Life as a postdoc

by Dr Sylvia Yip

As I am writing this, I am months away from leaving postdoc and also academia. So far, it has been quite roller coaster journey filled initially with loneliness, depression, anxiety, to subsequently self-discovery, hope and fulfilment. I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to reflect upon my professional and personal odyssey, and to share it.

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Skyline of Atlanta

I had my first taste of research during my honours year at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and knew immediately that I did not love it and that I was not made for the lab. However I was hungry for adventure, to see the world and I saw a PhD degree in science as a passport to many wonderful opportunities that the world could offer. I did not hesitate to take up a joint PhD scholarship offered by the Australian National University (ANU) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). I must say I took about 8 months to fully adjust to research life when I was in Canberra, Australia. Having said that, I had a great advisor and my colleagues were a pleasure to work with, and so, it was not too hard to envision a PhD degree at the end of 3.5 years. I was training as a protein engineer and structural biologist at the ANU.

By the time I had submitted my dissertation, I was open to anything except for running a lab on my own one day. I applied for postdoc and industrial research positions in the US, UK, Europe and Australia. Out of the four applications that I submitted to the US, three came through – University of Maryland at Baltimore (UMB), Emory University and Purdue University. I was most interested in the research conducted by the professor at UMB but my PhD advisor felt the task was a little too ambitious for a fresh PhD graduate – I was to set up the molecular biology department of a lab comprising all organic chemists who were studying chemical glycobiology of HIV for vaccine development. On the other hand, Emory University is a reputable institution heavily involved in research and healthcare, and living in metropolitan Atlanta sounded good to me. However, I did have concerns about my future supervisor, who was highly theoretical and whose primary research interest in evolution did not align with mine.

I had great trepidations about relocating to US. By that time, I’d already established a strong network of good friends in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. I was going to leave student life for another foreign country 10,000 miles away from home and postdoc has been universally acknowledged as extremely challenging.

US is, well, huge and it is not just the geographical vastness that can be overwhelming. Landwise, it is less than 30% larger than Australia but the population is about 15 times greater. US is all about entrepreneurship, freedom, finding your passion and of course, opportunities. Most of the time it is a fair game and you just need to learn how to play it. The answer or the key to your dreams is always out there, but it is up to you to find it.

Emory School of Medicine

Emory School of Medicine

Despite the hustle-bustle going on out there, it is very easy to get trapped and isolated within your own little world (aka the lab) when you are in research. This is the hidden danger in academia and definitely not a mistake any postdoc can afford. Especially for us who have grown up in the Malaysian society that emphasises academic excellence, it is easy to get swollen headed and carried away with a newly hard-earned PhD degree. But if you decide to do a postdoc, it is imperative that you live with the awareness that postdoc is a transition period – I cannot stress this enough. It is a transition not only to independent research (aka academia) but also to alternative, non-academic career paths. While giving your heart and soul to your research in the lab is by all means important, a career is really what you are looking for and must develop when you are a postdoc. It is imperative to remember that when you are a postdoc, you are passing through a bottleneck – there are many PhD holders just like you competing for a permanent job. You need to formulate your very own career plan, to separate yourself from the ocean of PhD holders.

To develop a career plan during your postdoc years, you need to have an open mind. Do not succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ culture in academia and do not ever let anybody tell you that you are not good enough. Do not ever think that research is your only choice or you are a research dropout if you explore alternative careers. If you think that way, you risk. This is when informational interviews (i.e. a conversation in which a job seeker asks for career advice usually from people in careers he/she is considering) come into play. Talk to as many people as you can. When you are working in an academic or research institution, you have abundant resources. If not, there is always the Internet. Find out what jobs former postdoc in your institution end up taking. Informational interviews help you understand your options, identify your passion/interests and explore routes to get there, for example “Do I need to go back to school for another degree?”, “Do I need permanent residency or citizenship?” etc.

For me, by the time I was six months into my postdoc, my initial doubts about the prospects of my career in research were confirmed. I am a generalist who is thrilled by techniques, applied research, commercial opportunities and ways to improve people’s lives. My postdoc training was taking me deeper and deeper into a niche area where I could see no career development prospects that I desire. The isolation in the laboratory also hit me hard.

I spent many months in despair. I even reached to the point where I totally regretted having pursued a PhD. I saw no value in my degree and I was depressed by the limited opportunities available to international postdocs. But I never stopped being productive in the lab and I spoke to many people. Earlier this year, I landed myself an excellent opportunity – an internship at Emory University Office of Technology Transfer. I was finally exposed to the ‘outside’ world – the abundance of very exciting, ongoing research at Emory involving both national and international collaborations. I was in awe and fascination, to say the least. The internship exposes me to different career paths – scientific writing, technology transfer, marketing, business development, intellectual property law. It is also the most effective anti-depressant for me!

I am pleased to say that I have finally found something that I am truly passionate about – it is patent law. I love being able to practice my knowledge and training in science, work at the interface of science, business and law to help develop an early-stage invention or technology into a product in the market that every consumer in the world can potentially benefit from. Atlanta is the largest metropolitan in the Southern part of US, a global business and cultural center and home to Fortune 500 companies like Delta Airlines, AT & T and Coca-Cola. It is really the best of both worlds – Southern warmth and affordability, as well as metropolitan sophistication. And I am just privileged to soon to be part of it. Nevertheless, I am thankful for undertaking my postdoctoral training that led me to a field that I am truly passionate about.

INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT ATLANTA AND EMORY

  • The two most prestigious academic institutions in Atlanta and also the state of Georgia are Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology (GA Tech).
  • Unlike most other states that have a few major cities, business is all concentrated within metropolitan Atlanta.
  • City of Atlanta, the state capital, rose from the ashes of Civil War to become a global economic center.
  • Metropolitan Atlanta is the ninth largest in the US with a population exceeding 5 million.
  • The racial makeup and population of Atlanta is 54% black or African American, 38.4% white, 3.1% Asian and 0.2% Native American.
  • Nicknames of Atlanta include “Hotlanta”, “The A”, ATL.
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world’s busiest airport since 1998.
  • Atlanta is considered an “alpha-world city,” and, with a gross domestic product of US$270 billion, Atlanta’s economy ranks 15th among world cities and sixth in the nation.
  • Emory is home to Dennis C. Liotta and Raymond F.Schinazi, co-inventors of 3TC and FTC, drugs consumed by over 94% of global HIV patients. That discovery is also the largest university royalty deal in history.
  • Former US President Jimmy Carter taught at Emory University.

About the Author:Sylvia

Sylvia Hsu-Chen Yip was born in Ipoh, Malaysia. In 2006, she completed her Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry with First Class Honours at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and received a PhD in Chemistry from the Australian National University 4 years later. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Biochemistry, Emory University and she also serves as intern at the university’s technology transfer office. She is looking for transition to the field of patent law after completing her postdoctoral training. Outside science and patent law, Sylvia is passionate about music, cultural diversity and cooking. Find out more about Sylvia Hsu by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/chopin1810sy