Tobias Uller, University of Oxford, UK/University of Lund, Sweden
The postdoc years could be the best time of your life, but it is also a time of insecurity and anxiety. I was lucky enough to be sufficiently naïve to never worry about my future. And I stumbled on opportunities that turned out to be interesting enough for me to say yes, which meant I have never had to look back with regret on my decisions (although I could certainly have done many things better). So my practical advice for prospective postdocs may not be very useful for everyone, but here it is anyway.
(i) Be flexible. If you really want to stay in research you must be prepared to move away from the place where you did not PhD and, most likely (and profitably), to head overseas. This is also lots of fun so you won’t regret it, and you’ll be a much better researcher once you realize that not everyone thinks like your supervisor/group/department/country. A really good researcher is someone who has the ability to see things from different perspectives rather than someone who sticks religiously to a single point of view. Why not start trying to think differently today?
(ii) Don’t focus too much on the reputation of the university or the size of the group. Small groups at small universities may be the right way forward for you. Intellectual input is crucial, but so is intellectual freedom. And it is typically easier to get small pots of money for your work at smaller universities than from the big dragons. The same goes for the research group that will host you – early career researchers are often more interested in you and your research than the big names. As a result your own expertise will often be more highly valued, which will promote your collaboration skills and intellectual independence.
(iii) Volunteer. Yes, you may not get paid much (if anything), but if you can afford it, it gives you a chance to see if you REALLY want to continue with research while waiting for grant deadlines and decisions. And opportunities may arise within the group or through contacts that you establish during this time. And you’ll learn things – remember that this is what science is about. The career is merely a side-effect of your curiosity and drive to grow intellectually and personally.
(iv) Don’t panic. People are unemployed on and off after their PhD. It is not the end of the world.
(v) Remember that it is not a failure to get a job outside of academia. After all, most people don’t want to become researchers. The important thing is not to have a stellar career. It is to have fun, to grow intellectually and personally, and to contribute to our understanding of the world and a better society. Think about how YOU best can achieve the goal of living a good life rather than focus on securing a permanent job at all costs. If it is the career itself that makes you tick, the options may be better (and more financially rewarding) outside of universities.