Career Series: Transition to Postdoc Life: From Ithaca to Tucson
Despite attending numerous Careers for PhDs workshops, even hosting some of my own, I knew that I wanted to be a professor. I was excited about writing, mentoring, managing a lab, and pushing academic science forward. But as a molecular plant pathologist, every job I wanted to have one little requirement in the job description that I did not meet: “postdoc experience”. Postdoctoral research is the limbo, temporary position between getting a Ph.D. and a more permanent position. It is a chance to learn new skills, work in a new place, and branch into new projects, while further preparing yourself for the next career step.
So how do you sign up to be a postdoc? Unlike medical school’s matchday where recent graduates are “matched” to residency programs after becoming a doctor, finding a postdoc position does not have a clear process. I started making spreadsheets of labs I had read papers from, states or countries I wanted to live in, and researchers I had met and could see working with. I talked with recent graduates to see how they navigated the black box of finding the right postdoc position, a mixture of cold e-mails, and applying to advertised positions. I thought about what techniques I wanted to learn and how I could best position myself to be competitive for future faculty job applications. My graduate research was studying resistance genes and effector proteins in plant pathogens and other bacterial symbioses. Did I want to stick with that or do something else?
Ultimately, the limiting factor when looking for a postdoctoral position is money – does the lab have funds to support you. While this sounds like it restricts you to labs that are actively advertising open positions, that is not necessarily the case. Fellowships, lab turnover, and pending grants may make it possible to get a postdoc job in a lab with no openings. Keeping that in mind, at the beginning of my last year of grad school, I contacted the two labs that I was most interested in working with, expressing my interest. I chose these labs because the research was tangential to my experience, but would teach me new skills, and because I liked the idea of living where they were located. I also had met both professors briefly in person, so I had some idea how I interacted with them. This is a good time to mention that going to conferences and networking virtually can make job hunting much easier!
Because of my career goal, I was keen on applying for fellowships to fund my postdoctoral work. Not only do fellowships show your grantsmanship abilities, but they also give you the flexibility of working in the lab you want and on your own project, laying a foundation for future grants and faculty job applications. I started looking at relevant fellowships that I could apply for, for both labs I was interested in. Getting an early start on this is important, as well as knowing that grant cycles vary in different countries. One of the labs was in the United Kingdom and I had missed many of the UK and EU fellowship periods that would have been most beneficial for me to apply to. So, I focused on the lab in Arizona and applied for a USDA fellowship work on bacterial-fungal-plant interactions.
I did not get the fellowship. But I was still offered a job in that lab! Over the course of working on the application and waiting to hear, it worked out that the money would be there to hire me for one year. While a one-year contract is a kind of risky, I decided to take it and knew I would focus on applying for fellowships and helping with grant writing, a skill I wanted to develop anyways. One of the things I was most thankful for in making my decision was the opportunity to have an in-person interview where I was flown to Tucson to see the space, meet the community, and interact more with my future boss. If this is not possible due to money or travel restrictions, even virtual interactions can be very helpful to determine if this is the right position and environment for your career journey.
Now, I am just four months into my postdoc position at the University of Arizona and still adjusting, especially having moved during a pandemic. Finding a community has definitely been tricky in the virtual world we all occupy, but I am filling the void by keeping in touch with postdoc (and not) friends across the country. Notably, being a postdoc skips the tutorial step of being actively mentored like a new undergrad or grad student, so I have to ask a lot of questions to find things and it takes a bit to get focused. But with freedom comes the ability to work on the skill sets that I want to and to put my energy into the projects I find most interesting and fulfilling. I was recently told that graduate school ends in a degree, but a postdoc ends in a job – ultimately, I know I am in a supportive place that will help me get to the job I want.
Learn more about Dr. Morgan Carter's journey here.