General Expectations/Experiences of a Post-Doctoral ResearcheR
Why did you decide to do a post-doc(s)?
I did my PhD at the University of Melbourne, Australia on this amazing phenomenon known as embryonic diapause, the ability of over 130 mammals to pause their pregnancies and restart them. I really loved the project I worked on during my PhD and I still had so many questions about how this process occurred which I wanted to explore. I still have that passion and have been lucky enough up until this point to work on really interesting projects, even if some of them have been a step away from embryonic diapause.
What did you look for when selecting a post-doc(s)?
For my first post-doc I either wanted to work on embryonic diapause again or on something related to the embryo-uterine interactions that control peri-implantation embryo development. Australia is quite far away from most other places and I really loved the idea of being able to live overseas for a period, plus I was in a position in my life where that was a possibility so I also focussed mostly on looking for international positions.
I did a lot of research trying to find embryology labs worldwide doing research I thought I’d be interested in and ended up writing letters to four of them. I also wrote to one of the few other embryonic diapause researchers in the world at that time, Prof Bruce Murphy who told me about a fellowship I could apply for with him, which I did and luckily got. So I moved to Canada and spent 3 years with Bruce working on diapause in the mink and mouse.
For my next post-doc I realised that what I really needed before starting my independent research career was more experience with embryo culture. Up until that point I’d been mostly self-taught. This time round I knew more people in the field so I first asked a Professor who’d just moved to Montreal, if he could give me a list of possible people. If I could stay in Canada that was a bonus but I realised that was probably unrealistic. Luckily, along with the list he also mentioned that his old boss, Prof Jay Baltz in Ottawa, Canada was looking for a post-doc. I contacted Jay and had a meeting and I also visited the lab and met his postgrads. I wanted to get an idea about what the lab environment was like and what the possible research projects were available before I agreed.
For my current position, after 5 years in Canada I wanted to move back to Australia so I had applied for a few fellowships to work on embryonic diapause in Melbourne again but moved back before I heard the results. Unfortunately, none of them were successful. However, my old PhD supervisor Prof Marilyn Renfree had just received a grant to work on the first in-depth study into the reproduction and development of echidnas (Australian version of an anteater) and offered me the post-doc position associated with it. Although not diapause, echidnas are amazing animals, along with the platypus they’re the only mammals to lay eggs and hardly anything was known about them before we started. I suppose you could say that another of my research loves is working on unique reproductive strategies!
What has your experience been during your post-doc(s)?
All of my post-docs have been great for learning new research areas and how to be an independent researcher. One of the surprisingly useful parts of doing a post-doc is just getting experience in how other labs/universities/research centres operate. The lab environment makes such a big difference to your day-to-day life. Moving to Canada was also great for expanding my scientific networks which is so important for your future career. Changing research topics so many times probably wasn’t the best decision for continuing my publication record but it has given me a unique perspective and additional skills I might otherwise not have gotten. One thing I regret is not offering to supervise more students from earlier on. For various reasons that hasn’t always been possible (again lab size and environment is a factor) but it’s an essential skill that I’ve only really started to learn in the last couple of years. I’ve had good and bad parts of every post-doc I’ve done which is normal I think, but overall they’ve been positive experiences.
What do you wish you would have known coming into a post-doc from your PhD?
I wish I’d published more papers from my PhD before starting the post-docs! I played catch-up on publishing papers for about 6 years trying to publish PhD papers concurrently with starting in new areas and publishing new results. Also that you really need to take advantage of as many as possible of all the grants and fellowships available to you specifically within 5 years of finishing your PhD, past that 5 year mark you’re competing against established researchers and receiving even small grants really boosts your CV.
What advice can you give to PhD students looking into doing a post-doc?
Get as much experience as you can. This is your time to try out new things or new directions but also consider carefully about what you want to get out of it. Ideally you should be learning a new technique or animal model, don’t just go and do exactly what you did for your PhD. What skills or experience are you missing that would really complete your scientific training? How will you distinguish yourself as an independent researcher? However, make sure you then publish papers on this as well! On the other hand, if you think you don’t want to stay in academia long term, then doing a post-doc really doesn’t add much to your CV and is just delaying the inevitable.
Jane Fenelon, PhD is a post-doc at the University of Melbourne investigating the reproduction and development of the echidna. She is also studying how the embryo and uterus interact to control embryonic diapause, the ability of some mammals to temporarily pause their pregnancy. Prior to her current position she completed two post-docs in Canada at the University of Montreal and the University of Ottawa. She is on the newly established SSR Virtual Education Committee and received her BSc and PhD from the University of Melbourne.