I am currently in academic limbo.
My contract position as a postdoc at Charles Sturt University ended in December, after 3 years as a postdoc researcher and 3.5 years as a PhD student before that. At the beginning of March, I’ll be starting an exciting 3-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of New England in Armidale, working with Romina Rader, Darren Ryder and Oscar Cacho.
I’ve found the transition period between postdocs challenging for a few practical reasons. It’s not as simple as clocking off at one job, handing your pass in and turning up to the new place. And while there is lots of good advice online about starting a postdoc for the first time (e.g Margaret Kosmala’s Advice for New Postdocs and Natalie Matosin’s Postdoc-ing for Dummies), I couldn’t find many tips on navigating the no man’s land between two postdocs at different institutions. But do read Amy Parachnowitsch’s great post on being ‘an unemployed academic’!
These are some of my experiences as an early career field ecologist in transit.
Your contract doesn’t define your career
As individuals, academic researchers occupy an interesting employment space. Their professional contribution to their discipline, and society generally, exists separate from their physical place of employment. The data, papers, collaborations and peer review requests you’re working on and the students you’re supervising will all continue regardless of your contract end-date. This makes it hard to explain to non-academic family and friends why you’re still ‘working’ even though you told them your contract had finished!
If you’re a postdoc working under a senior academic on a specific project, it can be helpful to plan some independent projects into your workload to build your own career momentum. Small natural history studies, observational notes or desktop-based reviews and meta-analyses are good options, especially if you don’t have access to your own research funds. Science communication and outreach are also great ways to build your own career independently of the project/institution you’re working for. These projects also help keep you motivated as you’re winding down from your previous project, especially if you don’t have a new position lined up to start straight away.
Don’t finger too many pies
Many people will tell you to apply for everything and anything and see what comes up. In my pre-academic working life, I believed that too. When a job application was simply a well-worded cover letter and a copy of your CV, why not apply for hundreds of them?
But as a working postdoc, there are two very good reasons not to adopt this strategy: your mental health and your productivity.
Writing research grants and job applications takes time. A lot of time. For early career researchers who don’t have a stash of previous applications to work from, it’s a huge investment of time, energy, mental focus and emotions to write your first lot of big applications. And it’s a huge distraction from the work you should be doing, which has guaranteed benefits, for something that is not at all guaranteed to happen.
I didn’t apply for a lot of small grants for two reasons: (1) I couldn’t justify the time spent in preparing them; (2) it’s difficult to convince a funding body to give you money when you can’t prove you will have a position at the institution you’re applying from by the time the funding comes through.
So don’t be afraid to pick and choose. Don’t waste time, energy and emotions applying for something that you really don’t think you’ll be successful with, or that you won’t get some worthwhile experience from the process.
I applied for one big grant and one postdoc fellowship in the final year of my contract. The grant was a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), a big-deal Australian government funded grant, and one of the few grants that provides a salary* plus operating funds for early career researchers to lead an independent project for 3 years. (*This is a big deal, because most research grants only give you operating funds and you have to find alternate income or already be rich to pay your rent & bills while you’re doing the research.)
I knew I had a very small chance of getting it, but I also knew the experience would be worthwhile regardless of the outcome. I spent four months writing the application, and some of my ‘real’ work fell behind because of this. Yet despite the time spent on a grant I didn’t get, it was a rewarding experience, particularly because the reviewer comments were really positive, which was a huge confidence boost for me.
The postdoc application (which I was thankfully successful with) was like a mini grant application but I found it a lot more enjoyable to write because I was already in the zone. I had one other collaborative grant in progress during that time that I wasn’t leading, but I still couldn’t put as much effort into it as I would have liked. Anything more, and I would have been floundering.
Should I stay or should I go?
It’s often less stressful to try and find funding or apply for a new position at the institution where you’re already based, especially if you have a partner/family to consider. I made the decision to relocate only after months of talks with my husband and knowing that he was just as keen to move as I was. We also agreed on ‘criteria’ for a new location (for us, it was ‘not overseas’, ‘not a city’ and somewhere we both liked, and we had a few Plan Bs in place if nothing came up).
There are a couple of reasons to seriously consider moving on after your first postdoc:
Will you have a mentor at your current institution? I had an amazing mentor at CSU (Gary Luck) who was my PhD supervisor and postdoc mentor for 7 years and has become a great friend. He told me halfway through my postdoc that he would be retiring soon after my contract expired. This was a key factor in my decision to move on, as there were no other senior academics at CSU working on topics I wanted to pursue. Early career researchers need in-house support to build a career while they are still learning the ropes of an academic career. It’s nearly impossible to build a new lab from scratch without having a senior academic you can turn to for guidance.
Did you do your PhD at your current institution? Not too long ago, it was a mark of dedication and experience to build an academic career at one institution. Now a diversity of experiences at the early career stage is looked more highly upon and postdocs are encouraged to move around the country, or across the globe, before ‘settling’ for a permanent location.
The main criticism from one of my DECRA application reviewers was that I was staying on at the institution where I had done my PhD, risking the potential of developing insular thinking.
I think this idea is valid, but somewhat misguided. While the intellectual benefits of working with different researchers and at different locations are undeniable, these benefits can also be obtained while based at a single institution, through good mentoring and financial support that encourage cross-institution collaboration and inter-disciplinary research teams.
In contrast, the benefits of building your career at one institution can be more valuable for the researcher and for the scientific community – a permanent location allows you to really get to know your study system, collect long-term data, and establish social and working relationships with the local community. It also reduces personal financial and emotional costs from having to move regularly.
However, if you feel the benefits of moving will outweigh the benefits of staying, a fresh start can be a good thing. Starting at a new institution as a fully-minted postdoc, rather than continuing on after being a student, can have huge benefits for your work ethic and enhance your relationships with new colleagues, who won’t have a mental association of you as ‘a student’.
Changing all the logins
This seems pretty obvious, but it took me by surprise because of the sheer number of online work-related accounts that go with the academic individual, not their institution. I’m glad I kept a list of usernames and passwords!
At last count, I have 30+ journal author/reviewer accounts, 4 academic profiles (Google Scholar, ResearchGate, ORCID, Publons), 3 professional society memberships, some other work-related accounts (The Conversation, Atlas of Living Australia, online reference managers etc.) and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten about. Not to mention all the journal table of contents I’ve signed up to. I also had 3 papers in review (submitted under my previous affiliation) when my contract ended.
Ironically, the most frustrating to change was my Google account. I opened it years ago to use Drive for work collaborations and used my work address to set up the account, simply because I was using it for work and I hadn’t even considered moving jobs at that stage.
Long story short, I finally worked out how to change my email address through my desktop computer and everything still works fine. But my android smartphone had a tantrum and I now can’t access any of my files on my phone. The only options are to reset my phone (and lose everything on it), or buy a new one.
The easiest solutions to many of these technological issues are: (1) don’t use your work email address to sign up to any account that doesn’t require your .edu address; (2) try to keep access to your email account after your contract expires, at least for a few months, to allow you to deal with changing details. (HR departments are notoriously quick to cut you off the day your contract officially ends!)
If you need your email after your contract expiry date, apply to be an adjunct at your current institution so you can continue using your email until you start at your new workplace. If that doesn’t work, make sure to change all your online account logins before D-day and set up a mail forward before your final day.
Connections with landholders
One of my biggest regrets from leaving CSU after 7 years is losing the connections I have built with the landholders who have kindly let me onto their properties to do my field work. Good relationships with land owners/managers are built on trust and are one of the most valuable foundations of a field ecologist’s career. In Australia, where it is far less common for academic institutions to own their own field stations, getting access to suitable field sites to do your research can be a time-consuming and frustrating process.
For my recent work in apple orchards, it took me about 4 months of internet searches, phone calls and emails (with lots of no-replies and a few very rude responses) to find just six orchards in our region that suited our study criteria and that we could afford to travel to on our operating budget.
A good field site is a valuable boon for an ecologist’s mental health – somewhere to escape the desk and find some solitude, maintain a connection with the natural systems you’re studying, and where the managers and workers are often more interested in what you’re doing than your academic colleagues.
So once you’ve found a good relationship with a landholder, it’s very hard to break up with them! But I look forward to maintaining a long-distance relationship with them and building new connections with new farms and landscapes and discovering new landholders and new pollinators!
© Manu Saunders 2017