Postdoc, not Ph.D. 2.0

By Arunika Ekanayake

Completing my Ph.D. in 2019 was the most exciting time of graduate school for me. In the middle of wrapping up my own experiments and writing my thesis, training other lab members  was one of the main tasks in my final days as a graduate student. While seeking for the next step in my career, I knew that I wanted to do a few years of postdoctoral research to expand my skill set, while being able to combine a different discipline of research to my Ph.D. work for a program that I’d like to design at a primary undergraduate institution. I wanted to move to a research group working on a different field than my previous research specialty, in a different geographical location, and with an advisor who supports the career path I’m interested in. In August of 2019, I defended my Ph.D. thesis on covalent ligands for diverse protein targets, fit the things I owned in a car, and left the Californian LA la land to experience the true north.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

As a postdoctoral research fellow in a brand new lab in a new city, I was feeling completely unprepared when I started. Firstly, I only had a couple of days to get my documents, bank accounts, and housing situation sorted before I started work. Once I got them sorted, I still had several training sessions to complete before I could start working in the lab. Working in the lab came with a different set of challenges. I had no prior experience working with phage libraries and my research at the Derda Lab involve chemical modification of genetically encoded peptide libraries. The disciplinary switch from being a small molecule chemist to a peptide chemist and  phage biologist was challenging. While I’m in a comfortable position at the moment, it was definitely a daring experience in the beginning. It seemed challenging to take control of a project in a field I had no experience in. However, these encounters help me learn something new every day and I consider myself extremely fortunate to get to work with a supportive group who have helped me in this transition.

Life outside the lab

Graduate students come in as a cohort and this provides a support network of colleagues who will be going through the same processes to get advice and some tips, whereas postdocs come in as individual appointments and at any time of the year. It’s important not to isolate yourself from the others in the community and to network to build up your ‘soft’ skills while refining scientific skills. There are many organizations within a university that helps to connect graduate students as well as undergraduates and the postdoctoral fellows can also be involved in these various social and community events. Being involved in such organizations as a grad student, definitely got me opportunities to expand my network and connection as well as to find collaborators and mentors. Institutions have postdoctoral associations that provide support and help for various situations and these groups are important when you have unique problems from other members of your group. In addition to the institution’s postdoctoral office, joining the national postdoctoral association can help in building up connections with so many others in the field who may end up being your colleagues or collaborators in the future.

Making it a wholesome experience

Being a postdoc is a different experience than a graduate student and it’s important to not make the process a second Ph.D. There are moments when I get carried away with my work and I constantly remind myself that this is a transition period before I move onto the next step. It’s time for me to get the necessary scientific skills, but at the same time, apply the training I have already obtained from my Ph.D. to design projects and build up new ideas. It’s a good period to explore new trajectories without the burden of classes, thesis writing, or other duties such as teaching responsibilities of grad students. It’s also the time to take some time to improve mentoring and teaching skills, especially for anyone planning to go into an academic career, but also for any other profession. The flexibility offered in the postdoc stage also gives an opportunity to find work habits that help to thrive as a scientist, while taking time for yourself. While the level of expected mentorship is different for each postdoc, I think it’s helpful to have a mentor who supports your career goals and available for advice on how to achieve them. Therefore, it’s important to ask questions and ask for feedback when necessary for the advancement of scientific skills as well as when thinking of the next endeavor. 

In my opinion, the postdoc stage is a great phase to explore a new research field as well as a different geographical area. It’s definitely the best time for career growth with the level of freedom without any duties of a graduate student as well as the opportunity to take charge of trajectory of the projects and explore new ideas. However, it’s important to take time for the transition from Ph.D. to postdoc to find the best place for what you want to achieve from the training and where you can thrive. 

About the author

Arunika obtained her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles. She was the co-president of Women in Chemistry at USC. She is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Derda lab at University of Alberta.

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