The First Year Experience of a Postdoctoral Fellow

by Karl A. Lamothe


Navigating the postdoctoral world can be bumpy, filled with twists and turns, with uphills and downhills – its ok to take a break and enjoy what’s around you, but stay prepared for what lies ahead.

Luke Lamb recently provided us with his ‘First Year Experience as a Grad Student’. In Luke’s post, he started with the definition of ‘graduate’ to illustrate that he knew the definition of what a graduate student was but hadn’t truly understood what the graduate school experience meant. As the first-year anniversary of my PhD thesis defense comes and goes (9.22.2017), I thought that I would provide a narrative of my first-year experience as a postdoctoral fellow in an ode to Luke’s post, so let’s start by defining the term:

Postdoctoral (adjective, pohst-dok-ter-uh l): of or relating to study or professional work undertaken after the receipt of a doctorate.

This is the actual definition of postdoctoral, as defined by Clearly this is a broad term – as it should be – postdoctoral fellowships are diverse, especially in ecology. I’ll get to that point later in my post. First, I thought I would provide a quick summary of my road to postdoctoral research, reviewing how I prepared for and embarked on my first year out of school since I was 4 years old.

Like most PhD students, the road to my thesis defense was nonlinear and filled with high peaks and low valleys. In retrospect, I can say that I began applying for postdoctoral fellowships 7 months prior to my thesis defense, but when I started applying, I did not have a thesis defense date scheduled. At the time that I started applying for postdocs, I knew I was on track to finish ‘on time’ (4 years was expected for students with a MSc in my department) and wanted to continue doing aquatic ecology research. Some would argue that 7 months isn’t early enough (see Dynamic Ecology post by Margaret Kosmala), but for me, it’s what I had to work with. However, I wasn’t settled on whether I wanted to pursue a postdoctoral position in academia or in another sector – so I applied for both.

The time between my first postdoc application and knowing where I was going for my postdoc was nerve wracking to say the least. I was rejected several times – rejection sucks. Applications or letters to potential supervisors often took me days, which could have been used to, for example, get my thesis chapters into publication worthy papers. About a month before I completed my PhD defense, I had a Visiting Fellowship lined up with a federal government lab at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and my PhD supervisor was keen to provide a fellowship for the 3 months before I started the Visiting Fellowship. I was super fortunate for this opportunity and will always be grateful for the support that my PhD supervisor[s] provided. It’s useful to mention that you should speak to your PhD supervisor early-on about what opportunities might be available to you once you have completed your degree!

As such, my first-year perspective of postdoctoral research comes from a 3-month fellowship at the university where I received my PhD and my current Visiting Fellowship with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This brings me back to my first point – postdoctoral fellowships in ecology are diverse. Have a look outside of the typical academic postdoctoral opportunities into postdocs in government laboratories, with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or with industry members – they might just be what you are looking for. Where you decide to go really depends on what you plan on doing with your degree!

As for succeeding in your first year as a postdoc – success is only achieved if you set goals. As I was entering a research-based postdoc position with no teaching requirements, my goals were research based: 1) to get each of my PhD thesis chapters into peer-reviewed journals (I failed to achieve my original goal of getting these out during my PhD), and 2) to have at least one publication ‘In Review’ at all times during the year. These may not seem like the goals that work for you, or perhaps for these extremely productive scientists, but these were my goals and I am proud to say that I almost achieved them. *I originally didn’t plan to publish the introduction chapter to my PhD thesis, but after some reworking and added content, it’s now ‘In Review’. J

Earning your doctorate is one of the most rewarding feelings, but it’s impossible and unhealthy to ignore the fact that soon after comes the overwhelming feeling of “what’s next?”. You are a doctor now and you’re expected to do big things, but you’re living on contracts and underpaid for the work that you’re doing. It’s a grind. It’s stressful. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding times professionally – I get to research the topics that I’m passionate about and I hope my fervor shines through my work!

Overall, I have truly enjoyed my first year as a post doc, but postdoctoral fellowships are highly variable for ecologists and your experience will likely differ based on the choice of program and personal context. Once you do find that postdoctoral position, tackle it head on, enjoy the time that you have working in that position, but stay vigilant and open to new opportunities. Like Luke so elegantly put it, “you are the chief architect of your future.”

Here are some useful links for PhD students in ecology planning to do postdoctoral research:

  1. Allison Barner has compiled a GoogleDocs file with a running list of ecology postdoc fellowships.
  2. Ecolog (Ecological Society of American grants, jobs, and news) is a useful place to keep an eye on for new ecology positions, from graduate student and postdoctoral advertisements to technician and professor positions.
  3. For postdoc positions in Canada, check out the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution’s website.
  4. Elisabeth Pain wrote this Science article on ‘Choosing your postdoc position’; Science does an Annual Survey about factors influencing postdoctoral experiences.

Author biography: Karl Lamothe is an NSERC Visiting Fellow at the Great Lakes Laboratory for Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Karl’s research is focused on informing Species at Risk conservation plans. Connect with Karl @KarlLamothe and check out more about his research on his website.

Image credit: Creative Commons.