So you’ve obtained postdoc funding

2021-04-06

Running an independent project is different from writing the proposal for it. I know it seems obvious but for a person who is running their project for the first time, this does not become obvious until the work begins. Once a project is funded, the postdoc is effectively a principal investigator and is on the clock to implement the deliverables that were laid out in the proposal. It is normal to feel overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand and one’s ability to complete it.

This so-called imposter syndrome is all too present in academia, and there are several strategies to deal with it. An important thing to realize, however, is that the principal investigator has total control on what goes on in the project from procuring equipment, collecting field data, initiating collaborations, and, in some cases, even hiring people. This perspective lays bare the opportunities that come with having one’s own project and the flexibility one has to get the job done.

It is well-known that a good[1] publication track record is important for an academic career. The pressure to publish is definitely something I do not like about academia and this pressure is arguably an omnipresence in the minds of most postdocs. This pressure has been shown to be detrimental to science, leading to unethical behavior, resentment, imagined competition and burnout.

One thing to realize is that a good publication record is not necessarily a silver bullet to a career in academia. For example, a teaching-oriented university or department might find someone with experience developing and teaching their own courses more valuable than someone with no teaching experience. It is thus safe to state that acquiring teaching experience while running a postdoc project is not a detriment to one’s career prospects in academia.

As a postdoc, performing academic services such as serving on the editorial boards of journals or peer-reviewing manuscripts can be seen as a distraction from “more important things” such as research. I would argue that they are essential pillars of academia. Being a member of the editorial board of a journal whose content you read is an important career step.

Not only do you have a “preview” of the latest in your research field and can see how the trends are shifting, you also have insight into what goes on behind the scenes and how decisions about manuscripts are made. By actively taking part in a journal’s editorial board, you are also helping distribute the editorial workload and streamlining scientific publication.

When it comes to providing peer-reviews, the flexibility offered by running one’s own postdoc project means that you sidestep the ghostwriting problem that plagues academia, where early career researchers write peer-review reports on behalf of their supervisors without acknowledgement. Providing solid peer-reviews is not only essential for the advancement of science but it is also an important part of one’s academic progression.

Crafting a professional, relevant, detailed, selfless and empathic peer-review is by no means easy and it takes training and experience to develop this skill. You can even think about it from a self-serving perspective, i.e. if you have ever complained about the slow pace of a peer-review then it might be in your best interest to participate in the process and help relieve the peer-review burden.

[1] The notion of what constitutes a “good publication track record” varies considerably between disciplines.

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