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March 2020 was the month I ventured into my life as a post-doc. What have I signed up for? That is not a question asked out of concern, it is a question asked out of curiosity and plans for the future.

A simple Google of what is post-doc life like gets you lots of pages (Enago, Quora, Nature, Science, InsideHigherEd, Johns Hopkins, Sussex, The Guardian).

There are lots of questions to ask before starting a post-doc, but to be honest I never really Googled what life as a post-doc is like. I assumed a post-doc life is like that of my PhD training, but with more (1) independence, (2) uncertainty and (3) competition. Compared to a 1st year PhD student, it is a position where I believe we have more ‘identity’ as we begin to shape our beliefs as scientists, which influences our future career paths. Like the torturous truth of the PhD experience, the post-doc experience will have its own sets of misadventures.

I can speak of my PhD experiences quite thoroughly, how I spent my 1st year all the way to my final year. But frankly, I can say now that I have close to zero experience as a post-doc. There are articles on successful PhD experiences, and I can relate to those, but I’m not at the stage where I can comment on the overall life of a post-doc because I have not ventured into that for years. However, just like how I spent the 1st year of my PhD life, it is good to learn about what could be coming my way in coming years as a post-doc in Australia. In many respects, I think a first year post-doc is similar to that of a first year PhD trainee, but certainly not the same.

A reset button on skills to acquire

Start that post-doc and you can say you are an employed PhD graduate! Unlike a first year PhD student, a first year post-doc has had years of experience in some laboratory skills, some transferrable, some not so. If you’ve moved labs, it is likely you will learn new laboratory skills. Often I’ve been told those laboratory skills can be self-learnt easily. Whether it is easy or not, I do not know as it depends on the competency of the individual and what laboratory skill is being mastered. In both cases, a first year grad student and first year post-doc have new lab skills to pick up.

A new post-doc probably needs to also acquire certain new broader skills, just like a first year grad student. A first year grad student may be starting to learn how to plan time for experiments, read papers effectively, doing literature reviews and managing time independently. As a first year post-doc, you might have already acquired those skills and so you put them to use right away. Therefore, I personally am aiming to expand my skill sets, learning to be independent and pursuing new interests, seeking new training opportunities for leadership & management, learning to make objective decisions myself. Overall, a different set of broader scientific skills are necessary and so I’m picking them up.

Thinking like a post-doc: Being mindful of first year habits

I’ve heard this before “Think like a post-doc” although I am very confused by this. Is there a rule book that tells you how to think like a post-doc? Like a grad student in their early years, post-docs probably need to develop a certain way of thinking to set things straight early on. Personally, I think a first year post-doc is more about developing the realization that they have acquired a doctorate and that there are certain things to always keep in mind, and that is probably certain first year habits that could spell disaster. Both a first year PhD student and first year post-doc need to be mindful of a list of things when approaching certain situations.

First year researchers (grad student or post-doc) are often brimming with enthusiasm and passion, that is certainly my case. Some would suggest, do not be blinded by passion. As a grad student, I definitely learnt that lesson. Now as post-doc I need to relearn that lesson and revisit that thought often.

As a first year grad student and first year post-doc, we might think we have time to let things fix themselves if something seems not quite right. Hopefully a problem goes away right? No, as a post-doc, I need to relearn and remind myself again constantly, that time is precious, it’s not like I have all the time in the world. Do not wait for the last strike, or when things are too late, when situations have worsened. It is easy to start a new position, and feel you can wait for strike three.

Defining your identity as a scientist as a first year post-doc

A first year grad student might be more focused on developing rough ideas, aims, objectives for a broadly themed research project. First year grad students are adapting and still evolving as circumstances change, and so their research direction might be bouncing back and forth as they explore. Over the many years they will then go through the set of trainings that build confidence, public speaking skills and relationships, learning to build an identity for themselves.

Similarly, a first year post-doc will still go through years of building confidence again, and develop more relationships. However, unlike the exploratory nature of a first year grad student trying to adapt and evolve, research projects for first year post-docs could be potentially more well-structured as they are often hired to drive a research project at hand. Is there much to adapt and evolve? There is definitely room for growth, but a post-doc also has had years of commitment to science during their PhD. What this means is that their identity as a scientist has been somewhat developed, shaped and hopefully nurtured appropriately upon leaving grad school. Their identity might be a little bit more rigid. At this point, I believe it is important to not only build, but define one’s conception of oneself as a scientist.

Having been in research for years during my PhD, I now have a better understanding of how academia operates. As a first year post-doc, I seek to cultivate my core beliefs as a scientist, define ideal trajectories for my scientific career. Do I believe in the “childhood” naive mentality of doing fun science which is more suited for industry research, compared to the realistic mentality while aiming for science faculty positions?

It’s only been half a year of post-doc for myself at this stage, and the realization my doctorate was acquired February 2020 still hasn’t quite sunk in. I’ll need to continue to grow and develop, just like how I aimed to grow in the first year of my grad school, but with newfound goals and trajectories as I aim to better define or redefine the image of myself as a post-doctoral researcher.