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The Untold Truth About the Postdoctoral Adventure: Tips for Cracking the Code



I decided to write this post because I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. I had to learn many things the hard way. Hopefully my experience will help some of you to pick your future lab having as much information as possible.


Postdoctoral positions are often seen as the natural next step after completing a Ph.D. For those who want to pursue an academic position (either in universities or research-related institutions), postdoctoral training is usually required for applications in the US and around the globe. While a postdoc can offer valuable training and research opportunities, there are untold truths that need to be considered before embarking on this career path. However, the reality is much more complex! since you´ll need to tread a delicate balance between your passion for discovery and the practicalities of life.


In this blog post, we will explore the underpaid professional status of postdocs (which also applies for graduate students), the importance of choosing wisely, the impact on family costs, and alternative career advancement options.


Choosing Wisely for a Balanced Future

While the untold truth may cast a shadow, it's important to approach the postdoctoral journey with wisdom and foresight. These are essential considerations I think you’ll need to have to maximize your chance for success while navigating the different challenges involved in the process:

  • Research Alignment: Choose a postdoctoral position that resonates with your research interests and career aspirations. This alignment will fuel your motivation and drive for excellence despite external challenges. If you are planning to transition into industry, doing a postdoc in a company might be a good starting point. However, I have no experience at all in that world. What I would tell you is to use a postdoc to leave your comfort zone and learn new things! More of this below.


  • Mentorship Matters: Opt for mentors who not only inspire your scientific pursuits but also understand and support your personal growth and well-being. Effective mentorship can illuminate your path through the shadows. An experienced principal investigator (PI) most likely has dealt with lots of people during his career. If you are an immigrant looking for a postdoc, this is something that I definitely recommend since you will face challenges at many different levels that native people won´t. Having your PI on your side to support you is essential! Big labs and big names are always seductive, but if you pick a lab led by a rockstar, those people have lots of activities and not plenty of time and availability for their trainees. However, if this is a path you would like to take, make sure to find mentors within the lab, maybe an older postdoc that has been there the longest time.



  • Choosing the right lab for you:If you are in biological sciences and you want to get a PhD degree or a postdoctoral position, then you want to be in either New York, Boston or San Francisco”. At this point I can't count how many times I´ve heard this statement. Even when some of the most important universities and research institutions in the world are located there, nobody will tell you that (1) these are among the 10 most expensive cities to live in the US and (2) the salaries for postdoctoral scholars funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) are defined nationwide by this institution and are not adjusted accordingly to the cost of living in different cities. Moreover, the salary posted by the NIH is a suggestion and it is not enforced so you might end up earning less than the suggested amount.


I am not saying don't go to those cities, but if you have a partner that depends on you or maybe kids, this is something relevant to consider. We will cover childcare in another post, but the cost in these cities can range between 1500 to more than 3600 dollars per month!



The take home lesson is don’t get blinded by the names of big Universities or research institutions, there are plenty of amazing laboratories across the U.S. Do your homework and choose wisely, there are several factors to consider.


  • Network and Collaboration: Leverage your postdoctoral experience to forge valuable connections within your field. Collaborations and networking opportunities can open doors beyond academia, potentially leading to better-compensated roles. Attend meetings, generate scientific collaborations and show your work as much as possible. There are unsaid privileges for those people who are constantly connecting to other people.


  • Skill Diversification: Embrace opportunities to acquire skills beyond the bench. This diversification can make you a well-rounded professional, enhancing your value in both academic and non-academic settings. The best training comes out of doing new stuff, moving away from your comfort zone. What you did in graduate school was cool, but there is a huge world out there with different models, research topics and methods. Economists suggest diversifying portfolios to make money, the same concept applies here. The more diverse skills you get, the more attractive you´ll be for your next step in the future. In fact, this is a crucial factor for many fellowship applications, in case you need to apply to one.


In conclusion, the postdoctoral journey is an odyssey of intellectual growth and personal development. By choosing wisely, you can overcome the barriers by the untold truth of underpaid professionals.


Don't choose a postdoc simply because it seems like the default option or because others suggest it. Carefully examine your motivations and determine if a postdoc will truly contribute to your long-term career objectives. Focus on your next step and look out for the skills, experiences and even the type of papers published that you will get (in case you choose the academic path for the future of course).


I hope this is useful,


Cheers!


Academic Dad


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