My PhD advisor was rather hands off; I designed protocols, executed experiments, applied for travel money, and interpreted data, all primarily on my own. I learned to be independent. To be honest, I preferred this scenario.
However, I’ve since learned that this is both good and bad for scientific success.
During my time as a graduate student, I learned that I am capable of designing and executing research independently. However, going it alone is a giant waste of time and research potential.
As a new postdoc, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation. In my new environment, I am constantly in contact with my mentor and fellow lab members. I must regularly communicate with them and I have routine access to a sounding board for advice and troubleshooting. While I recognize the value of this situation, I initially found it difficult to navigate.
Here is some advice as I slowly learn how to utilize this asset.
Listen to your lab mates discuss their projects. Listen to your mentor, advisor, and colleagues as they offer critiques to both your research and those around you. Soak up everything you can: seminars, conferences, lab meetings, journal clubs. This is especially important when you are starting in a new field and trying to gain traction in unknown territory. In addition, thinking critically about related research will offer new insight and perspective on your own.
Whether troubleshooting issues with your most recent PCR reactions over lunch, presenting during lab meeting, giving a talk or presenting a poster at a conference, or volunteering to speak at a local outreach event, find opportunities to talk about your science. This is imperative. Talking about your research, inviting in alternative perspectives from colleagues, mentors, and audiences of all demographics is invaluable to scientific success! Not to mention, speaking out loud allows us to organize our thoughts and identify additional connections and relationships, previously unexplored.
Don’t forget your previous advisor!
As a postdoc, it’s important to remember that the advisor that prepared me for my current position is still a wealth of knowledge and experience and may offer a different perspective or insight on the best techniques. While this may not be applicable to you, there is likely someone that you are not utilizing: a former graduate student, postdoc, undergraduate research advisor, committee member, etc. You likely have a vast network of intelligent, creative people at your fingertips. Allow their experience to enrich your career.
Ask for help!
I find it incredibly difficult to ask for help, and I am sure that I’m not the only one. However, some of the most impactful experiments require multiple sets of hands, the expertise of other scientists, or the creativity of a colleague to make them happen. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and assistance. When we become accustomed to designing experiments that we are capable of completing independently, we put unnecessary limitations on our science.
Make time to read and write!
While this may be less related to communicating with your research group, it is such an important point that it cannot be overemphasized. We can get caught up in the day to day of experiments, deadlines, and experimental crises that we lose sight of the big picture. For scientific success, it is essential that we take time to explore our field of study, develop and evaluate hypotheses, and be able to coherently communicate the value and plan for our research project(s). This is a skill we need for applying for funding, job opportunities, and more. It’s also important for reinvigorating our excitement and focus with our own research.
Not sure where to start? Set up an alert on your favorite journal or database. These useful alerts, which can be scheduled to send emails when new articles include specified keywords, will keep you abreast of the most recent advances in your field. Talk about the research you find. It may offer useful material for the research of others in your research group as well, and opens up the channels of communication for them to share similar findings with you.
A research group is a multi-faceted collaboration of scientists with various specialties, interests, and expertise. Utilize this diversity to make your research (and theirs) as valuable and fruitful as possible. We do not—and cannot—do science in isolation.