This blog post was written for the Graduate Women in Science in June 2018!
In the biomedical sciences, postdoctoral training is an opportunity for a young scientist to gain more research experience. Traditionally, this has been viewed as a short period of training. However, recent data shows that postdoc fellowships are lasting longer than before, and most young scientists are completing more than one postdoc in order to be competitive for an independent position (e.g. tenure track or assistant professor positions).
My name is Nafisa Jadavji and I am neuroscientist studying how nutrition impacts brain function. I am in my sixth year of postdoctoral training. I am a Canadian, and after completing my PhD in 2012 at McGill University, I moved to Berlin in Germany for my first postdoctoral fellowship at the Charité Medical University. In 2015, I moved back to Canada to start my second postdoc where I have been working since. The aim of this article is to share my experience as a postdoc and what I think are some important points when considering a postdoc position and training.
I knew postdoctoral training was what I wanted to do after my finishing my PhD, I absolutely love doing research. However, this is not the case for everyone, and that is totally OK - every person has a different path. I realized early in my graduate training that a large part of research is self-motivated. If you don’t like what you are doing than it will be hard to do it every day. I knew for my postdoc, I wanted to work on projects that I was passionate about. I also really liked working independently, so freedom to pursue the questions I wanted was important to me.
I think finding something that you are passionate about during your postdoctoral training is vital. Postdoc training requires a lot of independent work and self-motivation, and if you are working on something you don’t like it will be hard to keep things moving forward. Science is hard; experiments fail more times than they work. Papers are rejected more than they are accepted. The same goes for grants. Being passionate about what you want to study is important. Also, surrounding yourself with people that are supportive is essential. This includes picking a research group.
During my search for a postdoc lab, I knew the area of research I wanted to focus on. So, I hit the literature and read a lot. I found a few groups whose research focus interested me. I then started to contact them. My contact email included a summary of my PhD work (novel findings and expertise in techniques), as well as why I was specifically interested in the research group. I also mentioned my motivation to apply for funding and attached my PhD transcripts as well as an extensive CV to the email. I then tried to set up in person visits to the labs where there was a mutual interest expressed. I knew for my postdoc I wanted to move to Europe, so I focused my search there. In the summer of 2011, I planned a trip to visit 3 labs, two in the UK and one in Germany. During my visits, I gave presentations on my research, met with the principal investigators, as well as staff and students in the research group. During my meeting with principal investigators I discussed opportunities for projects, and what my role in the research group would be. I also brought up applying for funding, in terms of my salary as a postdoc and small research grants.
From my previous experience, after talking to mentors and others in my field I decided that I would apply for funding, in hopes to get a fellowship. Getting a fellowship would give me the independence I sought; I could purse the research questions I wanted. During my last year of PhD work, I applied for five fellowships and I was successful in one. It was a great relief to have my own funding. Writing grant applications is a lot of work, but it is a good learning experience. In 2016, I attended the Cold Spring Harbor Scientific Retreat. This helped a lot with improving my writing and I would recommend it to everyone who is doing a postdoc.
So far in my postdoctoral training, I have applied for 14 fellowships, 7 travel awards, and 13 operating grants. My recommendation is to apply for everything you can during your training. The writing is time-consuming, but you learn a lot about writing applications, formulating research questions, asking for feedback, and dealing with rejection. All of which are key factors for success in science.
I think another important component of postdoctoral training is to learn how to mentor and supervise students in and outside of the lab. While I was in Germany, I supervised four Masters of Science students and I really enjoyed it. Teaching them technical skills as well as working with them on projects and giving feedback on writing was a blast for me. I had some challenging students, but I also had some great ones. It was a rewarding experience from which I learned a lot. I would highly recommend getting involved in student supervision and even teaching classes, if possible. It does take away time from the lab, but I think teaching has helped me a lot with my research.
After moving back to Canada in 2015 I started to get more involved in science communication. I presented my research to lay people. This has been challenging, but in a good way. As a scientist, I think it is important to be able to share research findings with anyone. Some ways I have gotten involved in science communication is through writing guest blogs (e.g. American Society for Nutrition and AlzScience Blog), as well as giving talks at Scientific Café and Pint of Science events.
During my graduate training I have tried to maintain some sort of service component. I have been involved in organizations like the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and I continue to serve on the Journal of Young Investigators Board of Directors. I really enjoy volunteering my time; it has been something I have done since a very early age.
To help with postdoctoral training goals and plans, the ‘Individual Development Plan’ has recently been implemented. I have not used this in my postdoctoral training, but I think if used correctly, it can help trainees set out clear goals, increase communication with supervisors and mentors, as well as provide regular check-ins to see how things are going.
For further resources, Science and PLoS also offer some great advice about choosing a postdoc lab.
I think the postdoctoral training can be a really fun time to do science and learn a lot.
Feel free to visit my website and contact me with any questions or comments you may have.
I wish you all the best with your scientific training!