Obtaining a PhD is generally straightforward. Other pertinent adjectives may include ‘stressful’, ‘draining’, or ‘all consuming’ (to paraphrase), but the steps from classwork to defence are well mapped by other students and indelibly written in the graduate program guidelines.

The steps after the defence are a lot vaguer. There is a path to a successful research career as an assistant professor, industrial scientist or government researcher, but it isn’t clearly marked and the way can be treacherous. Peter Feibelman has written his book, “A PhD is Not Enough!,” for those without a good mentor to lead the way, and like other books in this vein there’s a lot of good, common sense advice. Of greatest interest to me was his advice for aspiring postdocs, especially those who consider their current role as a springboard for future jobs. In this context the most important achievement of the postdoc is a career “story” the postdoc can then use to convince hiring committees of their future potential [1]. Secondary concerns revolve around how the position augments their graduate career to create a well-rounded candidate [2].

Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?

The first decision a graduating student must make is what type of researcher they would like to be. As has been noted before, prominent scientists can be divided into Hedgehogs and Foxes. The hedgehogs “know one big thing,” and become experts at a single technique or system, while foxes “know many things,” and generally focus on using a multitude of approaches to solve well defined problems. The majority of PhD students are trained as hedgehogs, for the simple reason that their work is too specialized for any single student to gain expertise in several distinct fields [3]. Most postdoctoral positions represent a complete break with the past, giving (former) graduate students the choice of either doubling down on the techniques they’ve become proficient in or starting out as beginners in a new, complementary field.

One example of the hedgehog/fox dichotomy.  Note that even hedgehogs change their field slightly, to avoid competing with the graduate supervisor.

One example of the hedgehog/fox dichotomy. Note that even hedgehogs change their field slightly, to avoid competing with the graduate supervisor.

Both hedgehogs and foxes win the Nobel prize with some regularity, and so the decision is largely one of personal preference. If you’re uncertain of your stripe, consider the type of research that excites you. Hedgehogs are drawn to equipment and reactions/techniques (ex. solid state NMR, some sections of natural product discovery) , whereas foxes prefer the to design new approaches to difficult problems (ie. complex chemical structures, curing diseases, etc.)

Bite Sized Projects Beat Grand Discoveries

The standard postdoc lasts two years, at the end of which the postdoc must find an assistant professorship, industrial/government post, or (god forbid) new postdoc position. This is very different from the gradual reduction in workload that a graduate student experiences, which affects the research in a number of (to me) interesting ways.

A common blueprint for graduate school research has the student spending their first few years establishing a relatively complex system, then using the balance of their time to mine their equipment/reaction/method for publications [4]. This works well for the student, allowing them to improve lab skills and become experts in an aspect of research known to few people. However, it also leads to a multiyear lag between the start of work and the arrival of the first publications, and a postdoc must be ready for the job search before their two year term expires. This changes the definition of an appealing project, and may punish those that attempt to repeat past graduate school success with more complex problems [5].

An approach better suited to the short time frame is to target a number of short, well defined projects. Fresh from graduate school training hedgehogs will be able to handle the high-difficulty high-reward work in the lab, while foxes can learn the ropes by working on well-established systems. The goal is to establish a paper trail well in advance of the job search, with the first paper entering ASAPs midway through the postdoc term. This means that at least one of the small projects should be completed in the first six months or so.

At the other end of the risk spectrum, large projects are often appealing, due to the chance for a high-impact publication that will open doors later on. However, they’re far more prone to return as zombies long after they should have been put to rest. A paper in Natural Science does little good during the job hunt if it’s published eight months after the end of the postdoc.

Segmented projects offer a mix between the impact of the larger works and the scattershot approach, and under the right conditions can be the best of both worlds. With good project design it may be possible to split one large project up with several clearly established break points. At each of these points a manuscript is then prepared, allowing the postdoc to establish the important paper trail. Feature creep near the end of the project has a natural tendency to increase the impact of later manuscripts, which may even result in a few high impact publications. The hazard here is that a single problematic step or process can halt all progress, a common hazard that is solved by working on several projects at once or by handling distinct facets of the segmented project.

Take a Running Start

A successful postdoc position largely comes down to publishing successfully under time constraints. Unfortunately, it’s common for researchers to spend the first few weeks of their postdoc determining the specifics of their projects or engaged in non-productive work learning the basics of their field.

To a certain extent, the productivity of these first few months can be greatly improved by advance preparation. The last few months of a PhD are generally much less stressful than a postdoctoral position, once the thesis is in the hands of the examining committee and the last few projects have been largely wrapped up. Even if your only time is in the evening and on the weekend, use the tail end of your PhD to do background reading and put together fellowship applications [6]. If you’re a fox, in the best case your supervisor may even ok a few weeks of work in a neighbouring lab, giving you the chance to learn the basics of your future field.


[1] This of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as past success is key metric in winning awards and receiving job offers.

[2] Ex. 1. A candidate from a less prestigious university may seek a postdoctoral position at a prestigious one. Ex. 2. If the candidate worked in a small lab, a larger one may offer more opportunity to showcase their mentoring abilities. The key is to highlight weak points in the academic career and seek to strengthen them, with the future hiring committee in mind.

[3] Total synthesis students are arguably foxes, due to their focus on preparing complex natural products. But even they tend to become experts on only a limited number of scaffolds and reactions.

[4] If I could draw well I would sketch a mine here. Since I can’t draw, enjoy this picture of Dig Dug crossed with Minecraft instead. Avoid zombies during your research.

[5] This may also run counter to the wishes of the PI, who may prefer their new, experienced lab member to tackle the projects too difficult for graduate students and undergraduates.

[6] Consult with your postdoc supervisor of course. There’s little point spending three weeks putting together a killer project if the lab lacks that equipment, or if there’s no interest in that topic at the top.