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While I was doing several things to prepare for my future career, I now see that there was a lot more I could have done. You may think “I’m too busy to worry about all that stuff right now!”, but during your PhD is the perfect time to do it!
In this post, I wanted to provide PhD students with a couple of tips to help you prepare for a career in research. Of course, research is not the only career option after your PhD, but the focus of this post will be on developing a research career.
Publish, publish, publish!
I cannot emphasise it enough. Publish as much as you can, as often as you can during your PhD.
Don't leave writing your publications for the end. It will be too late by then. Most employers will not care about your thesis as it is not academic currency.
Different employers will look for different things in your publication record, but the main ones would include; number of papers, impact factor of the journals, type of publication and where you are in the list of authors. Again, different people have different opinions on this and there are probably different requirements for various disciplines, but I think 1-2 publications per year is what you should be aiming to achieve.
Supervising honours students can be an extremely rewarding experience.
During my PhD, I donated small sections of my project to formulate honours projects. Employers (i.e. laboratory heads) want to see that you are not just interested in helping yourself, but others as well. As a postdoc, your employer will often want you to be the first point of contact for a research student. Supervising a project and providing mentorship to students during your PhD will help you demonstrate this skill.
Apply for grants
This is an area that I didn’t realise I could be working on during my PhD.
Apply for any minor grant for which you are eligible. This could include such as travel grants, PhD scholarship top-ups, or grants for minor projects.
Having some success in this area will allow you to develop a track record which you can then build upon after your PhD. Employers will find this a desirable characteristic as you will most likely be applying for several grants during your postdoc.
Oral and written communication skills
This might seem obvious, but you should be able to demonstrate your verbal and written communication skills within a research environment.
The best example of written communication in research is publications (not your thesis!). Make sure you are the one to write the manuscripts for your first author publications as this an important experience you will want to emphasise to potential employers.
Presenting talks within your department are often a hurdle requirement of your degree and possibly not the best example of oral communication skills. I'd suggest giving talks at conferences and guest seminars at other institutions. These talks demonstrate that your work can attract interest from fellow researchers, and lead to such opportunities.
Again, obvious but so important. I would argue that most postdocs are not even advertised. Rather, lab heads will offer postdocs to people they know and trust. Therefore, it is essential to network and meet other researchers.
You can meet people at conferences, through your supervisor or on social media (e.g. Twitter and Linkedin, as well as research-oriented sites like Research Gate and academia.edu).
In the last year of your PhD, you should start contacting the connections you have made over the years to see if they are looking for postdocs or know of anybody looking for someone. I'd suggest that email is the best way to do this as you can also attach a resume. You should also email people you don’t know, but whose research interests you. You could even propose the idea of applying for a fellowship together to fund your own postdoc with them.
That said, the worst thing you can do is send a generic email to 50 researchers! Employers want to see that you are interested specifically in their research. So, look up their web profiles and publications, and show them in your email that you have researched their work thoroughly. Otherwise, you are unlikely to even receive a reply.
Are these tips going to guarantee you a postdoc position? No!
I've done many of these things, and I'm still looking for work. But this combination of skills and experience will make you significantly more attractive to prospective employers and increase your chances of employment.
Remember that postdoc positions are very competitive, and you need to help yourself stand out. Best of luck!
Sam Manna is a molecular biologist and recently completed his PhD (2010-2014) in mitochondrial genetics at the Department of Microbiology, La Trobe University.
He also holds a Bachelor of Biological Sciences with Honours (La Trobe University, 2006-2009). Sam’s work has been presented at several conferences and published in international journals.
He has worked in the Department of Microbiology as an Associate Lecturer, supervised honours research projects and lectured in microbial genetics and infectious diseases to undergraduate microbiology students.
Sam tweets at @sam_manna3.