Columns Opinion

To do or not to do a postdoc

Athulaprabha Murthi

As one nears the end of their Ph.D., a question that begins to daunt some of us is should I or shouldn’t I do a postdoc”. At least I was absorbed in that simple thought for sometime. My advisor was very insistent that a postdoc is essential for the development of any scientist, while I wasn’t all that sure. Finally, when I found a topic / subject interesting enough to do a postdoc, it was hard to convince people that though trained in a different field, I am genuinely interested in their subject and would like to learn and do research in that field. As the science community is increasing in size, funding diminishing and competition increasing, it seems that less and less labs are willing to spend the time it requires to train a new person into the nuances of the field especially at the postdoctoral level. Though officially still considered a training position, it seems to have developed into a data churning position.

I wanted to move into infectious diseases reseach or public health and epidemiology but it was not easy. I was lucky that my advisor had sufficient funds to support me for nearly a year and a half till I found the exact fit. During the nearly three years I spent as a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health studying sRNAs in Bacillus anthracis, research was definitely a uphill task for various reasons – being trained in yeast – a eukaryote I had to not only get used to the nomenclature but also learn to think in terms of prokaryotes (no nucleus, or organelles, different gene regulation) but the worst was moving from yeast to B. anthracis. Yeast is easy to manipulate, hordes of tools exist in it, but B. anthracis has hardly any tools and even simple cloning is hard. Thus, when I came across the video on ibiomagazine by Sandra Schmid about postdocs experience, it really struck a cord.

In retrospect, I think my advisor was correct (at least for me), my postdoc definitely helped me to grow not just as a scientist but to mature as a person and understand my goals/​aims in life as much as my own abilities. Granted not everyone would be like me – but I do feel that as a student, our focused view is pretty biased. As one matures, we see the intricacies of each field and are able to make a more informed decision on where we can see ourselves in the next few years. 

Having said that, it is always a good idea to start thinking of about your postdoc / alternative career options at least a year before completion of your Ph.D. Networking is essential in the world of today, so go to conferences, interact with scientist, know about their work and present your work to them. Choose a mentor carefully – someone who may not necessarily be the best in the field, but someone who would mentor you and help you grow into a mature and successful scientist. If your interests are more non-academic, then choose a lab that has precedence of such career tracks and would be open about your interest without bracketing yourself into it – after all you can always change your mind, similarly if teaching is what you aim for, then choosing a lab/​institute where you would get the opportunity to gain some experience in teaching is advisable.

Postdoc is a time for you to discover yourself, know your skills, your interests, try different things and find out what you enjoy the best and where you fit in. At least in the U.S.A., most universities and research institutes would allow their postdocs and students to detail’ in the different streams of science – policy, patent law, technology transfer, science writing and so on. Detail’ means you can spend sometime in the respective department maybe do a small project and interact with the experts there. This helps you gauge the field from personal experience and decide if that is something you would like to pursue.

Finally, when applying from India to other countries, check and ensure that your pay is at par with that of established standards. For example – in the U.S.A postdoc pay scales generally follow National Institutes of Health-suggested scales. For Europe there are websites such as EURAXESS that have sufficient information.