My postdoctoral training was where I really turned into an academic. Without the giant elephant of writing a PhD thesis hanging over you, if you are lucky enough to end up in a good situation this should be the best stage of your career at least in terms of first-author research output. I did about 4.5 years of postdoctoral training in one large, well-funded research group, which I’d argue is the best case scenario these days. Moving during your postdoctoral life can arrest your momentum – it takes a fair bit of time to get up and running. Staying at your doctoral institution allows you to maintain momentum, but can make separating yourself from your supervisor’s influence/reputation difficult. Of course, a lot of this won’t necessarily be a choice you get to make. I was lucky enough to be awarded a Commonwealth fellowship to go to Canada to do what I wanted to do (which my supervisor promptly tore up and sent me down a far more interesting path) and have a boss with enough funding to keep me ticking over doing more of the same until I was able to acquire a Banting fellowship. Put simply, I got to do pretty much what I wanted for my entire postdoc. This is pretty rare and monumentally lucky. Most postdoctoral positions are likely to be running and organizing a the research in a grant, meaning a pretty well-specified programme of work taking place somewhere between 1 and 5 years (keep an eye out for ERC grants – they’re the 5-year whoppers). But regardless of your situation, there’s a few things you can do which might (1) help you get a lectureship/faculty job and (2) make your day-to-day life a bit more satisfying.
The key to postdoc happiness is to first focus on getting research momentum going (lots of strands of research moving in parallel) and then starting to diversify. Not in terms of your research topics/techniques themselves, but in terms of how you fill your day-to-day life. The research grind, for me, became pretty tedious about 3 years into my postdoc. Design study, ramble on about it with the boss, collect data, make cool graphs, present it at a conference, write it up for publication. It’s fun, but it’s also a lot of up front investment for pay off that’s a very long way down the road. And eventually your CV will become long enough that the thrill of adding another paper to the list wanes somewhat. Coupled with perpetual fellowship application rejections (good practice for all those grant rejections you’ll be getting at the next stage), it’s nice to have a different focus once in a while. This is fine though – even though you’re main goal is likely to be building up a strong enough portfolio of research to be able to give a coherent job talk, there’s a lot of other aspects to being a lecturer that you can get a bit of practice in, strengthening your CV along the way.
The first, and most obvious, is to get some teaching experience. This can range from (1) supervision of undergraduate project students (there’s really no reason for you not to do this – everyone’s a winner) to (2) giving a guest lecture on a course where you’d be able to prepare a bona fide ‘expert’ lecture (3) co-supervising a PhD student to (4) teaching an entire course. I manged points 1 and 2 from that list, supervising a couple of students a year and including them on the resulting publications (looks good on your CV, and they probably deserve authorship more than many senior people who find themselves on publications by virtue of status). Giving a guest lecture, ideally in a few different contexts (I gave motor control lectures on a kinesiology course and a biopsychology course), gives you cheap lines on your CV and some teaching references to call upon. Direct supervision of a PhD student as a postdoc is a tricky thing which I even now have relatively little experience of (I’ve not seen it go terribly well so far in my career). Teaching a whole course might seem a pretty dramatic undertaking at this stage in your career but it does mean that (1) you get paid a big chunk of money, (2) you get a freebie (sort of) practice at teaching an entire course without tenure/probation evaluation hanging over your head, and (3) looks great on a CV, especially if you have good teaching ratings you can provide along with it.
(minor follow-on point here – it’s pretty variable from place to place how much teaching experience on your CV matters. I’d say that it’s unlikely to swing it one way or the other in most UK institutions – if you give an engaging job talk then the panel will assume that you’re going to get good teaching ratings and if you are a poor public speaker this may well sink you).
Next, try to give talks. Talks at conferences are always something you should be going for over posters at this career stage I’d say – greater exposure and if people want to talk to you afterwards they’ll seek you out just as easily as if you were sitting in front of a poster. Better yet if you can organize symposia at conferences – this means you get a talk automatically, get to network for free with whoever you invite to speak, and get to feel like a big shot. They are also surprisingly easy to get accepted if you invite a nice and diverse range of panelists (try to avoid the all white male professor speaker list). More important than conference presentations in my opinion are ‘invited’ presentations. ‘Invited’ can mean that you are invited by someone at the host institution or (in my case) can mean you invited yourself to come and give a talk. This feels a bit painful but is a good way to build your profile and get your name/face known. Given that you are a trainee (and have no doubts that you are a trainee as a postdoc) it’s easy to find a reason to ask to visit a big-name place. Another, often neglected, angle is public outreach. This can be hard to wrangle yourself but if you suggest to your boss that you’d like some experience on that front it’s likely that he/she will be thrilled to outsource a school visit or a the judging of a science fair or a talk to the auto industry to your eager and enthusiastic self. Showing that you’ve got this in your portfolio can really help you jazz up the ‘impact’ side of your game at job/grant application time.
After that, I’d say try to dedicate some time to training some sale-able skills. For me, this was fMRI (which I became disillusioned with pretty quickly and give up, but I can hold a coherent conversation with neuro types) and Matlab (which I never became very good at, but would consider myself self-sufficient). I really wish I’d also taken part in some fancy summer/winter schools for intensively teaching the more computational neuro skills that lead to outputs which regularly make me feel intellectually inadequate on Twitter.
Finally, service. The part of the job that none of us really want to be involved with, but what keeps things ticking over behind the scenes. Obviously you are quite limited in your service options as a postdoc other than reviewing a fair few papers (I’d suggest one ‘fresh’ paper per month). Rather by accident I found myself as president of the postdoctoral association at my postdoc institution in year 3 of my postdoc fellowship, which was a fun introduction into the world of formal meetings (you’ll see a lot of them in the future). I suspect it wasn’t a great bonus to my CV but it took me massively outside of my comfort zone which has made me a far less anxious person in scary situations than I was before. Beyond that, guest editing a Frontiers special topic was a fun experience, but only worth doing if you have a few senior people on board who can harass a few other big names into submitting some good science. While the journal is pretty divisive, it was a good peek behind the curtain and pretty much the only opportunity of postdoctoral researchers to be involved in editorial decisions.
Miscellaneous point – invest some time in a decent website. If the world cannot find you by typing your name into Google then you will suffer for it at job hunt time. Your departmental website (if you get one as a measly postdoc) is inevitably horrible. Get a free site and make it look professional and house your CV and publication list (or link to google scholar, which is all anyone checks anyway). Forget ResearchGate and LinkedIn – these are of no interest to hiring panels in the world of academia (indeed, the generate fury in many academics).