UW Graduate School

February 23, 2017

When Is It Time to Move On?

A postdoc experience is often a leap of faith.  You might make decisions about what’s next for you after your doctoral program based on need, opportunity, ambition, passion, interest, or a combination of these factors.  Once you land a postdoc position, you will learn different things about yourself, and certainly you will also learn things about your research group that were not always clear through the interview process.

With this newsletter, we pose the question – when is it time to move on? There are numerous factors to consider, but the main thing to know is: it is healthy to ask this question, regardless of your current experience (whether 6 months or 6 years into your postdoc).

Is It Time to Change Groups?

  • Are you getting the opportunities for growth and experience that are important for your next career steps? It is not uncommon for a PI to hire a postdoc because of a skillset they bring to the group.  This is a good thing; but, if you are simply reproducing skills and experiences from your graduate research, you are not growing. You are just working.  A postdoc should be both – work and professional growth.
  • Are you in a mentoring or work environment where you can flourish? Postdocs have diverse needs when it comes to mentoring and work environments.  Learn more about your own needs and seek an environment, a mentor, and a research group that provides the experience you need to become your best.
  • What about letters of recommendation? If you truly have a difficult relationship with a PI, you will likely be concerned about the kind of letter of recommendation they will provide. This is among the reasons we often advocate for building a mentoring team, or a deeper bench of supervisors and researchers who can speak for you. Develop your own succinct, dispassionate narrative of what happened with a given faculty advisor if the relationship has truly broken down and you feel you cannot trust a letter from them. You can think about core elements that are useful to share, such as: I wasn’t getting enough independence in this particular lab group and I need to grow further; we had differences of opinion regarding best directions for the work; I learned a considerable amount but we never connected and it made it difficult to sustain the working relationship… You can make it a positive story – one that emphasizes what you are seeking more than what you are not getting. Regardless of your feelings, it doesn’t look good to future employers if you talk badly about your former supervisor.

Is it Time to Leave Postdoc-ing Behind Altogether?

  • Postdoc experiences are great for building your professional network, gaining more skills and experience, and also doing important self-reflection regarding what kind of career is really going to be meaningful for you.
  • When you’ve garnered enough skills and experience to be competitive, move on! Because of imposter syndrome, some of us may never feel truly ready.  Or myths may circulate about what it takes to be competitive in the job market.  Do your own research on what your field needs, and get feedback from several people about your track record. Hiring committees are comprised of many people and it can help to get diverse perspectives about your strengths and where your gaps may be.
  • Or, after more time in an academic research setting, you may now have enough information to know this isn’t the right trajectory for you.  Maybe for what you want to do next, you don’t need more advanced research training, but instead need to cultivate other skills or experiences. A variety of self-assessment tools can help you identify where your particular interests and skill sets are pointing you, and you may be surprised by the answers.

Whatever your situation, handling yourself professionally through the transitions will go a long way. Asking yourself – am I in the right place, am I getting what I need – is a lifelong practice that will serve you well in finding the best fit in work environment, supervision, and portfolio. And taking a proactive approach will help assure you get what you need. You never know until you ask!  If you need help thinking these issues through, or practicing how a conversation could go with your faculty supervisor, please always feel free to sign up for an office hour or make an appointment with the OPA senior faculty advisors.

Additional Resources: