‘The Power of a Postdoc’: Episode 1 of The Cancer Researcher Podcast

with guests Dr. Yardena Samuels and Dr. Elisa Oricchio

The first ever episode of The Cancer Researcher Podcast focuses on new beginnings and how your postdoc positions can shape your progression in academia. Our guests Yardena Samuels (Israel) and Elisa Oricchio (Switzerland) discuss what they consider to be the key criteria for choosing a postdoc, finding work-life balance, mitigating career breaks, and being calculated versus taking measured risks when it comes to career progression. Spoiler alert, we might be discussing the choice between US vs Europe! The Cancer Researcher Podcast is hosted by the EACR Scientific Officer, Dr. Alexandra Boitor.

Listen here, scroll down for the transcript and subscribe now via Spotify and Apple Podcasts so you’ll never miss an episode.

Our guests in this episode:
  • Yardena Samuels, Professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. She is the Director of the EKARD Institute for Cancer Diagnosis Research at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and the President Elect of the EACR.
  • Elisa Oricchio, Associate Professor at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and Director of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research.

Episode transcript

Alexandra: Yardena and Elisa, welcome and thank you both for joining me today. Let’s take a short trip down memory lane, recollecting your experiences as postdocs and the experience you gained as a PI and supervisor for postdoctoral associates, in order to give some advice to PhD students and entry-level career researchers on how to pick postdoc positions.

To get us started, what would you say are the key criteria to follow when choosing a postdoc?

Yardena: I think passion for the topic is the most important. You have to choose a subject matter that is very close to your heart, and that you feel very very passionate about. Research is hard enough as it is, as you’re likely to go through failures. So if you don’t have passion behind what you’re doing, it’s going to be very difficult to push forward with it.

Elisa: I agree that the research topic must be something you love, because it will likely define your career in the future. The project that you develop in your postdoc will probably influence the research that you go on to develop in your lab, or the job that you will continue on in your career. A second point is about selecting the right lab, based on things like the team and the lab location. The postdoc experience has to fit with your personal life.

Yardena: You also need to consider where you’re planning to open your own lab if that is your intention, and what topics are already being researched there. Sometimes you need to find a niche topic that is not yet being researched in your target country, or at the target institution that you’re going to go back to. So, one needs to not only consider what’s happening right now, but also what is going to happen three to six years down the line once you’re done with the postdoc. I also believe that it’s worth identifying labs where you can learn new cutting-edge technologies, because you can use those technologies to learn how to ask really great research questions.

I agree with Elisa that choosing the right PI with the right environment is key. There must be chemistry there, not only with the PI but also with the environment. To feel that the level of competition is right for you, that there’s going to be a sufficient support system there, and of course being able to find a balance between work and your personal life. We need to remember that this career that we’ve chosen is a marathon and not a sprint, so we need to maintain our strength long-term. It takes stamina.

Alexandra: You mentioned work-life balance. Do you have any advice on how one could achieve that?

Elisa: This is a difficult question because I think all of us face this problem and don’t really have the solution. It’s not a regular job, meaning it’s not a 9 to 5 job. It’s a job that you take with you all the time. When you go home, you continue to think about your project and then you try to build your life around this because it’s really the centre of your life. It’s what makes this type of job exciting and interesting. It can take extra effort to identify when you need to take a little break. You cannot think that this is just a regular job, because it isn’t. At least, that has been my experience.

Yardena: I completely agree. I don’t see it as a job; I see it as a way of life that’s part of my identity. As it’s not a 9 to 5 job, we take it with us 24/7, and the advantage in that is actually that we don’t have to be in the office or in the lab in order to work. We could be hiking or doing sports and have a great experimental idea! Getting out of the lab to do other things, whether that’s with friends and family or alone, gives us the opportunity to think outside of the box. So I truly believe that it’s important to find that balance. One needs to know how to celebrate birthdays and special occasions properly, and to take those vacations with the family. I don’t think that it’s going to necessarily prevent successful research, because in the long run, it promotes that success.

I advise this to all my trainees, because if you lack balance then you will burn out. Like I said, this is not a sprint. We need to keep our strength long-term, which often means finding help and support. For example, if we have children, and it can be very difficult to find work-life balance, and so I truly believe that it’s important to find help. Whether it’s from the family or a childcare provider, I think it’s a worthwhile investment in order to reduce our worries. This will allow us to focus on our research.

Alexandra: On that note, there’s a question that’s pretty much always been on my mind and I’m sure that other early career researchers have this question as well. How do you mitigate career breaks?

Elisa: I personally didn’t have many career breaks. I was really focused on going from one step to the next, and this is something that I look back on now and wonder whether I should have taken the time to think a little bit more about whether I needed to jump immediately to the next step. But if your career is a priority, you try to calculate and plan as much as possible.

Yardena: In my case, I was very calculated in a way. I felt comfortable to have my first child when I did because I had my first paper in my postdoc, and I felt comfortable combining the two things: career and starting a family. Another example is when I opened my first lab at the NIH. I established the lab, recruited some people and taught them technologies that meant we were on our way to our first publication. At that point, I felt confident to have my second child. But that’s a luxury; it’s very difficult to be able to control things in that manner.

Another point to note is that, as much as possible, you need to be very aware of limitations in various grants that one needs to apply to. So for example, the Horizon 2020 Starter Grant has a limit of eight years since receiving your PhD, but they take into account if you have taken maternity leave, which is wonderful! It’s also important to consider grant limitations when thinking about taking a long vacation, and things like that.

Alexandra: How about other career breaks? There are some people that, after their PhDs or after their first postdoc, decide to try other career paths, for example industry, and then later down the line decide they want to work in academia. What do you think about that? Do your chances of getting hired in academia decrease or increase if you switch careers at some point in your life?

Yardena: I actually went to the industry for a year. It was after my master’s degree and before my PhD, which was a very good choice because it convinced me that I should continue on an academic career path. But had I not done that, I would not have been sure later on. I think that there are great opportunities in industry to do even a postdoc, which can give you a very interesting insight into how to apply your research in an industry environment. We see that there’s a very strong interaction between industry and academia, and both have a lot to give. So, I don’t think that it’s a disadvantage.

Elisa: I agree with Yardena. I don’t think it’s a disadvantage if you switch careers, depending on the job that you take or the industry. Most of the time, it’s great research that you develop, so you will not negatively impact your possibilities to go back to academia, and vice versa from academia move back again into industry. I think this exchange is getting more and more common over the past few years. Academia and industry are not two separate worlds. I think we are complementing each other more and more. Time spent in industry could be a valuable experience for setting up a translational research programme, allowing you to envision how to bring the work to the clinic. It can definitely be an opportunity, not a burden.

Alexandra: Going back to one of the things you mentioned earlier about researching the lab when selecting a postdoc, do you consider the PI that you will work for and the lab you are going to join as more important than the institution that you are going to do your postdoc at?

Elisa: I think it goes side by side. Speaking from my postdoc experience, I developed a fantastic network of colleagues both inside and outside of the lab. I developed my project, but more than that I created a network of people that developed their own research programme. We are still in contact as friends and collaborators, each working and exchanging on different topics. So I think that the environment is as important as the PI because you will create your network in that environment, and find people with whom you will work throughout your career. Everything has to work together: the lab, the PI and the environment where you will do your research.

Yardena: I completely agree. I think they go hand in hand, and it’s true that the people that the colleagues and collaborators I met in my postdoc are still in my life today and hopefully far into the future. We have a similar way of thinking because we’ve been educated in a similar way, so when we talk we can jump straight in and understand each other immediately scientifically which is extremely helpful.

Your interaction with the PI is also very important. You want someone who will be there for you as a support. If you are looking for an academic position later on, which can be very competitive, then choosing a PI who can open new directions and support you with impactful research is a very important factor.

Nowadays we rely a lot on core facilities in order to do our science, so that infrastructure is key to the success of a project. So, making sure that the institute that you’re going to has the relevant core facilities and proper help in analysing the data if needed is something that is worth looking into as well, and that of course the PI is willing to invest in that in order to enhance the project.

Alexandra: You both did your PhDs in Europe, and then you moved straight away to the US for your postdocs. I have noticed this pattern in the career progression of many influential researchers where they do their postdoctoral fellowships in the US. Would you say that’s a must if you want to be successful in academia?

Elisa: No, not necessarily for me. I chose the US because I wanted to see a different way of doing research, and be exposed to a different environment and a different culture as well. But saying that it is a must for your career, otherwise you will not be able to open your lab or you will not be able to continue, that’s no! Because there are many good labs in Europe and in other places in the world that can give you the same opportunities, particularly if you are developing an exciting project in a new area of research. So it goes back to the topic, the PI and the environment. Of course, in the US there are many good institutions and PIs, so maybe we see some unbalance towards the US a little bit more.

Yardena: In Israel, most of the PhD students go to the US for their postdoc, particularly Boston, Harvard or to other Ivy League universities. It’s a classic path which is ideal if someone doesn’t want to take any chances or risks. I have tried to convince some of my students to go to Europe, because as Elisa said, there are excellent institutes and PIs in Europe, so I think they could take advantage of that and be a bit different from other graduate students who go to the US.

On the other hand, it’s true that there are many more options in the US. If you mean to come back to Europe to open your own lab, you have your whole career to develop interactions and collaborations within Europe. But when you’re in your postdoc, you have a chance to make a lot of connections with American scientists, which will help you in the future with writing grants and collaborating. So there is an advantage to going to the US in that sense, and culturally I think it’s important to go somewhere different to what you’re used to as it helps your self-development.

Alexandra: What do you think would be the ideal length of a postdoc? I think both of you did three year-long postdocs before securing a faculty position or independent funding for your research.

Yardena: I think three years is short. I was lucky to be able to find something interesting relatively quickly and focus on that for the rest of my postdoc, but I think usually postdocs can be longer and that can be an advantage. It depends on what topic you decide to research. So, if you decide to set up a sophisticated new mouse model, it’s definitely going to take more than that, and that’s fine as long as the research is deep, well done, and culminates in several good publications. That could require a five or even six-year postdoc.

Elisa: I think now it’s much more common to have slightly longer postdocs because the projects are more and more complex, and they need to include many different aspects to be complete. So I think a five-year postdoc is quite common at this point, particularly if you are looking to stay in academia and to develop your own research programme. It requires a bit of time, so that’s what we can normally expect to have as a postdoc.

Alexandra: When you say five years, do you mean five years on the same project or five years as a postdoc? Because when looking for postdoctoral positions that are available at the moment, many of them seem to be only one or two years long, which in my opinion is not necessarily long enough. Do you have any advice on how could one balance this with publishing, as one or two years is not usually enough for a good publication.

Elisa: There can be a difference between a short postdoc and short finance. Sometimes in postdoc advertisements, it says “guaranteed funding for two years”, but it doesn’t mean that the project has to be completed in two years. You can expect that the postdoc will start to develop their own project and apply for fellowships, and if the project is going extremely well, there will be some additional grant support and the lab will definitely support the postdoc to stay longer. I never hire somebody with the idea that in two years I’m going to kick them out of the lab! At that point, I would usually evaluate how the project is going. The motivation of the person that I hire might also change, so we will have a discussion.

Yardena: The average time today to publish a big paper could be a whole year, including revision time. So that is something that we will always take into consideration. As for the matter of how many projects a postdoc is doing, it’s rare or unlikely that I have a postdoc or a graduate student who only does one project. We typically start off with one project, to get to know the lab and our way of thinking, but gradually another project is added in order to increase the chance of success. Projects also don’t move at the same pace, so while you’re waiting to get data back for a certain project, you may start developing something else. People in my lab have several projects going on at the same time.

Elisa: It’s also safer because one project may fail, or the results may not be great. I think it’s important to have at least a couple of projects that can move together, and if the goal for the postdoc is to learn as many techniques as possible, then obviously the more projects you do, the more you will learn. Of course, one must be careful not to take on too many, so that there’s enough time to focus on each one of them properly.

Alexandra: Thank you very much, this has been brilliant advice! Before we conclude this conversation, I really want to ask you one last question. Reflecting on everything you have achieved in your career so far, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Yardena: I guess I took a lot of risks and I think that’s important in science. You need to know how to take measured risks. I think I should have taken even more risks earlier on.

Elisa: I would say to keep an open mind and not have one set path in mind. To take opportunities as they come, as sometimes they don’t come when you want them to, or in the way that you want them to. When you’re open as much as possible, you may find that there is good in something you didn’t necessarily plan for.

Alexandra: Thank you so much for joining me today for this postdoc-focused episode of The Cancer Researcher Podcast. I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to hold this conversation with the two of you. Thank you, Yardena and thank you, Elisa!

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