By Meghan Chua
Alejandra Huerta earned a PhD in Plant Pathology from UW–Madison in fall 2015. As a student, she worked in Caitilyn Allen’s laboratory studying intraspecies competition in plant pathogenic bacteria. Huerta is now a postdoctoral fellow investigating bacterial-rice interactions with Jan Leach in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management at Colorado State University. Her research focus is on mechanisms of resistance against bacterial plant pathogens. She wants to use her research findings to develop improved crop management strategies to enhance plant health and production.
How is being a postdoc different from being a graduate student?
In a postdoc, the work is a lot more independent yet collaborative. Progress, ideas and experiments are driven by you and your findings, but you are constantly trying to work with colleagues to get questions answered and share resources. It’s great in the way that you set research goals and nobody is telling you what to do or what experiments to follow up on, although great ideas and research are often proposed through sharing results with collaborators.
During the postdoc, on top of doing your research (which is your priority!), you’re also teaching, mentoring and receiving training that will be essential for the next stage of your career. You’re also constantly on the lookout for appealing permanent job opportunities. A couple of us postdocs are also involved in service to our profession through either our scientific society or institutional committees, which are great ways to network. So, it’s very much the same as the PhD program but you have a lot of other responsibilities than just research.
How did you ensure this opportunity was a good fit for you and your career?
When I came into the postdoc there were certain scientific questions that I wanted to answer and skills that I wanted to develop and master. I knew that to get to the next stage of my career, I needed to be in a lab that aligned with my scientific and professional interests. I also knew that having a supportive postdoctoral advisor was essential for my success. From experience, I wanted to work with someone that I admired as a scientist, mentor and person. Prior to deciding on a postdoc, I did my research and looked for very specific traits in a potential advisor. I talked to postdocs and graduate students that were in the potential lab or had recently left the lab for permanent positions, and asked about the work environment. These interactions helped me gauge the climate in the lab and the department.
I also talked to other colleagues within my field and past mentors. I set up multiple phone calls and Skype meetings with the potential postdoctoral advisor to gauge their personality, work ethic and mentoring style. I wanted to know how receptive they would be to me pursuing my own research and professional interests. You see, I am passionate about teaching and I do a significant amount of professional service. I wanted to know how supportive they would be of that service and if there would be teaching opportunities while in the postdoc. I was keen on learning whether my potential advisors would see this as a detriment to or beneficial for my career. I am very lucky for having found Dr. Leach, my advisor, who has been extremely supportive and has provided me with multiple training opportunities.
What is challenging about being a postdoc?
In a postdoc you’re not a faculty member or a graduate student, so you’re in the academic No-Man’s Land. In terms of science and responsibilities, learning how to say “no” can be a challenge, because the opportunities are endless, but your time is not and you need to learn how to prioritize. It is important to accept the opportunities you are passionate about that will get you to the next step. It is also important to do them well.
During the postdoc, it’s also difficult to make friends. The average time duration of a postdoc is between two and three years, sometimes more; it’s all dependent on funding. Overall, there is a lot of turnover. You’ll make friends, and you or they will leave for a better, hopefully permanent, job, which is what we all hope for our friends.
What skills from graduate school are the most useful to you as a postdoc?
I learned that in the long term, it was going to be important to build a name for myself instead of relying on my PhD advisor for opportunities. Thus, I networked and interacted with everyone I could. I listened, participated and shared my knowledge when given the opportunity. The graduate training I received at UW–Madison helped me overcome self-doubt and trained me in the art of ‘idea sharing.’ Graduate school does that – we’re always casting new hypothesis, they’re not always right, we’re always reformulating them and most importantly learning from the process. That constant feedback we receive from others – such as our mentors, friends, and colleagues – is a guide that helps us learn from ourselves and others.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in postdoctoral training?
Follow your passion. If you have a goal, find the people that will help you accomplish that goal. There are people on campus that are willing to help you achieve your goal or are working toward similar ideas. Put yourself out there – I was surprised by the support I received from faculty and peers for all these different, and what I thought were crazy, ideas of mine.
Lastly, we are responsible for our own success. Keep that in mind: it comes down to you and the time and effort you invest in making it happen. Our advisors, mentors, and undergraduates can’t do the work for us. They can contribute but it ultimately comes down to us.