Like many graduate students, Zach Fuller was undecided between doing a postdoc and taking a job in industry. Eventually, he accepted a postdoc position in population genetics, a decision he discussed in a seminar sponsored by GenoMIX. Though he is still in an academic environment, he discovered that becoming a postdoc is a major transition from graduate school.
Zach received his PhD in biology from Penn State and B.S. in biology from Creighton University. He is currently a postdoc at Columbia.
What are your current roles/responsibilities? How have these changed over time?
My current role is a postdoctoral fellow in Molly Przeworski’s lab. As a postdoc, I have a lot of independence over my own research projects, of course with guidance and advice from Molly and other lab members. Since I am still fairly new, my roles and responsibilities have not changed much. So far, most of my responsibilities have been centered on grant writing and applying for fellowships. At the moment, I am also in charge of a coral genome project that I am trying to get started.
Is there anything specific that prepared you for your current position?
The main preparation I had was learning how to operate independently and reach out to collaborators, both of which I gained experience in while a PhD student. Being a postdoc requires a lot of independence, and I was glad that I gained this experience while at Penn State. I think having the ability to work on side projects and other collaborators outside of my main thesis work really helped me develop these skills.
Had you always wanted to do a postdoc?
No, not at all. In fact, about half way through my PhD I was pretty set on going into an industry job and getting out of academia. However, after learning a little bit more about what I would be doing in some of the industry jobs I considered and talking with some potential postdoc mentors, I realized I wanted to do a postdoc. The main motivation for me was that it would be more difficult to go back into academia if I found that I didn’t like industry. Having the freedom to explore my own research interests is what I want out of my career, so a postdoc made the most sense, for me.
What skills have made you and others in your field successful? Were there any unexpected skills that you needed to learn?
I think having a practical ability to code is the biggest skill that I can see. It doesn’t require being an absolute expert and there are always going to be people who are better computational scientists than you for the hard problems, but I think being able to quickly code or write a script to accomplish some task is a big skill to have. In a general sense, I think having the ability to critically assess what you know and what you don’t know is the biggest skill to have. Understanding when you need to reach out and get help from others or read more on your own is critical in gaining the knowledge needed to explore interesting research questions.
What’s the most challenging part of being a postdoc?
The most challenging part is realizing that there is so much that you don’t know. As a graduate student, you spend 4-5 years becoming an expert on a very specific area of research. As a postdoc and trying to establish your own future research program, you have to branch out and expand from the very focused area of your PhD work. This was very overwhelming for me at first.
What can a graduate student do to prepare for a postdoc? Any tips on specific ways to network in the field?
The biggest piece of advice would be to start developing your independence as early as you can and reach out and pursue collaborations and side projects. There are many opportunities for sources of external funding available, and looking up some grants/fellowships that would allow you to be in charge of your own projects and funding is a great way to learn this. To find postdoc opportunities, it is really important to start reaching out to potential advisors early and build relationships with them. Take advantages of conferences and push yourself to meet as many people as possible. Take advantage of other opportunities as well such as when outside speakers come to campus.
What advice do you have, about anything, for current graduate students?
Stay well-rounded and keep balanced. I think it is easy to get caught up in minuscule details of one specific project, so it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. I also found it really helpful and beneficial to put effort into outreach and teaching and I think my research really benefited by taking a step back and learning how to communicate science effectively.