Jo Chapman, Post Doc at the Linnaeus University, Sweden:
“It might take time, but persevere – it’s worth it!”
It took me a long time to land a postdoc. Over two years in fact. After my PhD at the University of Oxford, I had to move back to New Zealand because of a bonding clause in my PhD scholarship. The postdoc funding climate in NZ is tough. It’s tough everywhere. I ended up taking a job with a government ministry, which at least kept me in science but was not what I wanted to be doing with my life.
I wrote funding applications to work on defensins, cool little genes that comprise part of the immune system. No luck. Rejection after rejection. No money in NZ to work on obscure little genes that most people have never heard of, no matter how important they might be for fighting off pathogens. Looking back, I was getting pretty dispirited. Doing a job that wasn’t what I wanted. Living in NZ when my heart was still in Europe. Scared that my chances were slipping away the longer I was not working and publishing in my chosen field.
Then one happy day, I found a postdoc being advertised to work on defensins.
And it was in Sweden, which was exciting. I knew I loved living in Europe, and I knew that Sweden produced amazing evolutionary biologists. One of the people advertising the job was someone I knew. So I applied, had the most laid-back Skype interview imaginable, and before I knew it I was packing my bags for Sweden.
What I imagined my daily commute would be like
I love my job. The research is incredibly interesting, and the results are really promising. My boss is an extremely smart, talented, well-funded and super-friendly guy. The research group are an awesome bunch of people, and I have made some of the best friendships of my life. Sweden is a really great place to live, even in winter. Every day I think “I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here”.
So what have I learned from all this?
First and foremost, don’t give up on your dreams! It can take a long time to get the right postdoc, but if you keep looking, hopefully the right one will come your way.
Secondly, if you have a particular research interest, apply for funding to work on it. Even if you have no hope of getting the funding. Apply everywhere – be flexible with respect to moving university, country, research field etc. I was a bit nervous in my interview to admit that I had tried and failed to get funding to work on defensins. I thought it would make me look like a failure. On the contrary, it showed that I was committed to working on this specific topic. PIs understand that the funding climate is tough. They’ve probably tried and failed to get funding for research projects countless times themselves. They won’t think about the fact that you failed, they’ll be impressed that you tried.
…and the first step towards success
Other benefits of applying for funding include having your CV seen by the expert reviewers on the panel of the research fund. It never hurts to make yourself known as widely as possible. You also need to find a host institution and PI for the project. Even if you don’t get this particular funding, you’ve probably succeeded in intriguing the PI about you and the research you’re proposing. If you’re lucky, they’ll suggest having you as a named postdoc on future research proposals. Or maybe they’ll pass your name on to colleagues. You’ll start to be identified as someone who is pro-active, committed and available. And lastly, maybe you’ll actually get the funding. Maybe your chances aren’t as remote as you think.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t stack up against our contemporaries. That we don’t have enough publications. Or conference presentations. Enough teaching experience. Or lab/field/stats skills. If you’ve done, or are doing, a PhD, you’ve no doubt met other students with much more of all of the above. And you start doubting yourself. Or at least I did. There always seemed to be other students with a better CV than me, let alone the postdocs in my research group. I thought I would never get there. And the struggle to find a postdoc after finishing my PhD did nothing to disabuse me of those thoughts. But I kept looking. I kept e-mailing people about possible collaborations. I kept trying to convince any researcher who would listen that defensins were the shit. I kept applying. And it worked! I’m happier than I have ever been. Don’t get me wrong, postdoc life is a struggle, and the thought that I will have to lurch from research grant to research grant until I die is terrifying. I’m sure I’ll write about that in the future. But for now, all I can do is thank my lucky starts that I persevered. Because there’s nothing I’d rather do with my life.
Oh defensin, how I love thee