is accessible to a non-expert academic audience. We therefore propose to have a postdoc peer-review system for articles or fellowship/grant applications. More details on these will come soon by email.
If you would like to be part of these new schemes, have any feedback on the events we organise, have an idea for future events or want to get involved, please don’t hesitate to contact us at our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also to come to one of our monthly meetings on the last Thursday of every month from 4 to 5 pm in the conference room (the next meeting will be Wednesday the 25th of October).
Show your support
On this Postdoc Appreciation Week, it is important to remember how essential postdocs are for the smooth running of labs. Our association is doing its bit to support this community, and we are very thankful for the support and encouragement that our projects and events receive in the MRC WIMM. We would particularly like to thank Prof Doug Higgs, the administration team and the postdoc committee led by Jan Rehwinkel.
However, there are other ways to show your appreciation for the work that postdocs do, and they don’t have to happen only during this week. Take some time to turn to the postdocs around you, in your lab or otherwise, and tell them what a great job they are doing. Tell them what part of their job you think they particularly excel at - positive feedback is important at all career stages, and it needs to be specific to be helpful. Knowing that our efforts are appreciated and acknowledged in small, as well as big, ways makes all the difference, and will give us a boost to keep going.
Lise Chauveau is the Chair of the MRC WIMM Postdoc Association (WPA) and a postdoctoral researcher in the Rehwinkel group at the MRC HIU. You can find more information about the association on their website. The next WPA meeting will take place on WEDNESDAY 25th October 4-5pm in the conference room.