In this blog, Dr Kirstin Purves, a post-doc in the EDIT Lab put various questions about the career paths ahead to Prof Thalia Eley. We hope this might be useful to others experiencing this challenging career stage. The focus here is primarily on options within academia, but of course there are many other post-doctoral career pathways, including into work in the charity sector which we plan to cover in another blog.
- What are the different options after a post-doc? Is it faculty or bust?
Whilst the most visible next step for a post-doc is a faculty post, it is quite rare to get one without building up a bit of experience first. Some people end up doing two or three post-docs working on different studies, developing new skill sets, gaining experience teaching and producing publications, all of which are useful fodder for the CV. I often tell my team that at this stage, you nearly always need to compromise in some way, as you are unlikely to find a post-doc on the topic you want to study, using the methods you want to learn, in the geographical location you want to be in. It’s not impossible, just quite a big ask. Most end up compromising on some aspect of the research relative to their priorities or move to a new location they might not otherwise have selected. One option to consider as well is whether you want to move towards leading your own team or whether you prefer having a supporting role in an established team. Many extremely highly value post-docs end up as trial/study managers, offering a different balance of responsibility, security, and autonomy to that of the team lead.
The only way to really ensure you can be where you want, exploring the questions you want, learning the methods that you are most interested in is to get a fellowship. Inevitably, this makes fellowship very popular and thus competitive, but someone has to get them, so don’t assume you won’t! One change though, in the past decade or so, is that most fellowships are aimed at those a few years out of their PhD, so most post-docs need to get a role working with an established investigator first. A third, intermediary option is to help with the writing of a grant that has a post written into it with you in mind. The MRC has a grant writing role called researcher co-investigator, precisely to address this need. But even if you can’t be named as an investigator on the grant, if you work with an established PI who is interested in supporting you in this way, it can be a really good option.
2. What’s the difference between a post-doc, a fellowship and a lectureship?
Post-doc positions are usually funded by a grant to an established investigator. These are commonly 2 or 3 years long, occasionally longer. During such a position, the post-doc usually has a specific role in a study that they must fulfil in order for the principal investigator to fulfil their promise to the funder. That said, they should also be given opportunities for training and personal development, and wherever possible, some time to pursue their own research interests. A fellowship refers to funding sought by the individual that covers their salary and a range of research associated costs. The earliest fellowships are for those who have recently completed their PhD. These are rare, the Henry Wellcome fellowship being one option, though these are changing summer 2021. The ESRC also offers early post-doctoral fellowships through their Doctoral Training Partnerships. The other end of the range are senior fellowships aimed at those who are approaching professorial levels of research experience. As such, the word fellowship refers to the funding being personal, not to the career stage.
As described above, fellowships allow you to design your own research programme, and they also usually allow you to focus almost exclusively on research, rather than combining this with teaching. In contrast, a lectureship is a post which usually brings with it specific expectations about contributions to the university with regard to both research and teaching. Furthermore, to progress beyond a lectureship, many universities would also expect the individual to make contributions to the running of the university through sitting on committees or taking on other organisational roles.
3. If you do get a fellowship, what happens after?
It is possible, though rare, to be funded by a series of successive fellowships. However, at each level of seniority there are fewer fellowships available, so many people end up moving from a fellowship into a university post, such as a lectureship. It is often possible to recycle ideas that were in a fellowship that wasn’t funded into a grant, such as one of the new investigator research grants (offered by both MRC and ESRC).
4. What are the pros and cons of moving to a new institution, city, or country at this stage, and can you progress without doing at least one of these?
Funders do recognise that it can be difficult to move, especially repeatedly, during the post-doctoral years. Often people at that life stage do not only have themselves to consider, but also a partner, possibly children or elderly parents. That said, if you can move to a new city or even a new country, it is a wonderful opportunity and one that would likely be harder later so worth giving a try! For the fellowship route, if you are proposing remaining at an institution where you held a prior fellowship, it is important to demonstrate that you are becoming ever-more independent and gaining training, opportunities or collaborations beyond those outlined in your earlier application.
5. What are the pros and cons of a long vs short term contract at the post doc level?
This is a very personal question. For those with financial commitments, or who find uncertainty difficult, a long-term contract such as that provided by a faculty position is likely to be more attractive. To others without such commitments, it may be worth being on a series of short-term contracts if that allows them to do the work they really want to do.
At the end of the day, you spend much of your waking hours working. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing or don’t feel comfortable with the balance of responsibilities and opportunities it offers, then talk to people in different roles until you figure out what would suit you better.