A little something on post-doc fellowships

By Owen R. Bidder

 

Unfortunately, as a post-doc you’ll end up feeling like you are looking for work a lot. We’re all trying to land those coveted permanent positions and it seems that getting the teaching experience, publishing record and professional connections necessary is getting tougher and tougher all the time. Whenever I talk to other early career scientists this is what we inevitably end up discussing. So perhaps you are coming to the end of your PhD, or your post-doc contract is up and you’re weighing up your options for the future. This is about the time you start scouring the academic job websites or start writing desperate emails to former colleagues in search of your next position. But have you thought of applying for a fellowship?

It makes sense right? If you can’t find a job, make your own! You get your own funding to do a project that you want to do, at a University of your choice. The great thing about a fellowship is that they help you foster your own research agenda, giving you independence. The experience of writing a proposal and obtaining your own funding can be invaluable if you intend to one day get a lectureship.

In this post, I want to talk a little about some of the fellowships that are out there, how to go about applying and my experiences so far with mine.

Firstly, some general points about post-doc fellowships. You will probably apply for the fellowship independently, so whilst you must identify an academic host to conduct your research with, expect to be writing the majority of the proposal yourself. This is great experience, but it puts the onus for conceiving of research ideas on you. Most academics will gladly accept a funded post-doc into their lab, but the amount of help you will get with writing and planning the project can vary greatly. So it helps to have a fairly concrete idea of what you want to do and how you will do it before writing to a potential academic host to test the waters.

Writing your own proposal has other implications. For instance, it can take a long time. It can usually take a few months to get everything planned and written up. Be prepared to invest significant time and energy, especially if you have to write up in your free time, as not many supervisors will give you time to go off and write a proposal instead of working on whatever project they employed you for. In addition, the applications for fellowships can take a long time to process and need a significant lead time. For example, an Alexander von Humboldt post-doc fellowship application takes roughly 6-10 months post-submission before you will get a decision. It really helps to plan to submit a while in advance of when you would actually need to take up the post.

The last general comment I have is that you should expect to leave your current department and seek pastures new. Leaving your academic nest is daunting but it exposes you to new working environments and ways of thinking. The powers-that-be deciding whether or not you’ll get your project funded like to see that you are mobile in your pursuit of knowledge and career advancement. So now is the time to contact that name you see cropping up in the literature time and again, or seek out expertise in a field you’d like more experience in. There are usually annually recurring fellowships in most countries; in the U.K in particular we have 5-year Independent Research Fellowships with NERC or 3-year BBSRC Future Leader Fellowships. European post-docs should also look at ERC Starting Grants. These fellowships tend to be quite competitive and prestigious.

One of the best ways to show mobility is taking up a fellowship abroad. There are a few different funding bodies that actively try to encourage academics from abroad to work in their respective countries. These organisations are usually well funded and well structured, so you get a lot of additional benefits, such as language courses, site seeing trips and events with dignitaries.

6 months ago, I took up a fellowship in Germany with the Alexander von Humboldt foundation and I could definitely recommend applying if you are thinking of working here. The post-doc can be between 6-24 months and the salary is competitive (€2650 a month). You also get €800 a month towards research expenses and prior to my fellowship I received an additional grant to spend two months living in Hamburg and learning German with the Goethe Institute. Applications can be submitted any time of year and applicants can choose to work at almost any university in Germany. Citizens from most countries qualify for funding, with additional fellowships available to citizens from developing and emerging countries (that one’s called the Georg Forster Fellowship). One of the great things about the Alexander von Humboldt foundation’s fellowships are that they have a ‘people not projects’ approach, that’s to say, the primary selection criteria is the quality of the applicant. Currently, the acceptance rate is roughly 30%.

If you are interested in conducting research in the United States, the Fullbright Scholar Program offers fellowships for early career researchers. The particulars of the fellowship may differ from country to country, but for UK applicants the award is for 1 year at $5,000 a month. Applications should be submitted by the 6th of November each year. There are several selection rounds, with interviews held in January and February. Successful candidates can expect to be informed of the committee’s decision in late February. Fellowships typically start from mid-July, so expect a 9-12 month lead time between initial application and starting the fellowship. There are only a few fellows accepted from each country per year, so these fellowships are quite competitive. However, if you’re successful the Fullbright program provides fellows with a unique workshop to help you settle once you get to the U.S. and assistance in obtaining VISA’s.

There are shorter fellowships available to visit researchers in Australia too, under the Endeavour Research Fellowship program. Research stays are between 4-6 months at about 3,000 AUD per month. Other benefits include a travel allowance, establishment allowance, health and travel insurance. These kind of short fellowships are great if you have a very specific set of experiments or field sessions in mind, although I think a 4 month stay would be quite intensive! Typically, getting another position in Australia is much easier once you are in the country, so these short fellowships can be a good way to get your foot in the door if your intention is to set up in this part of the world.

Whatever fellowship you end up applying for, all offer an opportunity to step out of the shadow of a PI and forge your own path within academia. Not everyone will feel ready to put their ideas down on paper and submit them to the scrutiny of a selection panel and that is fine. Traditional advertised post-docs offer structure while you’re refining your own ideas and interests. However, should you obtain a fellowship they can be a valuable springboard to a permanent lectureship. All of the fellowships mentioned in this post offer comprehensive guidance and information on their websites and generally the staff at these organisations are happy to answer questions by email. One final word of warning, most fellowships only allow applications from researchers that obtained their PhDs a maximum of 5-7 years ago (depending on the fellowship), so the clock is ticking. Good luck!

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Deborah Pardo on the mobile postdoc….

On the social compromises of early career research scientists…

Reaching an early-career position in science implies that you and I have already made some sacrifices in our personal life and social life in general. I wanted to write this blog because we don’t often talk about it. Not sure this will change things very much but it’s an attempt to make steps towards finding the best balance to be both happy in our lives and professionally efficient.

I come from a very nice place on the south-eastern coast of France, where there is a strong local culture and people are convinced they are living in the best place in the world. I am sure this applies to a lot of your home towns… or not. By wanting to be a researcher, by definition you have to move and spend some time abroad. By going abroad I don’t only mean travel, but actually living in a foreign country and sharing other people’s cultures. Moving…. such a great feeling; your thirst for discovery, meeting interesting people, seeing the world, opening your mind and so much more. But on the other side it creates a GAP.

A gap first between cultures that is sometimes bigger than you would have expected. For my first post-doc I did not go very far and ended up in Cambridge in the UK. This is truly a great place and a very stimulating environment to work in… But I just sometimes don’t understand people. Everything is always “amazing” and “lovely” but please could you tell me what you really think? From my culture it appears to be inefficient, it would help everyone to move forward if we could make the difference between what is very good, average or bad. There is no shame in telling someone if he is in the wrong direction and why. But I guess English people as far as I understand just don’t want to offend… so I end up having to rely on such webpages: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/what-british-people-say-versus-what-they-mean. This is at times funny but sometimes it becomes tiring. And this is just Europe, I can’t imagine the gap between cultures when you change continent.

The second gap that you encounter while getting expatriated for your job is with your childhood friends/family. Once one of my best friends told me just before I left for ERASMUS to Sweden: “I don’t understand how you can choose your job over your boyfriend, I could never do that, and it is so selfish for the poor him staying alone here”. Well, I guess some of you have been through this as well. It is very hard not to be understood and/or supported. To reach the point where we are now, we had to make choices. And this starts by a passion, a conviction, something stronger than just going to a random boring work to get money. I believe the need to discover and better understand the processes around us, is something not intrinsically felt by everyone. The ones not feeling this might never understand… but on the meantime eventually the gap grows between you and your old friend and family members. With the amount of work you get and the little amount of money you receive, the gap grows even more. Family members getting sick, grandparents getting old, newborns that you saw only once, a whole wedding organisation missed and great parties that you could not attend because it was too expensive to come back just for that. I guess we are all facing that and it is hard, but in the end you have to be really strong to take it and keep working very hard while sticking to who you really are. At some point in our career we might actually reach a moment where this is not such a big issue anymore…

Another gap is of course in your relationships It seems like distance relationships or no relationships at all are an early-career researchers’ speciality. Again, you either need to find someone really understanding or someone as passionate as you (although this might complicate things even more), but the forthcoming suite of short term contracts in different cities or countries might become a real issue. And I am not even talking about building a family. For both men and women in research it is hardly ever the right time for having a child as you need to maximise your working time so much in order to get recognised by your peers. I would argue though that it is even harder for women, first to feel ready, to have the right contract, an understanding boss, and not being too scared of dropping research for a while. Unless your partner and friends are in the same position, you end up being so much slower than everyone else (this also includes becoming a homeowner) that the gap might grow again, between you, your friends, your partner, your family harassing you, the time you still have biologically while you can still conceive and the idea of your life you had before…

The final gap I can think of is with yourself. Why am I doing this? Can’t I just give up everything and go back with my loved ones or to a random boring work to get money as everyone else? Why am I always thinking about work during evening and weekends and holidays? Who cares anyway about the tiny little specific questions I am investigating? Is it really the life I want/deserve? I find it hard sometimes to believe in what I am doing, and I believe I am not alone in this case. Also in research jobs in general, work has no end. Therefore the more you work the furthest you can go! But this just opens new questions and you need to work more to answer them…. in the end I think we just need to sit and think what the right balance is for us. Because we pretty much all know it already, we just love what we are doing so deeply that things are not going to change. But at least it was nice to try and be aware about them by writing this blog, hope you like it!

 

 

“What am I supposed to be doing?” by Hanna Granroth-Wilding

This question has been battering my brain for many months, disrupting any attempt at a rational approach to career progression. This post is about what that “supposed to” means in the short, medium and long terms. I want a career in research, so I write this post in two minds, but it shares some of the ways I’ve been learning to moderate my expectations to allow for a dash of reality. You can jump straight to the last three paragraphs for discussion and conclusions.
We’ve heard a lot on this blog about persistence, keeping your head down, and not admitting defeat, mainly from people who have managed to stay in research. But a lot of the readership of this blog are those who haven’t yet achieved that, and are trying to work out if they ever will. I recently came across an enlightening statistic (I think it’s for sciences across the UK, but not sure): of all PhD graduates, 7% go on to PI-type careers. 7%!!! Of course, many PhD graduates know that they want to leave academia. Nonetheless, the general feeling experienced by lots of young researchers is that not being able to carry on in research makes you a failure. A 93% failure rate? Not even medical exams are that strict, and it’s not like we’re doctors! (Oh, wait…) Hopefully I can provide a perspective from – at least temporarily – that other 93%.
After my PhD, I tried for post docs for almost a year until I had to broaden my horizons. To spend that long looking (supported by a researcher husband) was a luxury. In that year I did some unpaid research, some paid teaching, and worked on my papers, everything I was “supposed to” be doing to increase my chances of getting that postdoc or grant. And I wanted that position, so I did those things, but still no research job. Ironically, to carry on pursuing my aim to be a scientist is probably the least evidence-based life decision I’ve ever made.
But I needed a salary. In my own view, I’m “supposed to” contribute equally to our household, and I felt I wasn’t contributing anything. It often seems that, if you really wanted a research career, you’re expected to do without a salary for as long as it takes. But man cannot live by dreams alone. I started looking further and further away from ecology, more and more disappointed, and still no luck. But suddenly, just as it’s supposed to, something came up, and now I’m the editor for ecology & evolution papers at a top-tier journal. I’m getting an inside view of science publishing, I’m reading more broadly than I would have thought possible, I’m learning lots about what makes a paper successful, and my work-life balance is better than since before I started writing up. From day one, I got responsibility and respect. Yet when I first got offered the job, I saw it as a demonstration that my days of scientific endeavour were numbered – that I’d failed.
As I mentioned, one feels that PhD graduates are “supposed to” get postdocs. Why? It’s a step towards PI-ness, which we’re “supposed to” want. In a way, I think PhD students should be expected to become scientists: it’s only fair that we give the funders of these (mostly) government-supported postgrad training schemes for researchers a return on their investment. The problem is that there aren’t enough positions for us to do so. And in reality, that’s not why most PhD students expect to become researchers – I think it’s partly because we’re generally accustomed to being successful, and partly because in our work life, for every PI we see, we don’t see the other 13 post-docs who didn’t end up as PIs. Academia is more of a vocation than most careers, and that’s what is “supposed to” carry us through the first few years of professional life where, after almost a decade of training, each step is more likely than not to end in rejection. This typical career progression is very different to our peers and friends in industry that we see climbing slowly but surely up the ladder.
Another important “supposed to” is what our nearest and dearest expect of us. Which, unhelpfully, can be completely the opposite of what our professional community expects. For lots of my peers, the message from family is that we are supposed to settle down, buy houses, work 9 to 5, because that’s what grown-ups do. Touring the world via the medium of temporary research positions seems to them detached from the “real world”, which makes it very difficult to reconcile their expectations with those of potential employers.
My key point in trying to pull apart these expectations is that it can be very liberating to find out which are yours, and which are other people’s. Of course, if you are set on a career in research, and you know why (I hope this is where I fit in), then godspeed and may the force be with you. But for a lot of PhD graduates, I suspect that determination is driven by outside expectation, a fact that’s hard both to spot and admit. This outside drive makes it harder work to maintain motivation and increases the feeling of letting people down when it doesn’t work out, and to top it all lessens the feeling of reward when things go right. This will remain a problem until the number of PhD places is brought more in line with the number of research positions out there.
So for all the aspiring minions out there, I encourage openness of mind and courage of your own convictions. In concert with this, I challenge supervisors to send their students out into the world feeling positive about everything they’ve learnt and about the contributions they can make in lots of different professional spheres. I’d like to see a change of atmosphere among the pre- and post-doc communities to one where it’s more acceptable to, for example, actively seek out teaching fellowships if we know we enjoy and value imparting knowledge. The only universal “supposed to” in my view is to be engaged members of society, using our powers for good, whether that’s defending threatened habitats or making other people happy by spending time with them.
Many senior researchers seem to have got where they are because, as they say when asked for advice, “I was very lucky and took all the opportunities that came my way”. Might I one day be talking to aspiring young science journalists, saying the same thing, having forgotten that when I first saw it, that opportunity looked remarkably like admitting defeat?

COMPLEXITIES OF CONSERVATION BIOLOGY: A POST-DOC PERSPECTIVE

Susan M. Cheyne

This blog has already featured many great posts about issues of funding, long-term job security, lack of a coherent training plan for post-docs and issues of feeling like you are always playing catch-up with writing up papers from past projects/grants.

I am a conservation biologist focusing on primate and large mammal behavioural ecology in Indonesia. Having completed my 3rd post-doc and with currently no other immediate prospects, I find myself job-hunting again. The market for conservation biology is limited (as are many fields) and I really would like to obtain a lecturing position. These are also few and far between and to obtain one requires past teaching and lecturing experience, something many of us will have struggled to fit into the hectic post-doc schedule.

In the absence of any formal training etc. offered to most post-docs, what I am advocating here is a more self-sufficient approach and want to share some options from personal experience and from advice given by an excellent colleague at UCL:

  • Seek out part-time teaching, lecturing, tutoring or supervising undergrad projects (and post-grad if possible). I have found it invaluable to tap into the students to get them to work on small parts of my overall research, either in the office or in the field. Delegating some parts of my research to suitable students has been vital.
  • Join professional organisations like the Institute of Biology and take part in their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme.
  • Give talks to the general public or other interested groups e.g. Cambridge Scientifique which organises informal talks on a wide range of subjects to a diverse audience.
  • Get on social media especially Twitter (but maybe have 2 accounts, so you keep private and work stuff separate!). Attending seminars on how to manage social media in science is also helpful (or find a friend who has already attended one of these and pick their brains!)
  • Get on academic websites e.g. LinkedIn, ResearchGate and Google which also provide stats on your publication impact.
  • Look for journals in your field which are looking for editors and join – a great way to stay in touch with current research as well as getting your name out there.
  • When developing your own research ideas, do think about the wider impact of your work and how this can fit into the current global focus your field is taking. This can help show your current boss, or future ones, that you are a valuable commodity.

I appreciate each of these takes time, time away from research and is not easy. I spend several months a year running around the jungles of Indonesia, away from the internet (!) and inevitably come back to a packed inbox.

I don’t have all the answers (if I find them I will let you know!) but until then I hope some of this has given you some ideas. If all else fails, just turn to www.phdcomics.com

Good luck!

Susan

The art of Juggling by Dr James Grecian, University of Glasgow

I’m a terrible juggler … by Dr James Grecian, University of Glasgow

The main problem I have as a fledgling academic is time management, and at a guess I’m not alone.

I’m not talking about procrastination, although that can play a part. I’m saying that it takes time to form a scientific idea, and even longer to transfer those thoughts into cogent prose on a page.

This is an issue because after several years of post-doc contracts, I’m now followed everywhere by the ghost of papers past. This sceptre began as a small niggle when submitting my PhD, and over the last couple of years has ballooned into an academic version of the giant lumbering Ghostbusters marshmallow man.

I was lucky enough to land a post-doc quickly after my PhD. My supervisor bribed me with the promise of a (short-term) contract if I handed in my thesis before the start date. The guarantee of work was a great incentive to write up quickly, and gave me the opportunity for a month or two of summer fieldwork, which is why I became an ecologist in the first place.

This was followed by the offer of another short-term post-doc position (this time 9 months instead of 4 months) at a different institution. With my student debt racking up after 10 years in education (BSc, then MSc, and finally PhD) I was under pressure to find something and so made the moveto the opposite end of the country, far from family and friends.

cartoon grecian

Within a couple of months I was on the move again. When faced with short–term contracts, the offer of a 2.5-year position elsewhere was too tempting, so I upped and moved again, for the third time in six months.

At this stage I had a few papers under my belt, and thought I would be able to get a paper or two from the short-term posts that would set me up nicely. What I actually found was that during this time I became more familiar with removal van hire, motorway miles, and university HR systems.

With hindsight I think continuity breeds productivity. Moving to different institutions can open up new collaborations, ideas and opportunities, but you also have to learn new approaches, attitudes and writing styles that may make those new collaborations more difficult, and slow the writing process down.

Through all this, I’ve been followed by the guilt of unfinished thesis papers, which in turn is superseded by the guilt of unfinished post-doc papers. The old adage “publish or perish” is never far from my mind.

But how do you juggle current work commitments with finishing papers from a previous post, or writing grants for your next position? A colleague once told me to break down the week, and spend a morning or two a week on older projects so that you are always progressing (even if slowly). My issue is that I’m not good at switching between projects. It takes me a day or two to get my head around a particular approach or idea, then a day or two to put those ideas into practice, and another day or two for writing that up, by which point the week is over and I’ve spent it entirely on one idea (which may not have even worked!). Of course I’m then filled with guilt that I’ve either spent a whole week on a) my post-doc project and not really got anywhere, or b) an old paper idea that means I’ve not been working on a).

Friends and colleagues joke that the current post-doc is for writing up the papers from the previous post-doc, but how are we supposed to do this in reality? I’ve met a few people on writing scholarships, who have pots of money to simply write up thesis papers. This approach makes sense, research from the PhD project gets published more quickly and the student becomes more competitive when applying for future funding, ensuring decent outcomes from the grant. It’s an interesting model, but I’m not sure how often it’s put into practice.

I’m now approaching the end of my post here in Glasgow, and have lost count of the number of people who ask me “so what’s next?”

In truth I don’t know. It’s not a lack of project ideas on my part, but a feeling that I don’t have time to think about the future when I should be chipping away at all these papers to make myself more competitive.

Managing different projects, and colleague’s expectations of the outcomes is a key part of academic development, but not one I’m sure receives that much attention. Too much reliance is put on supervisors to train students, when not all are willing to offer tips on writing and reviewing papers or research grants. Early career scientists are crying out for a training structure to guide us through this minefield.

As it is, I guess I’ll need to learn to juggle before I can join the circus…

 

 

This weeks blog – Dr Mark Briffa on Persistence!

This weeks wisdom comes from Dr Mark Briffa, Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour, University of Plymouth

 

Persistence

  • What’s the difference between a post-doc who gets a permanent job in academia and a post-doc who doesn’t? In my opinion, a big part of it is persistence. Those who get a  job persist, those who don’t decide they have had enough (for a whole load of reasons) and go off and do something else.
  • Don’t worry about how others appear to be doing. If your friend gets a lectureship after 2 years and you’re still a post-doc after 5 years, that is not necessarily a reflection on your abilities of your friend’s abilities. Academic careers are just weird and everyone’s is different. I’ve known people who have got lectureships after 1 year and after 11 years. There are plusses and minuses for both scenarios, and it’s hard to say who was better off in the long run!
  • Certainly don’t compare yourself to other subject areas; in some arts subjects it’s possible to get a lectureship before you’ve finished your PhD, but this is very unrealistic for the sciences.
  • Ditto papers. The amount of papers that post docs publish a year varies wildly between different people. I remember hearing a talk on being a post-doc where it was suggested that 5 papers a year should be the target. I don’t know if that is the ‘normal’ amount for a post-doc to publish, but it didn’t happen in my post-doctoral life-time! What you can publish will vary with the nature of your project anyway. At the end of the day you want to work at a place where they have some understanding of you research area and therefore know how many papers are reasonable.
  • Focus on getting papers out (at a rate reasonable for your project) above all else, but also get some experience at the other things you might need to do as well, most importantly teaching; volunteer to lecture, teach on field courses  when you can fit this in around your research.
  •  Interviews. As for everything else, don’t worry about what others are doing. Some will get an interview and then a job offer for the first job they apply for, most of us don’t. You may apply for several jobs and not get any interviews. You will likely go to a few interviews before you get offered a job. It’s all good experience, so just keep going!

 

This blog was first post on the Minion Post Doc facebook group in 2012.

The Top-up Funded Postdoc: Neal Haddaway

The Top-up Funded Postdoc

Neal Haddaway, University of Bangor

I am a top-up funded postdoc. It’s been two years since my last externally funded position.

I suppose I should start out by explaining what a top-up funded postdoc is. We are the ‘fortunate’ few for whom salary funding has been secured through left-over money from our PI’s accounts; travel funding that hasn’t been used, publication costs that weren’t needed, money for that piece of equipment that didn’t get bought. I am fortunate to have a job, particularly in today’s academic jobs market, and I largely really love my job. The situation that I am in, however, is fundamentally one of exploitation, and since many aspects of it will be the same for others, I wanted to highlight them and propose a solution.

I started my current postdoc a little over two years ago and was initially on a one year contract. It was a great opportunity to work in a policy-relevant area in an up-and-coming subject with an influential team. My first point: one year contracts, in my opinion, are fairly exploitative. In a career path where the currency is impact there is virtually no possibility for significant professional development in the space of a year: grant applications work on longer timescales; PGcert HE training (the professional teaching qualification for higher education) takes two years to complete; publications often take far longer than this to conceive, write and publish; even professional development reviews are typically held only once a year (if at all!). What’s more, PIs often don’t want their one year postdocs spending their time working on grants for their next position, writing up publications from their previous one, or taking time to get involved with teaching that doesn’t help get the job done. Obviously I am generalising and obviously there are exceptions, but from my discussions with other postdocs, these are the minority. This problem isn’t restricted to top-up funded postdocs. In fact, externally funded projects with strict deadlines are perhaps more likely to preclude time for professional development. “Why not work on these papers, applications and teaching in your free time?”, I hear from the disgruntled old academic firmly planted in the department Chair at the back. I, like many other short-term contracted postdocs spend most of my free time writing job applications and trying to network to secure my next job: in fact, I’ve been applying for jobs continually for five years because of short-term contracts.

And this brings me to my second point. Those of you paying attention will note that I’ve been in my current position for two years, but was originally on a one year contract. Good maths skills! (You’ll do well in academia). I was given a second one year contract (hurray!), but again, this was not long enough to let me enrol on the PGCert HE and I wasn’t allowed to apply for grants on work time. The situation has recently been made worse as my contract renewal has been dropped to 6 months because the university is in financial trouble, despite having brought in in excess of £75,000 of funding in my free time. I am not alone: two other postdocs in my department have been on rolling one year contracts for over ten years, and another colleague is now on rolling one month contracts following the end of a two-year position. In a rather specific unfortunate twist, we’re often not informed of our extensions until after we start them due to inefficiencies in the human resources department. ‘Job security’, eh? Hmm… But at least we know we’re working on our careers over this extended period in the same subject area. Right?

Yes and no. Yes, it is true that we’re often verbally given an indication that our contracts will be extended to allow us to build a career, but without necessary resources we’re often left impotent. With top-up salary funding comes no money for professional development; no conference fee costs, no travel and subsistence funds, no training budget, no publication fee costs, no research budget. I have my computer and an endless supply of stationery, but this won’t buy me the software I need to work on a new aspect of my research. Furthermore, networking is the lifeblood of a productive, interdisciplinary, collaborative career, and conferences are vital opportunities to network. Training needs no justification at all. And yet postdocs, top-up and externally funded alike, are often advertised with no professional development plan.

And this brings me to my final point. Most other careers have clearly identifiable options for progression, aided by permanent contracts, assistance with vertical and horizontal redeployment, and investment in people. Not so academia. In November 2013 a search on the job vacancy site jobs.ac.uk for ‘ecology’ identified 54 PhD adverts, 14 for postdocs and only 4 lectureships (Figure 1). Is this indicative of an investment in people, or is it exploiting cheap labour? In a country where a PhD stipend is c. £13,000 and full annual costs for a postdoc are nearer £65,000 (Bangor University), I know which one I believe. Are those 54 postdocs told that only 7% of them will make it to a contract lectureship, let alone a permanent position? Remember that this is ecology: subject-relevant job opportunities for PhDs outside of academia are fairly limited.

Figure 1. The Academic Pyramid. Job adverts on jobs.ac.uk for ‘ecology’ in November 2013.

image nealPostdocs are often seen as ‘having a job to do’, with little time to devote to their own professional development. Many of us want to succeed, meaning long hours and bucket-loads of blood, sweat and tears. Many of us are happy to do this, but I for one have become resentful as I feel more and more exploited.

And the solution? We already have a Postdoctoral Concordat, issued by Universities UK in 2011 (https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/vitae-concordat-vitae-2011.pdf), which aims to increase attractiveness of academic careers and support for postdocs. It’s worth a read if you weren’t aware of it; a shocking number of us aren’t. But it is a voluntary agreement, and from the experiences of most postdocs that I’ve spoken to, it simply doesn’t go far enough in the few cases where it’s appropriately implemented. What do I suggest? A Postdoctoral Charter. This would be a commitment from universities to ensure that for each and every postdoctoral position advertised a professional development plan is provided that lists the benefits of the position to the successful postdoc, potential pathways to career progression (industry, policy, and academic), opportunities for writing grant applications and publications, and provides clear minimum expectations for an investment of time and money in the postdoc’s professional development. Until this charter is in place any recommendations for provision of support will remain exactly that; recommendations.

THIS WEEKS BLOG!

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.

Hallelujah!

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.

defensin

Oh defensin, how I love thee

Jo Chapman

NEW Blog! Advice for ECRs: From Tobias Uller, Oxford/Lund

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.