On being a mercenary.

Posted: June 10, 2011 in About the author, Post-Doc

Someone can take, or be recruited, for a postdoc for any number of reasons. For better or worse, my top priority for my postdoc was that it had to be located in the UK or Australia. Living overseas is something my wife and I have always dreamed of doing, and this seemed to be the best time in our lives to have a go at it….and it would by a cryin’ shame if I didn’t use the mobility that comes as a young scientist to our advantage. Because location was my top priority (followed by length of contract; I was not taking a 1-2 year postdoc, which aren’t uncommon in the UK and Europe) I ended up taking a position that was in a lab well outside my area of expertise in a number of ways (both technique wise and model system). The reason I was considered for the position was because my current PI has a started a new collaboration in my field and needed someone that had an appropriate background. So here I am…a mercenary. While the jury is still out as to whether or not this was the wisest choice for my first postdoc, I wanted to put my experience thus far out there in case there are others that might find themselves in a similar position (or if anyone has been in this position and can offer some advice).

First the positives:

1) I get a chance to see a different approach to science and how those in other related disciplines think about scientific problems. While it hasn’t bore any fruit yet, I have always been a proponent of broadening one’s views so as to have more mental and experimental flexibility.

2) I’m learning a great deal of new information both pragmatically and theoretically. Trial by fire is always the fastest way to learn in my opinion, even if it means there may be more slop along the way.

3) I’ll have laid a foundation for truly cross-disciplinary work down the road by establishing connections well outside my field of expertise.

4) I have a LOT of independence to go about doing my own thing, more so than others in the lab do since my project(s) aren’t really at the core of the lab (and see point #2 below). I’ve always been very independent so this appeals to me, but it does have its drawbacks.

5) I should be first author on just about all the papers that come out of the work since there isn’t anyone to wrangle with (at least internally)!

6) Shouldn’t be any issues with taking the findings with me when I leave since it’s far enough outside of my PI’s core work that I don’t think s/he would move considerable resources of the  lab in this direction for an extended period.


Unfortunately there are some negatives as well, some of which I didn’t necessarily anticipate in taking the position:

1) It can be quite lonely! Being the only one of my ilk in the lab, I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of or that I can just chat about the latest cool paper that has come out in my field. The folks in my lab are nice and we all get along, but I miss interacting with my own kind.

2) My PI can only provide minimal guidance on how to approach certain problems, or even on what would be the most important aspects to tackle next. This is not to say s/he is not involved or interested (they are), it’s just a matter of not having the background.  While s/he has given me considerable latitude, it can be a bit daunting to realize the direction of the work is almost entirely in my hands. I suppose this is good practice for when I’m out on my own as a PI, but I wasn’t altogether prepared for this coming in with my freshly minted PhD. But as I said before, trial by fire baby, trial by fire.

3) I won’t have much opportunity for middle author papers. While I know these are not as important as first author papers, they are still publications! Thank goodness I have considerable momentum from the work I did as a PhD student that will provide some middle author papers (and some first ) over the next couple of years to bridge the gap.

4) Getting up and running is a bit slower than I’d like. I came from being a PhD student where I could multi-task like a crazy MFer and be wicked efficient to having to pick up a lot of very new techniques with minimal (if any) guidance.  Needless to say this has been more stressful than I expected, but I’m finally to a point where I can significantly increase my efficiency. I’m just feelin’ the pressure because I’ve just recently started to realize that most of the papers that will eventually come out of my current lab will likely have no middle authors (i,e. I’ve gotta do it all)!


It was probably a mix of naivete and hubris that lead me to take the position. Thus far I’m reasonably happy with it, and I’m considering ways to mitigate the negatives. One way would be to search out someone else in the department that is closer to my area of expertise as a sort of secondary mentor. I’ve already identified someone, but am trying to figure out the best way to do this (my thought is to start more informally) as I don’t want to go over the head of my current PI. The other thing I plan on doing is reaching out to the project collaborators more myself (overall the collaborative aspect of the work has been a bit disappointing so far and I’m realizing that I need to be the catalyst here)…but I’m waiting a bit until I have some interesting data to send out to them, which should hopefully be soon.

So that’s it, only time will tell how wise of a decision this was. I’d love to hear from anyone else out there in the blogosphere that is in a similar situation or any advice on seeking a secondary mentor closer to my field of expertise.

  1. Dr Becca says:

    I was in a very similar position for my first post-doc, Funk Doctor! The only major difference was that I had a grad student who was also on this “side project,” so I did have someone to bounce ideas off of. I can tell you first hand that having only first-author papers didn’t seem to hurt me much re: getting a faculty position, though it was something I worried about when I was applying.

    Definitely reach out to other faculty members–I’m sure your PI won’t mind, and in fact he/she may appreciate having another perspective on this new field). I found several “secondary mentors” at old post-doc institution, and they were incredibly helpful, and they remain my colleagues and advice-givers.

    Finally, the fact that you’ll be able to take your work with you is HUGE. Creating a niche for yourself, a line of work that’s uniquely your own, is exactly what you need to do in order to be successful on the TT market. Rock on!

  2. funkdoctorx says:

    Thanks Dr. Becca, it’s good to know there is life on the other side of such a postdoc. I’ve been working on some fellowship applications so my PI can bring on a graduate student to help me out, but no luck yet. It’s great to hear it from someone who has been successful in landing a TT job!

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