Making the Most of Your Postdoc

Congratulations! You received a postdoc, which means that—depending on the postdoc—you have the rare opportunity to direct your energies towards your own research and writing without the responsibilities that come with being a faculty member. And you (hopefully) have more resources than you had as a graduate student. So, how do you make the most of your postdoc?

Manage Your Expectations

Consider the length of the postdoc, the responsibilities that come along with the position, and what you need to do to transform your dissertation into a book. Job responsibilities could include teaching or organizing a research symposium. I had lofty goals at the start of my two-year postdoc: get a book contract and have a full draft of the book manuscript. While this might not be out of reach for some, this is not a realistic goal for everyone. (It certainly was not for me.)

If you have a one-year postdoc, most of your time is going to be directed towards the job market. You may not get much done in terms of actual chapter revisions, but you can use the job market as an opportunity to clarify and refine your goals for the book. I highly recommend stepping away from the dissertation for a few months after defending. At the start of your postdoc, revisit the dissertation and create a work plan for revisions while your project is relatively fresh in your mind. This advice is also applicable to those with a teaching postdoc who will be teaching two or more classes during the academic year.

If you have a postdoc that is two years or more and has little to no teaching responsibilities, you have more wiggle room. Once you have a preliminary revision plan in place, begin the revision process. Remember, you still must be mindful of your time and the looming job market. Tasks always take longer than you think they will take. Do you have to conduct additional research? Do you plan to add a new chapter or chapters? Does one chapter need to be completely overhauled? Thinking takes time. Writing takes time. Editing takes time. If your postdoc requires you to move, acclimating to a new environment also takes time.

Talk to People

Network and build relationships with other postdocs and early-career faculty at your institution as well as senior faculty members. Postdocs and early-career faculty will likely be in a similar position as you and can understand what you are going through. Academia can be an isolating space, but community is vital to success. These are people who you can vent to and exchange writing and research strategies. One way to formalize this is to create a working group. You can schedule a time each week to meet up or work together.

If your institution does not pair you with a faculty mentor, take the initiative to build a relationship with a senior faculty member in your department with whom you connect naturally. This faculty member does not have to align with your research specialization. Senior faculty members have a wealth of wisdom and knowledge that come from experience. If you are fortunate enough to hold a postdoc that turns into a faculty position, this mentor will eventually become your colleague. Alternatively, if you go back on the job market, it would be beneficial to have a letter of recommendation from a senior faculty member who was not on your dissertation committee. This person can vouch for the quality of your research and/or teaching and show how your scholarship has developed since you finished your doctorate.

Share your work—whether it is with just one other person, a small workshop group, or a conference. Sharing your work builds in deadlines and forces you to produce something. While you do not want to overwhelm yourself, feedback is important in this stage. Particularly if you are testing out new ideas not in your dissertation or figuring out how to transition from writing the dissertation to writing a book. It is also useful to have new eyes on your project. Your postdoc institution might have a different departmental strength from your PhD-granting institution. This different strength translates to a fresh perspective for your work.  

Celebrate the Wins

It is easy to fall into the mindset that says you did not accomplish enough because you did not achieve all that you set out to do. At the end of your postdoc, write down everything—big or small—that you did related to the book. Then read through the list. I guarantee that you accomplished more than you thought you did. Sometimes you have to see it all in one place on paper. Celebrate these achievements!  


Featured Image: Karolina Grabowska, Wikimedia Commons

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