PART 2: Exploring Research Focus

If you have yet to read Part 1: So You Wanna Be a Postdoc? You can find it here.

An exciting part of transitions is they are natural inflection points for assessing your career and focus. This is equally true for a transition to a postdoctoral appointment. When thinking about your possible postdoc, there are two approaches that comprise polar endpoints in the range of how graduate students choose to shift their research focus (or not): the straight-line and diagonal postdoc approaches (see figure above). In a straight-line postdoc, postdoctoral research follows a direct line from your graduate research focus, pursuing questions that continue to expand the current line of research. The vast majority of postdocs fall into this “straight-line” category, delving deeper into research areas connected to their prior work. In a diagonal postdoc, you step into a new field, using your skills and expertise from one field to open up novel research areas and add interdisciplinary nuance to work being done in a different field.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both of these approaches. In the more common straight-line postdoc, you have skills and background knowledge in the field and specific research topics, allowing you to develop novel projects more quickly and giving you more independence from the start. Because of your background in the topic, you are able to use your graduate training to develop new research foci, skills, and approaches. The drawbacks to a straight-line postdoc is that it doesn’t naturally open up novel project areas in your field, so you may need to invest resources and time to find gaps in the literature to add to the field.

The diagonal postdoc necessitates a more interdisciplinary approach to your research, lending itself to developing a unique, cutting-edge niche for your work and may lead to a wider variety of job or funding opportunities. The most significant drawback of a diagonal approach is a longer postdoc; it takes more time to learn the body of research and new skills necessary to be productive and gain independence in your new research area. There may be longer lead time to publication and other milestones. Also, as the subject matter expert in a different knowledge base and skill set in your new group, you are likely to be expected to support the research of others in more ways than you would in a straight-line postdoc. As you begin to identify your training priorities and next career steps, consider how either of these approaches – or something in between – could best support your career goals and training needs.

Whatever path you decide for the future of your research, you have an opportunity to do amazing work. Find a topic that is right for you, and use the information about approach types above to inform how you strategize for your postdoc experience. We will carry this information into the next post about identifying a mentor, and how your research direction will inform your PI selection and mentorship needs.