Ask Professor Sarah Bellum

Professor Sarah Bellum answers your questions on navigating the often-uncharted waters of early career development. Professor Bellum is communicated by Patricia L. Clark, founder of the Early Careers Committee and a member of Council. Do you have a question for Professor Bellum? Send it to sarahbellum@biophysics.org. Your privacy is assured!

Going from 60 to Zero, Overnight

Q: Last month I defended my PhD thesis, and last week I started my new postdoc position. I chose this lab because I find the research questions fascinating, and many of the methods are new to me. My PhD advisor said doing something different will be important for my career development. My new advisor and his students seem really nice, but my experience so far has been pretty awful. I can barely function here. I expected to need some help initially finding my way around, but it feels like all the experience that I gained during graduate school has been wiped away entirely. Yesterday I was the first person to arrive, but I couldn’t do anything until someone else—an undergrad!—arrived because I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the water filtration system by myself. And even though I combed carefully through the key literature papers that my new advisor gave me, I sit like a lump in project planning meetings while everyone else talks about results from papers I have never heard of. It all goes by so fast that I can barely figure out what to write down, or where to start reading. This morning in lab meeting, I finally made what I thought was a really good suggestion, only to learn that this very lab published a really complete study on that topic five years ago! Everyone is being really nice about it, but I feel like a bumbling idiot.I am trying as hard as I can but I am failing, even though I just started. Did I make a mistake? Should I have picked a lab with projects and methods closer to what I learned during graduate school, rather than starting over again from scratch?

A: Starting a new project in a new place is always rough. Overnight, you go from being the most experienced person in the lab—the go-to gal who knew how to set up all the assays, troubleshoot all the equipment, and find just the right way to approach your PI with a difficult question—to being the complete newbie who can’t figure out how to calibrate the pH meter. It might be hard to remember now, but you were just as clueless when you first joined your graduate lab. Most likely, even more clueless. The difference is, this time you feel as though you should be the smart one right off the bat (you just got your PhD, right?!). That self-imposed unreasonable expectation can make the transition from PhD to postdoc a particularly painful professional transition.

Rest assured that this transition is painful for almost every new postdoc. There is simply no way to avoid the steep learning curve associated with leaving behind everything you knew and dropping yourself into an entirely new project and lab. Yes, you could have made it easier for yourself initially by ignoring your PhD advisor’s advice and choosing a postdoctoral project that is similar to your thesis project. But your advisor was correct: doing so would have hurt your career prospects in the long run, as it would mean entering the job market with a narrower set of skills and experiences than someone who chose a postdoc project more distantly related to their thesis. And even so, you would still need to broaden your literature reading into new areas and learn the details of how your new lab functions. (How are things ordered? What is expected of you at lab meeting? What are the best times to meet with your new advisor?) Fortunately, there are ways to make this transition into a new lab and project as painless as possible.

First, and most importantly, remain confident. Despite your fears, you are indeed smart, and you did pick up significant skills in graduate school. And these smarts will show through and your skills will help you succeed, regardless of how many initial questions you ask or things you don’t know. Get it out of your head that your new degree means that you should know more about your new project on day one than the lab’s current graduate students. Rest assured that everyone else, and in particular your new advisor, expects you to go through an initial floundering period where you ask questions that everyone else —even the undergraduates—can already answer. As a new arrival, you will have the luxury of a “newbie window” during which these questions will be answered cheerfully, without any negative effect on your perceived intelligence. However, this window will eventually close. You should take maximal advantage of it while it exists, but it is true that the sooner you don’t need it any more, the better it will reflect on you. Becoming independent as quickly as possible will enable your advisor to extoll your adaptation skills in your future letters of recommendation (“...can integrate into a new project extremely quickly...”).

Starting right now, revert back to the “sponge mode” that you might remember experiencing years ago when you first joined your PhD lab: read voraciously, take every opportunity to ask loads of questions, and in general do everything you can do to actively soak up knowledge and techniques as fast as possible. Arrive early and stay late, because while you are in sponge mode you are on everyone else’s schedule, not your own. Ask your labmates to explain what they are working on, and volunteer to help out if you can. Make no mistake: doing this will require putting your ego in a box, closing the lid and ignoring it for a while. That can be hard to do, especially when just weeks ago you knew more than anyone else in the lab, but having an ego right now will only hinder how fast you come up to speed.

Watch out for one specific hazard that can damage a postdoc’s chances for success, even during the newbie window: be prepared to loosen your allegiance to the ways of your PhD lab. New postdocs who respond to every comment with, “Well, in my old lab we always...” will quickly be left without many people to talk with, because your new lab mates will quickly tire of constantly justifying their actions to you. Don’t get me wrong: the occasional carefully considered suggestion for a clear improvement to an established lab protocol is welcome and will be considered respectfully. It might even represent your very first opportunity to contribute something to your new lab. But in general, your default should be to assume that things are done a certain way for good reasons that you do not yet understand. Remember, sponges don’t talk back, at least not most of the time.

Finally, take comfort in the knowledge that every postdoc goes through this same tough transition that you are experiencing. It won’t last long; soon those experienced grad students will be turning to you for advice. And that tough transition indicates that you did exactly what you were supposed to do when you selected a postdoc position. You selected a research area as far as possible from your PhD project’s comfort zone. That will serve you well in the future.

February 2013 Table of Contents