The Pragmatic Postdoc

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Selecting your postdoc will primarily be a question of your scientific interests, but your quality of life has an impact on the quality of your science. Take a break from reading your potential PI’s Google Scholar profile to consider the rest of your existence as a postdoc.

Fuzzy Feelings

The network-oriented nature of academic hiring means that you will likely have interpersonal connections (even if at a degree or two of removal) with current or former members of the lab to which you are applying. Don’t be embarrassed to reach out to someone, even if you only met them once at a poster session. Also, do consider departmental and regional demographics, and find out if there’s a university postdoctoral association. Postdoctoral appointments lack the built-in socialization requirements of graduate fellowships — no one is requiring that you take introductory courses with the rest of the newbies — and they can be isolating experiences.

A postdoc represents a year(s)-long commitment, and it may require a cross-country or international move: what’s the location like outside of the lab? I know that you intend to sleep in a blanket-fort under your bench, but it’s important to check housing and rental prices, and to seriously consider whether you’re comfortable moving to a small college town/large city/Arctic research station. If you have the time and finances, try an extended visit as a tourist rather than as an interviewee.

Financial Considerations

Some postdocs can delay the start of your retirement planning. After years of surviving on free post-seminar pizza, it may seem as if building your savings will occur naturally when your trained frugality runs into your new higher salary. For postdocs working in the United States, however, the distinction between a “stipend” and “taxable income” determines whether you can contribute to certain retirement funds, such as Roth IRAs.

Appointment types will also vary in terms of access to other employment benefits, and it’s important to understand what kind of employee or fellow you would be. While having your own grant funding is freeing in terms of research direction, the National Postdoctoral Association notes in a 2017 policy report that this may decrease your access to benefits relative to institutionally funded postdocs.

If you do have your own funding, or if you intend to apply for it partway through, find out if any of the current members of the lab or the department are funded by the same mechanism. If someone is, you have a guide who has already run into most of the pitfalls. If no one is, take that as a warning that you need to do serious research about your health care, your taxes, and your potential unemployment insurance.

Postdocs Aren’t Terminal

If you realize after starting that the environment is stifling, you shouldn’t feel trapped in a position that doesn’t work for you. To quote University of Nevada, Reno, Assistant Professor Monika Guilia-Nuss (JoVE author, former postdoc, and current mentor to two postdocs): “Being a postdoc in a lab is like being in a relationship. If the environment is toxic, it will be toxic a few years down the road as well so move out of it as soon as possible.”

Academics like to joke about “permadocs,” but knowing that your first postdoc doesn’t have to be your last postdoc can be freeing. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your research.

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