An Abbreviated Journal of a Postdoc

Dr. Clay Tucker

Clay, hard at work coring a bald cypress

My graduate school advisor once told me, “a master’s degree is learning how science is done, and a PhD is proving that you can do science.” After obtaining a PhD, many are expected to produce scientific products (e.g., publications, grant proposals, teaching) without much more training. In the academic world, postdoctoral (postdoc) positions are becoming more common as they provide valuable experience that is often required of applicants in academic job listings.

I suppose my adventure story should begin with how I was hired. On February 28, 2020, I defended my Ph.D. dissertation defense. Exactly nine days before that defense, my current postdoc advisor encouraged me to apply for a position in his lab at the University of Alabama (UA). I had applied to more than 30 jobs at the time, and because of the highly competitive nature of academia, I had only received one telephone interview among those applications. Eventually, I was officially offered the postdoc position and began my research later that summer. At the time, I didn’t realize how great this opportunity would be.

I was hired into a tree-ring science lab at UA, and my previous work in hurricane effects on tree growth allowed me to hit the ground running. Now, I study how streamflow of rivers in the southeastern U.S. affects tree growth. Baldcypress trees are the oldest species in this region of the U.S. and are incredibly useful for long-term proxy records of the environment. The first year as a postdoc had me visiting a dozen study sites in multiple states to gather new evidence of those growth changes. During this first year, a colleague and I wrote a proposal for funding to the National Science Foundation. Additionally, I was able to publish three articles from my dissertation research, attend a few virtual conferences, visit and collaborate with new scientists in The South, and apply to various jobs.

Currently in the second year of the project, I am analyzing newly collected tree-ring data from the northern Gulf of Mexico, and my lab mates and I are collectively writing up results that we recently presented at the annual American Geophysical Union conference. Another piece of good news came around that same time: our NSF project had been selected for funding! Not only does this provide another two years of funding for my colleague and I, but the feedback from NSF reviewers also validated some of our hypotheses about tree growth and hurricane activity. With that opportunity comes great responsibility, the greatest being tree-ring analysis using stable isotopes, a new concept to tree-ring science and quite an expensive one, but we are excited to see the new stories our trees can tell. Most recently, we have hired a new master’s student for our NSF project, we are submitting our first papers to peer-reviewed journals (sneak peak!), and we are planning next steps.

Overall, my nearly two years as a postdoc have served me well to add publications to the docket, begin advisement of a student, apply for (and receive!) funding from NSF, and learn new skills. I now vehemently recommend that my friends not only apply for postdoc positions, but also contact those senior researchers they think may be opening a postdoc position soon. Postdoc positions are often not well advertised, come and go quickly, and may be appended to current projects with additional funding, so don’t be afraid to ask your favorite senior scientist if they’re hiring a postdoc!

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