Postdoctoral (postdoctorate) training is a period of time when you can focus on your research and carve out your niche, so that you can begin to make a name for yourself in your given field. This training period can be challenging, so building a network is essential. An African proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child, and I think the same can be applied to becoming a successful scientist.
If you are in STEM, your postdoctoral training will likely be completed in a lab or team environment. Supervisors are essential for support on big picture research goals, writing grants, and manuscripts, as well as with providing guidance in terms of attending scientific meetings, and forming collaborations. During postdoctoral training it is great to get involved in grant writing, specially, operating grants, being listed as a co-applicant adds to your CV.
Other lab members like research assistants, research associates, other postdocs can be a great resource for technical and day to day help, as well as sounding boards for experiments or when you are putting data together for presentations/papers. Mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the lab is a lot of work, but you learn a lot about yourself and it’s also a good time to figure your personal mentorship style. Well trained students can support you with data collection. For example, a graduate student that I co-supervised helped me write a review article, she sorted through lots of data and was able to respond to the reviewer’s comments, it made the writing process a bit easier.
During my postdoctoral training I found it very useful to seek support outside of my lab, I built a network. I did this through networking at scientific meetings and training courses. For example, I was at a meeting in Denmark in 2017 and met a big name in my field. After the meeting I followed up with an e-mail and was then invited to speak at a seminar at his institution. Currently we are collaborating on a book project, as well as we have submitted two proposals for symposia at scientific meetings.
I have also attended a few training courses during my postdoctoral training, which also helped me meet people and make connections. If you can’t attend meetings or courses, I would recommend trying to work with people in similar areas, send out e-mails expressing your interest and ask about presenting your research findings at seminar series. Don’t be shy. Form collaborations with others, share your expertise, being open to opportunities can be very beneficial.
I think another way of building your network is through your personal connections, for example friends you make in graduate school and during your postdoctoral training might make great collaborations. I have a current collaboration combining my area of expertise with a cancer researcher (not my area of expertise), this collaboration came about through a friend I made in graduate school.
In the last 4 years I started to get more involved with social media, through Twitter and writing blog posts. At points during my postdoctoral training I felt isolated and I think that having a network and community online helped with managing the loneliness, depression, and anxiety that comes with being a postdoc on the job market in STEM. Through Twitter I learned about Future PI Slack. By joining this community, I got feedback on my job applications, ideas for publishing my research, and I also offered any advice I had.
I think the benefits of having a network both in your lab and outside is much needed for all postdocs or postdocs wanting a career in academia. Being a postdoc in the 21st century is hard and requires lots of resilience. It is important to note that not everyone you meet will be a part of your network, I have tried to be selective, but I still have been let down. But the benefits outweigh the costs. I have connected with each person differently in my network, which has enriched my training and I think my success in my chosen career path.