Since becoming a postdoc at MD Anderson Cancer Center, I have had more failures than successes. Although the countless failures seemed daunting, I used them as opportunities to learn and grow, which turned my failures into the experiences that I used to obtain success. As I reached the end of my tenure as a postdoc, I reflected on the keys to success that were turning points during my postdoc, which I want to share to improve the postdoctoral experience.
Define goals and metrics for success.
A postdoctoral position can be quick or long but is ultimately temporary. When starting a postdoc, working with your mentor or postdoctoral office to define goals you want to achieve during your time as a postdoc is essential. In addition, you will want to define measurable success metrics so that you can track whether you are progressing on your goals. One way to be accountable for your goals is to keep a calendar for when your goals should be accomplished. This way, you record it to feel more responsible for progressing on time.
Learn to communicate effectively.
Communication is crucial in your career, whether you stay in academia or continue elsewhere. When communicating, you must consider many audiences, such as your mentor, colleagues, the scientific community, and layperson. Communication can take many shapes and forms, like verbal, PowerPoint presentations, graphical abstracts, grant applications, and scientific papers. These aspects are crucial to consider when trying to deliver your message. Consider taking writing courses, using your institute’s scientific editing resources, and participating in journal clubs or symposiums since these activities will give you more exposure to communicating with different audiences and help you improve your communication skills.
Being able to deliver your message and ensuring that your audience is engaged takes significant work. Re-using the same abstract or presentation may seem the easiest, but it may not be the most effective. Different audiences will connect to varying styles of communication. Although you may have already prepared an excellent presentation, there is always room for improvement to better engage with your audience and effectively deliver your message.
Networking may seem like a trivial task, but doing it effectively can make a significant impact on your career. You may think otherwise, but regardless of your career trajectory, you will always require the involvement of other folks in your career. Whether it is a letter of recommendation or hearing about a new job, networking enables you to be in a strategic position to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
As a postdoc, some of the best networking opportunities are at poster symposiums and lunches with the speakers. In functions where people are more willing to talk, you can take this opportunity to have organic conversations where they could lead to solving a complex problem that you’ve had or enabling a new scientific collaboration. If you do not have the confidence to strike up a conversation, you can try to be the presenter at poster symposiums or seminars. Once you share your exciting research results, I am sure many folks will walk up to you to network.
Connect and work with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.
As a postdoc, there are institutional resources that you can take advantage of to boost your career development. Once you step on campus, the first thing you should do is find and learn what the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs offers. This includes career advice, funding sources, teaching opportunities, networking events, etc. The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs supports you and your career development. It is a free resource that only wants the best for you. If, for some reason, there is no Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, the National Postdoctoral Association offers similar resources that are accessible to organizational members.
Join the postdoctoral association.
Another great resource to jumpstart your career is the postdoctoral association. This group of postdocs works to support and represent the interests of postdocs. This group also facilitates professional enrichment, career development, and networking, fostering a sense of community among postdocs.
Participating in the events will surely be beneficial for your training as a postdoc. However, if things still need to be added to your postdoctoral training experience, consider joining as a leader to enact the change you want to see. This will give you leadership opportunities and show prospective recruiters you can manage and complete non-research-related projects.
Develop new skills.
Your time as a postdoc is temporary, but the resources you have at hand for career development will be abundant and have a lasting impact on your trajectory. It would be best if you strived to take advantage of workshops offered by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs or through your postdoctoral associations. In addition, when the opportunity arises in your lab to introduce a new technology, take the time to thoroughly learn it, as you may find out that you will become the resident expert in this new technology. These are all opportunities that you can leverage for your next career opportunity.
In addition to learning new technologies and research-related skills, ensure to spend time on soft or transferable skills. These include communication, time management, project management, budgeting, emotional intelligence, teamwork, etc. MD Anderson Cancer Center offers many courses and workshops on these skills as they are commonplace in the working environment.
Apply for intra- and extra-mural funding.
Regardless of whether your mentor fully funds your position, it is always a great idea to pursue additional funding through your institution, foundations, or government agencies like the NCI. If you are awarded, the money allocated for your stipend can now be used elsewhere while you demonstrate that you can win competitive grants.
Although you may have yet to be awarded the funding, brainstorming, planning, and writing a proposal application are essential skills to obtain. Preparing a proposal incorporates many critical skills needed in the workplace, such as budgeting, written and visual communication, time management, and creativity.
Attend both large and small conferences.
During your postdoctoral training, you will have opportunities to attend different types of conferences – large and small. Do not shy away from either since both can benefit your career.
Larger conferences often involve many folks and can span various topics. It is a great place to interact with folks from research topics that are tangential or different from yours. You can learn about other issues and incorporate these new ideas into your research. Also, at these conferences, vendors and pharmaceutical companies will be in attendance. These are chances to network to discuss potential new technologies and job opportunities.
Smaller conferences are more intimate. The topics are narrower, but there are more opportunities to discuss with collaborators and experts in the field. You can make a name for yourself at these types of conferences.
Take care of yourself.
Mental health is often overlooked – especially as a postdoc. You will be stressed to publish, write grants, and present research. Learning the proper ways to de-stress and saying “no” to things are essential for caring for your mental health. Taking time off and spending it with friends and family is necessary. Exercising is one of the best ways to take your mind off things and de-stress. Another thing you can do is complete tasks that have been on your to-do list for a while. Most important is to develop a sense of when to take a break.
Be accountable for your training.
The most important key to success is that the postdoctoral training is for you. It is not for anyone else but you. The only outcome that matters is that you know more about yourself and the world than when you started your postdoc.
There will be projects that you need to complete where you may need to learn new technology. If your primary mentor does not know to teach you these skills, you should not use this as an excuse to give up. It would be best if you tried to find a way by learning from other mentors or colleagues or adapting using a core facility service or a different technology.