Making the most of the postdoc experience
About three years ago, Dr Nicola Dynes and Dr Petra Schwalie arrived at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to do their first postdoc. Nicola is working on centrosomes, small non-membrane bound organelles that play a central role in cell division, in the institute of experimental cancer research, and Petra is part of a genetics and genomics lab in which her work is focused on fat cells and adipogenesis. Their labs are separated by just one building, but they actually met through the Life Science Postdoc Association at EPFL.
This association started in 2012 as the initiative of a group of postdocs together with the current dean, with the idea of creating a community of postdocs at EPFL, a place to meet people and to cover unmet career development needs. They organize different networking and career events to which any postdoc interested in life sciences, also from outside this field or EPFL, is welcome.
Nowadays Petra and Nicola are engaged in this association as president and vice-president respectively, and will tell us why today.
How did you decide to be part of the SV postdoc association?
N: I learnt about the association through one of my colleagues, who was part of it. She was participating and talking about it, and I found it was a good way to meet people and I liked the events they were organizing, so I joined them. It was helpful for me as a newcomer to meet people outside the lab and I also found the events very interesting, involving people working in life science-related fields, and also from outside, talking about what they do now. So I decided to help organize these kind of events and get more involved.
P: It was similar for me, I also knew a girl involved in the association, one of the funders actually, and I thought it was interesting and started to get more and more involved. We also have lots of interactions with other organizations as well.
In your experience, what are the main concerns at this stage of a scientific career?
P: The uncertainty about the future. It is really a transition stage. About 50% of the postdocs in our association would like to continue in academia and for them the main question is whether they would be able to do so. For the rest, the main question is what else they can do.
N: Also the publications: how many publications you have and how high ranking they are. It is a very competitive stage, in which you need to to be the best to find independent funding. And if you cannot get this funding, then you need to find out what else you want to do, diversify to something else.
And to help addressing these concerns you prepare workshops, like the one you had this summer at the EPFL campus. What were the main topics discussed?
N: I was actually a participant of this workshop, which was very successful. Everyone knows there are soft skills, but this workshop was focused on helping people to realize that they already have these skills, that they are using them in normal situations at their current work. For example, a very important skill, especially if you are pursuing a job outside academia, is to be able to communicate your science outside, to a non specialized audience.
P: Also if you want to pursue an academic career, if you want to apply for funding, you need to learn how to explain your work, how to communicate the science you do. One day of the workshop was a “selling your science” session, with a 2 minutes presentation from each participant, from life sciences and other backgrounds. It was very interactive with feedback and tips from the others, it was useful and a lot of fun for everyone.
Do you also promote any events addressing questions about publishing, discussions to understand the different possibilities (Open Access vs traditional publishing)?
P: We organized an event about the changes ongoing, with people from the EPFL library, and we talked about Open Access. But not a discussion like this.
N: My impression is that everyone wants to publish Open Access, because it is the way it should be, but you are judged depending on which journals you have published in, and often the most valued ones are not Open Access. The workshop would be useful, but at this stage is not as priority because it’s normally not your decision. Especially if you are part of a collaboration, you often have little chance to decide the journal to which your paper will be sent to. You need the team leaders to make this movement to Open Access, as a postdoc you usually don’t have this power to drive the change.
Now you can perhaps tell us a bit about your individual experiences as postdocs. How did you decide to do a postdoc after your PhD? Did you have any doubts when making this decision and did you consider other options?
P: I had a good time during my PhD, I really loved the work I was doing and the fact that I was involved in many collaborations. It was a really good experience, but I wasn’t totally sure: you always want to change a bit, but at the same time you are interested in continuing what you are doing at that moment, so it’s a bit of an unclear time. In the end I decided to come here because this is a great engineering school, with lots of interactions from different fields and I wanted this exposure.
N: In my case I didn’t have any doubts, I knew I wanted to do a postdoc. One of the reasons was that I enjoyed the work I was doing during my PhD a lot and I ended up working on something nobody else was doing in the lab. I didn’t know anything about that topic, and nobody else around me either, so I had lots of fun searching in the literature, going to meetings, finding people to ask questions, getting ideas to do experiments… I wanted to do more, and I came here to this lab because it is a very good one, which has made important contributions to this field. I knew the papers from this lab and met some of the people working here at conferences. I liked the work they were doing, and thought it was a great place to learn, surrounded by people working on similar things.
How do you compare your experience as postdoc with being a PhD student?
P: I don’t see any fundamental difference between these two experiences. We were all quite independent in the lab during the PhD, we were responsible of our own project and learnt to manage our time. Maybe the fact that I spend more time supervising and giving advice now, to master and PhD students.
N: For me it’s a completely different experience but mainly because of the boss and the group. Maybe there is a bit more of pressure now although, in the way our group structured, I don’t have to supervise PhD students. Having said that, I supervised a student from the EPFL summer program and I enjoyed it a lot.
Have you ever acted as reviewer? Did you find it a gratifying experience?
P: Yes, I have, both directly and also helping my boss, drafting and reviewing together before sending it for publication. I enjoyed it, but it takes a lot of time, it would be good if you were rewarded somehow.
N: Internally yes, I have helped my boss with some papers during my PhD.
Would you like to continue with the work you are currently doing in the future?
N: I would like to continue doing research if I can, and if possible working in what I am doing now. But of course I am always open to new challenges.
P: I would like to continue but I could also consider doing something more applied, perhaps getting some industry experience. It would be great to have a transition period and have this kind of experience before building your own lab.
Well, we are sure you will find new challenges and the possibility to continue with your research, and with your association helping other postdocs!
You can find lots of useful information about the postdoc life at EPFL, upcoming events and how to join their postdoc association in their website.
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