Five lessons I’ve learnt as a post-doc

 17 September 2019   Features

As part of Post-doc Appreciation Week, we are celebrating our amazing post-docs here at the LMS and asked them to share more about their research & successes, as well as their advice and tips for their fellow and future post-docs. As part of this, we asked post-doc Shivani Singh “What has being a post-doc taught you?”.

During my PhD I thought I knew exactly what being a post-doc was all about; a PhD with salary. However, I quickly realised that wasn’t true. Doing a PhD does not prepare you for some of the issues you face as a post-doc, so here are the 5 most important lessons I’ve learnt as a post-doc.

  1. The importance of give and take

I have seen many post-docs, including myself, take up roles just because it was convenient and/or easily available. Although you might have your reasons for doing this, there is one more important thing that you should keep in mind while accepting a position.

Like in relationships, its essential to accept a post-doc role that maintains the balance of give and take. Thus, an ideal post-doc is where you can apply your expertise to answer an important research question and the role should in return provide you with an opportunity to acquire and learn new skills. In recent years, “continuous learning” or “willingness to learn” has become one of the top criteria/skills that both, candidates and employers want from each other [1,2,3,4].  So, whether your aim is to succeed in academia or outside, showing adaptability in new environments and enthusiasm about continuous learning looks great on a CV. It will definitely earn you some brownie points.

  1. Be assertive about your priorities

A PhD student’s main role is to answer their research question while getting as much in-depth knowledge about the subject area as possible. Being a post-doc is like being a PhD student with at least twice the work load. For instance, apart from managing your project, you now might be asked to manage student projects, be a tutor, mark tests/papers, apply for grants/fellowships and much more. Needless to say, prioritising your work load is of the utmost importance especially if, like me, you struggle to say ‘no’. This is where assertiveness comes into play.

Delegating tasks and being assertive is one of the most useful skills I have had to learn while doing a post-doc. Of course, nobody intentionally wants you to miss your deadlines and fail. But, people can’t hear words that are not said out loud. Sometimes going to a conference will be more beneficial to you than doing that one experiment. Sometimes your experiments are more important than training a PhD student or an outreach activity. Therefore, prioritising is vital. A useful tool that I have found to prioritise my tasks is based on Stephen Covey‘s Time Management Matrix [5]. Once, you’ve categorised your tasks into important vs not important & urgent vs not urgent; you can then decide to finish, schedule, delegate or delete it. Always communicate your priorities effectively. Prioritise assertiveness.

  1. Avoid the vicious circle of high expectations and comparisons

In a perfect world, you think of a research question, do the analysis and get the desired result. Unfortunately, as your PhD will have already trained you, research is anything but perfect. Therefore, it is crucial to be realistic about your goals with both, yourself and your PI. Set achievable milestones and judge your progress based on the question ‘did you give 100%?’. Sometimes things just don’t work and setting unrealistic goals may end in disappointments and lack of motivation which in turn may hamper your productivity. It is a vicious circle.

Another major player in this vicious circle is ‘comparison’ – which is not to be confused with healthy competition. It’s easy to compare your progress especially with the ‘lab favourite’ or the ‘golden child’. Almost every group or department has that one person who makes it look like a walk in the park. Perfect publications, great grant & funding acceptance rates, always praised and invited to give talks at conferences. But like career paths, no two projects are the same. Comparison can not only lead to low self-esteem but also may cause you to set unrealistic expectations for yourself. And as already stated, that is a recipe for disaster. Not to mention, resentment and animosity may hamper your professional relationships hindering chances of any future collaborations. Thus, managing expectations will save you from a lot of disappointments and grievances.

  1. The 3 Rs: Recharge, Rejuvenate and Refresh

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. We have all heard this phrase before but none of us take these words seriously. Following an unfortunate event in February 2018, lots of media attention was given to mental health of academics due to workload [6]. In recent years, a lot of interesting research has been dedicated to this topic. One study found that 43% of academic staff displayed mild mental disorder symptoms. This is twice as high as the prevalence of mental disorders in the general public [7]. This is not true just for academics however. Levecque et al. (2017) [8] showed that prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in highly educated general population, employees, and students. 1 in 2 PhD students experience psychological distress with 1 in 3 at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder.

Thus, the importance of investing some time to rejuvenate and refresh cannot be emphasised enough. Find something you enjoy that is not science. Dance, hike, sing, play, doodle, draw, learn a language, anything that is outside of your work place. Take time to recharge your batteries, and your mental health will thank you for it.

  1. Networking is essential

Networking is key to almost everything. Whether you are seeking employment, collaborations to write grants, organise an event, advertise your skills; everything requires networking. Just by talking to people and networking, you will find you know someone who knows someone who has something you want. In my own career, I have managed to get almost all of my employment because my PI knew someone who was looking for a candidate and recommended me.

Other than job advancement and career benefits however, networking can also have an effect on your mental health. Too often we as post-docs struggle with “maybe it’s me”, “maybe I’m not good enough or smart enough” or “no one else is struggling with this so why am I?”. It is only when you start talking to people, networking with others in your position; you realise that you are not alone. Everyone is facing hardships and being vocal about it makes it easier. Therefore, networking should be thought of something that is essential for an all-round development and not just in terms of career. So, even though I am sure you have been told a million times already that “networking is essential”, it’s still not said enough.

Post-doc is hard work. Even when you feel like you are completely prepared to get on this roller-coaster ride, it still manages to surprise you. But don’t fret! One of the advantages of being a post-doc is that support is easily available. Get a mentor, speak to your colleagues and take advantage of the really enthusiastic and helpful staff at the PFDC [9]. In the wise words of an old wizard, help is always available to those who ask for it [10].



  8. Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879
  10. Dumbledore A. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2


If you have enjoyed this piece by Shivani, then head over to her blog for more of her writing here.