Advice for postdocs during the start-up phase of their appointments (opinion)


The coming academic year will be distinguished by extensive energy devoted to social distance and COVID-19 safety protocols. Once those procedures are in place, colleges and universities will offer an array of orientations for new faculty and new students. Yet most campuses devote little attention to the transition process that new postdoctoral researchers experience.

The postdoc is an exciting milestone in one’s career: no longer a student but a paid professional! Beyond the immediate concerns associated with COVID-19, the transitory nature of the postdoc appointment may cause some anxiety associated with the unstructured nature of the assignment and vast differences in the accessibility and mentorship of faculty advisers. And, since the position is temporary, a postdoc will be back on the job market before too long.

What are some activities a postdoc might engage in during the start-up phase of their appointment that will build a healthy foundation for a successful career trajectory? Reflecting on my experience as a research and faculty development administrator, near the end of the first year, I often provided advice and counsel on an individual basis. As the conversation concluded, both the postdoc and I would lament that we wished we had met and talked earlier. Universally, each postdoc indicated they had not had much structure or assistance in the start-up phase, which resulted in a great deal of unproductive time.

The following list offers 20 suggested activities for postdoctoral researchers to consider when they arrive on a new campus. I’ve randomly presented them to provide one activity each day in order to foster serendipitous discoveries about one’s new academic home as well as build skills and networking capacity. Alternatively, readers may wish to browse the list and simply select a few activities to complete. My hope is that either method will facilitate the transition process and onboarding process.

  1. Read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Create a plan for implementing new strategies for managing your email, to-do lists and the like.
  2. Write to your doctoral adviser and members of your dissertation committee. Thank them for the support they provided and encourage them to share any advice they may wish to offer about your postdoc experience and life beyond.
  3. Identify the subject-matter specialist librarian in your area and make an appointment to meet virtually or in person. Ask for assistance in gaining access to suitable databases for identifying the impact factor of various journals you’ve already published in as well as those you might like to submit to in the future.
  4. Explore job boards such as those of Inside Higher Ed and the American Association of Education Research. Develop a strategy for how often you will monitor position announcements and determine what types of positions your desire following your postdoc.
  5. Create a list of the faculty members in your unit and search Google Scholar for each name. Use their Google Scholar profile to become familiar with the publication record of your new colleagues. Download and read selected articles and consider contacting faculty members with similar interests to meet for coffee or a virtual happy hour to discuss your mutual interests.
  6. Review the 2020 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings. To stay current and challenge your thinking, identify interesting thought leaders you want to follow on Twitter or whose blogs you want to read regularly.
  7. Contact three other graduates from your doctoral program and find a time to check in with them. How does their experience help you understand your university and what future opportunities might come your way as a result of your alumni network?
  8. Make an appointment to meet with your department chair. Prepare a list of questions to solicit their advice about what you need to know to be successful in the department and at the university. Be sure to clarify whether to not you are invited to participate in faculty meetings to learn about the academic culture.
  9. Volunteer to serve on a faculty search committee. This experience will be invaluable once you are back on the job market.
  10. Access your university’s online catalog to locate a book of professional interest. Use this time to learn if/how you can access the stacks and order books and articles through interlibrary loan, as well as how to download full-text PDFs from relevant journals.
  11. Explore Coursera to identify one or more free online courses you might take. When you take a course, be mindful of the new skills you are learning and new insights about how to effectively structure your own online courses.
  12. Obtain a copy of your college’s tenure and promotion guidelines. Create a list of questions you have about the expectations and meet with several different colleagues or mentors, within and outside the college, for their advice. This experience will sharpen the focus of your postdoc work and contribute to your success when you return to the job market.
  13. Form a book club of postdocs and assistant professors who agree to read Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times by Marc Kuchner. Over wine or coffee, discuss what your book group finds most useful for making choices that distinguish an academic career.
  14. Create a conference calendar that lists the dates, locations and submission deadlines for five national/international conferences in your field. Which conferences will enhance your visibility in the field and offer excellent job searching opportunities? Limitations on travel may not have the typical negative impact since many professional associations are moving their conferences to an online format.
  15. Review grant forecasts from three federal agencies: U.S. Department of Education, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health. Create a grant proposal calendar to identify specific grants that may be relevant for your research group to apply for.
  16. Sign up for a training course on how to use the campus learning management system, such as Blackboard or Canvas. Be sure to seek advice about how to create an appropriate grading scheme for your course, upload multimedia and learn about universal design for learning to ensure your course is accessible to diverse learners.
  17. Identify a new favorite writing location where you can work uninterrupted. While your new postdoc office may be the exception, university offices are seldom conducive for extended uninterrupted time for writing. The same may be true for home offices when everyone in the household is working from home.
  18. Watch for any welcome-back celebrations sponsored by your chancellor, vice president of research, provost or dean. Attend one or more of these events, in person or virtually, to gain insight about institutional priorities as well as informally network with individuals outside of your day-to-day interactions.
  19. Find three people who share your research interests and plan to meet with them regularly to create a new, but related, research strand within your work. That way, you can demonstrate to hiring committees that you have the ability to initiate a new line of research beyond your dissertation.
  20. Last, but not least, now that you have been on campus for a few weeks and have had the opportunity to meet many people, set a time to meet with your postdoc faculty mentor. Describe some of the investments you have made in establishing your foundation for success. Seek their advice about meaningful goals and activities for the months ahead. Be sure to ask questions about how they view the postdoc mentoring relationship so you can understand how much time they will make available and what kinds of outcomes of the postdoc experience they think are most important.

Undoubtedly, the primary focus of a postdoc appointment is the development of research agenda and the opportunity to boost one’s record of publication, grant funding and conference presentations. But such accomplishments cannot occur in the isolation of the research lab.

New postdocs are encouraged to consider ways to build social capital, to extend their personal and professional networks, and to learn the intricacies of academe. Unfortunately, postdocs may stumble into pits of quicksand that are seldom marked: professional jealousy, sabotage, people who put their own interests above yours, and more. Using the gift of time within a postdoc program to develop not only your short-term research agenda but also insights, technical skills, productivity strategies and a strong collegial network will build a healthy foundation for a successful career trajectory.

Ideally, your postdoc experience will help you recognize quicksand before you take an errant step. But a strong network will be invaluable for helping you survive the inadvertent tumbles that are likely to occur during a long and successful career.



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