Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Being a Postdoc 2: Postdoc survival

One of my favourite quotes from the television series Babylon 5 is: "You do not make history, you can only hope to survive it". As it is with history, so it is with being a postdoc. You do not make history as a postdoc, you can only hope to survive being one. I have done three postdocs, one in New Zealand and two in Australia. Now I'm in a permanent academic position, a head of department no less. But I have seen people destroyed by the postdoc system, who have not just lost their jobs but been pushed out of academia completely. Make no mistake, the postdoc process can be brutal, but there are some techniques that I found useful for surviving.

Be nice. While some people seem to think that the ends justify the means, if you mistreat people, eventually you will get a reputation such that no-one wants to work with you. There is no point in being able to attract research funding if you can't find staff to employ with it, and there is no point being a professor in your early thirties if your research group collapses by the time you're forty, thanks to mismanagement of staff. Be nice to people, and they will be nice to you. As my best friend is fond of saying, good things happen to good people. This isn't due to some mystical Karmic process: rather, people will go out of their way to help someone who is nice to them. Loyalty is something that can only be earned, it doesn't magically spring forth from the payment of salary. On the other hand, some people see niceness as weakness and will try to exploit you. Beware of the users!

Be diplomatic. Your supervisor may be egregiously wrong about something, but you don't have to point it out. Far better to subtly lead them to this conclusion, to let them think that they have worked it out by themselves. While it is nice to think that science runs on the free and frank exchange of ideas and opinions, it is in reality a very delicate egosystem. Beware of the toes you step on-they may be connected to a fragile ego and a peevish personality.

Get everything in writing. It never hurts to have written evidence in case everything goes wrong. People break their word, sometimes you need a little bit of evidence to remind them of what they promised.

Write everything down. A career is not built on a single action or accomplishment. Instead, it is built on a long list of actions and accomplishments. If you don't write down everything you do, then you might forget something vital when you go for your next job. In other words, having a comprehensive and up-to-date CV is vital for keeping track of the evidence that shows that you have built a worthwhile career.

Be diverse. Work in different fields and expand your horizons. Each field of research has its own way of doing things, if you work in a different field you will gain fresh perspectives on your own field of study. I spent eight years working in ecology, and what I learned has made me much better at designing experiments in computational intelligence. Beware of staying in a different field for too long: your own field may move on so much that you can't catch up again.

Get involved with professional organisations. For computational intelligence, the best organisation to get involved with is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), especially the IEEE computational Intelligence Society (CIS). Volunteering for service on committees of professional organisations is a great way to develop your reputation as a competent, hard working professional. It is also a great way of building your network of professional contacts.

Be useful. Work with other people and broaden your network of research collaborators. Help other people out where you can. Not only is this a great way of increasing your publication output, it's also a good way of diversifying your research experience. Collaborating with other researchers can also lead to other research and employment opportunities.

Know when to get out. Sometimes a field is no longer worth pursuing. Sometimes, you have simply gone as high as you can in that field. This is partly why I left ecological modelling, as I'd risen as high as I could without an ecology degree (something I had no interest in acquiring). Sometimes groups get mismanaged to the point that they can't survive, and start losing staff at such a rate that you have no choice but to flee. There is no point being the last person on the Titanic. In other words, don't go down with the ship

Get enough sleep. I have found that every hour of sleep I miss at night costs me two hours of productivity the following day. It is important to sleep during the night: after the sun comes up, the quality of your sleep is cut in half. Missing sleep also depresses your immune system which makes it more likely that you'll get sick. You might miss out on a bit of work time by going to bed early, but how much work time will you miss if you're sick every three weeks?

Work hard. But not too hard. Success comes to those who work the hardest, and in many ways hard work is more important than native ability. But don't work so hard that you miss out on too much sleep. You especially shouldn't work so hard that your family suffers. At the end of they day, your job is just a job, it's not worth sacrificing your quality of life over. You can always catch up on work later, but missed time with your kids is lost forever.

Plan your next move. Within six months of starting a post-doc position you should be planning the move to your next position. This means that you need to have some idea of where you want to go in your career.
You also need to be flexible, you probably won't end up with your dream job, but you probably will end up with a job that is just as good.


Being a postdoc is hard, and really it is best for young, single people. I was thirty-one when I started my first postdoc, and had a brand-new daughter, which made it much harder for me. But I survived, and I'm a better person for it. I hope these strategies are useful for other people.