Ask us anything: the postdoc to PI transition

You asked us anything–here’s our next answer!

How do you transition from being a postdoc to a PI? And does doing more than one postdoc hurt your ability to develop a cohesive research program? (anonymous)

Brian: On a practical level the things you have to do as a PI (more specifically as a tenure-track faculty member) that you usually don’t have to do as a postdoc is: 1) teach, 2) have a longer term perspective, and 3) serve on committees. Good departments try to ease you in on #1 and #3, but #1 in particular is a major adjustment. Especially in your first year or two. My rule of thumb is it can take 5-10 hours to prepare a 1 hour lecture the when you first start teaching. Even if you’re only teaching one 3-hour/week class, that’s a lot of time! When you start reteaching a class or even teach different classes but have a bank of slides to pull from it does get easier. So planning for that hump is important (which is part of where #2 comes in). In general my advice to new faculty is to lie low and not be a volunteer. And plan to lose a full year to getting teaching ramped up.

As for your second question (which ties into my point #2), I think it is important to have a big-picture sense of where you’ve been and where you want to go and how this is all tied together (and to be able to verbalize this). But in a very large way, this is more retrospective than prospective. In practice, I think most people who have been around long enough to have perspective on a research career will tell you: 1) it is very opportunistic and unpredictable, and 2) it is important to always have several research projects going in parallel (for bet hedging primarily but there often end up being surprising synergies). It is almost always possible to post hoc find the threads that tie this somewhat accidental outcome together. In short, and I’m going out on a limb here, I personally think a cohesive research program is more of a selling strategy (grants, hiring committees, tenure committees) than it is a true guiding principle. When you put that reality into place, having two postdocs might actually look like a smart strategy! (at least from a research point of view – there are obviously personal and financial downsides).

Jeremy: As a new faculty member, seek out a mentor (some departments will officially assign you one, which I think is great). And don’t be afraid to ask anyone for advice and input, even to the point of saying “I’m going to be teaching course X, which I know you’ve taught in the past. Would you mind letting me have a look at your materials and letting me pick your brain, to give me a starting point for my own prep?” It shows that you’re conscientious, not that you don’t know what you’re doing. And if you feel scared or overwhelmed, like you’re an imposter, well, you know what? Everybody feels that way at first (I sure did). It’s just a feeling, it’s not reality.

There are other sources of advice too. Tenure She Wrote is by ecologists and has a lot of posts on the postdoc to PI transition.

I agree with most of what Brian said as well, though I’d differ with him on some details. The hardest thing for me to develop as a postdoc and then as a new PI was his #2: the big-picture sense of who you are as a scientist, what sort of science you do, what your long-term goals are and how they fit in with where the field is going, and being able to articulate all that to others in a compelling way. I agree with him that it’s retrospective, at least it was for me. I first developed that sense by having to put together job talks, which forced me to look back over what I’d done and what I wanted to do, and find a thread that tied it all together. But I don’t agree with Brian that this is primarily a matter of salesmanship, or just a “mask” that you put on when applying for grants or jobs and then put back in the drawer. Yes, absolutely, I’m opportunistic about what research I pursue–so is everyone. But I’m not totally opportunistic; nobody is. Further–and this is the really crucial part–what I recognize as an “opportunity” and how I choose to pursue it is not really opportunistic at all. Rather, it’s what defines me as a scientist. Opportunities come from having expertise, plans, and goals. There really are some questions, ideas, and approaches that get me excited, that get me up in the morning. I really do have some guiding principles that I believe in, that are more specific than just “do good science”. And I really do have expertise–there are certain ideas, technical tools, and approaches that I like and understand, and I’m good at recognizing opportunities to apply them. And all that isn’t just something I can only see in retrospect, it’s something that absolutely is going to shape what sort of science I do in future, and rightly so. Not that I consciously strive to do the same sort of science that I’ve always done, or consciously avoid doing “somebody else’s” sort of science. But I’m self-aware about what sort of science I do (and have done, and will do) and I think having that self-awareness is really important. Not that people don’t sometimes have fundamental changes of heart and direction, of course…

As for whether doing multiple postdocs inhibits your ability to develop your own research program, no, I don’t think so. At least not necessarily. Depends how you choose your postdocs. For instance, if you were forced by circumstances to do totally different, unrelated things for different postdocs, then yes, that could inhibit your ability to develop your own research program. But there are plenty of people who quite consciously make what would appear to be big changes when going from one position to another–but with a unifying thread, or as logical steps towards some coherent long-term goal. For instance, a master’s student of mine who worked on alpine plant-pollinator interactions is going on to do a PhD on marine invertebrates. Which sounds like a total change of direction, but it’s actually not (for reasons I won’t get into because I don’t want to steal his thunder…)

4 thoughts on “Ask us anything: the postdoc to PI transition

  1. Thanks for the advice! Being right in the midst of this transition (I started my faculty job less than 2 months ago), one point I had pretty much overlooked is the challenge of getting used to a new research system (when changing countries / continents) and a new institution. I had already been through this sort of change during my MSc/PhD and PhD/postdoc transitions, but I feel that as a new faculty, this is much harder — because it is not just about knowing when the seminars are and who is in charge of the coffee coop, it’s actually understanding how people work, learning all the bloody acronyms that everyone keep using, what to do and, importantly, not do, and finally finding a way to learn all the unsaid.

  2. Great advice. The postdoc-PI leap is huge, much larger than we assume while still enjoying the Postdoc Elysium. Here in Brazil, teaching consumes at least 8 h in the classroom every week, aside from associated tasks, such as lecture preparation and paper correction. And some universities love committees and long meetings, so newbie lecturers or professors may be assigned to five or more committees, which consumes and wastes a lot of time each month.

    • I can vouch for those 8hrs/week, sigh. As a recent PI myself, learning the ropes of university rules, regulations and admin procedures are also not trivial. This stuff is mostly transparent to you a student/postdoc (or it was to me), but once you’re in charge….It’s old advice, but “be extra nice to your staff people” is definitely key.

  3. Perhaps a small piece of advice, but sometimes helpful: find yourself a friend in admin! Administration works in mysterious ways, and having a friend there to guide you will save you both time and frustration.

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