NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S4E5: Demystifying the Postdoctorate

August 25, 2023 NINDS Season 4 Episode 5
S4E5: Demystifying the Postdoctorate
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S4E5: Demystifying the Postdoctorate
Aug 25, 2023 Season 4 Episode 5

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 5, we talk about succeeding as a postdoc, including what graduate students need to know about what to ask during a postdoc interview, how to develop independent lines of research, and when to know it’s time to enter the job market.

Featuring E. Mae Guthman, Postdoctoral research fellow, Princeton University; Rapheal Williams, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Washington; and Mai-Anh Vu, Postdoctoral fellow, Boston University.


Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 5, we talk about succeeding as a postdoc, including what graduate students need to know about what to ask during a postdoc interview, how to develop independent lines of research, and when to know it’s time to enter the job market.

Featuring E. Mae Guthman, Postdoctoral research fellow, Princeton University; Rapheal Williams, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Washington; and Mai-Anh Vu, Postdoctoral fellow, Boston University.


Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: [intro music] Welcome to Season 4 of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve, where we discuss the unwritten rules or "hidden curriculum" of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job. [music]

[00:00:21] Marguerite Matthews: Hello, I'm Marguerite Matthews, a program director at NINDS. 

[00:00:25] Lauren Ullrich: And I'm Lauren Ullrich, also a program director at NINDS, and we're your hosts today. 

[00:00:30] Marguerite Matthews: In our last episode, we discussed succeeding in grad school. Today we're going to talk about succeeding as a postdoc, including what graduate students need to know about what to ask during a postdoc interview, how to develop independent lines of research, and when to know when it's time to enter the job market. [music]

 Joining us today are Dr. Eartha Mae Guthman, Dr. Rapheal Williams, and Dr. Mai-Anh Vu. Let's get started with introductions. 

[00:01:02] Eartha Mae Guthman: So hi everyone. My name is Eartha Mae Guthman. I'm a postdoc in the lab of Annegret Falkner at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University.

I am broadly interested in how hormones influence behavior and in particular how gonadal hormones influence behavior. And we've known really for, I mean, now over a century, what hormones are, that they have a profound influence on behavior, but we've really lacked a clear and, um, quantitative understanding of how these hormones influence the neurons whose activity is going to mediate these changes of behavior. So I apply, um, novel systems and computational neuroscience techniques for neural recordings across multiple deep brain regions and quantitative behavior analyses to try to answer those questions.

Um, I'm also interested in what is known as applied transgender studies where we look across disciplines to work with other academics to try to find novel solutions to material problems affecting transgender communities. And I see those two things really as working together. And so like, for instance, a long term goal of mine is to develop novel hormone therapies for, for gender affirming care and things of that nature. Outside of work, I really enjoy gardening and I actually just like finished putting everything into pots and in the ground for gardening this past week.

And so I'm really excited. My seeds just started sprouting today. 

[00:02:42] Marguerite Matthews: Nice. 

[00:02:43] Eartha Mae Guthman: It'll, it'll be a good time. 

[00:02:45] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, I just got a balcony and I am growing one strawberry plant that gives me like one strawberry every two weeks. [laughter] So, quite, quite a plentiful bounty, but it really made that one strawberry taste so good.

[00:02:59] Marguerite Matthews: [laughs] 

I asked Lauren if she would bring me a strawberry.

She's like, well, the thing is, and I was like, nevermind. It's okay. I'll wait. 

[00:03:07] Lauren Ullrich: I've had two so far. You can have the third one, Marguerite. [laughs] 

So hi, my name is Raphael Williams. I'm currently a postdoc in the lab of John Neumaier at the VA or Veterans Affairs Hospital, um, out here in Seattle, um, which is like, you know, connection to U-dub [UW] and everything. But specifically since we're at the VA, we're interested in topics that apply to Veterans Affairs.

[00:03:32] Rapheal Williams: And so my project is about how chronic alcohol exposure affects the morphology, structure, and function of microglia in the striatum, the reward center of the brain. And you know I like to paint a lot. And then I also like to build like these like model kits and stuff. Uh, they're called Gunpla, so that's a COVID hobby that I picked up. 

[00:03:58] Marguerite Matthews: What do you like to paint? Do you like to paint people, objects, abstract things? 

[00:04:03] Rapheal Williams: Yeah. Some, some kind of abstract. Uh, so. I guess it's a blend. So I grew up like, um, sketching, like pretty much anything I wanted to sketch. And then from there, it was like more realism kind of things.

And then I got to like, kind of graffiti styles. And so now it's kind of a blend between like graffiti and abstract and some real stuff here and there. It's a, you know, a hobby in progress still. [laughs] 

[00:04:31] Lauren Ullrich: We have a lot of artists on this podcast. I feel like there must be something with science and art.

[00:04:37] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. 

[00:04:38] Mai-Anh Vu: My name is Mai-Anh Vu. I'm a postdoc in Mark Howe's lab at Boston University.

In a nutshell, I study dopamine. Um, it's a neurotransmitter that gets released broadly throughout the brain, and it's associated with really, really diverse functions like learning, motivation, and movement. And so one of the big questions is how, you know, a single molecule can play such different roles. So I started wondering whether, uh, one answer might be in the specific spatial and temporal release patterns of, of dopamine in the brain.

And I, uh, helped develop a new technique so we can look at dopamine release in big, deep structures in mouse brains while they run around and perform other behaviors and do things in different contexts and stuff. Outside of lab, I like to ride my bike all over the city, hang out with people, play the piano, climb rocks.

I think that's another popular one among like science and STEM people. 

[00:05:35] Eartha Mae Guthman: I also rock climb, so yeah, you're not alone. 

[00:05:38] Lauren Ullrich: There you go. [laughs]

[00:05:40] Marguerite Matthews: See, making connections. I also studied dopamine for my graduate work. Um, and so it's like my favorite molecule, even though it's so hard to tell people what it does. 

[00:05:51] Mai-Anh Vu: Right? 

[00:05:52] Marguerite Matthews: You know, people always want to just have it as a soundbite, you know, Oh, the dopamine release when I do something I like, and I'm like, eh... It's a little more complicated than that.

And then they're just never ready for me to nerd out. So I have to dial it back. 

[00:06:05] Mai-Anh Vu: Same. All my friends are like, tell me about dopamine detox. And I'm like, Oh... [laughter] 

[00:06:10] Lauren Ullrich: Oh no!

[00:06:11] Marguerite Matthews: Stay out of pseudoscience Twitter, please. 

[00:06:16] Lauren Ullrich: Please don't detox your dopamine. [laughter] 

[00:06:19] Rapheal Williams: I, too, also studied dopamine for my graduate research. [laughs] 

[00:06:23] Lauren Ullrich: Oh, now I feel left out. 

[00:06:25] Marguerite Matthews: The dopamine crew, whoop whoop. 

[00:06:27] Mai-Anh Vu: I love this. [music]

[00:06:28] Lauren Ullrich: Let's start small. What is a postdoc? And why should one do one? I mean, because this podcast, right, is about uncovering the hidden curriculum. And I think a lot of people who aren't familiar with academic research, they're like, "Wait, you're doing more school? Or you're not in school? Or what, what's happening? I thought you got your PhD. Why aren't you done?" 

[00:06:55] Marguerite Matthews: And why are you still poor? 

[00:06:57] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah [laughs] Exactly. So, um, maybe we could break down a little bit about what is the purpose of a postdoc, what to expect and, and why you in particular decided to do one.

[00:07:10] Mai-Anh Vu: I mean, my, my mom still thinks and still tells people that I'm in school and so she's definitely confused about what a postdoc is. 

[00:07:17] Marguerite Matthews: Are all moms the same? [laughter] 'Cause so did mine.

[00:07:21] Mai-Anh Vu: I think, um, one way I explain it to people is, uh, that, uh, it's kind of like how residency is for doctors, postdoc is for scientists. For some reason that lands a little better and they understand what that residency is for a doctor and so postdocs like that for a scientist. 

 I decided to do one because I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do after graduate school with, uh, with the PhD in neuroscience and there was still, you know, a high enough chance that I would stay in academia. Still is. I said that like it was past tense, still a little undecided, but I think, you know, a postdoc opens those doors and gives you sort of the training you need to, to think about those next career steps, no matter what they are. I mean, I think lots of different career options really value a postdoc. 

[00:08:09] Rapheal Williams: , I guess one of the reasons why I did a postdoc is, going outside of academia, like Mai-Anh said, was a lot of like jobs require you to have at least some postdoctoral training in your profession.

Um, like if you want to become like a scientist level position in industry, they require at least, you know, some time of postdoc years, um, even up to like five years of a postdoc just to get it like a job, but you know, it just varies between companies. So, I think for me, one of the reasons why I did a postdoc is because it was A) a way for me to kind of envision myself seeing myself being a doctor already. So I was like trying to like kind of set that up on my way out. And then, um, B) it was just another way for me to get a lot more technical training and work for somebody that, you know, I had known for a while and just see what their kind of mentoring style is. And I guess at the beginning of the postdoc, I was still a little bit unsure, but, you know, I quickly knew that I did not want to kind of stay in academic research.

[00:09:15] Eartha Mae Guthman: I guess for me it was less of a, like, "am I going to do a postdoc?" Because I knew personally that I didn't want to go into the corporate world.

Um, and I wanted to do a postdoc and see if I could get a faculty position and so for me It was more of like which is the right lab so I can gain new skills that will best allow me to achieve my career career goals, kind of like what Rapheal was saying. Obviously a different context with different goals, but still like "what are the new technical skills that will make me more rounded as a scientist to do what I want to do?

[00:09:50] Marguerite Matthews: Can you all talk a little bit about when someone should start looking for a postdoctoral opportunity and are there any resources that you used, um, to help you in looking for a postdoc position? Did you consider staying in the lab where you did your graduate work, were you like, I gotta get out of this entire institution and try a new environment just, you know, to get some diversity of experiences?

So I felt like one really good resource was networking. One of my committee members helped me, like, she was friends with the PI who I currently work with and that's how I was first able to meet her and was able to get in touch with her and learn more about her research. I feel like there's so many labs out there that could potentially be good fits for you, and the people that have like seen you grow for years, you know, they know what you like. They know what you're good at. They can potentially like be like, oh, this might be a good person who's within your interest, who can help you achieve what you want. And I feel like definitely taking advantage of those. 

[00:10:54] Eartha Mae Guthman: Another person I interviewed for, like, ran a summer program that I was in. Um, and I feel like really tapping in your network to try to get a good idea, both like at the level of faculty or just like other grad students in your program or postdocs that used to be in your program that have gone off places, can all give you like different levels of perspective on that.

And then for when, I don't know, one of the things my grad school mentor told me was you know when you're ready to graduate when you know when to end a project. And like, for what you do after your postdoc, you're gonna be judged on your postdoc, not your graduate school work.

So at least the advice I was given, which I would definitely agree with, is like when you feel ready, like don't worry about staying on afterwards, like I didn't really consider that because for me I wanted to then go on and start the next project, especially with that K99 four year clock. Unless you have a clear like idea of how you would bridge the continual work that you do in your PhD lab to your postdoc, um, I think it really is to your advantage to like, start to go somewhere, start to get the new techniques, see how you can bridge that with what you've learned before.

[00:12:02] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, so I'll just, you know, just in case people don't know what the K99/R00 is, um, that is a transition award to take you from postdoc to faculty, but there's a limit of, you can only be in your postdoc for four years. And then you can't apply after that. So if you stay in your current lab to finish up, even if it's just six months or so, that will count against you in your K99 clock. And then you would only have three and a half years in the new lab to, to finish up. So if that is something you're aiming towards, it's a really good thing to keep in mind. 

[00:12:39] Mai-Anh Vu: A lot of grad students in my lab and sort of my department has started asking about, you know, like, when to look for a postdoc, how do you find a postdoc?

And I think one thing that I tell them that I've been hearing all over the place is lots of labs need postdocs. Like all my PI friends or PIs that I know have all just been saying the same thing; they all need postdocs. So I think in the, in the grand scheme of finding a job, finding a postdoc is not the worst one. I mean, you're, you're like in demand. As long as you, you can be a little bit flexible. I mean, especially if you can be geographically flexible and things like that. Although, uh, admittedly, when I looked for my postdoc, I needed to be in Boston, but that was easy enough to find. 

[00:13:15] Eartha Mae Guthman: And I think that's where, like, if you tap into your network, especially like people that you know of that have gone on to do postdocs or people that you might know at that university or maybe you have friends who have friends at that university. You can find out more about like those faculty, especially when you, you know, we're more desirable on the market right now. And so you can take advantage of that.

[00:13:38] Mai-Anh Vu: Definitely. 

And also, I don't, I think people shouldn't shy away from like cold emailing either. It's not so bad. I cold emailed my current PI and said, "Hey, your old mentor gave a talk. And you know, I heard through the grapevine, you're opening a lab. Is that, is that happening? Is that true? Is that in Boston? Do you need a postdoc?" Then I had a Skype interview set up the next day. So it was. It's pretty fast. 

[00:14:01] Lauren Ullrich: Wow. Yeah. Yeah, we, we definitely are extolling the virtues of the cold interview in this season. Seems like that's how a lot of, a lot of people find their positions. 

[00:14:12] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, I actually was offered a couple of postdoc positions sort of tentatively, like, "Hey, would you come work with me in your postdoc?" at conferences, giving talks, um, just set up my poster and someone would come by, think my data was really interesting. "Have you started thinking about postdocs yet? Where do you want to go? Would you come to my lab?" 

And so for me, that's how I, I didn't really have to do a lot of work because the people that were doing work that I found interesting sort of came to me in a way. And so I think definitely putting yourself out there and to your point, Mai-Anh, like someone is going to want to hire you. Maybe it's a question of fit or placement, location, wherever. I don't want to say it's easy, but there are a lot of opportunities that if you're willing to open yourself up, whether you're reaching out to people, or people are reaching out to you, or you're reaching out to your network, you're letting your network know, "hey, I'm looking for a post doc." It can take a little bit of pressure off of you in terms of just opening up Google and saying like, [laughs] "who does dopamine research?" Like 

[00:15:24] Lauren Ullrich: "Nice PI, dopamine, question mark?" [laughs] 

[00:15:28] Marguerite Matthews: Right? Nice, yeah. [laughs] But like, you know, people who are doing the work you wanna do probably, right? Like you've been reading their papers, you've been meeting them at conferences, you've been interacting with them through your lab.

So start with what you know, and if that's not working out and you don't find what you need, it sounds like it may be time to kind of, you know, roll your sleeves up a little bit more and utilize those research skills to hit Google. But there's probably a lot more options right in front of your face, um, without having to do too much extra work.

[00:16:02] Lauren Ullrich: And Mai-Anh, you mentioned interviews. So that's a perfect lead into our next question is like what, what kinds of things should our listeners expect during a postdoc interview? And and is that different post COVID? You know, what kinds of questions did you ask your prospective mentors or, or maybe questions you wish you asked in hindsight?

[00:16:25] Mai-Anh Vu: So I interviewed before COVID and I think it's mostly the same, at least in our lab it's been the same. Some of the interviews happened over Zoom and stuff, but pre-COVID, so I went to a brand new lab. And so my interview consisted of a talk, I basically gave a slightly modified version of my dissertation talk. Um, but it happened to be in front of a bunch of faculty and their lab members because the lab I was going to had no people in it yet.

It was suddenly very intimidating because they're like, you know, big wig faculty there trying to vet me for this new PI. Uh, so that was a little scary, but then after that it was, you know, meeting other people in the department and, uh, trying to get a sense of what it was like there. Um, so one of the reasons that I came to this lab, and I was kind of looking for a new lab because I was, you know, like I said, sort of making career decisions.

I wanted to see what the life of a new PI looked like, and if that's something I could even see myself doing. Is it insane? Like, is it manageable? You know? Uh, and so I asked questions sort of along those lines. Kind of like, you know, what are you expecting from a new postdoc? Sometimes you have to be explicit and ask questions about like, you know, how many hours are you expecting postdocs to work?

Because some people will have a hard number in mind. Other people will be flexible. And I think if that matters, that's kind of important to ask. Um, yeah. And then I ask questions about sort of how much independence I'd have in picking my project because I know sometimes when you go to the lab, there's a project you sort of just slot yourself right into, other cases, you have to come up with the whole thing. And so I think there's a, you know, lifestyle, work style, and then the science part. 

[00:18:04] Rapheal Williams: I personally didn't have any, uh, like, uh, an interview. I kind of jumped into a lab that was, uh, so I could stay in Seattle doing research, um, jumped into a lab with one of my committee members that I had known for a while, and I know like, he was like a really, really, uh, strong mentor for me throughout my graduate experience.

So, you know, he basically told me, "hey, there's a spot opening up on a training grant. Um, you just have to apply, you know, talk to the person who's running the training grant, and then you could work on this project in the lab, and I think it would be really good for you to get some other types of skills". And rather than doing E Phys and behavioral pharmacology, I'm like now got a lot more molecular and cellular work, and it was just a good opportunity. But, you know, I think as far as like, what was the closest thing to an interview was just talking about if, you know, if it would be a good fit for me to be in the lab and would I actually benefit from it? Um, and then also would, you know, he also benefit from me being in there and like, what does success look like, uh, for a postdoc? 

I didn't have a lot of hands on mentorship in graduate school, like at all. So I was very naive about just kind of, I was very jaded and naive. I was like, "Oh, I just hate everything. Oh, you know, academic institutions never served me for the, you know, eight years that I've been in it. Why would I do 10 years of school?" You know what I mean? And it was just a good opportunity to kind of see the light,like, uh, the good side of how, like, everything works as far as being in contact with, you know, um, the school that you did your graduate degree in, so. 

[00:19:51] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, that's real. I mean, thankfully you took a chance to, to say it doesn't always have to be like this. The grass may be greener on the other side.

And so that's awesome that you still held out a little bit of hope that things might turn around. 

[00:20:10] Rapheal Williams: Hope is the only thing that keeps me going forward, you know? 

[00:20:13] Marguerite Matthews: I think all of us can relate. [laughter] 

[00:20:16] Rapheal Williams: Yeah, yeah, for sure. 

[00:20:18] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, I had kind of a bad experience in grad school and I just decided not to do a postdoc at all, so that is also an option.

[00:20:26] Mai-Anh Vu: Do you ever wish you did? 

[00:20:27] Lauren Ullrich: Do I wish I did? No. I mean, I just really lucked out because a lot of jobs do require at least one year of postdoctoral research experience. And when I was transitioning to a permanent position here, in one case, there was that requirement for one year of research post PhD. But luckily, I had been doing research in this position, which wasn't normal for people in a program position. So I was able to make the case that I had that one year of research experience. 

So it all kind of worked out somehow, but I might have been kicking myself if things had worked out a little bit differently.

[00:21:08] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, and I did a postdoc pretty much knowing that I would not want to pursue a tenure track faculty position, but I knew sort of like, I also use the analogy of the postdoc being like a residency for MDs, but for PhDs. And I just really wanted to be like a bonafide expert. Like I wanted to really sit on this idea that I have not only done the training for the degree, but now I'm using that training to establish myself after this and have a little bit more independence both in my thinking, my approach to science. Um, and that allowed me to do a ton of other things that was the gateway to the career that I have now. Um, could I have gotten here without a postdoc? Maybe, um, don't have a time machine, so there's no, there's no going back to find out if that's necessary. But my postdoc was so pivotal for a number of reasons. And so I'm glad that even though there was some hesitation in figuring it out. I was like, "eh," I mean the worst that could happen is I pushed my earning potential a few years. The best that can happen is it leads me to the next thing. And it's led me to something that I can't even imagine my life without the job that I have now.

[00:22:26] Eartha Mae Guthman: I actually, if anything, I want to, like, build off of something you were saying. I feel like one of the one of the most rewarding things in my postdoc has really been, like, feeling like I'm truly an expert in something in a way that is different than when I was a graduate student.

Like, you know, you become an expert in your topic in grad school, and like, when you're doing your defense, you know more about it than anyone else in the room. But like, I genuinely feel like I am a leading world expert in how hormones regulate neural activity at this point. And, like, I feel like most postdocs are kind of in that position for their research.

And, you know, if you do want to go on and do a tenure track faculty position, that's your pitch basically. Um, and like, I also feel on the flip side, it's when people start taking you seriously for your academic and intellectual ideas and like, you're really, you're able to kind of develop your own intellectual identity that is related to whatever your expertise is.

Because like, people now will like, come look to me for like, an answer to a particular thing, whereas like, even though I really liked interneurons in grad school and thought about them a lot, like, I wasn't someone that people pointed people to, and things like that. 

[00:23:41] Marguerite Matthews: What kinds of things should one expect or could one expect in terms of like salary and benefits during a postdoc? And, um, were you able to negotiate at all for, for any of those things? 

[00:23:57] Mai-Anh Vu: I negotiated for a laptop. 

[00:24:00] Lauren Ullrich: Okay. That's a win.

[00:24:02] Marguerite Matthews: That's not nothing. 

[00:24:03] Mai-Anh Vu: I was moving from North Carolina to Boston and the cost of living here is sort of ridiculous. And I tried to negotiate the salary a bit, but, um, you know, the department was sort of limiting my PI and what he could and couldn't offer. But then when I showed up I had this like old clunker of a laptop.

And he said, you know, I can't really move your salary that much, the department won't let me, but I'll buy you a laptop and I was like, yes, I'll take that. 

[00:24:30] Rapheal Williams: I'm like, dang, I wish I could've got a laptop. [laughter]

[00:24:35] Lauren Ullrich: Something you didn't even know you could ask for, huh? 

[00:24:38] Mai-Anh Vu: In a bunch of cities now, the postdoc minimum salary has just gone up a little bit, and different schools will have different minimums. So if cost of living is something that's important, I think that's like, pretty important to consider. Um, depending on what city you're in and depending on what your school's minimum is, it might not be, you know, super feasible to have your own apartment that you love and live with no one else in, you know, but... whereas if you go to a place with lower cost of living and a higher minimum, that ratio works out more in your favor financially. But I think that is something that people, you know, ought to think about when they're, when they're picking cities and, and, uh, departments. 

[00:25:17] Eartha Mae Guthman: So Princeton, for example, they recently raised postdoc salaries for the whole campus to 68,500 a year for postdocs.

But when I started, it was at the NIH minimum, which was around like 55 or 56,000 a year. Um, and, I just think, like, broadly speaking, anyone who's considering a postdoc should really consider that, like, however many years you're doing it, you're potentially leaving, like, 50k on the table in terms of salary, that you might, like, we were talking earlier about how it's difficult to find jobs elsewhere, but, like, you can find jobs with a PhD depending on what you want to do or are willing to do, and oftentimes you can potentially make over 100,000 a year, and you're just not going to be doing that as a postdoc.

And I think that's just something to consider and something that I hope the NIH will do something about because I think it blocks out like a lot of really talented scientists from lower income brackets that just can't afford to make that choice. But also, going somewhere with a union, highly recommend, that's also going to be your friend if you're a postdoc.

[00:26:27] Lauren Ullrich: Oh yeah, I was just going to say, I know the advisory committee to the NIH director is currently looking at postdoctoral salaries, and, um, and just generally things that might might make a difference to postdocs. So, I mean, hopefully, they will provide a nice, nice actionable report.

[00:26:48] Marguerite Matthews: 

[00:26:48] Eartha Mae Guthman: yeah, I mean, related to salary, like I chose where I went in part, like, I needed to go somewhere that had medical health insurance that covered what I needed, um, and so that limits potential universities to go to in a way that's tied to salary, but not necessarily like raw amounts of salary.

[00:27:06] Marguerite Matthews: And seems to only be getting more restrictive in terms of where you can go based on where those institutions are located. 

[00:27:13] Eartha Mae Guthman: I will definitely say I'm narrowing my faculty search. 

[00:27:17] Lauren Ullrich: And, you know, I think there's other benefits too, that, that you might consider depending on your background, right?

Like some institutions offer child care or a guaranteed spot in a daycare. Um, you know, some might offer moving expenses, some might change your salary if you're able to get like a fellowship or, um, a career development award. So I thinkthese are all good things to find out before you sign on the dotted line and especially if they are, you know, things that are important to you and are going to affect your quality of life.

[00:27:52] Rapheal Williams: I didn't get to negotiate and Seattle cost of living is like very comparable to Boston, right? So, uh, yeah, it's been, it's been rough. Like, you know, one of the reasons why I decided to kind of move on is, uh, you know, uh, coming from where I come from, like in Atlanta and, you know, being a black male scientist, you know, there's a lot of things that people don't really tell you before even getting into school and, you know, even with undergrad, like my community didn't know anything about scholarships or grants or anything like that.

So I ended up having to rack up a lot of student loan debt. So like having to deal with that and, you know, making way less than, just the NIH minimum or whatever, you know, 55, like, yeah, this is a lot of work for a little bit of money. You know, I've heard that a lot from postdocs and it...

I've never heard of anybody actually being able to negotiate getting anything better than the NIH minimum. So, sounds like there are at least some positive stories out there. 

[00:28:57] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, and I'll just say, like, so we've been using the NIH minimum as a shorthand, but that really is just the amount of money that NIH will pay on an F32 or a T32.

A lot of institutions have sort of used that number and applied it to all of their postdocs, but that is not actually, um, how that scale was meant to be used. So I think that's another good kind of misconception to clear up that, and it's not even a misconception among you all, but that institutions often think that, you know, this is the NIH salary scale when it, it is literally just the amount of money that NIH will pay a stipend for an NRSA, period. Um, and you know, I think it kind of gets back to this sort of union question where, um, I think a lot of times students and postdocs are kind of coming together to, to kind of question some of the ways in which we, we do business in academia, um, and have been able to negotiate like higher salaries and kind of push back on, on some of those misconceptions. 

[00:30:09] Eartha Mae Guthman: Yeah. I mean, I'll like, I don't think it was an accident that Princeton increased salaries for postdocs like a month or two after the University of California strikes.

And like, thank you to all the striking workers at University of California. And like Princeton has the endowment that I can do that, but it's definitely like, you know, most universities just take the NIH minimum and say that's what everyone's getting. 

[00:30:36] Rapheal Williams: Yeah, I've heard of some people, you know, having their labs like at least being able to supplement them, you know.

[00:30:41] Eartha Mae Guthman: Yeah. 

[00:30:41] Rapheal Williams: And other things like that. 

[00:30:43] Mai-Anh Vu: I was going to say it just doesn't hurt to ask because I just asked, you know, like, is this negotiable? And I did get my PI to move it up like a tiny bit. I mean, he was, you know, capped by the department, but he moved it to what he could. And I just think a lot of, um, it just doesn't hurt to ask, right?

 On one hand you feel like, "please hire me, please hire me. I'll do anything." But on the other hand, you do have a lot of skills to offer. And at the point where you're talking about salary, it's clear already that you're probably, you know, going to be a good fit. And so at that point, just asking probably isn't going to hurt at all.

And you might get, I don't know, like a laptop or, you know, a tiny bit of a salary bump or something. 

[00:31:19] Marguerite Matthews: Yes. Closed mouths don't get fed. 

[00:31:21] Eartha Mae Guthman: We are in demand on the market.

[00:31:24] Marguerite Matthews: So shifting gears a little bit. Can you all talk about what success looks like in a postdoc and did you decide that before you started? Did you only start to learn once you were in it and maybe had a nervous breakdown and needed to remind yourself that success can also mean some failures that get you to go a different route?

[00:31:49] Mai-Anh Vu: I, I went into my postdoc with really, really specific goals. I really wanted to see if I could get a lot of science done while working reasonable hours.

That was not exactly how grad school went for me. So this was like my main goal. Um, and then, sort of, you know, beyond that, the goal is to do science, but admittedly, I didn't have usable data for at least two years and that didn't feel great, but I was learning what I could accomplish given the amount of time I was spending in lab.

So, you know, I was at least accomplishing this other super concrete goal of mine. So that part felt nice. So I think having sort of specific goals, both scientifically, but, you know, other instrumental goals helps really solidify whether you're making progress or not. 

[00:32:35] Rapheal Williams: Yeah, I think for, uh, for me, my goals and, you know, the kind of thing that me and my current advisor, like, agreed upon was just for me to learn as much as I could.

Um, you know, he felt like I was a little bit hindered before and I didn't have like a lot of like freedom to kind of like really think and open my mind up. I think he, like, you know, he reached out a hand and like really helped me out, just like, ignite my curiosity again. You know, Mai-Anh said, like, you're doing kind of, like, very niche things before.

And so I think for me to step outside the box and look at science a little bit more objectively and, you know, really realize that, hey, you know, you've done this work, you're an expert in what you do, and you're a scientist and, you know, you can ask really great questions.

And so I think that was kind of like what success looked like; as long as I work diligently and put in the hours, then, yeah, I think, uh, so far everything's kind of worked out. And there are things that you can't control, you know, like your unknown unknowns about assumptions that you have for your own science project, right?

Um, but other than that, you know, it's just like, you know, you just end up where the chips may land them as far as what happens with your data. [laughs] 

[00:33:46] Lauren Ullrich: So we talked a little bit earlier about how this is sort of your, your chance to become an expert in the field and, um, and really, own the research questions in a way maybe you didn't feel like you did in grad school.

Um, how do postdocs develop that independent line of research? And is there a tension with the mentor? Because you're, you're going towards independence while you're still working in somebody else's lab and how do you navigate that with your mentor or how do you think about those issues? 

[00:34:18] Eartha Mae Guthman: I feel like I'm in a fairly unique situation there. Um, but I feel like that it was both intentional and kind of just like how it happened to be. Um, but like I'm doing endocrine research and I'm a trans woman and like I want to develop novel therapies for gender affirming hormone therapy and I want to apply the systems and computational neuroscience tools that like I've gained from this lab into those questions, and I want to really, like, approach things from, like, what we're calling computational neuroendocrinology, um, whereas, she is more on, like, computational social neuroscience and systems neuroscience. Um, and I feel like our questions moving forward they're very complimentary, but also like fairly distinct and folks know that like I'm the hormone person in the lab.

Um, and so I just kind of, I found a, a niche that was like of interest to me and my long term career goals that was not what was necessarily already happening in the lab, per se. Like there were little hints of it because hormones are involved in social behavior, um, and like all the neurons express receptors for them, but that was my big interest and just kind of like made it mine, I guess?

[00:35:38] Marguerite Matthews: And I'm assuming all of this sort of started to fall into place as you were, you know, entering in your postdoc? 

[00:35:43] Eartha Mae Guthman: Yeah. Like I came in wanting to do more just like social neuroscience, which is what brought me to the lab. And then like as anti trans rhetoric in the U.S. and stuff developed more and more, um, wanting to like, see what I could do in the position that I was in with my research. And just like we don't really know much about how estrogen and testosterone, like what they're actually doing to neurons to lead to the changes that we see.

Um, and if we can begin to know that, we can, like, begin to understand potentially how to personalize different people's therapies. And this can be in the case of like gender affirming hormone care or postmenopausal care, things of that nature, or potentially looking at like how stress systems interact, like how stress hormones, which are also, you know, like, interacting with the same systems, how that's interacting with these gonadal steroids. 

[00:36:36] Marguerite Matthews: And I think, like, the postdoc time is much more forgiving than the graduate time where you feel a little bit, like, restricted in the sense that you have to be focused and you have certain milestones to hit and you need to, hopefully, will get out in a timely fashion. Um, and while some people, if they have a project that is fairly well laid out, you know, maybe they're able to do some more exploratory work on the side or these side projects, but it sounds like you're able to find this cause you have a little bit more freedom...

[00:37:08] Eartha Mae Guthman: yeah 

[00:37:08] Marguerite Matthews: to one, like rely on your expertise, right? Like, you know what, you know, and now you get a chance to really sort of like lean into that and, and sort of flex the knowledge and learn new things to compliment that where I think a lot of us are still kind of finding ourselves as graduate students. And I think Mai Anh said this, like, "am I the expert?"

Like you spend so much time on a thing that you become paranoid that you don't know anything! And then I think once you're a postdoc, you're comfortable, maybe not knowing a lot of things, but a bit more assured that, you know, enough to start exploring things in a new way.

So I think that's really great, Eartha Mae, that you're able to merge things that you really care about along with things that you have been cultivating for the last several years. 

[00:37:56] Eartha Mae Guthman: Yeah, and I think like one thing at the start of my postdoc that, um, lended itself to this was the way we decided on my project was kind of like, okay, here's this broad question. We know all these like, estrogen receptor positive neurons are in the brain, and they're involved in social behavior.

And like, my boss had recorded them from one region of the hypothalamus, people recorded them from other regions, and we want to record all of them and see what they're doing. But it's on you to come up with like, what the actual experiment and hypothesis is. So it's kind of like, here's the like, space you're going to work in, and like, figure out the question in there. 

[00:38:35] Lauren Ullrich: Hmm

[00:38:35] Eartha Mae Guthman: And then that allowed me to like create that niche. 

[00:38:38] Mai-Anh Vu: I think going off of that and something that Marguerite said, you know, like if you like research and you're into science and asking questions, postdoc is a great time. You're less pressured by these milestones you have to hit. No one's dangling a degree over your head that, you know, like, if I leave I don't get it.

You could leave postdoc at any point, like technically, and no one's holding anything, right? But it is a fun time to, you know, within the space of your lab, but explore these questions. Do little side analyses or side little questions if you're just wondering. On the nerdy side of things, it's a great time.

[00:39:10] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, especially as you start thinking about your own independent, like, research program, right? Like, what would, if I have money to spend how I want to, what would I do? What questions would I ask? What experiments would I run? 

[00:39:23] Mai-Anh Vu: It's super freeing and satisfying to be like, "Oh, I wonder if..." And then realizing-- I guess this is what like growth looks like --then you realize like, "Oh, I know how to answer this question." Or like, "I know how to start to look at it." And that feels to me different from what grad school felt like, you know, grad school is like, "I can't mess up. I have to get this right. Please don't kill anything," you know?

[00:39:47] Lauren Ullrich: [Laughs] And what about the, the sort of other pieces of being a postdoc, like on the professional development side, you're, you know, you got to refine how you're writing the papers and your ability to get presentations and your mentoring. And like, there is kind of this whole other piece. Um, how do you think about those aspects of a postdoc and, um, how do you kind of, balance all the different competing demands on your time.

[00:40:15] Eartha Mae Guthman: I don't think you do. And I think you pick what you're gonna value. 

[00:40:19] Rapheal Williams: Yeah, I agree. [laughter]

[00:40:22] Mai-Anh Vu: Yeah, you can't do everything I think. There's just so many things that you could be putting all of your time into, right? Like your science could take all of your time and then more, mentorship could take all of your time and more, same with writing. And I think at any given point, you pick what you're into, what you have to be doing, you know, there's some amount of prioritizing that has to get done. But I think accepting early that you can't do every single piece of it to 100%; once I realized that it was a little more free. 

[00:40:49] Marguerite Matthews: And do you feel like you're getting mentorship or guidance from maybe more senior postdocs, faculty who are helping kind of guide you? I mean, when we're grad students, we have our committee that we have to sort of check in with, so whether we want their advice or not, they're giving it to us. Uh, whereas the postdoc, because you are sort of in this very special, uh, ,classification of researcher, you don't necessarily have some of these checks and balances in place.

So do you all feel like you're getting the support you need, whether it's on the research or anything else related to your general career development?

[00:41:26] Mai-Anh Vu: That's a good point. I think as a postdoc, I've had to become more deliberate about when I seek feedback and about what. So if I'm really thinking about, you know, mentorship and how I might improve or whatever, I then have to think about, you know, how am I going to solicit the feedback that's going to help me?

So, you know, like, how do I talk to my mentees to get their opinion? Who's mentorship seems to look nice. Can I talk to them? But I've had to, like, rather than have like a committee, just tell you sort of like how to be better or what to focus on. I've had to sort of, I guess, do some of that on my own and think about who I want to ask what to, and my, my mentor is great, I mean, I can ask him whatever and he'll give me his two cents, but I have to like ask for it I think. And that's a little bit different as a postdoc than as a grad student. 

[00:42:10] Eartha Mae Guthman: One piece of advice I would definitely give with regards to like seeking mentorship is, I also want to preface this as well that like I have a good relationship with my mentor, but I don't think you need to limit yourself to the people at your university for your own mentors.

[00:42:25] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. 

[00:42:26] Eartha Mae Guthman: Especially, like, if you are from a marginalized background of some sort, there may be only a few people in your university or department that can speak to those experiences or know what you've gone through and really be able to understand what you're going through and help you process that and get to the next spot and, like, it's okay to find those wherever you find them.

[00:42:48] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, I think especially now, the one silver lining of COVID is we're all a lot more comfortable with the remote work and remote mentoring and, and those kinds of things. So, yeah, we're seeing a lot more people, um, number one, even forming postdoctoral advisory committees, but number two, including people from outside of their university, like on those committees.

[00:43:09] Mai-Anh Vu: I actually hadn't even heard of a postdoc committee. It's a good idea. 

[00:43:13] Lauren Ullrich: Yes. The hot new thing. 

[00:43:15] Mai-Anh Vu: Yeah. I feel like at its best, it could be incredible. At its worst, it could just be like-- 

[00:43:19] Lauren Ullrich: box checking?

[00:43:21] Mai-Anh Vu: Yeah. But, you know...

[00:43:22] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. We encourage a lot of our, um, folks looking to do other training opportunities, fellowships, or career development awards to consider it because even just you say, like, it's hard to know what to prioritize or you can't get it all right, and it's helpful to have other people who have been down that road before to give you the wisdom. Um, again, it's advice, right? It doesn't mean you have to take it. But it's nice to have people that you trust that are there to say, like, "I think you've got really good data so why don't you focus on this" or "your data seems to be all over the place, maybe we can just pick one question and sort of like, see if we could drill down into that thing" or "how about you take a step away?"Go write for a little bit, spend some time maybe, um, digging more into the literature.

And that's where I see like the advisory board being much more helpful in helping you direct your energies um, instead of trying to give ourselves permission, because we'll either think we can do everything or think we can't do anything. And then you're stuck either way, right? 

[00:44:24] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. 

[00:44:25] Marguerite Matthews: And I think it could be really nice to have those, um, and the diversity of perspectives, even like you were saying, Eartha Mae, that you don't have to just lean on the one person. Like, yes, that's your primary mentor. Hopefully you have a great relationship with them.

But that doesn't mean that you can't get other perspectives or people with different experiences to pour into you, um, in addition to right, having, hopefully you're having multiple great mentors that are nurturing your career development. 

[00:44:53] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, and the advisory committee just kind of formalizes it, right?

Like, to go back to what you were saying, Mai-Anh, like, you feel like you kind of have to ask for what you need and if you have this sort of formal advisory committee and they wrote down and they said, yes, I will meet, you know, twice a year or quarterly or whatever you think is most appropriate, then it's just nice to, to have this framework where the expectations are very clear and not have to feel like you're constantly being like, "I know you're not my formal mentor, but can you help me please?"

[00:45:23] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, that's a great point. Lauren. The formalizing of it does help. 

[00:45:27] Lauren Ullrich: Um, all right. So I think maybe the last question is sort of like, how do you know when you're done with your postdoc? 

[00:45:33] Eartha Mae Guthman: I feel like maybe similarly to, Marguerite you were saying earlier, you knew when you were done with grad school and people kept coming up to your posters and being like, "so what are you doing next? What are your plans?" And I feel like I'm starting to get those questions again. And I feel like that's kind of like a clue to me that like, okay, other people also agree that there's a story here and it's a good idea to wrap it up and start thinking about next steps. But I could be completely wrong there.

I haven't gone on the job market and been successful with that, so I don't know. 

[00:46:05] Marguerite Matthews: And I'm assuming, Eartha Mae, for you, the job market is a tenure track faculty. 

[00:46:09] Eartha Mae Guthman: Yeah, at least now. Um, maybe that'll change in the future but I'm gonna at least, like, see what it, see what happens. 

[00:46:16] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, because it may be different, right? If you're looking for something else, maybe it doesn't matter if other people think you're ready.

[00:46:21] Eartha Mae Guthman: Yeah, 

[00:46:22] Marguerite Matthews: You're ready. You're like, I gotta, I gotta go. [laughs] It's time for me to leave. Um, which is sort of my, where I was, but it wasn't because I'd racked up so much, you know, data in my postdoc. 

[00:46:32] Rapheal Williams: And Rapheal, you're not trying to go the academic, uh, tenure track route, right?Um, not really. I think for me, it was kind of like, you know, I had two years and, you know, I could be extended on this training grant that I'm on. Um, but there's also just, just personal things in like life, you know, that were kind of just telling me, "Hey, you need to keep it moving because you can't just do another year of not being able to save money." You know what I mean? So I think for me, it was like a financial thing. 

[00:47:05] Lauren Ullrich: That's important. 

[00:47:06] Marguerite Matthews: It is. 

[00:47:07] Mai-Anh Vu: At Boston University, once you hit five years, they change your title automatically to like research scientist. And I got an email about it and then I, suddenly I was like, "Oh, it's been five years. Oh, no." [laughs] And then, uh, my PI the other day was like, "so, uh, what you thinking? You know..." and I was like, "oooh... still don't know." Honestly, I might just apply to lots of stuff and see what kind of speaks to me. 

 But I think that's when, like, PI or, you know, mentorship committee or someone will sort of have good input as to, you know, like, you could probably wrapping up now or, um, my PI was like, if you would like to be on the faculty job market, you probably could use like, you know, one more story that's like, on its way out. It doesn't have to be published, but you could, you know, really focus on that. And just knowing sort of, I guess what milestones to try and hit before I do that was useful to hear.

[00:48:04] Marguerite Matthews: Times went really quickly for me when I was a postdoc. It dragged on in grad school. Like, oh, dang, it's only been, it's only been a year, like forever. Whereas like my postdoc, I was like, I'm only going to do my postdoc for two years and then I'm out. And then four years later, I finally made my great escape. So, yeah, I think if you're not paying attention, it's easy to get lost in your love of science. [music]

[00:48:26] Lauren Ullrich: Thank you all for sharing your wisdom today. Uh, can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice for our audience? 

[00:48:37] Eartha Mae Guthman: I would say like just making sure that you have a good mentorship and like peer mentorship network, both at the level of like folks that are further along in the career path that you want to go down, whatever that is, that can provide you mentorship. And then peers that are at the same level as you that can provide you like peer support and feedback, both on a personal level and the scientific level, and find the people who can do that best for you, and you don't need to be limited to your department, to your field, to your university, just, you know, whoever helps you be the best scientist that you can be.

[00:49:18] Lauren Ullrich: I like that advice. 

[00:49:19] Mai-Anh Vu: I think, you know, for one thing, I think sometimes it's easy to forget, but you can definitely have fun with the science part of postdoc. But then just like what Eartha Mae was saying, go where you think you can be the most successful and learn what you need to learn, get the skills you need to get, right? Have some goals for what you think you might want to do after. And if you set those goals up, then you're not just blindly wandering around data that, you know, might go nowhere or whatever, but you have, like, other things that you're getting out of it. In my case, I was just trying to see if I could handle the lifestyle, if I liked it or, and so that that goal is enough to sustain me even when, like, the data was not cooperating. Or if you're trying to learn how to, you know, do a certain type of analysis or a certain science technique or get writing exposure and things like that, I think having these like side instrumental goals means that no matter what happens, you're going to get something out of it.

[00:50:07] Rapheal Williams: For me, I would say be intentional about the connections that you're making about the skills that you're learning, about the science that you want to see yourself doing. Um, I think it's good to create like an external system of writing down your goals, writing down who you want to be, writing down what your successful self looks like. Um, but then also just knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are as far as your own research. I think postdoc is a good time to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, what you're good at and how to employ those and how to get the people in your network that, you know, have other strengths and how you can make that work for your favor. Um, but then also just remember that, like, you're an expert, you're worthy of being where you are and you're worthy of success and, you know, you're worthy of the energy that you put in, trying not to let like, um, grad school imposter syndrome bleed over into you as a postdoc and, you know, that was one of the things that I learned is like, "Oh yeah, you know, I am an expert at stuff and I can talk about things and I do sound smart whenever I, you know, I talk about my science." So you know, you're worthy of being where you are and you're worthy of success. 

[00:51:15] Marguerite Matthews: Love that. 

[00:51:16] Lauren Ullrich: Marguerite, what's your advice? 

[00:51:18] Marguerite Matthews: My advice is to decide as you're finishing up or thinking about wrapping up in graduate school is deciding what the postdoc will and won't be for you.

It's not going to be everything. You're not going to become rich off of doing this extra training time, maybe rich in knowledge and fulfillment, [laughter] but certainly not financially. But I think that's okay too if you have the space, ability, privilege to allow that sort of set of circumstances, financial circumstances to be there.

Um, and if it's a launching pad for you for an academic career, if it's an opportunity for you to just take a second to think, okay, what, what can I do? Um, and maybe even I think to what Rapheal was just saying, lean into your confidence. I think the postdoc is a great time to decide I'm comfortable in this. I know what I'm talking about, and I'm going to use it in this way.

And then accept what comes with that just with anything else, right? If you make other decisions, um, you have to kind of go with whatever the program is, but you have a little bit more say in what that's going to be I think, um, in the postdoc, as we've all talked about, um, on this episode. What about you, Lauren? What's your advice? 

[00:52:37] Lauren Ullrich: Well, as the one person on this episode that did not do a postdoc, 

[00:52:40] Marguerite Matthews: boooo [laughter] No, I'm just kidding.

[00:52:42] Lauren Ullrich: Boo you! [laughs] Um, I think, you know, there's a lot of reasons to do a postdoc and a lot of reasons not to do a postdoc. And I think as we heard on this call, like the postdoc can look a lot of different ways, it can fulfill a lot of different needs, um, but don't feel like you have to do one just because you did a PhD, right? Even if you're going the tenure track route, there are skip the postdoc awards from NIH, right? Like, and I know several people who have gone straight on to being principal investigators from grad school. So, regardless of what your career goals are, I think it behooves you to just sit down and ask yourself, what does my future look like? And what am I going to get out of this experience? And is it worth it or not? And then you can make as informed a decision as anyone can about their future and go into it with, you know, eyes wide open. And then, you're there, it's not working out, you can always make a change later. Um, or if you decide not to do a postdoc, you can always do one later. I also know people who sort of went into the workforce and then a couple of years in, were like, you know, to advance, I really need this year or two of postdoc and then went back into the postdoc.

'Cause like we said, people are always looking for postdocs. That's not the hard part. Um, so I think, a trap that I fell into early in my career was feeling like, you know, there was this sort of fixed path and I'm here to tell you that, that is a fable that is made up, and you can go your own way as Fleetwood Mac said. [laughs]

[00:54:21] Marguerite Matthews: Those are all really great points, Lauren. 

[00:54:23] Lauren Ullrich: [Laughs] Thank you. 

[00:54:25] Marguerite Matthews: Including the Fleetwood Mac reference. 

[00:54:27] Lauren Ullrich: [outro music] All right, well, that's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you again to our guests this week for sharing their expertise, thank you to Ana Ebrahimi for production help, and thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music.

We'll see you next time when we tackle conducting research as a clinician scientist. You can find past episodes of this podcast, and many more resources on the web at 

[00:54:58] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity, and @NINDSFunding. You can email us your questions at NINDSNervePod@nih.Gov. Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.