How to Effectively Use Your Postdoc Position to Prepare you for an Independent Faculty Position

Feb 21, 2024

By Dr Claire Stenhouse, Assistant Professor of Reproductive Biology, Pennsylvania State University

Author Biography:

Claire completed both her BSc in Biological Sciences with Honors in Reproductive Biology and MSc by Research in Reproductive Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. During Claire’s PhD at the Roslin Institute she investigated placental and endometrial function in relation to intrauterine growth restriction and fetal sex in pigs. She then travelled to the US to pursue a three-year postdoctoral position followed by a two-year Assistant Research Scientist position in Physiology of Reproduction at Texas A&M University. Claire is currently an Assistant Professor of Reproductive Biology at Pennsylvania State University.

A postdoc is a great opportunity to learn new techniques, analyses, skills, or perhaps to use a different model or organ system. It can also be a good time to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and to pursue new directions, which will make you into a more well-rounded scientist. Here is my advice on how to make the most of your postdoc position to prepare you for an independent faculty position. Disclaimer: every Postdoc position is very different; this is just one experience.

  1. Establish yourself as an accomplished researcher in your field

Publishing manuscripts is an essential part of a postdoc as it helps to establish your expertise in the field and allows you to build a credible reputation by increasing your visibility in the scientific community. The number of publications you have is often important for career advancement in academia, both in applying for faculty positions or for grant and fellowship applications. While you often aim to publish multiple manuscripts, it is important to focus on conducting rigorous and impactful research that contributes meaningfully to the field.

Productivity is essential in a postdoc but remember that quality is more important than quantity.

Presenting at national and international conferences was an important aspect of my postdoc training. I found this was an effective way to gain a reputation; network with leaders and peers in my field; and to identify new collaborators and mentors. Additionally, attending conferences that were not fully in my research area was a great way to force myself out of my comfort zone and allowed me to think about my research from a different perspective.

Attending conferences during your postdoc is vital for networking and to gain a reputation in your field.

  1. Find good mentors and advocates

Finding good mentor(s) was crucial for my professional development during my postdoc. My mentors offered advice on career choices, research directions, and networking opportunities and helped me to navigate the complexities of working in academia.I found it really beneficial to have different mentors for different aspects of my career. For example, having a mentor who was not immediately involved in my research (e.g. someone else in my department, college, or at a different institution) but had a good understanding of my field and long-term goals provided different outlooks and perspectives which were more impartial. Importantly, many of the mentoring relationships that I developed during my postdoc continued after I left that position (and I hope will continue for a long time in the future).

In addition to having a strong relationship with my mentors, I also found it useful to have advocates. While mentors focus on guidance, advice, and personal development, advocates concentrate on actively promoting you and your career development within your institution or professional community. For example, an advocate may recommend you for various opportunities, awards, promotions, speaking engagements etc.

People are essential in our field. Make sure you surround yourself with mentors and advocates who believe in you and want to help you succeed.

  1. Science skills are important, but developing your leadership skills is crucial

I have often witnessed postdocs taking on a new faculty position and not being prepared for the associated high teaching loads, people management, budget management, and administrative burdens. I greatly benefited from attending several leadership, project management, and teaching courses during my postdoc and would recommend this to anyone considering continuing on to a faculty position as these are all essential aspects of running your own lab.  I also benefited immensely by taking on additional leadership responsibilities during my postdoc, managing my own research projects alongside those of undergraduate and graduate students in the lab. Supervising other members of the laboratory during my postdoc prepared me greatly for managing staff and students in my own laboratory and showcased my ability to guide and manage a team.

Utilize your postdoc position to strengthen your skills in areas where you feel less confident.