Ask us anything: how to network as a postdoc

Recently, we invited readers to ask us anything. Here’s our answer to the next question. Question has been paraphrased for brevity, click the link for the original.

How do you network as a postdoc, not just at conferences? In particular, what if you want to contact someone for learning? (from Carlos Aguilar-Trigueros)

Brian: Once you’re a postdoc, act like you’re a faculty member. That is how you are broadly perceived in the somewhat egalitarian academic world. If you’ve got a PhD finished you’re a potential collaborator. You can think of it as your multi-year PhD just got you a license to email any ecologist in the world if you want. Of course they are busy, so they may not want to collaborate (and they might not want to collaborate even if you were a member of the National Academy so don’t take it personally), but it would be unusual for them to be rude. So how exactly would I approach a faculty member I didn’t know? Here’s several I have used (all with happy outcomes, some with collaborations resulting):

  1. Email them and say I’m giving a talk at ESA and would appreciate your thoughts and feedback.
  2. Email them and say I really enjoyed your paper X. Its changed my thinking about my own work Y. I wonder if we might talk about potential synergies?
  3. Invite them to be a participant in a working group (or RCN) you are organizing.
  4. Email them and say I am going to be at ESA and find your work very interesting. I wondered if you’d have time to meet me for a copy of coffee.
  5. Email them and just say I just read paper X and its a really great paper (with no ask or followup implied).
  6. Invite them to come give a seminar at your department (most departments let postdocs invite people – or ask your postdoc mentor to formally invite but let you co-host).
  7. Lead a grant and email them asking if they would be interested in participating because they bring special skill X that would really add to the grant.

But more than anything else – just go for it!

Jeremy: What Brian said. I’d only add:

8. Email them to say I read your paper with interest, I have a question about it.

5 thoughts on “Ask us anything: how to network as a postdoc

  1. As a postdoc, yes to all the above. If there are folks you want to meet, put yourself out there and meet them!

    But also as a postdoc, you’ll probably find that the social structures for meeting people generally (i.e. not targeted people) aren’t there, like they are for grad students and faculty members. You’ll probably have to make an effort to meet people. Start at your own institution. If you moved to be at this place, there’s a ton of new people to meet. Meet the people next door. Meet the people down the hall. Leave your computer for lunch and see if you can find lunch buddies in the kitchen or wandering out to grab a bite to eat. Especially meet other postdocs, but by all means meet faculty, too. And don’t overlook grad students! They not only have enthusiasm and time (relatively speaking), but they tend to know everyone and so are great for introductions. Ask people out randomly for coffee/tea for an hour in the afternoon just to chat science. Then ask if you can come over and meet other people in their lab. Then do so. Ask if you can join lab meetings of other groups with similar interests to yours. Start a journal club or book club if there’s one lacking.

    And just remember that pretty much everyone is keen to meet new people, too. So don’t be shy.

    • You can offer to give a seminar at your own institution too, if that’s a done thing at your institution. Many seminar series host the occasional internal speaker. This is an efficient way for lots of people in the dept. to learn who you are, what you look like, and what you work on, and hopefully will lead to people asking you out for coffee or coming by to chat or etc.

  2. I’d really like to emphasize Brian’s point 5. I’ve had one of these emails turn into an active collaboration, even though I wasn’t seeking it out. Quick compliments are nice to receive and easy to write, and create no obligations from either the sender or recipient. Secondly if the lead author is a PhD student or postdoc and the last author appears to be the supervisor, email the compliment to the junior author (and potentially include the senior author on the email). Complements are especially nice to receive during the early years.

    Also, along with Jeremy’s comment, if you have a useful skill that may be valuable to multiple people in the department (PhD students, postdocs, faculty) offer to give a short course (1 hour – 1 day) on it. This helps establish yourself as an expert in something. Most likely PhD students and Postdocs will be the only ones in attendance, but their collaborations are often very valuable, and word spreads to their supervisors.

  3. I agree with very much what is said above, except Brians first sentence: “Once you’re a postdoc, act like you’re a faculty member.”. I fully agree that the academic world is (or should be) egalitarian, but postdocs are NOT faculty members and I think it is rather risky if they start to behave as if they are.

    First, they have much less obligations in terms of meetings, administration, supervision of students, teaching etc., and this should be seen as an advantage and opportunity to spend time on research, learning new skills and moving towards the research front. If they start to behave as faculty members, they will waste their time on going to unproductive administrative meetings and often useless “career training workshops”, rather than reading, thinking, spending time in the lab or field as much as possible to mature as scientists.

    Second, even if the academic world is (or should be) egalitarian, in my own experience there is often an irritating tendency which I would call “premature seniority”, when postdocs are trying to take over a lab and “run the show” of the department, so to speak. I have seen some examples of this in my own department, and it is not pretty and leads to a conflicts and disappointments. It is the faculty who are responsible for the long-term development of the department, including whom to hire, as they will spend many years there, while most postdocs can only expect to stay for a few years, and by necessity will have a shorter time horizon.

    Third, as an advisor of PhD-students, I am responsible for their education, including planning experiments, writing up papers, applying the right methods etc. I often delegate more specialized questions to knowledgeable postdocs, as it is impossible for an advisor to be on top of everything, but make no mistake: I am ultimately responsible for the PhD-student and the thesis, not the postdocs. In my department, postdocs are not allowed to be formal advisors or co-advisors on PhD-theses for good reasons: most of them will only spend 2-3 years at the department, well below the average time for a PhD-thesis.

    That said, postdocs can of course be be INFORMAL advisors/mentors or collaborate with both PhD-students and their advisors, both during their time in my lab and after they have moved on elsehwere, and that is both fine and expected from me and is often extremely valuable. But I have had some negative experience in the past when a postdoc behind my back put a PhD-student to work on a project about which I was not informed and perhaps not even intended to be informed, and that made me very frustrated. Needless to say, that postdoc and I have now broken all contact.

    • I never said postdocs should be taking over running a department! They are indeed in a lucky time where they should focus on research as much as possible (as I’ve said before). But they should act like they are social and intellectual peers with faculty members. Many of the things you say to avoid I would say all postdocs as well as faculty members should avoid doing.

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