Life as a postdoc: why I personally couldn’t imagine doing anything else

Dr Elaine Fuertes provides an insight into the perks of being a postdoc, from international travel to independently developing research with potentially important public health impacts.


“Only a tiny proportion of you will become university professors” – a statistic every postdoctoral researcher has heard, and the vast majority of us choose to ignore. Indeed, despite the increasing awareness and acknowledgement that the large majority of postdocs will end up pursuing one of the many other available career paths open to this highly trained and ambitious workforce, as recently discussed during the 2019 National Heart and Lung Institute Postdoc Day, many of us cling on to what we know to be a highly implausible outcome – landing a tenured position.

I’ve often been asked – why do I do it? Why continue down this career path, one that many of my friends and family see as living in a perpetual state of “student life”. It is indeed a question I have often reflected upon, especially as I am not presently, nor have I ever been, a “die-hard must become a Professor” type of person. So why persevere? What drives me? Why do I continue to be fully inspired and motivated by a career path that entails so much uncertainty?

What’s in it for me..and you?

First and foremost, research is interesting!  As the power-house of many research groups, postdocs are nearly always working on something “novel”, “cutting-edge”, “exciting”, “impactful” and “interdisciplinary”.  Many may see these as simple buzzwords to be expertly inserted into a funding application, but if you think carefully, their use is quite often entirely warranted. The vast majority of the work postdocs do is at the frontier of research, which at times can be exhausting as we are constantly problem-solving, troubleshooting and learning, but most of the time, it’s downright exciting!

My personal research centres on investigating how many aspects of the environment, such as air pollution, vegetation and climatic factors, combined with behavioural factors, such as physical activity and smoking, can influence health throughout life. I’m especially interested in how the environment one grows up and lives in can affect the development and trajectory of allergic diseases and respiratory conditions. Most recently, I’ve designed a four year collaborative project that will begin this August, funded as part of the Imperial College Research Fellowship scheme. This project will examine how air pollution and pollen interact on a daily basis to influence the symptoms and exacerbations experienced by people with asthma living in London and the broader United Kingdom.

I’m quite excited about independently developing this program of work, which brings together researchers from the United Kingdom, Finland and Germany, in an effort that will intersect between environmental, climate and health research. Although still very much in the early days, I firmly believe this project will make exciting, novel contributions to respiratory science and has the potential for important public health impacts, especially in the current context of increasing urbanization, climate change and asthma prevalence. If this isn’t enough to get me out of bed on a Monday morning – nothing else will!

Variety is the spice of life

I am never bored at work and I love it. Any postdoc can tell you that the job encompasses much more than only research. There is teaching, supervising, mentoring, reviewing, collaborating, communicating and travelling – to name only a few. I am convinced that this (occasionally chaotic) diversity in my everyday activities keeps my mind active and helps me improve on the many skills – both professional and scientific – that I will require during my transition from an early-career researcher to an independent scientist. Thankfully, there are many training courses and opportunities available from the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre to help me on my way.

Plus there’s the international collaborations and travel. At least in my case, I have had the amazing opportunity to conduct parts of my training and research at centres in Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Spain and now the UK. Throughout these experiences, I’ve built collaborations with top international experts, who, contrary to popular belief, turn out to be rather normal people who like to chat and throw around ideas over a cup of coffee. The knowledge, experience and ideas I have and continue to develop throughout these collaborations have become the backbone of my work.

Eureka!

Finally, I’m driven by the occasional but unforgettable “Youppi!” moments. Once in a while, when one of my papers gets accepted at my favourite journal, or I’m awarded a conference presentation prize, or a student I’ve been supervising succeeds in getting their first analysis running, or maybe even, when I win a little pot of money to get my next creative idea off the ground, I find myself elated and happy, knowing that it’s all worth it.

Life as a post-doc….I wouldn’t give it up for anything else.

Dr Elaine Fuertes is a postdoctoral research associate at the National Heart and Lung Institute.

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