The transition from a Ph.D. to a postdoc, especially if you go from one to the other directly, is never quite as clear cut as you might expect. For one thing, papers from your Ph.D. era tend to bleed into the first year of your postdoc, whether you are writing them up, dealing with reviewer responses or just completing information transfer to new members of your Ph.D. lab.
On top of wrapping up Ph.D. work, a postdoc position comes with its own set of worries, deadlines, uncertainties and tasks all jumbled into what can seem to be an overwhelming package. So here are my tips to help manage the postdoc workload and make your transition from graduate student to postdoc a little easier.
Find your focus sooner rather than later
When applying to postdoc positions, we all have a target in mind. Whether the goal is shorter term (I want to work with X faculty or in Y department) or longer term (this postdoc will help me reach Z position), we know that the postdoc is a stepping stone on our career journey.
So before you get too caught up in start-up paperwork and training, sit down and have a serious conversation with yourself: what do you hope to get out of your postdoc? The answer can be as general as you want, but it should give you an idea of what the next few years will look like. Ideally, you want to aim for at least one deliverable at the end (for example, a paper) that will give you a way to track your progress.
And these initial goals are not written in stone—they are just to give you a sense of direction as your start out, and you should come back to them every few months to see how far you have gotten and to evaluate whether the goal posts have changed.
Set your timeline
The focus you decide on will lead directly into setting your timeline. It is important to talk to your supervisor regarding their expectations for your postdoc period. Use that input and the goals you set to determine where you need to be at specific intervals (for example, every six months to a year), and there you go—you have created a timeline for yourself!
Keep in mind that your plan may change—I usually try to keep a three- to six-month buffer—but your timeline is like a GPS or compass and is meant to help you keep sight of your goal. If you do set a timeline, keep in mind that it should also be updated as you meet or adjust your goals.
Establish your rhythm and boundaries
Your ability to accomplish your goals within your timeline is directly dependent on your ability to work efficiently without burning out. For this reason, I strongly recommend that you take at least a month off between completing your Ph.D. and starting your postdoc. More importantly, though, it is imperative that you set your daily and weekly rhythms and your personal and work boundaries early on in your postdoc.
Your ability to accomplish your goals within your timeline is directly dependent on your ability to work efficiently without burning out.
Your daily and weekly rhythms are dictated by what hours work best for you. Most postdocs are quite flexible with time, so it’s a good opportunity to set your lab schedule according to when you are at your most productive. But in addition to your day-to-day schedule, it helps to think in weeks as well.
For example, what days do you have lab meetings? Do you like your week to ramp up or ramp down in terms of workload? When is the best time to use the equipment you need? All of these constraints lead to a weekly rhythm. Setting up your schedule such that you are the most productive at times that work best for you goes a long way in limiting burnout.
The boundaries you establish at the beginning of your tenure also help you balance your work with other commitments or responsibilities you have. Boundaries can include things like how long you are available in the lab, how people can access you (email, text, phone), how you engage with colleagues outside work, how quickly you respond to messages, etc. While these boundaries are flexible and defined by and for you, they provide a way to carve out time for personal life and activities.
Network, network, network
No matter what your plans are after your postdoc, it never hurts to meet and talk to new people, including your colleagues, others in your department or organization and collaborators. Not only can they give you advice on your projects, but you can learn a lot from their experiences.
No matter what your plans are after your postdoc, it never hurts to meet and talk to new people.
Conferences, in particular, are a great way to grow your network. They offer a unique opportunity to be able to directly talk to people who may be in roles you want to apply for or may be on selection committees for roles you are interested in.
Bigger conferences draw more people and so may offer more opportunities for you, but simultaneously may make it difficult for you to stand out. On the other hand, smaller conferences have fewer people and may have a narrower focus, but people are more likely to remember you. The bottom line is, it is crucial that you start talking to as many people as you can.
In the midst of deadlines, uncertainties about the future, and all of your responsibilities, your postdoc is also a time when you get to explore—so have fun! Enjoy this period when, despite no longer being considered a student, you have the opportunities and resources to learn about any topic of your choosing.
In the midst of deadlines, uncertainties about the future, and all of your responsibilities, your postdoc is also a time when you get to explore—so have fun!
You are not yet completely on your own, so funding worries are not constantly looming overhead. You have the chance to work with other highly specialized, experienced and motivated researchers. So be like a sponge and absorb! And, sooner than you realize, there will be newer postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates who will look up to you and seek to learn from you and your experiences.
Often, the most challenging aspect of the transition from a Ph.D. student to a postdoc is the sudden independence. While many aspects of using your skills to solve problems can be exhilarating, without some structure (either imposed by your supervisor or yourself) it becomes challenging to focus your energy, which can lead to the feeling of spinning your wheels and burning out.
It is also difficult to compare yourself to others because they may be at a different point in their career, be working on different projects or have different experiences than you. And unlike during the Ph.D. phase, all-nighters and long days can be harder to recover from and take a bigger toll on your mental and physical health. For all of these reasons, it helps to have a plan, find people who can help you and enjoy the time that you have in this new era.
So, best of luck to everyone who has just started or is about to start their postdoc journey!