The postdoctoral years are a critical time in a budding scientist’s career. Decades ago, doing a postdoc was a voluntary option for new PhDs who were not quite ready to commit to a permanent position. Now postdoctoral positions are required training for the next generation of scientific leaders in academia and industry.
According to Peter Peters, founder of the Postdoc Career Development Initiative, based in the Netherlands, the main concerns plaguing today’s postdocs are landing a permanent position after 10-plus years of training and adjusting to the responsibilities of running a lab.
“It was a daunting task to go from the level of postdoc to a PI,” remembers Peters, who took a position at the Nederlands Kanker Instituut in the Netherlands—#10 among this year’s international institutions—after completing his postdoc at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Upon returning to his home country, he was disappointed to find that Dutch postdocs weren’t getting any guidance in valuable skills required for the transition, such as grant writing, networking, and lab leadership.
Through the Postdoc Career Development Initiative, which Peters tends to when he’s not running his 12-member cell biology lab, he organizes workshops and retreats to help postdocs all over Europe make the leap from lab member to lab leader. Indeed, postdocs at the institutions that topped the Best Places to Work survey this year said that it is the fine balance between independence and guidance that is helping them take off their training wheels and become better leaders.
The emphasis on individualism at University College London, this year’s top international institution, for example, “is good for learning because you get to be more independent quicker,” says postdoc Andrea Alenda. Similarly, the creative freedom postdocs enjoy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a commonly cited draw of the marine lab, #2 among US institutions.
Check out the 2011 top-ranking institutions for postdocs in the United States and around the world, compare the strengths and weaknesses of the top 40 US institutions, topped by the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and learn tips from foreign postdocs about how to adjust to the culture shock of another country.
Research Freedom at Woods Hole
One of more than six top-notch marine labs that call Cape Cod home, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) boasts more than 1,000 scientists, students, and staff, as well as many high-profile achievements, including the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents and the infamous HMS Titanic. To that list WHOI now adds its selection as this year’s #2 Best Place to Work in the United States as a postdoc.
“It’s such an academically stimulating environment,” says Amy Apprill, a postdoc at WHOI since September 2009, who studies the microbiomes of marine mammals and coral reefs. While it wasn’t easy leaving sunny Honolulu, where she completed her PhD, Apprill says she was lured to the institute by the tremendous creative freedom she experiences as a postdoctoral scholar. WHOI offers three types of postdoc positions, and Apprill is receiving 18 months of internal funding to pursue her own research interests. “Postdocs are treated as junior colleagues,” she says, “so we’re able to come in and start new projects.”
“I really do have the opportunity to do whatever I find is interesting,” agrees Kakani Young, also a postdoctoral scholar, who studies the propulsion mechanisms of marine organisms. Since she arrived last September, Young has been provided with a refurbished lab filled with new equipment where she can just let loose.
Postdoctoral fellows, who come to WHOI with fellowship support from external agencies, also work on their own projects, often in collaboration with multiple advisors in one or more departments. And while postdoctoral investigators, initially funded by grants obtained by faculty, tend to work more closely with their advisors, all postdocs are allowed to be the lead principal investigator on grant proposals.
University College of London—A Melting Pot
There’s a reason why University College London (UCL), the #1 institution on this year’s international list, calls itself “London’s Global University.” Since its inception in 1826, its core mission has been to open its doors to students of all nationalities, classes, races, and religions. It has bred 21 Nobel Prize winners to date and is home to some 22,000 students, more than a third of whom are international. This diversity is what UCL postdocs say makes their years there so enriching.
“It’s been quite a welcoming university,” says Andrea Alenda, a Spanish-born postdoc in neuroscience currently studying visual processing in the hippocampus. Alenda says she was drawn to UCL by its extensive community of researchers (more than 2,500 in the life sciences alone). “You have conferences going on all the time in any topic and very big names come constantly to UCL,” she adds.
The fact that it is centrally located in the most populous city in the European Union is another major plus, adds Iroise Dumontheil, who left her native France to do both her PhD and postdoc in cognitive neuroscience at UCL. “It’s a very interesting city to be in,” she says. Alenda agrees: “Even when you stay very late at night working, when you go out, it’s crowded with people.”
In addition to the perks of living in such a cosmopolitan city, London also appeals to foreigners because it is very well connected to the rest of Europe—and much of the world—making travel relatively simple. And while living in London can be quite expensive, Alenda says that on top of the postdoc’s salary, UCL provides its postdocs with cost-of-living assistance.
Enjoying a Successful Postdoc Abroad
There’s a long list of hurdles that come along with choosing to do a postdoc abroad—getting work visas, opening bank accounts, finding adequate housing, and so on. But logistics aside, the hardest thing for many international postdocs is getting over the culture shock. Here are a few tips from those who’ve done it.
Bunk with the natives
When Taiwanese Shih-Nan Chen came to the United States in 2002 to do his PhD, he made a bold decision—he opted to live with Americans. While it might have been more comfortable to bunk with fellow students from Taiwan, in retrospect it was the best decision he made, says Chen, now a postdoc at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this year’s #2 US institution. “My knowledge of American slang words increased exponentially,” he says. Jumping straight into the deep end is the best approach for quickly learning English, the language of science, agrees cell biologist Peter Peters of the Nederlands Kanker Instituut, #10 on this year’s international list.
Watch local TV hits
As Chen was settling into his new American routine, he did encounter one recurring problem. “After a while, people go to bars, and they want to talk about something fun related to pop culture, sports, high school, or politics,” he says. “This is the part where I struggled.” To learn more about these cultural references, Chen absorbed a regular dose of American television, including football games and episodes of CBS’s sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which appropriately revolves around a group of socially awkward yet brilliant physicists.
Embrace the lab ethos
For Andrea Alenda, the move from Spain to England for a postdoc at University College London, #1 on this year’s international institutions best list, meant learning the “English way” of doing things. It came as a shock to her, for example, that her colleagues barely made conversation in the lab, but would quickly liven up in a pub after work. She was also put off by their confrontational attitudes during lab meetings. Adapting to the new lab customs not only made her appreciate her new home, it made her a better scientist, Alenda says. “They’re very aggressive in the questions that they ask you because they understand that you have to defend your work,” she says.