Now that you’ve done most of the ground work while making your story board, the rest of the steps should fill themselves in easy enough. You’ve done all the lab work, analyzed the data, and gone through the literature, so now all that’s left is to tell your part of story:
1. SET THE STAGE
The first crucial question to answer at this point is Who’s in your audience?, because this will determine what goes into those crucial introductory slides, the ones that are going to get everyone’s attention on you instead of motivating them to beat their high score in Candy Crush. You should keep the audience in mind throughout all of the steps, but it’s especially important during the introduction to avoid losing their attention or causing any confusion by assuming the audience is familiar with any aspect of your research. Watch out for jargon/abbreviations/concepts that you use all the time in your lab meetings. It’s easy to forget that not everyone else in the world knows what mTOR or KNN is, does, or represents. Think about the crucial idea or scientific principle that’s at the crux of your research, and have a slide dedicated just to explaining that. Then you’ve made sure that everyone’s on the same page in terms of background knowledge before you jump in to the more subtle and specific aspect of your project.
Once you’ve prepared an introduction that will grab your audience’s attention, the next step is setting up your talk in a way that keeps their attention. It’s easy to stay interested with someone explaining a new concept or a system they don’t work with, but if you dive too quickly into the specifics of your project without giving them a reason to listen to your favorite acronyms, they’re going to go back to beating their previous score on Candy Crush regardless of how good your first couple of slides were. One way to do this is to frame your presentation not as a series of facts, but to present a specific problem, its overall importance, and your approach to solving it. In the introduction you should focus on explaining the problem and its importance, and wait for step two to talk about how you’re setting out to solve it, so you can evoke curiosity in your audience. Be careful not to overstep your bounds here: it’s easy for people working in cancer biology to say that they’ll save everyone from cancer, or those working with global warming to say that the world will be completely flooded over in 10 years, but sensationalism will only get you so far. If you stay within the limits of what you’re doing and let your excitement and enthusiasm about your work come through, people will listen.
Before moving on to the next step, a few extra tips of things to avoid:
- Endless literature review/TMI amounts of data. Stick to background concepts that are necessary for the rest of your talk and mention papers that are directly related to your work, especially any crucial papers that exemplify the area. If people want to know more details, they’ll ask.
- Acknowledgements at the beginning. Some people like this approach but I think it breaks up the talk too much. Wait until the end when people know what you’ve done already before you take the time to thank the people that helped you get there.
2. THE HOOK
Now that you’ve peaked interest, it’s time to go back to the second important part of setting up your story: How are you going to solve the problem? This seems like a monumental task at first, but in essence, you need to provide an answer to a previously unanswered question, using the approach you’ll describe in the next step.
My undergraduate honors thesis mentor was a proponent of using a pen and paper to help you think about concepts in a big picture way (similar to what I described in the last post). It’s something I took from his lab and still use when I work with my own project, presentations, and when talking with other scientists about how to set up their grant proposals, talks, papers, etc. It boils down to five things:
1) GOALS: The long-term ambitions for what you’re doing that go beyond the scope of your project itself. This should be related to the big-picture problem you described earlier.
2) Goals are (eventually) reached by fulfilling OBJECTIVES: What you’re specifically trying to achieve with your project.
3) Objectives are reached by addressing SPECIFIC AIMS: A set of experiments you’re doing that will address the objective.
4) In each of these specific aims are your HYPOTHESES: What you think the answers to the questions you’re setting out to address might be.
5) Your hypotheses then get answered by the EXPERIMENT(S) you run for each specific aim.
While the GOALS can be inferred from previous slides, you can include them again as you present your OBJECTIVES and SPECIFIC AIMS. You may be very familiar with the HYPOTHESES and EXPERIMENTS (and the resulting answers), but in this step you should present them to your audience in the context of the the bigger picture which is framed by the GOALS, OBJECTIVES, and SPECIFIC AIMS. This is a transition point in the presentation, as you’ll just have given your audience a large amount of background information and will now be getting into the nitty-gritty of your project. The “hook” is set when you go from here’s a problem in my field and why it’s important to here’s how I’m going to address it using this fancy thing known as the scientific method. You’ve made it clear what your project’s relevance is in the wider scheme of the problem facing your field and also made it clear what exactly you’re setting out to do with your specific project.
3. THE STORY
I can’t offer much advice for this section because you are the expert here, not me. Remember that when you talk to your audience too: No one, no matter how smart they are or how long they’ve worked in the field, knows all the finer details of your project like you do. That being said, there’s a few things you can do to help make your story shine crystal clear:
- Use text sparingly, especially in methods sections. Powerpoint is best used as a visual aide. You can provide words as need be, but avoid long blocks of text unless they are crucial for understanding something in context. If you have a complicated method, make a schematic instead, even if it’s just using arrows or squares or stick figure mice. It’s easier to walk through your method using a diagram with the audience for them to understand how your experiment or study design looks like. They’ll ask for details on specifics of a method if they want them.
- Keep reminding your audience of your hypotheses and specific aims. Break up your story into the experiment and results for each hypothesis and compile the results of your experiments and hypothesis support for each specific aim before moving on to the next one. This will also help break up your talk and allow you to synthesize your results as you go along, instead of having one long stream of information and then summarizing all of it at the very end. Set up your slides and your presentation with reminders of what your questions are and how you set out to answer them.
- Make what you’re showing crystal clear. When you make a figure, you know what data went into it and what it shows, but in the 30 to 60 seconds that it’s on screen, someone outside your lab or your field may not be able to make much sense of it. Figures are the way you convince someone that the story you’re telling them is a good one, so make sure your figures are easily readable. One easy way to do this is to put a one-sentence description at the top of the slide telling what the figure shows/presents, for example “Knocking down Gene XYZ caused an 80% decrease in response to Drug ABC in mice” followed by a figure is much clearer than a header which says “Result for Specific Aim 3”.
4. TAKE A BOW
And now for the grand finale, and for me, the best part of the presentation: being done! You just gave a long and detailed overview of your entire life’s work/thesis/project, so now would be a good time to remind everyone what you just told them, because some of them might have forgotten along the way. It’s not your fault or theirs, it’s just the nature of our brains to forget the majority of what we hear.
After you remind your audience what you just told them, go back to your initial problem and your plan for how you set out to solve it. What did you learn about the problem? What did you make clearer about the problem through your research? What still remains unanswered but is important for solving the problem? Answering these questions to the audience will help frame your conclusion more strongly than ‘this is what we saw, this is what might be interesting later on for future work.’ Circling around back to the beginning again will also close some memory gaps for your audience, as you can remind them once again of what problem you set out to address in the first place and how you went about tackling that problem.
5. BREAK A LEG!
The last step, after you’ve made all your gorgeous slides, is the delivery. As a caveat, this advice comes from a person who is NOT an expert in public speaking, or really speaking in general, the classic introvert who would rather spend her time reading and writing than standing at a podium in front of hundreds of people talking about science. The problem for introvert scientists is that in this day and age, at some point you’re required to stand up in such a room and talk about your science, so you might as well get good at it. Moral of the story is: if I can do it, so can you!
There are many ways to improve your public speaking skills, but for me it boils down to one simple reminder. You’ll most definitely mess up something. You’ll forget to mention some part about one of your figures, you’ll stumble over a few words, you’ll say mTOWER instead of mTOR. And that’s OK! Minor mess-ups and stumbles will be forgiven by your audience, because it’s message, clarity, confidence, and enthusiasm that they’ll remember instead. If you focus on these last four things instead of perfecting every transition, figure description, etc., then you’ll nail the talk every time. Another simple thing to remember: You’re the expert in your project! So if you don’t explain something as well as you did in your head when you were practicing, remember that you’re probably the only one that will notice.
A few more of my quick tips for this part:
- No index cards! Being read at is not nearly as engaging as being talked to, so practice enough so you can give the talk without relying on a script.
- Embrace the awkward. The clicker won’t work, you’ll bump into the mic and make some terrible sound, a bit of text goes off the screen. Don’t ignore these mishaps. Apologize for any misaligned text or mic issues and keep going. For technical problems, troubleshoot as best as you can and ask the session chair for help if need be. Most importantly during all of this: keep talking! If it’s taking an extra minute to load your presentation or to sort out how to advance the slides, thank the audience for the wait and give a longer introduction of yourself, your affiliation, or discuss the conference venue or city. It will keep the audience focused on you and not on the session chair frantically trying to find your presentation or remember how to use a computer.
- Watch and listen to yourself. One of my least favorite parts of speech class in undergrad was going to the speech center and watch a recorded version of my speech. I realized how WEIRD my movements were due to my nervousness, including but not limited to a very awkward wide-legged stance and swaying from side like I had to pee. As much as I hated watching myself, it showed me what I needed to change and better ways to channel my nervous energy. Now I focus on talking more with my hands and taking a break with a drink of water when I need an excuse to not talk for a couple of seconds. Doing a similar exercise yourself will likely be psychologically painful, but once you see how your minor quirks appear to the audience, you can work on finding an alternative way to channel your nervousness and focus on relaxing and presenting your message instead. At the end of the day, remember that it’s your project and you are the expert, and if you don’t give the talk 100% the way you wanted it to go, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great talk.
With the tips and tricks from this and the previous post, you can now head off on your way to a perfect presentation. Just remember that in this case, ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean that you won’t stumble over words, but instead that you will convey your message and story in a clear and convincing way. By focusing on your story and they key questions you’re focusing on answering, you will deliver a message that your audience will remember as well as one that you yourself will enjoy giving.
There are piles of books, tons of pamphlets, and a wide array of websites focused on how to give a good scientific presentation. So how am I, a classic introvert who gets nervous about speaking in general, qualified to tell you anything better or different than them? Simply put: I used to give bad presentations—really, really bad ones—with terrible Powerpoint templates, feeling constant unease while I stumbled over my words from nervousness, and overly-aggressive laser pointer usage as an outlet for my nervous energy. After an underwhelming PhD qualifying exam presentation, I set out to become better at presenting. I spent a good deal of time trying different approaches, pulling useful parts out from the heaps of hints and tips and listening to great scientific presentations before I figured out the method that worked best for me. I soon learned that there’s no such thing as bad presenters: we can all become good ones, but for some of us it takes more work than others. I then stopped just presenting my research and instead focused on how to tell the story of my work in a way that allowed me to share my science in the best way possible. I’ve now compiled the tricks and tips I’ve accumulated into a tried-and-true method: The Five Easy* Steps for a Perfect** Presentation!
*Easy? Nothing good in life comes that easy. And neither are presentations, for the 99% of us that aren’t naturally comfortable with public speaking. But it can still be done, so read on!
**Perfect meaning you’ll share your story in an impactful and memorable way, not that you’ll deliver every word with perfection or not stumble over anything. Because the story is what’s important and the story is what they’ll remember.
While the steps are easy, they are a bit long-winded in written form. So today we’ll focus on the preliminary steps towards a perfect presentation before you start to make your slides and tell your story.
Step -1. Read the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (or just browse his blog)
Like I said, before we get to the 5 Easy* Steps, there’s a few things you need to get sorted before you go to your computer and open Powerpoint. It may seem like it will take up a lot of time, but the steps that you do to prepare yourself for the main event are like stretching before a run: easy to forget and may sometimes seem inconsequential, yet essential to prevent hamstringing your success (or your hamstring for that matter).
I found a copy of Presentation Zen at my university library and took endless pages of notes, but if you have $17 in your book budget you can pick up your own copy here. Garr can tell you better than I can how to design your presentation, how to make good-looking and accurate figures, and how to capture your audience with your simple yet captivating slides. It’s up to you to tell the story and let your voice fill in the gaps that your data can’t easily say on its own, but Garr’s tips and tricks will set you up for success in terms of design and thinking about the presentation itself before you start putting your story into slide form.
Step 0. Make a story board
Before you even think about opening Powerpoint, sketch out your main points, an idea of the content you’ll present, and an order for your story. This is a trick adopted from Presentation Zen but I’ve made it as a separate pre-step because it makes the rest of the talk flow much more nicely. It’s best to start with an open brainstorming session about your topic and your project before you lay it out slide by slide. When you have your big picture ideas in place, then you can focus in on how you’ll actually make the presentation using the story board approach.
Set up your story board using an unconstrained media with whatever suits your style the most: blank paper and pen, whiteboard, sticky notes, tablet and stylus, restaurant tablecloth, anything that lets you get a wider perspective of your story and lets you move ideas around as need be. I like printing off a set of blank Powerpoint slides in the 3-slide format and writing on them directly because you can make notes to yourself next to each idea while still giving yourself space to draw out what can go on each slide. The goal of this step is to decide what you want to share, what order your findings should go in, and what the transitions between slides and ideas will be.
You story board should help you lay out your slides in order to follow a single line of reasoning, which you’ll then bring to life during your actual presentation. While you are rearranging content in order to get your story across in the best way, having the story board enables you to have a wider vision of when content and ideas are introduced during your presentation. When you only see one slide at a time (as with the default Powerpoint slide mode), it’s easy to lose track of what you’ve already said or what message you want to convey 10 slides from where you are now. Drawing out your talk will also help you identify the transition points that you'll need to make clear as you shift from concept to concept so you don’t lose your audience in the transitions between ideas.
While creating your storyboard, you should keep your audience in mind and always think of ways to keep them interested in what you’re showing. This means they need to understand what you’re presenting while at the same time becoming interested in learning something new about what your project brings to the field. A lesson passed to me by husband (via one of his grad school professors) of how to do this effectively is to break your talk into three equal parts: 1) Things that are easy to understand by a broad audience, 2) Things only people in your field will understand, and 3) Things only you will understand (also known as what you want to teach to the audience). These should be set up as equal thirds regardless of how long your talk is. For example, if you’re giving a 15 minute conference presentation, 5 minutes is easy stuff, 5 minutes is field-specific, and 5 minutes is your project.
First 1/3: Set the stage with background information and broad appeal.
Your goal here is to capture everyone’s attention by getting your audience all on the same page of understanding. Don’t assume that anyone has read a single paper in your area or knows what you’re talking about when you mention PCA or RPM or TGIF. Think of a conference you’ve been to where even though the overall field is the same (wildlife ecology, cancer biology, astronomy, etc), everyone at the meeting has a different specialty (arctic ecology, tumor suppressor proteins, quasars). You want to keep this diverse set of people interested at the same time, which means you have to talk about your work in a way that a diverse group can follow it. This will likely take some trial and error, but one easy way to figure out if you’re doing this the right way is to give this part of your talk to someone completely outside your field. If they can follow what you're trying to say, so can anyone else that goes to your conference presentation.
Second 1/3: Cover in-depth details, concepts, and relevant literature that people in your field will understand and that those outside your field may not.
People from your specific field of work will be there, probably sitting in the front row, who will be curious as to what you’ll say about their work. You know what they know already, so this is your chance to show them what you know and how your problem is going to solve an issue within the field. Because of their presence in the audience, this is also a good time not to directly trash someone’s previous work: if you found something convincing that underpins a previous study, let your results speak for themselves, and avoid an overly aggressive question or two after the talk is done. At the same time that you’re thinking about the experts, remember to keep the interested outsider on the same page as everyone else. Be careful not to overuse acronyms or jargon from your field when you make it to this section of your talk and instead use language that everyone in the room can follow.
Final 1/3: Present your novel contribution (i.e. the reason you are giving the talk).
Once you’ve got both the experts and non-experts on the same page in terms of the finer details and scientific context that leads up to your project, you can finish the talk by telling them all something new. In this part of the talk, you are the expert in the room and this is your opportunity to teach the audience something new and explain to them why it’s important. The best part of this section is that it’s the part that you know the most about. Let your ideas, graphs, and data shine through and conclude with a discussion on the impacts of your work in a way that everyone can follow and understand.
While following this strict set-up may sound tedious, it’s the most effective way to keep people interested in what you’re presenting. Don’t think that since everyone at your talk is an expert that you can just jump straight into a more in-depth background to save time, or that the in-depth background is boring and redundant and just go straight to your results from the introduction. Doing so will make it easier to lose members of your audience and will jumble your story around so much that it will be hard to follow or understand why it’s important. Structuring your talk in these three sections gives you an easy template to work with and will make the next five steps slightly easier*.
Luckily for you (and me), that should be enough work for you until next week when you get the actual Five Easy* Steps for a Perfect** Presentation. Until next week, happy story boarding!
Maybe it’s cheesy to use martial arts life lessons in a blog like this, but the comparison is actually quite relevant for graduate school/academia and life as a scientist in general. Probably the most relevant parts are the lessons you get on how to take hits and to keep on going, especially relevant when you feel like you’re constantly getting your ass kicked in the lab (metaphorically speaking, of course). Looking back on earning my black belt vs earning my PhD, a lot of the best lessons learned from martial arts and academia are applicable for both parts of life, and the first of these that I’ll talk about is failure.
I recently tested for my blue belt in tae kwon do through my new school here in Liverpool. I already held a black belt from my original school in the USA where I started practicing during high school. With different schools having different standards and licensing groups, my USA black belt was ‘non-transferrable’ here in the UK (something about having done the forms on the wrong side of the road). Either way, I was happy with the chance to get back into training this past year, especially after nearly a 10-year hiatus while I was busy in undergrad and grad school, and the chance to work on my skills even when I was again starting from scratch as a white belt.
Tae kwon do belt gradings are not to be taken lightly. The high-ranking belts that are there in front judging you are there for a reason: because they’ve worked hard to get to where they are, they strive for excellence in everything they do, and they expect that someone looking to get to the same level as them meet those high standards. It’s an intense event, doing your forms and sparring with these high-ranking eyes watching you the whole time, yes sirs/ma’ams every time you’re asked to do something, the ever-present pressure to perform your best while at the same time you’re so nervous and tense as to not make any misstep. It was a strange thing to be back again on the floor 10 years after testing for my black belt, this time in a new country and new instructor and with a PhD under my belt (no pun intended). Getting ready for this testing and trying to focus all my nervous energy into something positive, I found myself reflecting back on previous belt testings from high school and how this one might differ now that I’d also gone through the rigors of grad school.
Flash back to February 2005 when I was at my first black belt pre-testing. Anyone going for a black belt had to go through a pre-test before the actual test, in case one testing wasn’t enough. I had been studying tae kwon do for 3 years at that point and had been a brown belt for quite some time. I was flexible and strong and always gave every move 100%. Previous testings had all gone well for me, with decent scores and the instructors recognizing my skills, my energy, and my intensity. Except for one thing: I was terrible at breaking boards.
In reality, I wasn’t terrible, I COULD break the boards but I was generally nervous about the whole ordeal. I would easily become frustrated in class when we had to do them because it wasn’t coming as easy as the rest of what we did in class. It was about precision, timing, hip movement, etc, but most importantly it was about not being afraid of the board. Any hesitation, any thought that you’d hurt yourself, if you tensed up instead of being relaxed, meant the board didn’t break. And as with any failure, each board that didn’t break seemed to make the next one look even harder to break. During the lower belt testings this wasn’t a problem, because you always had multiple chances if you didn’t break the board on the first go, you or your instructor could give you a mini pep talk and you could get through it. Now that buffer was gone: going from brown belt to black, you had one shot per board, and four of them to go through.
So there I was, at my first black belt pre-testing, terrified out of my mind. I knew I had to break boards that night, in addition to all of the other forms, my current brown belt pattern and all those from previous belts, sparring, knowing facts about which Korean philosophers and historical figures that the forms were named after. My nervousness about the boards permeated in the rest of my testing. I wasn’t the confident girl who had impressed everyone with her intensity and strength, I was tense, frightened, and waiting in nervous anticipation for the time when I had to break boards. And what I was afraid of most was failure.
After a nervous pre-testing session, I failed at the first board. Right elbow strike. It hurt more than the sore elbow. I went back home and back to training, tried new break techniques for the hand strikes. I was still nervous though. Another failed pre-testing and I think that was the point when I and my instructor realized I wasn’t ready yet.
In between the failed pre-testings I graduated high school and had that blissful summer between being a kid and being an adult. I had failed in my goal of getting my black belt before graduation, but I realized I hadn’t failed at getting my black belt. I just hadn’t gotten it yet. The start of college was an exciting time, new friends and a newfound confidence. I enjoyed the freedom of picking my own classes, felt like I was on the right path in my life in terms of my program in environmental science, and I was resolved overall to succeed at the life I had set out for. Pre-testing came again and this time I felt different-I had failed twice, I had practiced new breaks, and I changed my pre-game approach: instead of being afraid to fail, I envisioned success, knowing that I had a hurdle to pass over but that I could do it, I had broken boards in class, and now I just had to do it in front of a live audience.
If a failed broken board makes the next one seem harder, the 4 successfully broken boards at pre-testing made the real ones at testing seem like paper. I went to the testing blasting pump-up jams on my car stereo (most likely Eye of the Tiger, the classic and stereotypical martial arts pump-up jam), I went through all the requirements for forms and sparring with a fellow brown belt. When it came to boards I remember that first one breaking, and all the other ones just falling apart once that first one went. Apparently at the last board I let out some sort of victory war cry (I don’t even remember that), the rest of testing and that whole day was more or less blur. Whatever else I did that day, I had finally not failed, and it felt amazing.
Knowing how much you have to fail before you get things right is perhaps the hardest part about science, and it is a fact of being a scientist that no one tells you in lectures or lab courses during your undergraduate studies. Being on the cutting edge of knowledge means that no one’s done what you need to do already. The scientists whose work and whose lives have lasting legacies didn’t always get it right the first time. The key with success is not in not failing, but in continuing to try even when you fail along the way, in continually recognizing that you didn’t fail completely, you just didn’t succeed yet. And maybe this is the hard part, where we all hit a wall: that first PCR you run where no bands come up on the gel, the code that constantly gives an error message you can’t figure out, or the time you almost set your lab on fire when a chemical reaction went for too long. All these things feel like boards we couldn’t break, and if you can’t break it once what makes you think it will break a second time?
The key with failure is not letting it get to you. To learn what you can from when you fail and not be afraid to fail again, and again, and again, until you get it right. My first PhD advisor said it best as I was nervous about trying a new protocol. His sage, Virginian advice was “Just try it!” and even if it didn’t work the first time, at least you learned something. The best part of it all is once you get past the hurdle, once you keep trying until you get it right, then the boards just shatter in front of you. Progress comes not from doing things right the first time but from learning how to get it right the next time, or at least the next time, or maybe the time after that, and to keep going until you get there.
Back at my recent UK blue belt testing, I put this philosophy back into action, 10 years post-tae kwon do hiatus. I was certainly nervous, not only to perform well, but to make a good impression on a room full of kids and instructors I had never seen before. I told myself that if I failed I was still me, that I had worked hard to get to this point, and I would still have a chance to learn from it and try again. It’s the same speech I give myself before presentations, conference calls, PhD defenses, oral exams, the results of a gel, anything in science where you get judged and scored. No matter what happens you give it all you got, learn something when you can, and remember that you come out the other side the same person as when you went in—all that’s required of you is that you gain something from each experience. I’m thankful that this time around I earned my 4th Kup blue belt, while at the same testing I learned that I hold my guard hand too high while punching. And that’s also part of the lesson for when we don’t fail: there is always room for improvement and things to learn, even when we succeed. Come on, don’t we ever get a break??
This article by Science Magazine has been floating around in the Twitter-sphere lately and I finally had a chance to give it a look during one of my lunch breaks. There’s quite a bit of discussion about the poor plight of us post-docs, changing the system, etc. In my opinion, there is a need for some changes in how we, in this case ‘we’ as in post-docs and ‘we’ as in the scientific community as a whole, look at the role of the post-doc and how we make better researchers that are ready for the world of science. That being said, I think there’s already plenty of potential for us (as in post-docs) to use the current system as we prepare for and progress toward a good career, if we make the effort to use this transition period wisely.
A few of the comments in the article say that the post-doc position should be thrown out completely, that it’s useless and just provides a means of cheap labor for PIs that don’t want more grad students. As a person that’s been a post-doc for a year, I don’t feel my position is useless at all, and that’s not just because it’s my job and I’m being paid for it. In grad school we spend our time being students, taking directions from our advisors and committee members and teachers, learning how to do research and how to write papers and give presentations and everything else that becomes part of our daily life as a scientist. Part of the process of getting a PhD is in realizing how little we know, and how being a scientist isn’t about knowing everything but in knowing and understanding a smaller number of things extremely well. Then all of a sudden after 3-6(+) years we write a really long story about what we did for those 3-6(+) years, give a presentation, answer a few questions, and bang! We have now become Dr. so-and-so, qualified to do…something. I remember feeling a bit in shock after my PhD defense, thinking “Wait, that was it? I’m a doctor now? Surely there’s some other test, some question, something! I don’t know ANYTHING yet!”
It doesn’t make sense to throw someone from a program that’s taught us that we we still don’t know anything into suddenly being expected to become Dr. so-and-so, expert in Something. A post-doc allows a graduate scientist to transition from being a trainee into an expert, and as scientists we need a place to foster skills and confidence to become the experts we’re expected to be. A post-doc provides the time and the place to hone the skills developed in grad school, which were often times either learned the hard way or with a lot of supervisor guidance, and a chance to begin to work on more independent research after years of direct supervision. In addition, there’s a lot of work that PIs need to be really, really good at that aren’t the focus of grad school: writing grants, teaching undergrads, schmoozing department heads. The post-doc is a perfect place to do this, a chance to learn more about what it’s like to be a scientist now that you’re already the expert in doing science.
When we talk about changing the system, though, the suggestions I’d like to highlight and echo from the article are:
Respecting post-docs as the drivers of research: mentors, the paper-writers, the project meeting leaders, the get-things-done-ers
YES! There is too much of this “oh, so you’re a post-doc…” or “How many post-doc positions have you finished already?” type of attitude within academia. I’d love to see this change and for more folks (including post-docs themselves) to better see the importance of a good post-doc researcher and a good post-doc project for moving your career and your field of research forward.
Financed by universities and not by project/PI
I think this is an interesting concept, and one that could work really well depending on the ‘type’ of post-doc (see bullet below). For example if someone was interested in an industry-based research position, then being directly involved in multiple projects for different PIs over a set time period could be a really good experience in terms of learning what it’s like to have your hand in more than one project and more than one deliverable. At the same time it would allow one PIs to have someone work on a certain project at the moment that it was needed, then when that task was finished the post-doc could work with another group on a different task. The researcher could really build a diverse set of skills, learn about balancing multiple projects, and gain experience with different bosses and different research groups.
Different post-doc types for different career paths
To me this was the most useful suggestion, and I think really gets at the key issue of the post-doc problem: too many post-docs are being trained for tenured academic positions when compared to the number of those types of positions available. So instead of just having a one size fits all post-doc, changing the system could involve having jobs that are more tailored for setting researchers up into different fields. A position that has more undergraduate teaching components for someone that wants to focus more on teaching than research, one with an industrial internship component for someone that’s interested in learning about what industry research is like, or a position tailored to design and marketing for someone whose career path is research and development for either an established or start-up company.
Until we find a consensus on what the ideal post-doc position should look like, there is still a lot that we as the mentors, the paper-writers, and the project leaders can do to prepare ourselves for permanent positions after the post-doc, instead of counting on our fingers (and toes) the number of temporary research positions we’ve held. So before we re-imagine the post-doc completely, let’s imagine being a post-doc with purpose:
Treat a post-doc as professional training
Treat your work and your position not as just some temporary job, but as a place for you to learn and grow your ideas and your skillset. Think about ways you can improve upon what you did as a grad student, be it lab techniques or computer program skills, and let your new group teach you something new that you couldn’t have done at your previous lab. Take time away from your project when possible and focus on getting some training in grant writing, teaching, student mentoring, outreach, whatever you enjoy and what you think you’ll need at the next stage in your career. This is the perfect time to build up these skills, when there is still someone overseeing and providing feedback. Then you will be prepared when you really, really need that skillset!
Start bringing your ideas to life
Start thinking about what you would want to work on for the next 5, 10, 15 years. What’s your ideal work environment? Your dream journal? What problem has you scratching your head even before you had your PhD in hand? These are the things that will set your trajectory when you start your career, and thinking about them now before you’re asked by an interview panel will set you above the rest. It’s also a chance to apply for some pilot grants, do a couple preliminary experiments in your spare time (if such a thing exists) and to start tackling your own questions before you have your own lab. Even if just a little bit of work, thinking about it and acting on it now will really set you ahead.
Work with people outside of academia
Collaborate with industry partners, government agencies, high school teachers, a natural history museum. They’ll bring fresh ideas while at the same time reminding you of the limits of the ‘real world’, it will keep you grounded while at the same time showing yourself and your future employers/grant funding agencies that your work can have impact and can be understood by someone other than a room full of PhDs in your field.
Build a trusted of peer network outside your traditional group of peers
Find someone you trust from another department or university that gives you a fresh perspective and can honestly evaluate and provide feedback on your proposals, papers, and ideas. This will help for when you write big grants and research proposals, when someone sitting on your evaluation might be from a completely field than you and your colleagues. Being able to talk about your work and why it’s important to a broader scientific audience can mean the difference between getting that big grant or making an important interdisciplinary connection that will set your career apart from others in your field.
Call yourself something cool
I attended a post-doc forum a couple of weeks ago, where a sales rep from a lab products company said ‘Don’t call yourself a post-doc, call yourself a project manager or a staff scientist or anything but a post-doc if you want an industry job.’ So much of our identity is in our name, including what our job is called. Think about what you do and call yourself that instead. At the very least your business cards will be unique, and it will certainly be more specific than post-doctoral research associate, which basically says ‘I am still doing research after my doctorate, as an associate member of this University.’ Congrats! How about something more savvy like ‘Scientific Project Manager’ or ‘Research Coordinator’? It’s more precise and still accurate, and doesn’t take up as much space in your email signature.
Look ahead and have a goal
It’s not cynical to tell you that you might someday not get that research professor job. It’s not the end of the world! There’s lots of great work to be done, and lots of great places to do them. To find them, though, you can’t rely on your supervisor or department to find you that place: you have to develop your own vision, make valuable connections, and do the right things that will get you the right job. This is why the post-doc is a perfect job for those of us in transition, because it’s a time when we finally have time to think about what we want to do, not what our advisors tell us we have to do. It’s a time when we build back up confidence and continue networking. It’s a time when we can clearly look at all the options on the table, be they regulatory or consulting or academic or pastry chef, and see what seems like the best fit for us and work towards it.
Having a career goal is an important start, and working towards what will get you that goal is a way to move forward. The caveat, of course, is that if your goal is the same as 1500 other people, the odds are against your favor, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that academia is the only place you’ll fit in and be happy, and it also doesn’t mean that working towards a goal of being a professor without reaching it was a waste of time. If you’ve built up as many skill sets as possible and made lots of connections during your post-doc, you will find something that’s the best fit for you. When you are post-doc with purpose, you set yourself up for success by knowing what you want, working towards it, and recognizing that if you end up slightly off to the side you can still be successful and have a rewarding career.