Transitions Part Two: From Graduate School to Postdoctoral Fellow

Thanks for coming back to read Part Two of a three-part series on transitioning from graduate school to a postdoctoral fellowship and beyond. I’m Liana Merrill, faculty supervisor of the NGP blog and former UVM NGP student. Part One of this series left off with me accepting a position as a FIRST (Fellowship in Research and Science Teaching) postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. For those that may be interested in a program like this, let me start by telling you the basics of how this program works (refer to the first post for more about this kind of program). Most first-year fellows in the FIRST program arrive around September 1st and start working in their research lab of choice. This enables them to get used to a new lab environment and begin working toward a relationship with the research mentor and the rest of the lab before the FIRST curriculum actually starts. In January, after all of the fellows have arrived, you begin a “course within a course” that acts as a sort of introduction to the teaching aspect of the program. In the first half of this course, fellows learn about different pedagogical techniques that can be used in the classroom. In the second half, in order to practice and implement those techniques, fellows then begin to teach a “course within the course”. What this means is that the fellows develop a syllabus and team-teach a course to themselves. Each week, two fellows create a lesson plan using a different pedagogical technique, and the rest of the fellows and the instructor play the role of students. At the end of the course, each fellow is paired with a teaching mentor of their choosing from a neighboring institution based on their wants and needs (e.g. giving a few lectures here and there, co-teaching a course with the mentor, teaching their very own course, etc.). In the second year, fellows arrange the teaching experience of their choice with their teaching mentor. After this experience, it is then up to the fellows to decide what additional teaching experience, if any, that they want. In the meantime, fellows are expected to continue to work and publish in their research labs and in the third year, start looking for a job. As a FIRST fellow, you are guaranteed three years of funding.

With that said, what I really want to do in this post is elaborate on my transition from graduate student to postdoctoral fellow, and try to give some helpful pointers and share things that I learned along the way. For starters, my appointment at Emory didn’t start until September 1st, but my graduate funding ended June 30th. So, I did what every graduate student dreams of before their postdoc – I took time off! While this time off was glorious, I spent a lot of the time planning a big move, from Burlington, VT to Atlanta, GA. This leads me to my first piece of advice: don’t be afraid to ask for financial help from your new institution. It’s easy to think that your new boss or HR would have informed you if there were funds for relocation, but it never hurts to ask. I asked both the FIRST program coordinator (who told me there were no funds) and my research mentor. While it seemed like a no at first, she was able to manage a small amount of relocation funds. This affected my decisions greatly when I was figuring out how to move ~2,000 miles to the south, since I wouldn’t be paying entirely out of pocket.

After the stress of the move (moves always seem to be stressful no matter how prepared you are), I next had to deal with adjusting to a new lab, an entirely new part of the country, city living (I had never lived in a city before, and I don’t count Burlington, VT) and believe it or not, homesickness. Up until this point, the moves I made in life seemed to always be the next logical step: high school to college and college to grad school, both of which were moves within New England. In high school and college, when I left, all my other friends were leaving too. This time felt different; everyone else wasn’t leaving too. I left behind friends, family, and even a boyfriend. I left to go to a place where I knew no one. This time, I wouldn’t be starting college or graduate school with a bunch of people doing the same. This was harder than I expected. If you’re someone who doesn’t get homesick, congratulations! If you do, just know that you’re not alone. Sometimes that’s half the battle.

Adjusting to a new lab also proved harder than expected. My graduate and postdoc labs ran very differently, which I knew going in, but this was still an adjustment. I now had weekly lab meetings as well as weekly meetings with my research mentor, which I hadn’t had in graduate school. I had to change my expectations a bit, which leads me to another piece of advice. Have a conversation with your mentor regarding expectations as soon as possible. In this meeting, both sides should lay out expectations for the other side (i.e. you should have expectations of your research mentor, and they should have expectations for you as the postdoc). Knowing up front what is expected of you will make things easier and smoother as you go, and having expectations of your own for the research mentor will help you practice being assertive as well as bringing up any potential conflicts. In fact, I encourage having a talk about expectations both on your interview (this will obviously be a tad more informal) as well as after you have arrived. I can speak from experience that things may change, and you will need to adapt accordingly (adjust the relationship with your mentor, reach out to outside mentors, etc.) There were also no other postdocs in my lab, which is something many of my mentors and colleagues encouraged me to consider. However, I ended up sharing an office with a postdoc in another lab, and I also had the support of the other postdocs in the FIRST program (about 8 others in my class), but not until several months after my arrival. I finally understood my mentors’ and colleagues’ concerns. Support, and especially support from other postdocs, is really important during this time (during any transition really). I think it’s very common in science to feel alone in what you are doing, and I thought I would have support from other graduate students and technicians in the lab at Emory. While this was true, there is still an extra element in having support from other postdocs who can understand you at another level. Sometimes it simply helps to know you’re not alone (are you sensing a theme yet?).

As a new postdoc at Emory, I had to go through a postdoc orientation. Normally, orientations are pretty boring and more of a formality, but I found this one to be quite interesting. There were three main take-home messages that I’d like to share with the readers of this post. The first take home was to think of graduate students and postdocs as the drivers and passengers of a car. In graduate school, you’re the passenger. You get help from your mentor(s), lab technicians, other students, and so on. You’re being trained in the field of your choice, through laboratory experience, through coursework, through reading scientific papers, etc. As a postdoc, you are now the driver. While you still may get trained toward the beginning, you need to be in the drivers seat, working your way toward being independent. Even though every person has a unique experience both in graduate school and as a postdoc, I believe this analogy still applies to everyone. While your mentor can help you with the science, you as a postdoc need to be proactive in all other aspects.

The second take home was to create a track record of performance, no matter what kind of job you are seeking. This advice really hit home for me, as I used to be frustrated that even though I wanted to teach, I was still encouraged to do a traditional postdoc. If I wanted to teach, what was simply doing more research going to do for me? At the postdoc orientation, they were explicit that no matter what career you choose, you need to show that you’re successful. Receiving grants (or even good scores on grants), getting first authors papers, writing book chapters and so on during your postdoc are all going to showcase not only your skills in your field, but are also going to show your success in general.

Finally, I want to share the third and my favorite take home message from orientation. We were told that not only had we interviewed, but we had gotten a postdoc at Emory. We, my friends, were smart enough. We needed to let go of any notion that suggested otherwise. Now, the speech went on, the question is not about whether we were smart enough, but whether we really wanted to do this. This speech hit home for me for a couple of reasons. I know from personal experience and from talking to peers that many of us often struggle with the notion that we aren’t smart enough, good enough, whatever adjective you choose to use (and again, if you’re immune to this, congratulations, I know there are a few of you out there). I think self-doubt is quite common in graduate school and for postdocs too. I think for those of us who have it, it is hard to overcome completely, but the orientation leader was right. We had proven ourselves, we had our PhDs, and we were good enough. But did we want it? This wanting it was the other part that hit home for me, and would prove to be important down the road. At first, I really thought I did. I like to think of it as the honeymoon phase of my postdoc, which didn’t last long. I had taken this postdoc because, while I knew I wanted to teach, I wasn’t sure I was ready to give up research. When I first arrived at Emory, I was convinced I had made the right decision. I blame the novelty. Everything was new and exciting and I was ready to hit the ground running. However, when I really settled into being a postdoc, I slowly started to realize that maybe I didn’t want to continue down the research path after all.

Then came the next obvious question, what do I do now? Well, amidst much soul-searching, I took the orientation advice to heart. I had three years of funding in a well-respected program at a prestigious university where I would get the teaching experience I desired, so I would continue to build my track record of performance and start looking for jobs after my first year. I worked on several different projects in the lab and wrote a book chapter. In the mean time, something happened that I never expected to happen – someone on the faculty at UVM decided to retire, and my former research mentor was the chair of the search committee. She called me and told me if I was at all interested in the position, I should at least apply. She knew it was exactly what I was looking for – a predominantly teaching position in the College of Medicine. Ultimately, I ended up interviewing for, getting an offer, and taking this position, which is where I find myself today, an Assistant Professor in the Educator Scholar Pathway. I’ll discuss the transition from postdoc to faculty member in the next and last entry, coming soon!



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