The Road from Postdoc to Independent Investigator
The way forward from postdoc to principal investigator (PI) is diverse and complicated. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to obtaining a faculty position after your postdoctoral, there are some common factors that can help you effectively position yourself to make the leap. Here we share some reflections from Ze and Andrew who are in the process of becoming independent, and Jeremy who has recently started his own independent lab.
Communicate early with your mentor. When we start as postdoctoral fellows, most of us take on a project that is entirely contained within our mentor’s area of expertise. However, to transition to an independent position, you will need a new direction to explore and a mentor who can support your transition. Not every mentor can help in the way that you need. Make sure early on that your mentor is on board with your plans by clearly communicating your desire for an independent academic career. If you haven’t already had this discussion, try to do so as soon as possible, and work with your mentor to devise a detailed career development plan.
Build your network. A robust network will help you progress from postdoc to PI. When it’s time to job hunt, it is much better to have a list of colleagues at different institutions who know you and your research. One way to start building your network is by having lunch with seminar speakers. They are investigators who successfully transitioned from a postdoctoral or fellow position and can give you career advice because they know what to expect. Expand your network by going to local, national, and international meetings; presenting your work; asking questions; and discussing science with your colleagues. You can even invite faculty you admire to your presentations. These are the people who will eventually write letters of recommendation or support for your future grants.
Make the most out of presentations. Presenting your work in department seminars or multigroup meetings is a chance to practice communicating your ideas and getting people excited about your work. Take these presentations seriously because this is how you show the world what kind of scientist you are. Remember that not everyone who interviews you will know your mentor, but they may know someone else at your institution. Giving good presentations not only hones your communication skills but also showcases your abilities. Ultimately, these are the skills you will need for recruiting good people to join your lab and for convincing funding agencies to finance your research.
Apply for career transition grants. Your career clock starts ticking the day your doctoral degree is conferred, and the eligibility cutoff for most career transition grants is limited to four to seven years from that day. There are many funding mechanisms in place to support postdoctoral fellows during training (i.e., NIH F32 and ASH Scholar Fellow awards). Other options include fellowships from the American Heart Association, National Hemophilia Foundation, American Cancer Society, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. These give you practice in grantsmanship and can provide financial support while you build the body of work needed for a transition grant (e.g. K99/R00, K01, or Fellow to Faculty Scholar award). Though not necessarily required, these awards are important for two major reasons. First, obtaining these awards shows your future institution that you know how to get funded. Second, these awards provide valuable salary and research funding to supplement your startup package as you set up your new laboratory.
In conclusion, take advantage of the opportunities that you have, keep doing the good work that got you where you are today, and don’t be afraid to ask others for help and advice. Good luck!