Spot the Difference

Several weeks later than advertised I am finally getting some time to write a blog post. Hurrah! The last time I posted was in May which seems a very long time ago. Since then I have been extremely busy attending weddings, hen parties, significant birthday celebrations, flat-hunting, doing things for my own upcoming wedding, going to Berlin for the World Cup final, and of course lab work has taken over all other available time slots. I know – excuses, excuses.

I am now well and truly over the half-way mark of my current postdoc contract which may explain my recent panic about how much time I have left, how much data I have, results I have (or wish I had) etc. And then there is the “where has the time gone and why is it running away from me before my very eyes?!” train of thought. These are familiar feelings though, commonly found during my time as a PhD student and here they are again! I was hoping to have seen the last of them.

I’m sure these types of thoughts are common amongst those of us with fixed-term and non-permanent jobs no matter what sector or field, but it did get me thinking about what the differences are between being a PhD student and a new postdoc. Sometimes it feels like not a great deal but of course that’s not the case. Let me elaborate, beginning with the completely obvious.

First and foremost, after passing the viva you can call yourself ‘Doctor’, which is a fantastic feeling. I was proud. I stood up straighter. I generally felt pretty good about myself. And of course you no longer have the word ‘student’ in your job title so non-scientist friends and family will finally stop thinking that you sleep in until noon, get drunk on week nights and work 3 hour days. Also, if you remain at the same institute/university there is a chance that colleagues may start to treat you differently when you are no longer ‘just’ a PhD student. Little things such as looking to you for input and asking for advice on projects/experiments/general lab running where maybe they never would have before. I’ve not experienced this directly as I moved institutes for my postdoc but I have seen it happen to others both in my previous and current places of work.

Another glaringly obvious and I think my favourite difference between PhD and postdoc is the fact that I do not have to write what is essentially a huge book on a subject that around ten people in the UK have any interest in. And let’s not forget that there is no scheduled four hour grilling at the end of a postdoc either. Well not that I know of……

But then there are other expectations to contend with. One of these is the push for publications. This paper-producing pressure may come directly from your supervisor, or it may be more personal, and be something that you put upon yourself (I’m guilty of the latter). And now that we no longer have to write a thesis, we need to write papers. As we all know, a publication record is very important and in some instances may be the deciding factor in whether or not we get those jobs or even get interviews in the first place. Of course I know that not to be the case in all labs however it is definitely something to keep in mind depending upon what kind of career path you want to follow. I personally am finding it very helpful to think of a scientific paper as being like a very short, succinct thesis – abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion. It’s a lovely way to tie up a project and if it helps me look good on paper then what a super added bonus. Very over-simplified, I know, but it makes it feel a little less scary.

More responsibility in the lab is definitely something that comes with the move from PhD student to postdoc and I have to say, it feels pretty good. Organising and leading lab meetings, training visiting workers, being involved with the supervision of students and having substantial creative control over my project are just a few of the things I really enjoy in my current job. When I first started taking on these additional role aspects, of course I found it a little daunting, but you quickly realise that you are now technically a more senior member of the group who has passed the humiliating initiation phase (also called doing a PhD) and people will now look for you to give more, and some will even look up to you. When I actually realised this it gave me the confidence boost I needed to be able to act like a more responsible, senior member of the lab.

But there are some things that never change. Well at least they haven’t yet. For example, I went from working on mumps virus to influenza, which in virology is essentially a new ball game. So what was my approach? I fervently went on a paper-highlighting, book chapter-reading, note-taking rampage, 24/7, for about a month. Does that sound at all familiar? Oh wait. That’s what I did when I started my PhD. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s merely an observation.

Another example comes from when I gave my first virology seminar at my institute in January. While I was making my PowerPoint slides and compiling all my data, I again went into an intense reading and note-making craze for the few weeks before the seminar. I realised afterwards that I was fully expecting the audience to ask me horrendously difficult questions and in general grill me about flu research from the 1930s to present day. Sounding familiar again? Yes that is how I felt about my final PhD research seminar and my viva, so I attacked it in a very similar way. So the end result was that I was hugely over-prepared but also a bit sleep-deprived and harassed. I’ll be giving a talk at a flu meeting in September so here’s hoping I’ve sorted out a happy medium by then!

So to summarise:

– Doctor title
– No thesis or viva
– Write more papers
– Take on more responsibilty
– Approach new subject areas and practical tasks with the same fervour and enthusiasm as per PhD
– Have MUCH more self-confidence and feel less terrified

We’ve successfully survived doing a PhD so can officially handle whatever comes next.


One thought on “Spot the Difference

  1. Frank Norman

    Sorry I missed your blog when it debuted earlier this year. Great to see you blogging. It’s interesting to see your observations on the differences between PhD and postdoc. I’d always thought that a PhD was supposed to be the thing that gave you the training to be a researcher, and when you were a postdoc you’d made it. But now more and more a first postdoc is being talked of as essentially a training position too. I guess we never stop learning in life.


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